Thursday, March 17, 2011

Interview with Kostya Kennedy, Author of 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports

Originally published on Pinstripe Alley

I recently got to talk by telephone with Kostya Kennedy, author of the new book 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports.

Not to give to much away from the book review I plan to post tomorrow, but if you spend the $20 on that book, it'll be the best investment you make this spring.

I definitely have to thank Mr. Kennedy for spending time talking with me about my favorite ball player, and I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.

J: I want to start with, why write about Joe DiMaggio? What is it that you find so fascinating about the Streak?

KK: There are a number of things that came up, but I think that the initial idea cam because… kind of in response to the steroid era, I suppose, such as, Ruth 714, Aaron 755, Ruth 60, Maris 61, they were all being superseded. And I’m not somebody who cares or would mind if they were exceeded by some great player who comes along.  But they were being exceeded over and over again by players who were clearly implicated in steroids, and it was all unseemly. 

It didn’t feel right; it didn’t feel good. I felt that in thinking, was the pure record still there and it felt to me that DiMaggio was that.  It feels to me the purest of records; as much as the greatest, it’s the purest.

And that appeal, as I say in the intro to the book, I had a really great personal response to being at Cal Ripken’s game. For me, it was the game he tied Lou Gehrig, and seeing that number out there on the old warehouse at Oriole Park, Camden Yards, it was just chilling. It harkened back to a different time in baseball and a different era in America. 

And that’s what I was after in the DiMaggio book. I also felt a little bit, we see him in this book, at the time, at the event which really turned him from being a baseball star to becoming an American icon. It’s rare to see somebody at that moment. So this is a way to have a fresh look at DiMaggio as a 26 year old kid, more than a decade before he’d meet Marilyn, many years before he’d does Mr. Coffee…

J: All the things he becomes known for later.

KK: Exactly. It appeals to me to see him and get to know him then, I think it might be the most iconic achievement in baseball. To me it is, and when I started researching and going into locker room, seeing the resonance- that pretty much everybody knew it and that everybody, hitters especially, wanted to talk about it- it still has a hold on people, and people’s imagination in a way that I think very few, if any, other records do.

J: I’ve always had a special place in my heart, as a Yankee fan and as an Italian American, for Joe DiMaggio, so I think you’ve hit on something there. I’m curious if this is the book as you envisioned it when you started out, or did you learn things in the research process that caught you by surprise.

KK: I think that the richness of DiMaggio’s character was surprising a little bit to me. He was a complicated person, to see him through this lens was pretty revealing. The time, in the nation, also was revealing. One knows, or one has an instinct or a feeling for what 1941 was in this country, because of what happened in December and going into the War and coming out of the Great Depression and all that.  But really getting to see and feel the tenor of the country with Roosevelt having his Fireside Chats, and saying ‘we’re in a state of emergency’ and people being drafted.  Seeing DiMaggio really took hold of people’s imagination at that time.  It was pretty exciting for me, I started getting involved in it and feeling it too.  I think that was it really, the escape that it was and the diversion for people came through a lot stronger than I realized.

J: You actually dove right into my next question for me, which is how connected your book is  to the history of the American spirit and character in that pre-World War II America. Do you think sports still hold that place?

KK: I think it’s more superficial now. But I should say that I think the DiMaggio event was a rare event in the hold that it had and in the time that it had.  I don’t think, even in that time, sports normally took people that way. In some way sports are bigger now, the industry is bigger.  More people go to games, and certainly many more people consume games that weren’t even on TV in 1941. But the hold on people’s imagination that a single sport could have, meaning baseball, and that a single man could have on somebody, I don’t think could happen now. It’s just too fragmented and there are too many choices.  There’s so much cacophony going on, when then people could afford to be much more focused.

J: I was struck that you’ve written a biography that reads very much like a novel.  We get the characters thoughts, and at times we see the world through their eyes. I wonder, why did you choose that approach and did you worry about taking too much creative license?

KK: Well, they’re both very good questions.  It’s kind of the approach that fits me in a way, when I sat down to write it was the way that came to me that I was able to inhabit this world and these characters.

What I decided to do… there are many quotes, which are things that were reported directly out of the newspaper or they spoke it.  Anything that [DiMaggio] is thinking, or that anyone is thinking, is either a direct quote or a paraphrase of something that was said, either to me as a reporter or that appeared in a newspaper clip that I saw.  I kind of limited myself in many ways, there were times I wanted to say something and I didn’t.  The only thing I suppose I felt comfortable with, if something was said in poor grammar, I could clean it up and make it intelligible. But I didn’t have him thinking something that he didn’t think or wouldn’t have thought or anything like that.

J: The first person you thank in your acknowledgments is Dominick DiMaggio.  Tell me about his contribution to the book.

KK: Well I was very fortunate to be able to speak to Dom a few times in the early stages of my reporting. Obviously, he has died since then. I couldn’t see him at the time… he didn’t say exactly what was happening, but it was obvious he was having health issues.  He was very giving of his time, and while I didn’t know how sick he was, I knew he wasn’t in the best of health. He was absolutely terrific to talk to, and he was giving of his time at what was a difficult time.  When I talked about old times and old things he was very very sharp and would correct me if I had something wrong.  It was a thrill to speak with him and he was very charitable.

J: One of the quotes on the jacket cover is that this might be the last word on the streak, and part of the tragedy that could make that true is the age of the ballplayers.

KK: Yeah, there are five people, sadly, who I spoke to at enough length to include in the acknowledgements who have passed away since I did my reporting.  That, in and of itself, gives you a sense of the time frame we’re at.

J: How long ago did you start working on this book?

KK: I’d say I began a little over two years ago.

J: So in the matter of a couple years you have it to press.  That’s pretty remarkable considering, you listen to some authors talk about years of research.  That speaks to a lot of work on your part.

K: It was a lot of work.  A lot of early mornings, and a lot of late nights. It was well worth it.

J: Let me dive into a couple other questions: you write at one point that DiMaggio’s two greatest fears when he goes out in public are that everyone will notice him, and at the same time, that everyone will ignore him.  I wonder, do you think he could have survived modern media coverage?

KK: It’s amazing to think how he would have been.  Could he have survived? It would not have been easy for him.  I think he would have found a way to survive, because he was truly some kind of athletic genius, and he cared about making his money. This was the way he was going to do it. I think that he could have found a way to handle it, but it would have been extremely difficult for him.  He really did not like the attention… like I said, he didn’t like the attention, but he liked the attention.  It’s an interesting thought to imagine how he would have comported himself. I don’t think you would have seen him as a garrulous person, embracing the opportunity.  I think he would have done what he had to do and moved on in terms of his media obligations.

J:  Sure.  I kind of think of him, and I wonder if it’s wrong to connect him to people in the modern age like Kevin Brown or Randy Johnson, who very much did not want to have anything to do with the media most of the time, and certainly never after they felt like they had failed at their job.

K: Right. I mean, it’s rare- Kevin Brown, who was an absolutely dominant pitcher for a few years there, but he’s not in the Hall of Fame, and he’s not a guy of DiMaggio’s stature.  Barry Bonds was kind of like that; he’s now trying to reinvent himself a little bit, but he was difficult with the media for a long time. 

It was different, though.  I think players were a little bit more aware, and press wasn’t taken completely for granted even for somebody like DiMaggio who got plenty of it. It wasn’t the way it is now that by the time you’re in high school, practically, you’re on local TV if you’re a big star.  Certainly, if you play in college and you’re a big stud in your minor league town. Whatever it is, [today] if you’re a player of that caliber you’ve been getting attention for a long time.  You’re used to being spoken about and speaking about yourself. 

Then, it wasn’t quite that.  Even for someone like DiMaggio who had been written about during his days in San Francisco and had been a star then.  For him, and for ballplayers in general at that time, they recognized the importance of it and that they needed it. It was part of what they did.

J: They had an obligation, in a way.

KK: Exactly.  A lot of writers were a little less dogged and more respectful.  And that cuts both ways because then they didn’t find out some of the things people find out today, and it was good because they had the respect of players and they were able to get a more candid look.  They didn’t get as many quotes, "We’re just taking it one day at a time" in those days.

J: I was fascinated by your description of the relationship between Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, and that was obviously very important to DiMaggio.  I wonder, is it fair to say that Lou Gehrig, in personality, was the kind of player that DiMaggio wanted to be?

KK: You know, John, that’s a wonderful question.  I had not quite thought about it that way. It’s definitely something to think about… I wouldn’t say… My first reaction is that I don’t think that Joe wanted to be like anybody in particular, though he was conscious of his image.  And when Lou Gehrig comes and says to Joe on the first day, "It’s nice to have you with us, Joe." For the two of them, that amounts to a long conversation. In that sense, I think he felt the affinity. 

As I’m talking about this, I think maybe there’s some truth to that.  I don’t know if he consciously thought about that, but I think since he admired Gehrig and admired the way Gehrig comported himself and the way he carried himself, both as being the second banana to Ruth, and then in some way to DiMaggio, when he’s Lou Gehrig! He wouldn’t have been the best player on almost any other team in history. And then the way he carried himself in his illness, and I think for anyone who saw that courage, it made an impact.  He may have respected Gehrig enough to think, boy, I’d like to be that way.

J: Do you think that Joe DiMaggio might have been happier- I’m thinking still about his relationship with the press and to other people in the clubhouse- do you think he would have been happier to have another huge star in the clubhouse who might have deflected some of that attention, or do you think that his drive and his desire to be the best would have led to tension there.

KK: I think he wanted to be The Guy.  I think one of the reasons the Streak was good for Joe, was that… he was awkward in many ways in the society of the clubhouse, and he didn’t have friends really, except for Lefty Gomez, on the team.  But he loved being in the clubhouse and loved the feeling of being one of the guys although he just didn’t know how to do it.

I think that he is a complicated person.  There’s that dichotomy: he wanted to be The Man and he was used to being The Man and that was it.  He wanted to be better than Ted Williams and he wanted to be the best ball player. At the same time he wanted other people to say, hey here’s Joe and not bow down to him. I think he was most comfortable being the star among stars. He was happy to recognize what a great ballplayer somebody like Tommy Hendricks was.  Obviously, not on his level, but he really appreciated guys who played the game well and gave maximum effort. It’s not as if he didn’t appreciate other good players, but his place was being the sun around which the team revolved.

J: I picked up on this: you mentioned when we first started talking, and it’s clear from your introduction; you have a lot of contempt for steroid users and cheaters. You refer to Bonds, not by name, but as "a tainted player from a tainted era." Do you think there’s anybody playing today who we can believe in?

KK: I’m ready to believe in anybody who’s not pretty obviously guilty.  Once you cross the line, it just seems to me that the person you’re cheating is me.  And I don’t mean that- that sounds ridiculously egotistical- I mean me being Joe Everyman. I’m the fan and I go and I pay and I don’t want you cheating.  You’re cheating me and you’re cheating baseball history.  Just because of my love of the game, I find that offensive.  It’s kind of like people who don’t hustle: it’s an awful thing and it’s infuriating.

I do feel that, and you look at a guy like Ken Griffey who came through this time with 600 plus home runs and has never been implicated; I think he’s a hero in that sense. He’s one big home run hitter that it’s never even been whispered about.  For me, if someone is convicted or caught, I do not have a Hall of Fame vote, but I would never vote for them, whether it’s Arod or anybody else. I think that you’ve broken the spirit of the game.

J: Fair points.

To turn to statistics for a moment. I think that, for those of us who pay a lot of attention to it now, I think we have a much more refined sense of the effect that a ball park has on a player, especially with the technology coming out that tracks where every hit goes, where every pitch goes. Do you think that the press did DiMaggio a disservice, that maybe people didn’t realize how much Yankee Stadium sapped him of his power.  I read something early that he hit something like 42% of his home runs at home, something like 150 over his career.  If he’d played in a normal ball park he would have hit closer to 250. Do you think that he was properly recognized for being the great power hitter?

KK: Probably not.  He was recognized as being a great power hitter, but he wasn’t recognized as being as dominant as he could have been, or might have been. People didn’t pay that much attention to it, and DiMaggio didn’t really either.  He talked about it, and he mentioned it. He knew that the Red Sox brought the fence in in right field to help Williams, and he knew how far he had to hit the ball in order to get the ball out, but he used different parts of the field.  He was essentially a line drive hitter, and that’s what it was.  People didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.

At certain times, during practice, the Yankees would put cones out to replicate a more normal field out there to see how many balls DiMaggio could hit that were home runs.  But I don’t think it was a sticking point.  There was Mel Ott with his 521 home runs, and he often pulled the ball down the line- I think it was 258 at the Polo Grounds. So, it was the way it was.  It was something people talked about even then, but it was not the big deal that it is now: park adjusted performance, a pitcher who’s a fly ball pitcher would be better in this park or in that park.  It was just, let’s go play baseball and whatever the field dimensions are, let’s do the best we can.

J: In closing, I wonder are there any interesting stories or anecdotes that you left out of the book that you wish you could have found a way to work in?

KK: Not really. I feel that I didn’t write everything I knew, but I feel that if there was anything pressing to the narrative or important to the story, I included it.  At this moment, John, I don’t have any regrets on that front.

J: For me personally, reading it yesterday. I get a big kick out of the way you give us multiple levels of the story; we see DiMaggio, but we also see the gang of kids on the street who get together to play ball, we see a girl who goes to school in Newark. I wonder, how did you get the idea to give us these multiple perspectives? Was it simply, those were the sources available, or did you set out to give us a broad view of what was happening.

KK: It’s a good question- it goes into your previous question. I wanted to have it read as a narrative and that there are characters who develop over time who you can come back to.  There are other people who spoke to me; there were many others who were alive then who had these stories that I didn’t use because I didn’t want it to be too fragmented. I think that it came really just out of realizing just how many lives this thing touched, and trying to communicate that.  I felt the best way to show that was how it did.

Basically, I went out to see what it was like living then and experiencing this. The richness of the response led to trying to convey it in that way.

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