September 11, 2013
When I held forth here recently on the subject of soprano Geraldine Farrar and her baseball-playing father, Sidney, I mentioned that Sid had bolted from the National League in 1890 to play in the maverick Players’ League. That put Sid in the middle of a significant but largely forgotten epoch in the history of the national game.
The Players League was the offspring of the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players, which was in effect the first union organized by professional athletes. The brains behind the Brotherhood was John Montgomery Ward, who was an outstanding player for five teams over 16 years. He was best known as a pitcher, although he also played shortstop and second base. In 1880, he pitched the second perfect game in the National League, for the Providence Grays (there wouldn’t be another one for 84 years) and in 1882 he pitched the longest complete-game shutout in history, beating the Detroit Wolverines 1-0 in 18 innings. He also accumulated 2,104 base hits. He is the only player ever to win more than 100 games as a pitcher (164-103) and get more than 2,000 hits.
Ward graduated from Columbia Law School in 1885 and became the leader of an effort by players to negotiate improvements in the conditions of their employment, including an increase in salaries and an end to the “reserve clause” which provided that players who were under contract to one team were prohibited from negotiating with other teams when the contract expired. Ward organized the Brotherhood in ’85 but when it became clear after several years of negotiation that the owners were intractable, he launched the Players League.
About half of the players who had been National Leaguers in 1889 bolted to play in Ward’s league which offered profit sharing and did not have a reserve clause or a cap on player salaries. Sid Farrar, who had played for the Philadelphia Quakers in the NL bolted to play for the Philadelphia Athletics in the Players League. In fact, the Players League attracted most of the talent from the National League, but when revenues didn’t live up to expectations, the owners of the maverick teams surreptitiously agreed to sell their teams to the NL franchises, and the Players League folded after one season.
Major League Baseball ruled in 1968 that the Players League, short-lived though it was, had been a major league. So, among other things, the Buffalo Bisons’ record stands: they recorded the greatest opening-day winning margin by beating the Cleveland Infants 23-2.
Incidentally, the reserve clause remained in effect in Major League Baseball until 1975.
September 4, 2013
My wife, Pat, who is reading Adriana Trigiani’s novel The Shoemaker’s Wife, has mentioned two characters in the story who are familiar to me: Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar. We like to say, even though it can’t be demonstrated, that Caruso was the nonpareil of tenors, and Farrar, his contemporary, was a popular soprano and film actress. She was a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company for 17 years, singing 29 roles in some 500 performances, frequently appearing with Caruso. She had a particular following among young women, and they were known at the time as “Gerryflappers.” I was young when I became a fan of hers, too, but that was nearly 30 years after she had retired as a singer. A kid of eclectic tastes, when I came home from the record store on most Friday nights, I could be carrying doo-wop, country-and-western, American standards, or opera. I bought many discs with cuts by Caruso, Farrar, or the two of them together.
A biographical detail about Farrar that particularly appeals to me is the fact that her father, Sidney, was a major league baseball player from 1883 to 1890. A first baseman, he played most of his career for the Philadelphia National League franchise. In his last season, he bolted to the maverick Players League, still playing in Philadelphia. He appeared in 943 games and, in the dead-ball era, had 905 hits and a .253 batting average.
When Sid Farrar was through playing baseball, he opened a men’s clothing shop in Melrose, Massachusetts, in partnership with Frank G. Selee, a Hall of Fame major league manager. Farrar and his wife, Etta, were singers in their own right. Farrar was a baritone, and it was said of him that if he was speaking in what, for him, was a conversational tone of voice on one side of a street, he could be clearly heard from the other side.
When Geraldine went to Europe to study voice, her parents went with her and remained on the Other Side until Geraldine had made a name for herself in Berlin, Munich, Salsburg, Paris, and Stockholm and returned to the United States in 1906.
In later life, when he had been widowed, Sid Farrar was a familiar figure at Geraldine’s concerts, and she said that he was often surrounded by other old ballplayers who may have looked a little out of place in the classical concert hall. It dawned on her, she said, that those old guys weren’t there to see her; they were there to see her dad.
One of my favorite Caruso-Farrar recordings is their 1912 rendition of “O Soave Fanciulla” from La Boheme. Click HERE to hear it.
July 9, 2013
When Jackie Robinson’s place in baseball history is discussed, there often is a slight error in the way it is expressed. Robinson, who famously joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 to become the only black player in professional baseball, was not the first black player in the majors. That doesn’t diminish Robinson’s achievement in the least, but the fact is that the first black player in the major leagues, so far as we know, was Moses Fleetwood Walker, a catcher, who appeared with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1889. The second black player in the majors, so far as we know, was his brother, Weldy Wilberforce Walker, a practitioner of several diamond positions, who also played a few games for Toledo that year.
It was in that same year that the baseball owners decided that they would no longer include black players on their rosters, and it would be 58 years before another black player — Robinson — would appear in the bigs. But it would be 72 years, in 1961, before Major League Baseball, which wasn’t fully integrated until the Red Sox capitulated in 1959, ordered the minor leagues to start signing black players.
That’s the background for Southern League, an absorbing book by former major leaguer Larry Colton that reports on the 1964 season of the Birmingham Barons, the first integrated pro sports team to play in Alabama. The team had been disbanded by its owner, millionaire businessman Albert Belcher, under pressure from segregationists, but Belcher was convinced that the team could be a financial success. His confidence was bolstered by the fact that Alabama native Charlie Finley, wackadoodle owner of the Kansas City Athletics, agreed to make his team the major-league parent of the Barons.
Neither Belcher nor Finley was a civil rights activist, but both were realists. They picked a tough environment in which to practice their pragmatism: Alabama, led by Gov. George Wallace, was digging in its heels against the federal government’s campaign to integrate schools and put an end to racial discrimination in general.
As Colton reports, Finley made a couple of commitments to the Barons. First, he said he would see to it that the Barons got the players it needed to win the Southern League pennant. That was an odd thing for an owner to promise, because the owner’s interest in a minor league franchises usually has to do only with developing players for the major-league team. Second, Finley and Belcher jointly promised the team that they would take all of the players and their significant others to Hawaii if the Barons won the title.
The Barons started their season with five minority players on the roster, including future major league standout pitcher Blue Moon Odom and future big league journeyman Bert Campaneris, a refugee from Cuba. The black players had to put up with vocal abuse from fans and discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants.
Still, while Belcher experienced a few tense moments, the season, although it fell just short of fulfilling everyone’s dreams, went off without a serious incident, so that the Barons, who didn’t see themselves as trailblazers, still demonstrated to Birmingham how an integrated enterprise could actually work in the city.
Colton tells this story largely by telling the stories of the ordinary men who made up the Barons roster and the ordinary circumstances of their lives: their often hardscrabble origins, their family lives, their loves, their ailments. Prominently included is the story of Heywood Sullivan, a former major league catcher and future Red Sox exec and owner, for whom the ’64 Barons were the first assignment as a manager, an assignment he handled with wisdom, skill, compassion, and common sense.
September 19, 2012
Taylor Teagarden’s major league baseball career hasn’t amounted to much yet. As of yesterday, he had appeared in only 136 games in five seasons. He has shown a flair for the dramatic on a few occasions—last night being a notable example—but he hasn’t yet become the Jack Teagarden of the diamond.
Jack was another story altogether. As soon as I heard of Taylor T., I wondered if he and Jack were related. Naturally a guy would wonder that, what with the unusual last name and the fact that both of these Teagardens were from Texas.
Well, I say “naturally.” It was natural for me, because of a 78 rpm record that belonged to my parents. I loved that record when I was a kid, and I still do. It’s a rendition of a 1941 Johnny Mercer song, “The Waiter, the Porter, and the Upstairs Maid,” sung by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and Jack Teagarden. It’s one of those witty, sophisticated lyrics that Mercer wrote best. You can hear and see that trio singing Mercer’s song at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0e1DF4TUYY. Or you can come over Saturday afternoon, and I’ll play it for you on the Victrola. If you don’t know what a Victrola is, you probably already stopped reading.
Jack Teagarden, who came from a family loaded with musical talent, was in heady company with Crosby and Martin, and he was a very good crooner himself, as well as a composer and bandleader. Among the highlights of his memorable career were his vocal turns with Mercer and Louis Armstrong. But he made his most indelible mark as an innovative jazz and blues trombonist. He is often referred to as “the father of jazz trombone.” You can learn a lot about this important figure in American cultural history at www.jackteagarden.info.
Although it’s a lot easier than it was in the pre-digital age to answer such questions as, “Is Taylor Teagarden related to Jack?”, I have had trouble finding out. Until I wrote this post, I had found only one reference, buried in an non-authoritative web site, reporting that the catcher thinks he might be the great great nephew of the musical genius. But my friend Brian VanderBeek, a sports writer with the Modesto Bee, responded to this post by reporting that he had met Taylor Teagarden in 2007 when Taylor was playing for Bakersfield in the California League and Taylor, on that occasion, confirmed that Jack Teagarden was his dad’s great uncle.
Taylor is with the Orioles now, and his season got a late start due to a back injury. It remains to be seen if he will leave in baseball a footprint like the one Jack Teagarden left in music, but Taylor has already taken advantage of baseball’s unique capacity for providing even the most obscure player with opportunities for heroics.
He came up with the Texas Rangers in 2008, and his first major league hit was a sixth-inning home run off Scott Baker of the Minnesota Twins. Baker had not given up a hit up to that point. And Teagarden’s homer produced the only run in what turned out to be a 1-0 game. When he came off the disabled list for the Orioles on July 14 of this year, he hit a two-run homer that broke up a 6-6, 13-inning tie with the Tigers.
Last night, Taylor got to play Mr. Clutch again as he pinch hit a single in the top of the 18th inning, driving in the winning run as the Orioles beat the Seattle Mariners and pulled into a virtual tie with the Yankees for first place in the American League East. No matter how the rest of his career goes, Taylor T. can always say with another lyricist, Ira Gershwin, “They can’t take that away from me.”
June 8, 2012
The authors of a new book on baseball describe the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred on Dec. 7, 1941. The writers continue: “The next day, calling it ‘a day of infamy,’ President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on the Japanese and their allies, Germany and Italy.”
The ambiguous pronoun makes it unclear which day Roosevelt was referring to — December 7 or “the next day” — but the record shows that was December 7 and that Roosevelt did not call it ‘a day of infamy’ but ‘a date that will live in infamy.’ The record also shows that Roosevelt did not mention Italy or Germany, both of which declared war on the United States about a month later.
The title of this book is “You Stink!” It is a compilation of what the authors, Eric Wittenberg and Michael Aubrecht, regard as the worst teams, players, plays, and decisions in the history of major league baseball.
In my opinion, the book is pointless and, despite the authors’ disclaimer to the contrary, mean spirited. What else but a mean spirit would prompt writers to spend their time compiling a monotonous stream of statistics to memorialize the failures and disappointments of one team and one player after another. There is nothing original about that, despite the author’s claim that their purpose was to write something original about baseball. Any baseball fan knows that there is much more failure than success in the game; reporting on the failures alone, without the context of the successes, is sophomoric.
But, then, everything about this book is childish, which is especially jarring because of the credentials the writers present: one is an “award-winning Civil War historian,” and the other “dedicated his studies to the histories of Major League Baseball, the Civil War, and the American Revolution.” These history buffs report that the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1953 World Series. It was the Yankees.
The adjectives alone are suffocating. How bad was that batting average, that ERA, that season, that decision? It was “atrocious,” “staggering,” “eye-popping,” “wretched,” “anemic,” “terrible,” “mind-boggling,” “horrible,” “pathetic,” “dismal,” “stunning,” “miserable,” “incredible,” “ghastly,” “abysmal.”
There are grammatical errors, a few misspellings, and outrages in style that affect almost every sentence. There is a quote from Roger Maris used twice in the same chapter and numerous other lapses that suggest that this book and a competent editor were never in the same county.
One of the most conspicuous signs that this book is headed for deep discount is the case of poor John Humphries, whom the authors singled out for opprobrium as the worst catcher of all time. Humphries appeared in a total of 103 games over two seasons in the 1880s. He played catcher in only 75 of those games. It is true that Humphries committed 74 errors in those 75 games, but no serious student of baseball would take into account such a short career in ranking fielders. To emphasize their point about Humphries, the writers included a photograph of him, except that any 15-year-old kid would know that that picture wasn’t taken in the 19th century.
That’s a picture of the other John Humphries, who is in the photo above left, the John Humphries who pitched in the majors in the 1930s and 1940s. The John Humphries whose humiliation was probably sufficient without any help from these writers, is in the photo above.
Wait for the movie.
November 24, 2011
When I first heard the other day that Greg Halman had been stabbed to death I was, of course, shocked, but not just because of the murder itself. Murder usually takes us by surprise, whether the victim was someone we knew, someone we only knew about, or someone we never heard of. It’s in the nature of the crime that it seems to come, as it were, out of left field.
In this case, my shock was doubled because the victim was a major league baseball player. It’s a hangover from my growing-up years when I thought those guys were special. I came to learn, as we all do, that they’re subject to all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our kind. I know that intellectually, but emotionally I’m the type who still thinks Santa Claus will show himself some day and sit in judgment over the sheep and the goats.
The fact is, though, that baseball players may be more susceptible to homicide than the general population is. Something like 17,000 men have played in the major leagues and I know of ten who have been murdered. What’s that – one in about 1700? The murder rate in the United States last year – ostensibly an all-time low – was nearly one in 10,000.
The ones I know about are Frank Bell, Frank McManus, Ed Morris, Lymon Bostock, Tony Solaita, Gus Polidor, Ivan Calderon, Dernell Stenton, and Luke Easter.
The one that most sticks in my mind is Easter, because he was one of my first “favorite” players. He came into the major leagues in 1949 when I was seven years old. He was about six-foot-four and weighed 240 pounds. I got most of my baseball on the radio then, and for a while I thought his name was Lou Keester. I didn’t know it then, but because he was black he didn’t get to play in the bigs until he was 34 – although he was inconsistent when reporting his age and place of birth. He is a prime example of the damage that racism did to major league baseball. He appeared in only six seasons in the majors and played in more than 100 games in only four. He was a good first baseman and a slugger in semi-pro ball — which was a big deal in his day — and in the Negro Leagues. He hit a total of 86 home runs in 1950, ’51, and ’52; he played only 396 games in those three seasons, and he was 37 years old in 1952. He and Mickey Mantle were the only players to hit a ball over the right-field scoreboard in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Easter’s traveled 477 feet.
After his major league stint, Easter played in the minors until he was 48 and coached for a while. Wherever he went, he added to his reputation as a genuinely nice man who liked to help other players. When he and baseball were done with each other, he went to work for the Aircraft Workers Alliance and became the chief union steward at a company in Euclid, Ohio. In 1979, he was delivering payroll money to a bank when he was accosted by armed robbers who shot him to death when he wouldn’t turn over the money.
When a fan remarked that he had witnessed one of Easter’s longest home runs, Easter said: “If it came down, it wasn’t mine.”
October 28, 2011
All the excitement about David Freese and his World Series heroics has got me thinking about George and Gene Freese, who were also major league baseball players, though no relatives of David, as far as I can tell. Gene and George were brothers, but they were not the Deans, the DiMaggios, or the Alous. I remember them because they played in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was still reasonably alert, and because I have the kind of mind that retains things such as the names of obscure baseball players.
George Freese appeared in only 61 major league games — “only” being a relative term inasmuch as most of us don’t appear in any — but he hung around the game longer than that as a coach, minor league manager, and scout. I might have remembered him anyway just because he was Gene Freese’s brother, but George has a distinction of his own: he is one of I guess a couple of hundred players who have hit inside-the-park grand slam home runs. I have never seen one, but I recall reading about George Freese’s 1955 homer in Baseball Digest. The writer described an inside-the-park grand slam as the most exciting play in baseball, and while I don’t go in much for hyperbole, I can understand why he would say that. It must seem to the fans as if the earth has stopped turning its axis while they hold their collective breath and watch that ball and the batter racing for the plate.
For many years after George Freese ran his home run home, I thought of his feat as unusual. Certainly, in decades of watching baseball, I had never seen anything like it. But I have learned since that there have been far more such homers than I would have imagined. Even Yankee pitcher Mel Stottlemyre hit one — in 1965. Some players have hit more than one, and some players have hit more than one in one season — for example, third baseman Joe Judge, who did it twice in 1925.
Many of the inside-the-park grand slams were hit during the dead-ball era, and the first one was hit by Harry Stovey of the Worcester Ruby Legs in 1881. Stovey did it again in 1886. It was appropriate in a way that he was the first to turn this trick, because he was the pre-eminent home run hitter of his day and the first player to hit 100 home runs in his career.
August 25, 2011
Since it was our 47th wedding anniversary, Pat and I went to dinner Monday night at that great Italian place in Clinton. We ate on the patio. In the opposite corner was a family of four — parents and a teenager of each gender. Before we got there, some guy who was riding a bike along the sidewalk recognized the family and stopped to talk. In fact, he parked the bike and sat down on the brick wall and made himself comfortable. The father in the family act, pretty much ignoring everyone else at the table, spend the time shooting baseball trivia questions at the visitor. I found this a little off-putting, both because he was talking loud enough for us to hear and because of the quality of the questions. What left-handed pitcher won the most games lifetime? Puh-leez! Give me something I can work with, will ya? (By the way, that was Warren Spahn with 363, which is also the greatest number of wins by any pitcher who spent his entire career in the live-ball era.)
Now, me? I would have asked him about Allen Travers, capisce? I was thinking about Travers the other night when the announcers on the Yankee broadcast were obsessing over the fact that Phil Hughes had thrown 106 pitches in a game for the first time this season.
Besides making me worry that Hughes might have to spend the rest of his life with a prosthetic arm, that conversation got me to thinking about all the great performances that would never have taken place if the pitch count had been a part of baseball from the beginning.
I was thinking, for example, about Eddie Rommel — later an American League umpire — who spent 12 years pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics and supposedly invented the knuckle ball as we now know it. In 1932, Rommel came in in relief against the Indians in the second inning, behind 3-2. He pitched 17 innings, gave up 29 hits and 15 runs, and won the game 18-17. The 29 hits allowed is still the single-game record.
Travers was a different matter. He was a student at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia in 1912 when Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers went into the stands at Hilltop Park in New York to pummel a New York Highlanders fan who had been verbally abusing him during a game. It turned out that the fan had lost one hand and several fingers from the other hand in an industrial accident. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, suspended Cobb indefinitely. When the Tigers were supposed to play the Athletics in Philly a couple of days later the team announced that they wouldn’t take the field until Cobb was re-instated.
The League told the Tigers they faced a $5,000 fine and would forfeit every game until there were players. To avoid the penalties, the Tigers enlisted Allen Travers — non-playing manager of the St. Joseph baseball squad — to round up a team off the streets and sandlots of Philadelphia. The nine guys were signed by the Cardinals. Travers was on the mound, and no one counted his pitches. He pitched eight innings and gave up 24 runs, which is still the major league record. The Athletics won the game, 24-2.
Travers later became a Jesuit and taught in college and high school in New York and Philadelphia. The 24 runs allowed wasn’t his only record. He was also the only major league player to become a Catholic priest.
But who’s counting?
You can read a fuller account of Father Travers’ experience by clicking HERE.
July 15, 2011
It might be significant that I couldn’t think of any way to begin this post about Stan Musial — any way but this, that is. The thesis of Stan Musial: An American Life is that, because Musial played his whole career with the St. Louis Cardinals, he has been perennially undervalued vis-a-vis his contemporaries who played in cities like Boston and New York. I grew up during his career, and it’s true that, living in the New York area — especially after the National League teams both slunk out of town — Musial was not the topic of everyday conversation.
He was, as New York Times columnist George Vecsey suggests in this book, just kind of there, and the next thing we knew he had accumulated more than 3,600 hits and had established himself as one of the best hitters of his era.
Musial came from Donora, Pa., which was a gritty industrial town where his dad worked in a steel mill whose management wasn’t concerned about the employees’ health. Vecsey draws a detailed picture of life in that town, and that may be the most worthwhile part of this book. Young Stan was a good athlete, but he got into the Cardinals’ organization as a pitcher — something he wasn’t suited for.
In 1941, he had a storybook season. He started out in the spring in the Cards’ baseball camp in Hollywood, Fla., where he was supposed to pitch batting practice, and by the end of the summer he had been converted into a hard-hitting outfielder and was called up by the parent team for the last week of a pennant race.
He played for the Cardinals until he retired in 1963, amassing one of the great personal records in the game plus a reputation for reliability, and for dignity on the field, and for a cheeful and hospitable approach to life. He was well liked in and out of the game.
While it is true, as Vecsey writes, that Musial’s extraordinary career has been overshadowed in the popular mind by the careers of contemporaries like Joe DiMaggio in New York and Ted Williams in Boston, his numbers are indelibly preserved in the record book where they put the accomplishments of other players in perspective, for better or for worse. Derek Jeter, for instance, has achieved what only 28 out of about 17,000 major league players have achieved, and yet he can’t escape the ink that says that Musial’s mark in total hits is out of reach.
But Vecsey, writing about “an American life,” does a little too much fawning over Musial and not enough exploring of aspects of the ballplayer that Vecsey himself brings up. He dwells on Jackie Robinson’s revolutionary appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and he intimates that Musial was at most a passive participant in the breaking of the color line, but he does not deeply plumb Musial’s attitude on race.
Vecsey reports that Musial was spared military service during the heat of World War II on the grounds that he was a parent and the sole support of his mother and father – who, incidently, had several other children; that he declined to join an army unit when a baseball colleague urged him to do so, and that, when his number was up, as it were, he served at the tail end of the war by playing baseball in Hawaii and then by flying a stateside desk. The author writes, too, that Musial was not an activist when his fellow players rebelled against the reserve-clause system that for a long time made players the property of their owners, the Fourteenth Amendment notwithstanding. In a broader way, Vecsey writes that Musial was a peacelover, meaning that he liked to avoid conflict. We are left to infer that Musial was happy in statu quo so long as things were going well for him — which they were for several decades.
Vecsey does at least let a voice other than his own — that of former Cardinals star Curt Flood — speak to the question of who Stan Musial really is. Flood unsuccessfully sued major league baseball after refusing to agree to a trade in 1969; his suit was the opening shot in a movement that ultimately changed labor relations in baseball.
In his autobiography, Flood wrote that he and other players respected Musial as a player and as a person; they thought of him as a man who would not consciously do harm. But, Flood continued, “He was just unfathomably naïve. After twenty years of baseball, his critical faculties were those of a schoolboy. After twenty years, he was still wagging his tail for the front office – not because he felt it politic to do so but because he believed every word he spoke.”
I don’t think many journalists ever interviewed Pete Sheehy, but I was among the few who did. Pete, who was the clubhouse man at Yankee Stadium for about seven decades, didn’t like to talk, and I suppose that accounts for the fact that he made only rare appearances in print. I arranged an interview through a mutual friend, and I wasn’t with Pete for very long before I realized what a challenge I had taken on. In fact, Pete was forthright about it — in his way. He told me that he figured he had kept his job for so long, being in the confidence of members of the Yankees and, for a time, the football New York Giants, because he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Whatever he knew about Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle, he kept it to himself.
He didn’t have to say any more. “Joe” meant DiMaggio, and his choice didn’t surprise me. My father had been a Yankee fan since the Ruth era, too, and although I never asked him, I am confident that he would have said “Joe” too — despite a reverence for Lou Gehrig.
DiMaggio had an outstanding career. He was among the very best hitters, baserunners, and outfielders of his time or any time. Not the very best, necessarily, but one of the best. As Kostya Kennedy mentions in his book, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a poll taken in 1969 named DiMaggio the “greatest living baseball player.” DiMaggio believed it; he was that kind of a guy. But there were skeptics who noted, for instance, that Ted Williams, DiMaggio’s contemporary, outstripped the Yankee in every major hitting category and had a longer career, despite combat duty tours in two wars.
If there is an inequity in the way DiMaggio is regarded, it may be attributed at least in part to the fact that he played for the New York Yankees while they were the preeminent team in baseball if not in sports in general. DiMaggio appeared in 10 World Series in his 13 years in the majors.
But the primary reason for the aura around Joe DiMaggio may be the record he set 60 years ago this season — the record that was the occasion for Kennedy’s book. In the 1941 campaign, DiMaggio got a base hit in 56 consecutive games.
To put that record in context, Kennedy points out that more than 17,000 men have played Major League baseball, and only DiMaggio has achieved it. The only others to come close were Willie Keeler, who hit in 44 straight games in 1897 in the dead-ball era, and Pete Rose, who hit in 44 in 1978. (Keeler’s streak began on the first day of the ’97 season, so the hit he got in the last game in ’96 puts his official record at 45.)
The subtitle of Kennedy’s book refers to the fact that while DiMaggio’s record once formed a holy trinity with Babe Ruth’s single-season and lifetime home run records, Ruth’s marks have been exceeded several times and in some cases under questionable circumstances. DiMaggio’s 56 is the only individual record of its kind still standing.
Kennedy describes in his very literate book the atmosphere in which the streak occurred. It captured the attention of the whole country — and even folks in some other countries. DiMaggio’s sizable family, people who were tight with him, baseball fans, and people who didn’t know anything else about him or the game were all caught up in his day-day-progress. Everywhere, Kennedy writes, people stopped to ask each other: “Did he get a hit today?”
And, as Kennedy artfully shows, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. In 1941, there was something far more ponderous on people’s minds — the increasing aggression of Nazi Germany. The idea that the United States could stay out of the war seemed more and more like wishful thinking as American plants turned out material to assist the European allies and as more and more American men were drafted into military service. DiMaggio’s streak was a fortuitous respite in such an atmosphere — the counterpart, in a way, to Susan Boyle’s triumph on Britain’s Got Talent in the midst of worldwide recession and seemingly pointless wars.
The streak served another purpose, too. It was something for Italian-Americans to cling with pride as they — thanks to Benito Mussolini – came under the same kind of suspicion that was being directed at Americans of Japanese and German background. Even at that, DiMaggio’s own father, Giuseppe, who had made his living as a commercial fisherman, was placed under wartime restrictions that kept him from approaching San Francisco Bay.
In telling this story, Kennedy carefully constructs a portrait of DiMaggio that isn’t at all endearing. DiMaggio was a cold fish. He was known from his youth for his spells of silence. Kennedy writes a lot about DiMaggio’s relationship with his first wife, movie actress Dorothy Arnold, and that isn’t a happy tale. DiMaggio — in spite of the girls he invited to his hotel rooms — missed Dorothy when he was on the road. But when he was home, he stifled her, resented her, and often subjected her to his emotional and sometimes his physical absence.
This book is peppered with the interesting characters who played large and small parts in DiMaggio’s life — his relatives, including his major league brothers, Don and Vince; his somewhat “connected” Italian-American friends in Newark; his fans — not the least of whom were the boys Mario Cuomo and Gay Talese; and, of course, his fellow ballplayers: Gehrig, Phil Rizzuto, and DiMaggio’s wacky road-trip roommate, Lefty Gomez.
On the field, DiMaggio appeared impassive as the streak progressed. If a pitcher had boasted that he would stop DiMaggio, and DiMaggio got a hit off him, there would be none of the fist pumping that cheapens the game today. Inside, however, Kennedy writes, DiMaggio’s stomach was often in knots. And, of course, if he didn’t have to talk about the streak, he didn’t:
” ’You nervous about the streak?’ a reporter would call out and it would be Lefty who would turn and reply, ‘Joe? Nah, he’s fine. Me? I threw up my breakfast.’ “