It might be significant that I couldn’t think of any way to begin this post about Stan Musial — any way but this, that is. The thesis of Stan Musial: An American Life is that, because Musial played his whole career with the St. Louis Cardinals, he has been perennially undervalued vis-a-vis his contemporaries who played in cities like Boston and New York. I grew up during his career, and it’s true that, living in the New York area — especially after the National League teams both slunk out of town — Musial was not the topic of everyday conversation.

He was, as New York Times columnist George Vecsey suggests in this book, just kind of there, and the next thing we knew he had accumulated more than 3,600 hits and had established himself as one of the best hitters of his era.

Musial came from Donora, Pa., which was a gritty industrial town where his dad worked in a steel mill whose management wasn’t concerned about the employees’ health. Vecsey draws a detailed picture of life in that town, and that may be the most worthwhile part of this book. Young Stan was a good athlete, but he got into the Cardinals’ organization as a pitcher — something he wasn’t suited for.

In 1941, he had a storybook season. He started out in the spring in the Cards’ baseball camp in Hollywood, Fla., where he was supposed to pitch batting practice, and by the end of the summer he had been converted into a hard-hitting outfielder and was called up by the parent team for the last week of a pennant race.

He played for the Cardinals until he retired in 1963, amassing one of the great personal records in the game plus a reputation for reliability, and for dignity on the field, and for a cheeful and hospitable approach to life. He was well liked in and out of the game.

While it is true, as Vecsey writes, that Musial’s extraordinary career has been overshadowed in the popular mind by the careers of contemporaries like Joe DiMaggio in New York and Ted Williams in Boston, his numbers are indelibly preserved in the record book where they put the accomplishments of other players in perspective, for better or for worse. Derek Jeter, for instance, has achieved what only 28 out of about 17,000 major league players have achieved, and yet he can’t escape the ink that says that Musial’s mark in total hits is out of reach.

But Vecsey, writing about “an American life,” does a little too much fawning over Musial and not enough exploring of aspects of the ballplayer that Vecsey himself brings up. He dwells on Jackie Robinson’s revolutionary appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and he intimates that Musial was at most a passive participant in the breaking of the color line, but he does not deeply plumb Musial’s attitude on race.

Vecsey reports that Musial was spared military service during the heat of World War II on the grounds that he was a parent and the sole support of his mother and father – who, incidently, had several other children; that he declined to join an army unit when a baseball colleague urged him to do so, and that, when his number was up, as it were, he served at the tail end of the war by playing baseball in Hawaii and then by flying a stateside desk. The author writes, too, that Musial was not an activist when his fellow players  rebelled against the reserve-clause system that for a long time made players the property of their owners, the Fourteenth Amendment notwithstanding. In a broader way, Vecsey writes that Musial was a peacelover, meaning that he liked to avoid conflict. We are left to infer that Musial was happy in statu quo so long as things were going well for him — which they were for several decades.

Vecsey does at least let a voice other than his own — that of former Cardinals star Curt Flood — speak to the question of who Stan Musial really is. Flood unsuccessfully sued major league baseball after refusing to agree to a trade in 1969; his suit was the opening shot in a movement that ultimately changed labor relations in baseball.

In his autobiography, Flood wrote that he and other players respected Musial as a player and as a person; they thought of him as a man who would not consciously do harm. But, Flood continued, “He was just unfathomably naïve. After twenty years of baseball, his critical faculties were those of a schoolboy. After twenty years, he was still wagging his tail for the front office – not because he felt it politic to do so but because he believed every word he spoke.”

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Pete Sheehy in the clubhouse of the real Yankee Stadium

I don’t think many journalists ever interviewed Pete Sheehy, but I was among the few who did. Pete, who was the clubhouse man at Yankee Stadium for about seven decades, didn’t like to talk, and I suppose that accounts for the fact that he made only rare appearances in print. I arranged an interview through a mutual friend, and I wasn’t with Pete for very long before I realized what a challenge I had taken on. In fact, Pete was forthright about it — in his way. He told me that he figured he had kept his job for so long, being in the confidence of members of the Yankees and, for a time, the football New York Giants, because he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Whatever he knew about Babe Ruth, Billy Martin, and Mickey Mantle, he kept it to himself.

So I asked Pete if it were possible that a man who had had such intimate contact with the Yankees of the ‘twenties to the ‘eighties could have a favorite. This was how Pete answered: “Joe.”

He didn’t have to say any more. “Joe” meant DiMaggio, and his choice didn’t surprise me. My father had been a Yankee fan since the Ruth era, too, and although I never asked him, I am confident that he would have said “Joe” too — despite a reverence for Lou Gehrig.

DiMaggio had an outstanding career. He was among the very best hitters, baserunners, and outfielders of his time or any time. Not the very best, necessarily, but one of the best. As Kostya Kennedy mentions in his book, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a poll taken in 1969 named DiMaggio the “greatest living baseball player.” DiMaggio believed it; he was that kind of a guy. But there were skeptics who noted, for instance, that Ted Williams, DiMaggio’s contemporary, outstripped the Yankee in every major hitting category and had a longer career, despite combat duty tours in two wars.

If there is an inequity in the way DiMaggio is regarded, it may be attributed at least in part to the fact that he played for the New York Yankees while they were the preeminent team in baseball if not in sports in general. DiMaggio appeared in 10 World Series in his 13 years in the majors.

But the primary reason for the aura around Joe DiMaggio may be the record he set 60 years ago this season — the record that was the occasion for Kennedy’s book. In the 1941 campaign, DiMaggio got a base hit in 56 consecutive games.

To put that record in context, Kennedy points out that more than 17,000 men have played Major League baseball, and only DiMaggio has achieved it. The only others to come close were Willie Keeler, who hit in 44 straight games in 1897 in the dead-ball era, and Pete Rose, who hit in 44 in 1978. (Keeler’s streak began on the first day of the ’97 season, so the hit he got in the last game in ’96 puts his official record at 45.)

The subtitle of Kennedy’s book refers to the fact that while DiMaggio’s record once formed a holy trinity with Babe Ruth’s single-season and lifetime home run records, Ruth’s marks have been exceeded several times and in some cases under questionable circumstances. DiMaggio’s 56 is the only individual record of its kind still standing.

Kennedy describes in his very literate book the atmosphere in which the streak occurred. It captured the attention of the whole country — and even folks in some other countries. DiMaggio’s sizable family, people who were tight with him, baseball fans, and people who didn’t know anything else about him or the game were all caught up in his day-day-progress. Everywhere, Kennedy writes, people stopped to ask each other: “Did he get a hit today?”

And, as Kennedy artfully shows, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. In 1941, there was something far more ponderous on people’s minds — the increasing aggression of Nazi Germany. The idea that the United States could stay out of the war seemed more and more like wishful thinking as American plants turned out material to assist the European allies and as more and more American men were drafted into military service. DiMaggio’s streak was a fortuitous respite in such an atmosphere — the counterpart, in a way, to Susan Boyle’s triumph on Britain’s Got Talent in the midst of worldwide recession and seemingly pointless wars.

The streak served another purpose, too. It was something for Italian-Americans to cling with pride as they — thanks to Benito Mussolini  — came under the same kind of suspicion that was being directed at Americans of Japanese and German background. Even at that, DiMaggio’s own father, Giuseppe, who had made his living as a commercial fisherman, was placed under wartime restrictions that kept him from approaching San Francisco Bay.

In telling this story, Kennedy carefully constructs a portrait of DiMaggio that isn’t at all endearing. DiMaggio was a cold fish. He was known from his youth for his spells of  silence. Kennedy writes a lot about DiMaggio’s relationship with his first wife, movie actress Dorothy Arnold, and that isn’t a happy tale. DiMaggio — in spite of the girls he invited to his hotel rooms — missed Dorothy when he was on the road. But when he was home, he stifled her, resented her, and often subjected her to his emotional and sometimes his physical absence.

This book is peppered with the interesting characters who played large and small parts in DiMaggio’s life — his relatives, including his major league brothers, Don and Vince; his somewhat “connected” Italian-American friends in Newark; his fans — not the least of whom were the boys Mario Cuomo and Gay Talese; and, of course, his fellow ballplayers: Gehrig, Phil Rizzuto, and DiMaggio’s wacky road-trip roommate, Lefty Gomez.

On the field, DiMaggio appeared impassive as the streak progressed. If a pitcher had boasted that he would stop DiMaggio, and DiMaggio got a hit off him, there would be none of the fist pumping that cheapens the game today. Inside, however, Kennedy writes, DiMaggio’s stomach was often in knots. And, of course, if he didn’t have to talk about the streak, he didn’t:

”  ‘You nervous about the streak?’ a reporter would call out and it would be Lefty who would turn and reply, ‘Joe? Nah, he’s fine. Me? I threw up my breakfast.’ “