The Situationist

56*

Posted by Will Li on November 26, 2007

Joe DiMaggioAn ABC news report by John Allen Paulos highlights an article in the Canadian general interest magazine Walrus in which author David Robbeson examines Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Robbeson asks: “[w]as the streak the most singular sustained accomplishment in the history of sport or the work of a collective imagination seeking a new mythology?”

In his analysis of the streak, Robbeson looks at the way in which baseball, and the DiMaggio streak, was consumed and disseminated at the time. Some of his historical notes may be surprising to today’s fans.

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The distractions of the war combined with the limitations of the media of the times to keep the particulars of the streak from public scrutiny. Though baseball was first broadcast on television in 1939 (a game between Princeton and Columbia), it wasn’t until after the war that telecasts became common. Radio had been integral to the national pastime since the thirties, and by the time war broke out many teams broadcast their entire schedules, but the Yankees were unable to attract a corporate sponsor willing to pay $75,000 to broadcast home games during the summer of ‘41. So, short of attending games themselves, fans of the Bronx Bombers could follow the streak only by reading the papers or listening to a nightly fifteen-minute radio re-enactment on wins. Every DiMaggio at-bat not witnessed in person was thus filtered, condensed, and dramatized — fully left to the imagination.

Joe Dimaggio HitAs the streak progressed, it developed an odd and frequently misunderstood media inertia. Baseball people had never been especially smitten with the notion of a consecutive-games hitting streak, and newspapers began to keep track of it more as a statistical oddity than as a phenomenon that would immediately capture America’s imagination, as history would have us believe. The New York Times, for its part, never mentioned sports stories on its front page — sports simply lacked gravitas. For accounts of DiMaggio’s exploits, a Times reader had to turn as far back as page twenty-five, after the arts and entertainment pages, then skippast stories on the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, whom the Times covered with equal vigilance. In less-vaunted publications such as the Sporting News, DiMaggio was feted and lionized, but for the world at large the streak was page-twenty-five news. Even the day after it ended, the front page of the Times paid it no heed.

Outside of New York, reaction was mixed. Popular mythology holds that fans in other American League cities turned out in droves — largely, if not solely, to watch DiMaggio extend his record. DiMaggio biographers and many baseball historians seize upon large crowds, such as the one in Cleveland the night the streak came to an end, as evidence of public fervour. Actual attendance numbers tell a different story. Twenty-two of the fifty-six games saw crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans. Game forty-five, when DiMaggio broke Keeler’s record, was witnessed by only 8,682 people — in Yankee Stadium no lessJoe Dimaggio. All of 1,625 people witnessed the streak hit fifty in St. Louis. The sellouts noted by history were usually the result of doubleheaders, which drew fans seeking the bargain of an extra game, or contests played under lights, which were still relatively rare in 1941. And though more than 67,000 fans watched the streak end (under lights) in Cleveland, only 15,000 ventured to the game the previous day. This surprising variance in public attention allowed DiMaggio’s streak to progress quietly, and left those who helped perpetuate it to do so unnoticed.

In an essay related to his poem “Examination of the Hero in a Time of War,” Wallace Stevens called the poetry of war “a consciousness of fact, but of heroic fact, of fact on such a scale that the mere consciousness of it affects the scale of one’s thinking and constitutes a participating in the heroic.” A similar myth-making impulse seemed to affect the sports journalists of the era.

* * *

John Allen Paulos takes a good look at Robbeson’s argument in his ABC News piece, pointing out Steven Jay Gould‘s more well-known criticism of the streak, and even includes a bit of social psychology analysis:

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Gould argues that these two, at best, weak hits as well as a couple of others seem out of place in a record set by a mythical hitter like DiMaggio. The reason is that people tend to believe that streaks are a causal consequence of courage and competence and that their lucky extension is somehow an affront to our conception of them. DiMaggio is too great a figure, people unconsciously think, to have his streak depend on such thKirk Gibsonin threads.

As psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated years ago, however, people fervently mistakenly believe in hot hands, in clutch hitters, in coming through under pressure, and don’t want to think of streaks as simply matters of luck. But luck is sometimes just that, and good hitters benefit more from it than do bad hitters. They will generally hit in longer streaks than will bad hitters just as heads-biased coins will result in longer strings of consecutive heads than tails-biased coins will.

In other words, DiMaggio’s streak remained intact because of these calls by Daniel, but so what? Some lucky breaks and a dubious call or two are to be expected in a long streak.

* * *

One of the questions raised by Robbeson’s analysis of the streak, and one which Paulos speculates about as well, is how we treat feats and records today. Even outside of baseball, there have been talks of asterisks – Don Shula has discussed asterisking the Patriots record if they manage to go 19-0, which, amusingly, has led some to question the impressiveness of the 1972 Dolphins. (Shula has since backed off his statements.)

Within baseball, while DiMaggio’s hitting streak itself is brought up every time a player gets much past the halfway mark (recently, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Willy Taveras and Moises Alou have had 30-game hitting streaks), it might be more telling to look at another mark; Barry Bonds and his chase of Hank Aaron’s home run record.

Could the “myth-making” impulse that Robbeson refers to be alive in a contrary sense today? Should we consider the attention Bonds receives from the media–only amplified in the wake of his recent indictment–to be “myth-destroying?” Criticisms have been leveled at media attention to Bonds and the information they present. For example, Larry Brown at AOL Fanhouse posted an interesting analysis of ESPN’s poll which purported to reveal that the public perception of Bonds was influenced by race. Other critics of print journalists who have written about Bonds and what he does to the purity of the sport point to the attendance numbers of the MLB. If the fans are still filling the seats, should the media be so focused on Bonds and how he has tainted the sport?

Barry Bonds Breaks Record

Or, just as the legend of Joltin’ Joe’s streak grew over subsequent generations regardless of the scant attention paid during its formation, will Bonds’s legacy be decided in the future? If the retrospective analysis of a record is so important to its legacy, how much importance should we give the potential fate of the record-setting ball?

After he bought the record setting ball, designer Marc Ecko took an online poll and from the results, has announced that he will asterisk the ball and send it to the Hall of Fame. In response, Bonds pledged to boycott the Hall of Fame if they accept the ball. But how much of a player’s legacy is actually decided by who or what is included in the Hall of Fame?

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2 Responses to “56*”

  1. Howard Wasserman said

    It seems to me we have the opposite problem in our ESPN-era: We over-mythologize everything. I do not think anyone doubts or downplays down how tremendous Bond’s achievement was. Indeed, the mythology probably was enhanced by the fact that, for the media (and, to a lesser extent, fans) the career homer record is *the* baseball record. We saw the same thing with the single-season HR record in both 1998 and 2002.

    To the extent the achievement has been downplayed, it is because of who Bonds is–in legitimate ways (he, in all likelihood, achieved the record by doing what is widely understood as cheating) and illegitimate ways (the race issues), and neutral ways (Bonds is, by all accounts, a jerk–and even this did not stop the myth machine in 2002).

    At some level, I think all the talk of asterisks (Li’s post mentions Shula’s stupidity about the Patriots) is pushback on this instant myth-making. To preserve history, there must be something tainted about the new record, so let’s do something to maintain the old record.

  2. [...] on The Situationist, Will Li has an excellent piece on the myth-making of baseball records. He takes particular notice of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game [...]

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