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56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports

I was recently given a chance to read 56, a new biography of Joe DiMaggio. You can read my interview with author Kostya Kennedy here. The book focuses on the young DiMaggio in 1941, an expectant father, a budding superstar, but not yet an icon. Drawing from his interviews and research, Kennedy draws us back to this world, showing us the characters lives through their own eyes.  This frees the book of the mustiness that clings to most posthumous biographies.

The book functions on three levels: the intersection of DiMaggio the ball player and DiMaggio the man, the reactions and observations of those around him, and the view from the larger world.

Joe DiMaggio was not a warm man, not to his teammates, not to the press, not even to his wife.  But he was a long way from the heartless egomaniac he has been portrayed as.  A part of what made him such a complicated, and fascinating, character is his strict personal code- there are so many things that his own sense of decorum stops him from doing or saying that he is taken aback and offended by the 'slights' of others.  For example, the liberties fans take with the famous (interrupting dinner or stopping him on the street, or his wife Dorothy talking about the Streak in the midst of it.

Along with the many other biographies and articles I've read on DiMaggio, 56 has led me a thought: maybe Joe DiMaggio didn't enjoy playing baseball.  He was phenomenally good at it, but for a man with almost no education it was simply the most lucrative work option available. Maybe it beat fishing, but it was his job.  Maybe some of the surliness and aloofness came from not wanting to talk about work away from the office; Joe DiMaggio didn't become a baseball player to be a public figure, and he resented having his private world intruded upon.

But that also undercuts DiMaggio's self-consuming drive to be the best. Acutely aware of status, on the field and off, DiMaggio simply wanted to be better, and be regarded as better, than any other player.

Joe DiMaggio is not a hero worthy of worship, and Kennedy shows us that unflinchingly.  But he is a man we can admire and struggle to understand.

In some of 56's most engaging chapters, we see Dorothy's life as Mrs. Joe DiMaggio.  The strain that places on her, especially as the Streak mounts, and DiMaggio recedes farther and farther within himself.  In the way that Maris' chase of Ruth twenty years later would wear down Maris, the Streak ate at DiMaggio.

There are well timed interludes; when the story teeters on the brink of becoming a box score, Kennedy takes us outside the Stadium to see other pieces of American life. The kids playing stickball in the street share their view.  We get to know some of DiMaggio's friends in Newark, and how that family uses DiMaggio as a small social pedestal and as a distraction from the looming war with Germany.

Kennedy brings all these elements together masterfully, and he has created a page turner from what seems a familiar story.  56 rests comfortably on the top shelf of baseball books, and I can't recommend it highly enough.