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Books | Sports

July 3, 2011

When Joe DiMaggio Couldn't Be Stopped

Over 56 magical games in 1941, the Yankees centerfielder couldn't be denied a hit. And Italian-Americans still haven't forgotten that summer.

Tom Flynn

Joe DiMaggio's feats have long been the stuff of song, and as his life grows more distant, there's some risk that the reality of Joltin' Joe will diverge ever further from the legend. Kostya Kennedy, in his new book 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, returns us to the real DiMaggio, and the remarkable, record 56-game hitting streak that brought him to the forefront of American consciousness in the summer of 1941.

Kostya Kennedy
"There were varying views on the war and other issues that touched Italian-Americans at that time. But every Italian-American pulled for DiMaggio."

Kostya Kennedy

As DiMaggio methodically wore down opposing pitchers on the baseball diamond, his hitting prowess became a show of overt patriotism for millions of Italian-Americans caught between a country drifting ever more clearly toward war with the Axis powers and their ancestral homeland, one of those Axis powers. In the following interview, conducted via email and edited for clarity, Gelf spoke to Kennedy about how he got inside DiMaggio's head, how the Italian-American community rallied around Joltin' Joe, and why he thinks the streak is legit, unsullied by generous calls.

Gelf Magazine: I noticed that you picked up mention of The Streak around Game 19, and had a good reason to do so, as it essentially corresponded to the public's rising awareness of the accomplishment. Did you choose this approach out of the gate or did it develop when you were writing?

Kostya Kennedy: I tried to bring readers back into that time and place so that they could relive the streak, and that era, with its increasing drama. I wanted to be faithful to the environment. I settled on that approach very early on.

Gelf Magazine: Joe's streak and the awareness of it among Italian-Americans across the country corresponded, as you well-documented, to ambiguity about their role as citizens, particularly with Mussolini in power in Italy. Did the scale or scope of their fidelity to the mother country surprise you in your research, or was it something you knew heading into the project?

Kostya Kennedy: Perhaps what surprised me was DiMaggio as a unifying force. There were varying views on the war and other issues that touched Italian-Americans at that time. But every Italian-American pulled for DiMaggio. The Italian-American community needed him in a very real way—both the actual DiMaggio and the idea of him. It's also amazing how dearly they held onto, and still hold onto, a passion for him even many years afterward.

Gelf Magazine: Much is made of the bad-hop hit to shortstop Luke Appling that continued the streak at 30 games. As you point out, analyses of the play can vary by 180 degrees. (Views claiming it as an error are often trumpeted with much fanfare as a "new" perspective.) Was there a single aspect—and you speak to several in the book—that puts the play squarely in the "hit" column for you? Dan Daniel, a reporter for The World-Telegram and the official scorer for the game, made an error ruling "against" DiMaggio (i.e. costing him a hit) several games later that I think spoke to his impartiality.

Kostya Kennedy: Daniel's making an error ruling a few games later is certainly a big factor, as is the fact that he took his job so seriously. But maybe the biggest thing was that at the time, no one questioned the call at all. Writers pointed out that DiMaggio got lucky but they didn't suggest that it was a bad call by the official scorer. That was speculation that came out well after the fact and did not turn out to be based on evidence.

Gelf Magazine: What was your background on DiMaggio prior to the project and how was that altered by writing this book? With the propensity for a busy society to fit historical figures into quick descriptions, I imagine DiMaggio was a great character to consider in retrospect.

Kostya Kennedy: To generalize, there have been two schools of thought about DiMaggio. One is "St. Joe," a hagiographic view on him as a ballplayer and figure. The other view is laced with bitterness: "This guy did not leave good tips!" I wanted to find a truth that was agenda-free, and also to look at him as a young man up to age 26. He was a different person and personality in 1941 than he would grow to become. It was that DiMaggio that I wanted to bring to life, one subject to great pressures, and in so doing I saw and understood him in an entirely new light.

Gelf Magazine: Did you find the divide between his public and personal persona—and few of us are exactly the same in public/private—widened in later years?

Kostya Kennedy: Yes, I think it did widen, and it widened most dramatically after his relationship with, and marriage to, Marilyn Monroe.

Gelf Magazine: There's a lot of material out there on DiMaggio personally and, more generally, the Yankees of that era. How did you get to a "new" place in regard to looking at Joe?

Kostya Kennedy: I relied in part on that material to mine the details. DiMaggio's psyche emerged in these reports (newspapers/magazines/books) and then I had numerous interviews with people who knew him then, including people from Newark and Queens. I also had several very productive interviews with [Joe's brother] Dom DiMaggio. I may have been the last, or certainly one of the last, journalists to speak with Dom before his death.
Every one of DiMaggio's "thoughts" is something that he actually said or that he actually said he was thinking, or that was related through someone else, either in a previous interview or in an interview with me. They are really like internal quotes.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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