In May 1941, America began a portentous mood swing. Charles Lindbergh, the country's aviator hero and a vociferous opponent of U.S. involvement in the European war, fell from favor with President Roosevelt and the American people because he refused to return a medal that Hermann G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áring, the Nazis' No. 2 man, had given him in 1938. More sensitive to shifts in the political climate, 23-year-old John F. Kennedy, who was once an isolationist like Lindbergh, volunteered for active military duty. Hank Greenberg decided he would spend the upcoming summer at boot camp instead of at first base at Tiger Stadium.
But Joe DiMaggio, 26 and in his sixth year at centerfield for the New York Yankees, chose to remain a civilian for the time being. On May 15, he went 1 for 4 against the Chicago White Sox. Within a few weeks, DiMaggio would become the center of the nation's attention for much of the summer.
In Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of '41 (McGraw-Hill, $16.95), Michael Seidel, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, recounts this unsettled era by chronicling two unrelated but momentous events, DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and the Nazi advance through Europe. The combination of war and baseball may seem odd, but in the summer of '41 the two were intertwined in the minds of many Americans.
Writes Seidel, "The tallies of downed planes in dogfights...would appear in the newspapers of spring and summer under the rubric 'Daily Box Scores.' " By drawing on conventional box scores, the news from Europe and the minutiae of contemporary life in the States, Seidel gives a fact-rich and evocative account of how America came to understand a hero like DiMaggio and an ideology like fascism in one pivotal year.
During the streak, baseball-minded people across the country waited for DiMaggio to come to bat. They turned to sports pages and imagined Joltin' Joe swinging loose his shoulders, spreading his stance and settling in at the plate. In these moments, worries of war slipped away. But after each safely hit baseball had threaded its way past lunging in-fielders or dropped untouched out of the sky onto the grass or over the fence, the streak was pushed to the backs of their minds, and last week's newsreel movie and this morning's headlines once again took precedence.
Seidel strives to "inscribe DiMaggio's streak in a context worthy of the memories it evokes." The meat of the book, the section called "Streak Journal," interweaves game-by-game accounts of DiMaggio's feat with news of current events. We are told about Rudolf Hess's bizarre flight to Scotland; about one of the summer's best-sellers, For Whom the Bell Tolls; about the sinking of the Bismarck and the rising careers of such Hollywood stars as Jane Russell, Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney.
This sometimes unwieldy juxtaposing of sports, entertainment and politics serves a purpose. Streak encourages the reader to provide his own analysis of the period. Seidel provides the raw material but refuses to tell the reader how to interpret it. What he does do is re-create the frame of mind of a baseball-mad country apprehensive about its seemingly inevitable entrance into war.
Some may bemoan that the book is not about DiMaggio as much as it is about the summer during which he claimed his comparatively small share of immortality. But Streak will be appreciated by those who wish to understand what it was like to live at a time of inexorable change, a time when Americans, preparing for war, identified with heroic figures. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Seidel might not provide the answer, but he tells us what Joltin' Joe meant to the American people.
Christopher Lewis, a New York City writer, has attended many Yankee games.