Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Paul Greenberg

June 18, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

THIS SEASON marks the 50th anniversary of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in the summer of '41, one of the few records in baseball or in anything else that has not been bested in the past half-century -- and one that may not be.

Stephen Jay Gould, Darwinian scholar, reports in the New York Review of Books that Ed Purcell, a Nobel laureate in physics who has conducted a study of baseball streaks and slumps, has concluded that DiMaggio's streak was a statistical impossibility.

The scientist found that hitting in only 50 successive games just once in the history of baseball would require four lifetime .400 batters, or 52 batters with a lifetime batting average of .350, neither of which circumstance was obtained in 1941 or in any other season. (Only three players achieved lifetime batting averages above .350 and none came close to a .400 average.) DiMaggio's streak appears to be another instance of what Alexis de Tocqueville once called American exceptionalism -- in this case, an exception to the laws of probability.

If scholars could just understand that hitting streak, they might be able to understand America -- and certain qualities that breed nostalgia in this summer of '91. For Joe DiMaggio's was not essentially a statistical feat. That was the least of it. He brought to baseball a combination of grace and intensity -- a clarity of purpose -- that is evident even in the worn old, black-and-white film clips. The wide stance, the complete but utterly unpretentious concentration, the grace and power of that full swing, and then that beautiful loping stride, like a leopard's in slow motion. The simplicity of it. The concentration and ease. The excellence of it.

Did you know that after the 56-game streak, DiMaggio began another that lasted 16 more games? Somehow that is the more impressive statistic.

No wonder Joe DiMaggio became an American symbol in 1941, when London was being bombed and Hitler had just turned on Stalin. In a world full of chaos and terror, he was an island of grace.

In the summer of 1991, drift and not mastery is the theme of much of the news. As the antithesis of DiMaggio's hitting streak, I would nominate American politics in this equivocal season: uncertain, unfocused, indecisive, full of quick fixes that don't fix, and easy answers that don't answer.

Listen to the debate waged over whether to extend trading privileges to China just in time for the second anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. In such a policy there is no persistence, no excellence, no simplicity -- and above all no clarity of purpose -- only muddle, and the vague hope that something good will eventually come out of it. That is the essence of the sophisticated arguments in favor of doing business with such a regime. Not concentration or conviction.

An equally muddled debate on civil rights was under way this past week. Each side seemed to be debating a different bill. One version outlaws quotas and stops rigging test results on the basis of race and ethnic origin; the other allows a statistical disparity to put the burden of proof on those accused of invidious discrimination. The essential question seems to be not whether you're for or against this civil-rights bill, but what it means. In place of clarity of purpose, the congressional stadium offers legalese, and a jangle of appeals to ethnic loyalties or special interests.

The idea of a single, civil culture for all -- from out of many, one -- grows quaint and distant. Look at what's happening to the single, civil culture of baseball: Metallic bats have made the crack of the bat an antique sound; the overstuffed baseballs now being tried out on innocent Little Leaguers produce only a vague thwack when they hit the bat. The atrocious trend that began with the designated hitter continues.

As for the great game of politics, it becomes as torturous as a particularly irrelevant piece of litigation. One yearns for the spirit of Joe DiMaggio and the summer of '41 -- for its grace and simplicity, and for the sustained competence that is excellence and art. Paul Simon's lyric keeps coming back: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

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