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Book Review – 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports

The Bronx Pinstripes Book Review Project

For the second time in three years, the Yankees had a special season come to a sobering end at the hands of the Houston Astros. There is something abruptly final about a finished baseball season. We begin watching games in March and April as the last vestiges of the winter months melt away. We sweat under the mid-summer sun at the Stadium as the Yanks grind their way through the dog days of July and August. And, because we’re Yankees fans, we usually get to bundle up in our winter coats to watch the team on dark, chilly October nights in the postseason.

For now, the Yankees’ push for a twenty-eighth world championship is on hold. We won’t have games to watch and analyze until next spring. Yet we need not go without our beloved Bronx Bombers between now and February, when the team arrives in Tampa for spring training. But, there are other sources from which we can get our Yankees fix as well: books.

A quick Amazon search for books on the New York Yankees will turn up over two thousand results. There are books on specific players, seasons, and all aspects of the Yankees organization. Which one should you sit down to read on a snowy December afternoon? Which one should you play through your car’s stereo on the way into work? During the next few months, I’d like to review some of the Yankees books that I love the most. If all goes according to plan, I will have given you some ideas for building your own Bronx Bombers library.

Reviewing 56

The first book that I’d like to put forward for your enjoyment is Kostya Kennedy’s 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number In Sports. Kennedy’s book was released in 2012, and quickly achieved critical acclaim on The New York Times Best Seller list. It isn’t difficult to see why. The rapid pace of 56 transports the reader back to the unforgettable summer of 1941. Kennedy starts things off innocuously enough, recording a forgettable DiMaggio base hit in a gloomy Yankees loss. But DiMaggio hits in the next game, and the next game, and the next game. Soon the country is following the Yankee Clipper as he chases down some of baseball’s most illustrious names in a season for the ages. Thanks to Kennedy’s smooth storytelling, we’re along for the ride.

Highlights from 56 include the controversy at the end of Game 30, when DiMaggio’s sharply hit ball to shortstop could’ve gone down as either a hit or an error. Was the scorekeeper’s call correct? Did DiMaggio’s streak depend on a lucky break? Kennedy explores these questions in his casually gripping manner. He goes on to describe the drama of Game 42, when DiMaggio leapfrogged George Sisler for the longest streak in the live-ball era. You can almost hear the roar of the rabid crowd as the young Yankee superstar makes history.

Kennedy also manages to delight in his treatment of subjects beyond baseball. For instance, he does an exceptional job of exploring DiMaggio’s personal history. We learn about the way DiMaggio helped his parents and siblings back in California after making it big. We also gain a bit of insight into the Yankee Clipper’s signature stoic demeanor. Lou Gehrig’s death in 1941 and his friendship with DiMaggio are powerfully treated in an early chapter. Kennedy even looks at how DiMaggio’s run at history kept Americans together during the dark days of the early 1940s. During the streak, the United States stood on the precipice of World War II. DiMaggio’s incredible ’41 campaign allowed an entire country to enjoy one last magical summer.

The final chapter of 56 will be especially enjoyable for analytics nerds. In it, Kennedy takes a deep dive into some of the numbers behind DiMaggio’s unmatched feat. As an example, he discusses probability models that have been built to determine the likelihood of the record being broken (the chances aren’t very good!). Kennedy also comments on whether or not advanced metrics can properly account for a player’s ability to “get hot” or perform in the clutch. These subjects still hold a prominent place in today’s baseball conversations, seven years after 56 hit the shelves. For me, this chapter alone was worth the price of the book.

The Verdict

All in all, 56 is a masterstroke. It is a great book about what is, perhaps, the greatest record in professional sports. It is an ideal read for DiMaggio fans, Yankees fans in general, and those interested in taking a closer look at the numbers behind that famous hitting streak. Those curious about American society in the 1930s and 1940s will undoubtedly have a bit of extra fun with 56.

56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number In Sports is available in print, digital, and audible formats.

Up Next

On November 28 I’ll be continuing our book review series with The Yankee Years by Tom Verducci and Joe Torre.