He must have been dying inside.
DiMaggio climbs into the back of the taxi and braces for the cabbie’s double-take, but the little, red-faced driver doesn’t blink an eye, not even when Gomez asks for Griffith Stadium.
“How you fellas like this heat?”
You fellas. Is it possible he doesn’t know who they are?
“Tell you what’s really heating up, though. Those Nazis in White Russia, you hear about that?”
Gomez gives DiMaggio a look: what the hell’s a White Russia? And DiMaggio gives him a look back: Jesus God, does this guy really not know what’s on the schedule for today?
The war in Europe’s been haunting DiMaggio since just before spring training, when he sat with his pop translating the news out of Sicily, out of Rome and Paris and Vienna. Now it’s White Russia, but he can’t think about White Russia, can’t think about Latvia or Estonia (cities? states? countries?) just because a cabbie’s yammering on. God knows he can’t think about Pop. He’s two games away from the record, and today the Yanks play a double-header with the Senators. Today’s the day, only he’s climbed into a hack with the only driver in the U.S. of A. who doesn’t follow baseball. Well, let Gomez sort it out, one born talker to another. Washington slides by in pools of white light.
In the locker room, Henrich says it might get up to a hundred today. The other Yanks groan, but DiMaggio grins into his coffee. Sweat beads behind his knees and pours out from deep in his groin. This heat wave won’t let up and he doesn’t want it to: the hotter it gets, the hotter his bat.
When McCarthy barrels through, looking a little drunk in the steamy locker room, he directs a sarcastic wiggle of his forefinger at the entire team—though not, of course, at Joe DiMaggio. “Thirty thousand paying customers waiting for you, boys.” Not a syllable about the streak, but if the manager wants to mention the ticket sales….
McCarthy rallies his troops, DiMaggio lights another Camel. Today’s paper says it’s only the modern day record. This week somebody dug up the niggling bit of news that Wee Willie Keeler hit in forty-four consecutive games in eighteen-ninety-something, when they didn’t even count fouls as strikes. What the hell. Sisler’s record—forty-one—is the one everybody’s been waiting to fall all season long. He’ll deal with that one, and then he’ll deal with Wee Willie Keeler.
He woke up every half-hour last night. His gut’s a rusty bucket shot through with holes: Gomez had to call for more toilet paper before he could even leave the bathroom this morning. But now the heat shimmers off the ballpark and a crazy kind of peace shimmers with it. He’s still clenched––every muscle in his body including his culu, and if he lets go of that it’s all over––but now he’s almost ready. He has to go down deep enough to loosen the neck and shoulders. The rest of him will follow.
Lefty’s still blathering, waving somebody else’s paper in Henrich’s face: “Jeez Louise, they’re gonna draft a million men.” They don’t come near him. They don’t mention what somebody mentions twelve times a day lately, that Dom DiMaggio has escaped the draft on account of bad eyesight, that his brother can see enough to play major league baseball but not to go fight the Nazis in White Russia. It slays the sportswriters and everybody else, but Gomez and Henrich know enough not to bring up Dom’s glasses on this of all days. DiMaggio doesn’t have time for chitchat, not even talk of war and drafts.
He sinks down into the heat.
Forty-five games is a nice round number, a good record-breaking number, but it’s not enough. He hit in sixty-one games straight in the Pacific Coast League when he was a kid: that’s the number he’d really like to crack open, his own minor league record. And lately he sees a rounder number still, a number farther along the page of numbers facing him every time he closes his eyes. Seventy-five. He’d like to hit in seventy-five games straight and he’d like to lay down the seventy-five hits in front of the Yankee brass, in front of the fans, in front of Dottie, the way a cat lays down a mouse.
There you go. Maybe that’ll satisfy you.
When he heads out to take batting practice the damp glare dazzles and he fears, briefly, that he might have to dash back to the crapper. The liquid in his gut hardens. (Somewhere in White Russia bayonets glisten.) The ballpark’s gone nuts: fans crawl everywhere, lean over the box seats, jump down onto the field, prowl past the batting cage. Crazy. Anarchy in our nation’s capital.
Joe, Joe! For my kid.
Got big money riding on you, Dago. Don’t lemme down.
You can do it, DiMag. I know you can do it.
The streak has turned him into a patient man, and when the fans manage to get up close, when they stick out balls and programs and bats and dirty envelopes they find in their pockets, he signs away. Why not? He doesn’t need batting practice today. He doesn’t need loosening up. He even grins at them the way he grinned into his coffee. The cameras click and flash and he sees the pictures in tomorrow’s papers: he’s a charmer for a change. The Roamin’ Roman. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. Cops and security guards march across the field. (The Panzers advance on Latvia.)
He hasn’t had more than four, five hours of sleep a night since the streak began and Lou Gehrig died. Gehrig drops into his dreams: tries to lift his head, tries to say something DiMag can’t hear.
Sign here, Joe.
Oh, thank you, Mr. DiMaggio. You’re a great man. You’re a great, great man.
Don’t freeze up on us now.
In the batter’s box he makes the mistake of looking down and the ground beneath his feet slopes toward oblivion. Shake it loose. Act nonchalant.
Hey Joe D.
Do it for the fans, Dago.
Dutch Leonard’s on the mound for the Senators. Any other day he’d have long since clobbered a fastball off Leonard, but now he can’t remember why he thought he had it in the bag, can’t remember, now that he’s one long cramped muscle, how he’s ever managed to loosen his twisted neck or shoulders, how he’s ever managed to lift his head. It’s already the top of the sixth, and the whole crowd’s lost faith: if you wanted, you could reach out and touch the stickiness of defeat in the air. The fans think they’re gonna walk out of here without getting what they came for. So close, they’ll say. So close but no cigar. What a heartache. Poor Dago.
He swings hard at the first pitch, misses. (His Pop shakes his head.) What a fucking heartbreak. Deep breath, but not so deep anybody can see. He slides his feet wider, pumps the bat once. Takes the ball. One-one. Leonard winds up again. DiMag focuses on the low fastball whizzing toward him till it’s ten feet away, leaves his body, snaps his wrists though his wrists aren’t attached to his forearms anymore. He hears the crunk of bat against ball, but he’s already taken off as fast as his legs—no longer in the vicinity of his torso—can move. He makes it safe to second. The double ties Sisler’s record.
And the crowd, as they say, goes wild.
Joe DiMaggio allows himself one last brief grin from his safe perch and knows that he’s back inside his own skin. Why’s he have to put himself through that? It’s been more like dying than living through this streak, every day another little piece of him hacked away and served up raw. He ducks his head against the crowd’s ecstasy, feels the ground shift again beneath his feet.
Between games, he showers in another trance, doesn’t remember turning the water off, or on for that matter. Towel-draped, he holds the fresh uniform shirt in his fingers and breathes in the faint smell of bleach, which calms him the way the smell of bread or wine calms him.
Takes his time, buttoning up, before he faces the reporters. Loose, nonchalant. When he turns finally, they all beam at each other like little kids.
“Say, how’d that feel?”
“You had us sweating there, Joe. Think you’d have to wait till the sixth?”
“Now that you’ve tied it, how far can you go? What’s the limit?”
“Think I better break the record before I make any predictions.”
They all chuckle, men of the world. He hears himself tell them he’s been nervous the last couple of games and catches a glimpse of Gomez, yucking it up at the word tense. Yeah, yeah, so maybe he’s been nervous—maybe he’s been tense––longer than the last couple of days. The scribblers don’t have to know everything about him. They don’t have to know that since the streak started flashing in headlines across the country, women show up at the front desk of every hotel they stay in. If he tells the front desk to send the visitors on up, the dames are already ripping off their blouses by the time he opens the door, cradling their own luscious tits. His teammates all put out the same story, even Gomez, especially Gomez: That Joe, you wouldn’t know there was any pressure on him. He comes to the ballpark, he drinks his coffee, reads the paper. You’d never know he was feeling any heat at all.
They don’t have to know, the reporters, that he dreams of his father’s bewilderment. Before he left for spring training, he sat at the kitchen table, translating the war news for Pop. They were shipping Jews out of Vienna, ten thousand Jews, and his father couldn’t believe his son was reading the words right. “Comu? Perchi?” How could you even feed them all? How could you send ten thousand people out of a city overnight? And why? That’s Krauts for you, his Pop said. A Sicilianu would never do such a thing.
DiMaggio tipped his chair back against the icebox door while his Pop ranted on. He pictured crowds on a train, in a Europe he’s never seen, tried to imagine what it would be like to be moved overnight, what it would be like to pack your own food for the journey. He saw the refugees carrying paper sacks full of peaches that smashed when they crowded up against each other. The smell of crushed fruit came right off the newsprint—but that was only because his mother had put out canned peaches in red wine for her boys, for her Joe.
The reporters don’t have to know that those refugees have come at him in his dreams too, that sometimes he sees them lugging suitcases tied with string, their paper bags leaking peach juice.
They don’t have to know that yesterday in Philly, he and Gomez went to see a kid in the hospital—but they do know. Somebody in the front office must have tipped them off, the way somebody in the front office tipped off DiMaggio and Gomez that a kid named Tony, who wasn’t having a lot of good days lately, wanted to meet his hero. His dying wish: something out of a movie, a three-hankie weeper at the Astor.
“How ‘bout that little Italian kid, Dago? Think he’s gonna pull through, now that you tied the record for him?”
He’s never seen a dying kid before, pictured a tyke in an oxygen tent or hooked up to a bottle of blood or something. He didn’t want to go, but you hear the word dying, you hear the kid’s named Tony: what can you say? And it wasn’t like he imagined at all. Tony managed to sit up, wearing pressed pajamas for the occasion, his eyes sunken in blue hollows but a big goofy smile on his face. Nine or ten, maybe. Hard to tell with kids. A little tongue-tied, like DiMaggio himself, resigned to his fate. Knew he was on the way out, you could tell. What do you say to a dying kid? Not much. Gomez did most of the talking as usual, but on the way out the door DiMaggio told the boy that when he listened to the game tomorrow, he would hear a record get smashed. And when he heard the smack of bat against ball, Tony in Philly should know that Joe D in D.C. was sending his regards.
“Listen, fellas.” He hears something he’s never heard before in his talking-to-reporters voice. “Don’t write about that. Don’t play that up. The kid’s….” He doesn’t need to finish. The men in the fedoras pushed to the back of their foreheads all look up at him, nodding solemnly, the way they’d nod to the boss, pretending they’ll honor DiMaggio’s one heartfelt request on the day he’s trying to break the record. And they’ll write it up anyway. Won’t be able to help themselves, the same way he can’t help himself from hitting the ball.
When they file back into the dugout for the second game, his bat’s gone, vamoosed, the fourth slot in the rack empty. Bad dream time, another nightmare. His eye falls on the absence just as the batboy trots over in a panic, freckles like ashes on his pale sweating face. The bat rack’s below the box seats: all a bastard had to do was lean over, maybe hold a buddy’s ankles so he could stretch far enough.
McCarthy bellows about security in this two-bit burg, but after he’s done the bench starts to look like wake night at the funeral parlor. Nobody wants to meet DiMag’s eye. This is it, then. Some punk’s reached in and stolen his chance to break the record. Everybody knows he has to have a top-heavy bat, custom-sanded. Everybody knows it’s one of a kind.
“We’ll fix you up,” McCarthy blusters, but how’s he gonna fix it? DiMaggio charges after Tommy Henrich, already on his way to the batter’s box, and asks to see his bat: Tom borrowed a couple of his new bats when his swing was off, and now DiMaggio prays that he grabbed the wrong one by accident. But the bat in Henrich’s hand isn’t the magic bat. Baby Face asks him why he doesn’t take one of those borrowed bats back now.
Why doesn’t the Dago go ripping through this stadium till he finds the son of a bitch and shows him what he can really do with a bat? He thinks it’s funny? Thinks it’s cute? Some joke, mister. Some funny joke: a guy sweats blood day after day and you lean down over the rails and pull his bat out of the rack for a little prank to amuse your friends. The biggest hole in his gut breaks open and for a second he thinks he’s actually shitting his pants.
But what do you know, Henrich’s bat, one of the ones he borrowed, doesn’t feel half-bad. It’s not worn in, the handle’s a shade thicker than he likes, but the sun beats down and the top of the bat swells with the heat, almost as heavy as he likes it.
Anderson comes in to relieve for the Senators. He’s one of those wise guys likes to throw at DiMaggio’s head. Anderson knows exactly how many pitches have steamed by his earlobes, knows how the Dago stands there and takes it and never flinches, but still he wants to get it in high and tight enough to leave a burn mark. You’ve got to respect the man for throwing tough but, staring him down, DiMaggio sees the punk who swiped his bat.
It’s the seventh inning, his fourth at-bat. Maybe he made them sweat till the sixth inning in the first game, but the seventh inning is when fans start leaving in disgust. Not that anybody’s leaving the ballpark today, not even with the thermometer stuck at ninety-six, the humidity at a zillion. They’ll stick around, all right. They’ll stick around to see if he can do it, and part of them will want him to break the record and part of them will hope he doesn’t quite make it. Maybe they’ll hope for a high fly that looks like it will go the distance but gets snatched at the last split second. Maybe they want to see him go down swinging. It’s good to see a man break the record but it’s satisfying, too, to see him fail. If he can’t pass Sisler, he’s a real mediocrity. Oh sure, fine hitter, but not quite the hero everybody thought he had the potential to be. Couldn’t even do it for a dying kid.
Anderson and the punks and the rest of the fans merge into one moving target. (The tanks rumble, the bayonets shimmer.) Big deal, the modern day record. Couldn’t even take on Wee Willie Keeler. Wee Willie. How’s a man go through life with a name like that?
What he wants is for this to be over. What he wants is for Dorothy and the picture hounds and Gomez to stop looking at him with that pitying smile that says What a shame that would be, if you came this close and didn’t make it. What a lot of stress you’ve been under. Last month some kid accosted him on the sidewalk outside his building on West End Avenue and said You could do it, DiMaggio. You could save the refugees.
You could save the frigging world, Joe DiMaggio, from its own icy heart.
Anderson makes like a flame-thrower, gets one in so close that DiMaggio has to duck—but he doesn’t flinch. The crowd boos Anderson, their own pitcher, and then they tense up again.
Up at the dish Joe DiMaggio isn’t tense anymore. DiMaggio isn’t even there. DiMaggio resides in another zone of the universe. Rivers flow through his body. Birds perch on his head. The stadium is silent and the heat is balm for his soul.
He rips open on the second pitch for a hot sure single and stands on first base not entirely sure how he got there.
There you go, Dottie. There you go, F. D. R. There you go, Mr. and Mrs. America. There are your forty-two games in a row and now will you please get out of my way so I can take on Wee Willie Keeler for you.
He hears the crowd’s roar as golden as Caruso’s high notes. And when Keller behind him slams Anderson for a triple, and DiMaggio crosses home plate, the other Yanks jump up and down like ten-year-old boys, like Tony in his hospital bed. They’re jumping for him—for Deadpan DiMaggio, for Mr. Lost in His Own Universe, Mr. Stand-off-ish, for Oh That Joe He’s Just Shy—tooting and yippeeing and clapping their hands together like girls.
He could grow wings. He could hold his arms out like Superman and take off into the stratosphere: dive into White Russia, scoop up refugees, stop trains in their tracks, shield his brothers from the draft. Win the war before American even joins the fight.
He doesn’t hear for almost a week that the kid was dead in Philly before the game started.
Lying next to Dottie who loves him again, now that he’s broken a major league record, now that he’s the toast of Manhattan, he tries again to loosen his stiff shoulders. The streak goes on.
They’ve been kicking the sheets off all night in the heat, but now his wife gurgles love-sighs in her sleep, her big pregnant belly pushed up against his broad back. His son—he’s as sure this is a boy as he is that he’ll hit the ball in game fifty-five––gives him a good kick in the kidneys. Will this boy sit with him one day at the kitchen table and see bewilderment on his face? His father sailed oceans, left his home behind, only wanted one of his sons to fish with him on the Rosalie. Instead they picked up bat and ball. A boy’s game, which Joe DiMaggio will teach his son––and his son will recoil from it the way he himself, the great man, recoiled from the smell of fish in the San Francisco Bay. He has been disappointing someone as long as he can remember.
You can do it, Joe D. You can save them. You’re the only one.
The trains head east. What’s he supposed to do? Call the Pope? March in the streets and be arrested for a Red? He could settle for sixty-five, sixty-two even. Nobody cares about a minor league record.
Loosen up. He starts with his neck, his shoulders, nonchalant as he can make himself be in his penthouse on West End Avenue. He hears, somewhere down on Broadway, the rumble of convoys in White Russia, wherever that is. Whatever that is. He stares out his window at what must be, under all that thick night, a tranquil summer sky.