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.’ “
April 30, 2011
I get that. Ruth may not have had it all — he wasn’t much of a base stealer — but he had more of it than anyone else. There’s no point in arguing about it. I love Aaron, Mays, Banks, and Mantle as much as the next fellow, but none of them went 94-46 with a 2.16 ERA before becoming one of the best hitters in history and a fine outfielder to boot. In addition to that, his bombastic personality and his enormous charity revitalized a flagging game in a way that no one else could have done, making his name familiar to people around the globe — down to our own time — no matter how much or how little they know about baseball.
I get that. John McGraw didn’t get that. McGraw was the manager and a part owner of the New York Giants, and he was by reputation one of the best skippers ever. He believed in “scientific baseball,” which was the only way to play the game successfully in the dead-ball era. McGraw was all about place-hitting, bunting, stealing, studying your opponents and taking advantage of their weaknesses.
McGraw was not about the long ball — especially not the home run — which was coming into vogue at the beginning of the 1920s. As Robert Weintraub explains in this lively and entertaining book, Babe Ruth – the first home run hitter par excellence - represented to McGraw the ruin of the game. McGraw, by Weintraub’s account, despised Ruth, called him a “baboon” and a “bum,” and predicted that he would hit into a hundred double plays a year.
Weintraub’s book covers the 1923 season, the Yankees’ first season in the original Yankee Stadium – not the knockoff they play in now. The team first appeared in the city when three New York guys bought the minor league Baltimore Orioles franchise and moved it north in 1903. The Highlanders, as they were known for most of the first decade, played in Hilltop Park — the present site of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center — until 1913, when they moved into the Polo Grounds as tenants of the Giants. At the point at which Weintraub picks up the story, McGraw was fed up with the Yankees in general and Ruth in particular.
McGraw, as Weintraub recounts, was accustomed to being the toast of the town, and he became increasingly agitated as the Yankees gained in popularity. By 1921, he engineered the Giants management’s decision to tell the Yankees to move out of the Polo Grounds. This, it turned out, was a serious error, because it spurred Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston — whom McGraw had inspired to buy the Yankees — to build Yankee Stadium just across the Harlem River.
McGraw had a brief period of satisfaction left to him, because the Giants and Yankees won their respective pennants in 1921 and 1922, so that the whole World Series was played in the Polo Grounds, where Giants pitching made a monkey of Ruth. After the ’22 affair, there was widespread talk that the Babe was through.
In the ’23 season, though, Ruth — seriously chastened by his failures — made at least a show of curbing his appetites — sexual and otherwise — and he tore the league apart, winning the Most Valuable Player award. The rest of the Yankees, led by their dour little manager, Miller Huggins, had an outstanding year, and the momentum carried them to a World Series win that finally took the wind out of McGraw. McGraw was so bitter that he made the Giants dress at the Polo Grounds for the away games and cab it over to Yankee Stadium. The manager himself walked across the Macombs Dam Bridge.
The only bright spot for McGraw in that ’23 series was his reserve outfielder, “Casey” Stengel, who hit two game-winning home runs, one of them inside the park. During the off season, McGraw traded the aging Stengel to the Braves. “It’s a good thing I didn’t hit three home runs,” Casey said. “McGraw might have sent me out of the country.”
This is a colorful book, loaded with the characters of the ’20s – Warren G. Harding, Charles Chaplin, Damon Runyon, Fanny Brice. And, of course, all those ballplayers – Frankie Frisch, Bob and “Irish” Meusel, Everett “Iron Man” Scott, George “Highpockets” Kelly.
The real heart of this book, though, is found in the stories of McGraw and Ruth, two low-born, hard drinking, brawlers who clawed their way to the top where their lives intersected at a pivotal time in baseball in general and in New York baseball in particular.
April 3, 2009
I realized this morning while I was shaving that when I first visited Yankee Stadium, it was not yet 30 years old. (Shaving is like hitting, Yogi: It’ s better not to think while you’re doing it.) Anyway, that calculation got me to thinking about the new “Yankee Stadium” – as though there could be such a thing – and I got angry all over again about Macombs Dam Park, a wonderful, expansive facility that was destroyed so that the Yankees could build a stadium better suited to fleecing high rollers. The park is supposed to be replaced – at an enormous expense to taxpayers, most of whom will not benefit at all from either the new stadium or the so-called replacement parks. And no matter what the city does, when it gets around to it, it will never really replace Macombs Dam Park, which was a jewel in the midst of a hard-knocks, congested neighborhood. If the Yankees and the city wanted to tell the people of the South Bronx once and for all, “You don’t matter,” this was the way to do it.