"56: Joe Dimaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports," by Kostya Kennedy, Sports Illustrated, $26.95, 368 pages (nf)

Joe DiMaggio and his best friend Lefty Gomez couldn't have been more different. Nobody was more aware of that than the reserved, cautious DiMaggio.

Everyone liked Gomez, the Hall of Fame-bound pitcher with a gift for words, humor and clubhouse camaraderie, qualities that eluded DiMaggio, whose classy exterior often masked an ill-at-ease interior.

Gomez had roomed with Babe Ruth back when the Yankee clubhouse moved to Ruth's rambunctious rhythms. By the summer of 1941, that same clubhouse was as reserved as its new alpha star, DiMaggio. Gomez was the one player allowed to break the quiet.

"I wish I could be like Lefty," DiMaggio said. "But I can't."

By the end of the 1941 season, and in the 70 years since, thousands have tried to be like DiMaggio and manage at least one hit in 56 straight games. But no one has, and maybe no one ever will.

Disturbed by the tainted home run records of the past 15 years, Sports Illustrated senior editor Kostya Kennedy has written "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports," an intriguing account of a baseball record many believe to be unassailable, DiMaggio's legendary — and ever pure — hitting streak.

Kennedy's exhaustive reporting creates a bold narrative of that summer, when the Nazis were advancing on Moscow, Italians were rounded up in New York City and deported out of fear of Mussolini, and ballplayers were being drafted. It was a summer in which newsreels were full of the prelude to war.

It also was a summer when the newsreels were full of Joe DiMaggio, as America was gripped and distracted by his attempt to break the record of 44.

Kennedy has made "56" much more than a biography of a streak. It also serves as psychological profile of DiMaggio, of his bittersweet first marriage, of the nature of high performance and of how one surpassing record turned a 26-year-old superstar into a great American icon.

Kennedy is at his best when he plumbs DiMaggio's psyche, explores the love he and his pregnant wife Dorothy shared and considers the streak with players then and now, as well as the (im)probability it will be broken. One study estimates such a streak possible once in 1,300 seasons.

Joltin' Joe carried himself with memorable style, class and self-discipline, but inside, he was driven to win and, Kennedy writes, to never look foolish or beaten. The streak understandably smoothed his self-doubts, made him feel a closeness with teammates who thrilled him and made him feel better accepted. When the streak ended in Cleveland in front of the season's largest crowd, he felt like he'd lost a friend.

Kennedy wisely writes not an academic history, but a narrative the way it is taught at the Columbia School of Journalism — where he, too, teaches — but absent the extensive footnotes of academia, he seemed to push creative license too far at times. The book would have been better with a note to explain, as he did in an interview with Pinstripe Alley, that anytime he shows a character thinking something, it is taken from a report or interview.

Also, for a book that is many ways about numbers, this one begs for at least one list or chart. At least one hit from all 56 games are mentioned in story form, but it's hard to flip through the book and track them. Kennedy might blanch, but the book would be better if his rare but strong footnotes had been expanded creatively to help readers track the hitting streak through that summer and this book.

At the very least, a chart of the 10 longest streaks would have been very welcome.

One of the best examples is this nugget: In 135 years, there have been 44 hitting streaks of 30 games or more. Of those, Kennedy notes 12 have happened since 1997.

Make that 13. A week ago, Atlanta Brave Dan Uggla saw his streak end at 33 games. In that span, Uggla hit 15 homers, the same number DiMaggio hit in 56 games. But Uggla struck out 31 times. DiMaggio struck out just five times during his streak.

Five strikeouts to 15 home runs? "Nobody," Kennedy wonders appropriately in a footnote near the end of the book, "hits like that."

Not Uggla. Not Pete Rose. Nobody.

Email: tadwalch@desnews.com