DiMaggio's streak would dominate even in media-saturated world
Joe DiMaggio set a record by hitting safely in 56 straight games in 1941
His streak became the talk of the United States throughout June and July
DiMaggio would be covered even more obsessively in the age of the Internet
Type "Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak" into your search engine and you'll return about 14,200 hits. Limit yourself to fresh news about the streak and you'll get about 145 results from just the past couple of weeks. That would have been true if you had done the search last month and will be true a month from now.
One hundred and forty-five news hits may not sound like all that much when a term like "Kim Kardashian"leads to about 2,800 or "bracketbuster" returns 734 or even, say, "Xavier center Kenny Frease" brings back 151. But DiMaggio's streak happened 70 years ago. It's safe to suggest that folks like Mr. Frease have a somewhat lesser Google shelf life.
If DiMaggio's streak were happening now it would be making enough news to crowd 64 (or 32 or even a sweet 16) teams off of the front page of sports, enough to kick Kim Kardashian's formidable butt. In the land of RSS feeds DiMaggio might even be -- move over Charlie Sheen -- um, winning!
When DiMaggio unfurled that magical, unmatched hitting streak in the spring and summer of 1941, there was no one Tweeting about it, or instant messaging: "did u c Joe D hit?" You couldn't Bing him. There wasn't even any TV coverage (on account of there weren't really any TVs). Yet the streak was a focal point, commanding a nation's attention the way few things in sports ever had, and in a way that practically nothing could command attention among today's fragmentary and fleeting news bites.
Now our news feeds have become an all-out assault, an uncontainable river of information. We can "consume" length-of-the-floor college basketball coverage on our mobile apps, every game, every stat, an entire tournament in the palm of our hands! We'll tap into an interactive bracket. We'll find out the latest on Vanderbilt hoops whether we wanted to or not. Easy, convenient, and, yes, a kind of Madness.
In DiMaggio's streaking days, people gathered around radios on stoops and ice cream parlor counters seeking out information about what he had done that day. They waited en masse on street corners for their afternoon papers to land in a bundle, hoping for a photo or two of the Great DiMag. They trundled down to the local movie theater and before settling in to see Citizen Kane, say, they'd see a news reel with bulletins from the front: the Nazi war machine moving across Europe, the state of the economy (the wounds of the Depression years still throbbed) and of DiMaggio continuing his streak day after day after day.
People experienced it all together. They got the news and slapped each other's back, and then they talked about it for awhile. Now we are alone, clicking onto Ustream to watch a man in Wild Thing glasses chain smoke and call himself the Malibu Messiah. Or sneaking glances at our smart phone to see if our Southwest region upset pick is coming through.
"Imagine what a circus it would be if DiMaggio ran off that hit streak today," some people say to me when we're talking about my book 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number In Sports. Well yes, it would be a circus, but of a different kind. There are more rings now, more places to look. In '41 DiMaggio pretty much had the single-ring tent to himself.
DiMaggio was not besieged the way that today's athletes are. There were far fewer reporters and they tended not to ask personal or overly probing questions. Reporters had easier access to players but they kept the talk, for the most part, to the games. Of course in 1941 the thing that was most stressful to DiMaggio -- even more so than his tense relationship with his first wife, the movie starlet Dorothy Arnold -- were the games themselves. And that's what everyone was talking about.
DiMaggio was everywhere then. He would be more everywhere now (you now what I mean). But he would also be part of the ephemera, a blip -- a very big blip but a blip nonetheless -- on our various screens. The most amazing thing I discovered is how well, all these decades later, people remember that hitting streak and the communal way in which they devoured it. Today? Stories are in and then out of our minds. Quick, what teams were in last season's Final Four? Who played the Super Bowl halftime show in 2009? Who was Jennifer Aniston's last boyfriend?
All of these stories invaded our lives more aggressively, more persistently and on many more fronts than DiMaggio's streak did. Now they seem outdated and forgotten. While 70 years later the hitting steak is still here.
Kostya Kennedy is a Senior Editor at Sports Illustrated and the author of 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number In Sports. To purchase the book, click here.
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