Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of '41
My father was a court stenographer. At his less than princely salary, we watched Yankee games from the bleachers or high in the third deck. But one of the judges had season tickets, so we occasionally sat in the lower boxes when hizzoner couldn’t attend. One afternoon, while DiMaggio was going 0 for 4 against, of all people, the lowly St. Louis Browns (now the even lowlier Baltimore Orioles), the great man fouled one in our direction. “Catch it, Dad,” I screamed. “You never get them,” he replied, but stuck up his hand like the Statue of Liberty—and the ball fell right in. I mailed it to DiMaggio, and, bless him, he actually sent the ball back, signed and in a box marked “insured.” Insured, that is, to make me the envy of the neighborhood, and DiMaggio the model and hero of my life.
I met DiMaggio a few years ago on a small playing field at the Presidio of San Francisco. My son, wearing DiMaggio’s old number 5 on his Little League jersey, accompanied me, exactly one generation after my father caught that ball. DiMaggio gave him a pointer or two on batting and then signed a ball for him. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.
My son, uncoached by Dad, and given the chance that comes but once in a lifetime, asked DiMaggio as his only query about life and career: “Suppose you had walked every time up during one game of your fifty-six–game hitting streak? Would the streak have been over?” DiMaggio replied that, under 1941 rules, the streak would have ended, but that this unfair statute has since been revised, and such a game would not count today.
My son’s choice for a single question tells us something vital about the nature of legend. A man may labor for a professional lifetime, especially in sport or in battle, but posterity needs a single transcendant event to fix him in permanent memory. Every hero must be a Wellington on the right side of his personal Waterloo; generality of excellence is too diffuse. The unambiguous factuality of a single achievement is adamantine. Detractors can argue forever about the general tenor of your life and works, but they can never erase a great event.
In 1941, as I gestated in my mother’s womb, Joe DiMaggio got at least one hit in each of fifty-six successive games. Most records are only incrementally superior to runners-up; Roger Maris hit sixty-one homers in 1961, but Babe Ruth hit sixty in 1927 and fifty-nine in 1921, while Hank Greenberg (1938) and Jimmy Foxx (1932) both hit fifty-eight. But DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak is ridiculously and almost unreachably far from all challengers (Wee Willie Keeler and Peter Rose, both with forty-four, come second). Among sabremetricians1—a contentious lot not known for agreement about anything—we find virtual consensus that DiMaggio’s fifty-six–game hitting streak is the greatest accomplishment in the history of baseball, if not all modern sport.…
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