RIGHT OFF THE BAT PODCAST: 02
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Martin: Hello again. My name is Martin Rowe, and this week we’re celebrating the 70th anniversary of a special event in baseball and doing a bit of random name-calling.
However, before we reach the heights and descend to the depths, I want to give new listeners an idea of the kinds of things we’ll be talking about in these podcasts and that we reflect on in our book, Right Off the Bat. Our main aim as writers (and podcasters) is to avoid some of the more arcane aspects of both sports, such as specialized terminology and rules, and concentrate on the sheer beauty and lifelike ingeniousness of cricket and baseball. We have a bit of fun with the silly things and we’re not afraid to talk about some of the ugly stuff that goes on as well. But the main point is to celebrate the glorious moments and records of each sport without dwelling on the past for its own sake or wallowing in nostalgia. As we all know, the past is highly overrated—usually. Sometimes, however, memory does not play tricks on us, and this brings me to the subject of today’s podcast. So, Evander, what happened 70 years ago this week that we should celebrate?
Evander: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. When Joe DiMaggio was up and coming, Babe Ruth was in decline. DiMaggio would come to represent what Tom Brokaw calls “the Greatest Generation.” Whether the following story is true or not, elements of it have the ring of authenticity. Ruth famously couldn’t remember the names of his young teammates. Everyone was, “Hey, Kid!” But there was one youngster he knew by name from the get-go, and this was Joe DiMaggio, the soon-to-be-nicknamed “Yankee Clipper.” I believe it is poet Donald Hall in the Burns Brothers’ tremendous 18-and-a-half-hour history of Major League Baseball who describes DiMaggio as “the ultimate in celestial craftsmanship.” Sports commentator Bob Costas has described his own father as a Joe D. fan. When Costas sung the praises of his boyhood hero, Mickey Mantle, Costas Senior quickly added: “Unless you’ve seen DiMaggio, you haven’t seen the Real Thing.”
Martin: I think even cricket fans have heard of Joe DiMaggio. He was obviously pretty special from the beginning.
Evander: Correct! He was actually on his way to becoming a world-class tennis player. But his talent for baseball was so unusual and overpowering that the tennis career was aborted. Other teams shied away from DiMaggio because he had a leg injury or series of them. The Yankees, on the other hand, knew thoroughbred talent when they saw it. So did Ruth, who spotted the heir apparent immediately.
Martin: So, let’s get back to the hitting streak. I think cricket fans would recognize that it’s hard to hit a baseball with a round bat. But they may be missing the significance of what you mean by a “hit.” You’re not talking about getting the wood to meet the leather. You’re talking about hitting the ball into space and getting to first base (at least) in 56 consecutive games, right?
Evander: Yes. It’s one thing to hit the ball at all. It’s another thing to hit the ball and far enough away from a fielder that they can’t throw it to whatever base you’re running to before you reach that base. DiMaggio was a unique figure in baseball history. He holds few lifetime records. He couldn’t be more different from the gold-standard, Ruth. Indeed, they seem to inhabit two different universes as, to use a literary example, with the difference of only a generation or so, Shakespeare and Milton do. The lives overlap, but they have nothing to do with each other, embodying “adjoining eras” marked by radical change. Moving on and more to the point, it had been Ruth himself who held the Yankees’ record for batting successfully in a sequence of games: 29. Let’s put this into perspective. To reach base safely for 29-straight games on the Major League level, one must have an almost unprecedented combination of steely will and transcendent talent. In 1941, Joe D. would almost double the length of this streak.
Martin: Beating a record by double is just astonishing. But what really impresses me is DiMaggio’s nerve. Each game that passed, and each time he came up to bat—perhaps four or five times in the course of a game—he must have had to block out of his head any thought of “I’m on this incredible streak. I have to hit the ball.” He had to take each ball on its own merit—in a microsecond of time—and make that decision. And he still hit into space, as they say.
Evander: Right. The difference between 29 and 56 is staggering. In fact, the difference between 44 games, the next-highest total, held by two players, is akin to point-rises on the Richter Scale, as the batter continues to bat successfully day after day. (Remember, baseball is in large degree a game of controlled failure, so that a batter hitting an incredible .400—Ted Williams was the last to accomplish this, also in the annus mirabilis 1941—is failing to bat successfully 60 percent of the time). Just a week ago, Andre Ethier had hit safely in 30 straight. Last season, Buster Posey had a streak of 21. The thing is, the pressure builds exponentially once the player reaches about 30. Like so much in baseball and life, mysterious forces of failure or entropy start pushing back.
Martin: It’s interesting the streak happened in 1941. Virtually the rest of the world is at war, and by the end of it America will be so, too, and then there’s this golden summer, with this streak. There’s something ethereal and timeless about it—as though the sound of the crowd and the thwack of ball and bat drowns out all of the horrors happening elsewhere. As a Brit, I can say it’s simultaneously one of the most attractive and annoying aspects of the United States. You can sense the confidence, the insularity, the blocking out of all that’s negative or insoluble, the love of the heroic individual, the grandness of the gesture and at the same time its innocence and relative inconsequence as the tired old empires, countries, and dominions fight it out. And then there’s DiMaggio: a guy from the other side of the Anglo-Saxon tracks, as it were, who makes it in the Big Time: that’s America to me, to quote another great Italian-American from the same era, Ol’ Blue Eyes. There’s something gutsy and straightforward about the streak—to keep on hitting that ball, over and over again. Simply irresistible, to cite the late, great philosopher of life, Robert Palmer. So, do you think anyone’s going to beat it?
Evander: I am far from the only one to believe it is unlikely to be broken— even though all records are meant to be. It is a standard that has little to do with the power sought through anabolic-steroid ingestion or the weight room. Players that have hit 60 or 70 home runs in a season, Ruth being an exception as he almost always is, may never have batted successfully in a dozen straight games. Baseball mingles luck with skill in, again, a mysterious and lifelike way. What makes baseball different from every other sport, including cricket, is that it is played daily. There is an episodic aspect to fandom. “What will my favorite player or team do today?” Fact is, no one could have anticipated the sheer drama of a hitting streak like DiMaggio’s. It stunned and galvanized a nation in a way that is a little hard for us to comprehend 70 years later. Should any player approach 40 or 45 games in a row, the excitement and anticipation over the preceding two weeks onward would be almost unparalleled. When will this player fall off the DiMaggio ledge?
Martin: Well, it almost seems like cricket is being played every day somewhere around the world, but your point is well taken. Thanks for that: Seventy years ago this week. The music you’ve been listening to is by Bettie Bonny and Les Brown and His Band of Renown performing “Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio,” on rotation here at Right Off the Bat.
Now another topic. I’m sure you were paying close attention during the recent Royal wedding.
Evander: I was glued.
Martin: And no doubt you’ll have heard Kate Middleton recite all four of Prince William’s first names: William Arthur Philip Louis. That’s quite a mouthful. Of course, long names are a tradition in the aristocracy. William’s grandfather, Prince Philip, is according to his birth certificate, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark and a member of the house of Schleswig Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, which is some address to throw on an envelope.
Evander: I believe the house is in Queens.
Martin: You may be right. Anyway, if you feel sorry for the fellow who had to write that name out in nice cursive script on the scroll or parchment or whatever they used when bonnie Prince Philip burst into the world, then you’ll really pity the clerks in the Sri Lankan birth registry offices. The Sri Lankan cricket side is playing some warm-up matches in England at the moment, before beginning a Test and one-day series against the home team, and in the squad are the magnificently entitled Hettige Don Rumesh Lahiru Thirimanne (that’s four first names, if you’re counting) and Herath Mudiyanselage Rangana Keerthi Bandara Herath (which is five first names, except one name is also his last name, so that makes it easier). But the winner has to be the triumphantly nomenclatured Uda Walawwe Mahim Bandaralage Chanaka Asanga Welegedara. With that name tag on your shorts, I cannot imagine that you don’t feel somewhat fortified when you come out to bat.
Evander: So what kind of firepower do the English have in response?
Martin: Well, if they stick with the team that beat Australia earlier this year, then the best that they can come up with is Ian Jonathan Leonard Trott.
Evander: It’s not looking good. The English are syllabically challenged.
Martin: That they are. Thankfully, what they lack in nominal strength they make up for by playing in front of a lot of syllabically challenged fans called Ian and Trevor and Roy. However, according to the actual rankings—the ones that deal with games won or lost—the Sri Lankans are a better side than England at the moment. If England beat the Sri Lankans and then the Indians (who have many great players with even more magnificent names than the Sri Lankans), then they stand a good chance of becoming number one. But it’s a long shot.
Evander: Let battle be pronounced!
Martin: Yes, indeed. So, that’s all we have time for this week. As always, we’ll keep you posted on anything important that happens—and a great deal of unimportant stuff that occurs as well. Check out our website—rightoffthebatbook.com—for more blogs and stuff. Our book has now arrived in our moistened fingers here at Right Off the Bat headquarters and it’ll be available from Amazon and in bookstores by the end of the month. You’ll also be able to get your electronic devices to display the e-book version of Right Off the Bat soon enough. And so, this is Martin Rowe and Evander Lomke . . .
Evander: Or is that Evander Lomke and Martin Rowe . . . ?
Martin: Signing off. And wherever you are and whichever game you play, may the ball always meet the middle of your bat, or arrive in the gloves with a satisfying thud.