Abe Pollia was never the first draft choice when they chose up sides at Gage Elementary School in the 1930s. But they knew he could run. Many an afternoon Pollia was seen sprinting home to 2212 2nd St. NW. If he got there by 3:05 and hustled his mother for a quarter, it was just another dash across W Street to Griffin Stadium. He could be sitting in left field behind Goose Goslin, in time for Earl Whitehill's first pitch.
That was the time of day they started baseball games in Washington in the '30s. The Old Fox had it figured that a few Bob Cratchitts might sneak away from their federal inkwells by the third inning or so.
But few games anywhere began before 2:30 p.m., so a number of them finished in shadows too dark for any modern umpire to call twilight. Hanging in with Hall Newhouser's wildhigh hummer at vespers of a gloomy afternoon in May could make a big man want his mommy; it could divert one's thoughts from a hitting streak to a living streak.
So Joe DiMaggio in his 1941 streak and Hank Greenberg in his 1938 chase after Babe Ruth's 60-homer record had to pick Bob Feller's smoke out of the gloaming. Greenberg was a couple of the 18 strikeouts Feller racked up on Oct. 2, 1938, the final game that season. And he lost. To illustrate how eager people were to dig in against Feller, he walked 208 batters that season, an American League record that still stands.
On days when Pete Rose was squinting through the dusk at the darkening fast balls of Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver, the umpire had the power to make a simple decision: turn on the lights. But baseball does not rush haphazardly into logical decisions. There were years when a game started in daylight was a day game. It would not be corrupted by electronic stunts.
There were only four night games in DiMaggio's 56-game streak, including the one that finished him. The early lights were so bad that the serene Stan Musial was still bitching about some of them in the National League, well into the 1950s. Under today's lights a man could read a badly used first edition of John Stuart Mill's autobiography in the bullpen.
But DiMaggio had seven doubeheaders, all daylighters, in his streak. The ones on the road were easier, because there was a law in New York - well into the 1960s - that forbade sport of any kind to begin before 2 p.m. on the Sabbath. The theory was that such diversions would lead flocks astray from church; this casuistry obtained in a city where the pouring of whiskey was condoned - nay, encouraged - until 4 a.m. Sunday.
DiMaggio would see a pitcher's stuff three or four times a day because relief pitching was an underdeveloped science and the mores of the time considered effete or at least insufficient a starter who didn't finish his work. (In 1956 Thornton Lee, a 35-year-old White Sox lefty, started 34 games, finished 30 and won 22; DiMaggio went 6-for-15 off Lee, including a triple and a homer.)
This year Rose got his extra peeks as leadoff man, an advantage. He had to face the slider and other adulterated pitchers, a disadvantage. He was likely to get an extra cut because of the designated hitter, and advantage.
Rose can't run fast and DiMaggio could: reversing their streak ages, 37 and 26, they'd have been 6 to 5 and pick 'em on a dash from first to third. Rose could bunt, but a mixed advantage there. They didn't pay the Yankee Clipper to dribble the ball on the ground. He could have, but maybe it was something his fisherman father told him about a fish too small to keep in the net. Pitchers didn't knock DiMaggio down and Rose was always picking himself up; interleague trading would change that.
Both DiMaggio and Rose had class - entirely different varieties - and both belong on any rational man's all-time 25-man roster of men who won games they had no business winning.
There was a big difference. Rose, DiMaggio said in Yankee Stadium last weekend, had a chance to break his 56-game streak for several reasons.
For one, he said, "Rose has a sense of humor." One can hear the laughter from beyond of Lefty O'Doul, Joe's late manager in San Francisco in 1935 (when he hit in 61 straight). If a sense of humor were a criterion, DiMaggio would never have got out of the Pacific Coast League. He'd never have got into it. O'Doul after whose death people started figuring out who the official mayor of San Francisco was, would never have allowed it.
If we're keeping the record straight about baseball on the dark side of the earth, Greenberg was the most piteous victim of daylight robbery. More than halfway through the season he led Ruth by 17 days. On Sept. 21 he hit one in the first game and ley by three games. The second game was called, end of fifth, darkness. And so it went. Greenberg lost about three dozen September at-bats that way and finished with 58 home runs.
And the rules committee in its finite wisdom in 1968 decreed that the record book should not be spattered with astrisks.