Seventy years ago to this day, Joe DiMaggio recorded a hit in his 56th consecutive game, an MLB record that stands to this day. Although other hitters have come close (most notably Pete Rose’s 44-game streak in 1978), DiMaggio’s streak stands as one of the most immortal accomplishments of all time.
The story of DiMaggio’s magical 56-game hit streak is the subject of 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a new book by Sports Illustrated senior editor, Kostya Kennedy.
In a unique fusion of baseball and history, 56 is written against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous years in American history: 1941. The Nazis were marching across Europe, the Japanese were dropping bombs on Pearl Harbor and the American people were on the edge of their seats waiting to see if President Roosevelt would send the country to its second world war. (It was also the year Ted Williams famously hit .406).
Kennedy recently took the time to speak with me about his book and how DiMaggio rewrote the record books and provided an inspiration for Americans everywhere.
Bleacher Report: What gave you the idea for this book?
Kostya Kennedy: The foundation for the idea is that we have all these records in baseball that have kind of disappeared (Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Hank Aaron) through the steroid era. All these iconic numbers were gone and only "56" stood untouched, unscathed by this era.
It’s an absolutely unique event in sports and history.
B/R: Can you talk about the setting for the 1941 season and what it was like in America back then?
KK: I think the year 1941 has a certain resonance with people because of Pearl Harbor and the country’s entrance into the war. We were just out of the Great Depression and that still stung in people’s lives.
That whole environment with the war coming and people getting drafted and listening to FDR on the radio, that left the country in a very fragile and tenuous state. That’s why DiMaggio’s streak took such a strong hold of people, because it was a diversion from everything else going on.
Regardless of how people felt about the war, they could get together behind the streak because it meant something in their lives. It gave them something to talk about and brought people together.
B/R: What do you think was the most incredible thing about DiMaggio’s streak?
KK: From a technical baseball standpoint his consistency was amazing because he never bunted or changed his approach; he played the same way whatever the situation. Being an introvert, he had a way of being on an incredibly even keel, never letting anything affect his play.
B/R: What do you think was the hardest part of the streak for DiMaggio? Or for any hitter in a hitting streak?
KK: Perhaps the most impressive part was how DiMaggio handled the streak off the field. He was very self-conscious, and with the pressure that was on him day to day, the streak just weighed on him. But when he got to the ballpark he was all business. He never let the streak get in the way of his job.
B/R: What do you think it is about baseball that makes it America’s pastime? How is it different from football or basketball?
KK: For one, the sport was really front and center in 1941. It came out of America so it felt like an American game.
Baseball is special. You have an individual embedded in a team sport going up to hit and every pitch there’s a solution, either good or bad. In other sports there’s a lot of plays with no resolution. In baseball you can always identify with the player who’s up, and the pace of the game makes it such a viewer-friendly sport because you can watch and have a conversation with your neighbor.
I think baseball would be more popular today if you didn’t have gambling and you didn’t have fantasy football. Back in DiMaggio’s day a huge number of people were paying attention to the game for reasons other than the game. In that sense, it’s America’s game for a broader audience.
B/R: You call 56 the last magic number in sports? Why is that?
KK: People have heard about it and know about it. It’s an old number attached to a figure who is a baseball legend. Other records are like cartoon numbers; they’re from a different time. The hitting streak, however, seems almost possible, but it’s just so hard.
Baseball’s kind of unique in that numbers hold more resonance. Fifty-six isn’t the only baseball record that is unbreakable and it’s not even the hardest to break, but it’s just so unique.
The number, and the streak, turned DiMaggio from a baseball star into a national icon.
B/R: What current players do you think have the best chance at breaking the record?
KK: Probably Ichiro, because he has good speed and hits at the top of the lineup and gets a ton of hits. You’d say Pujols, but he walks too much and that’s a bad thing for a hitting streak.
B/R: Do you think it will ever be broken?
KK: I don’t think it will. When you’re looking from just a statistical standpoint it’s so improbable that I don’t think it’ll happen.
However, that’s not going to stop us from going crazy when someone goes on even a 20-game hitting streak. The fact that we can follow a hitter day after day, week after week, makes it a special experience that all fans can share, regardless of which team the hitter is playing for. There’s nothing else like it.
56: Joe DiMaggio and The Last Magic Number in Sports is now available through Amazon.com.