03/17/2011 06:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Joe DiMaggio Is Untouchable

Opening Day of the 2011 Major League Baseball season is nearly here and with it the hope that springs eternal for every player. Each year around this time, for example, Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins was known to say to his brother Antwon: "This is the season I'm going to break Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak."

Rollins is an enormously talented player (he won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award in 2007) and when I asked him last year why he had always set his sights on that particular mark, instead of on some other outsized achievement befitting his skills -- say, batting .400 or stealing 100 bases -- he answered: "Because people say those things can be done. Why not go for the golden grail?"

Rollins, though, no longer makes his spring-training proclamation, not since he got a hit in 36 straight games to close the 2006 season. He hit in two more to start 2007, before his streak ended at 38. It was then that Rollins realized just what he was up against.

Significant baseball milestones will be reached, and records may fall, this season. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is close to getting his 3,000th career hit. Jeter's teammate, relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, needs 43 saves to pass Trevor Hoffman's career record of 601. The Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki can become the first player to stroke 200 or more base hits in 11 different seasons.

But you can bet that by season's end DiMaggio's hitting streak, set in 1941 and celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, will still be standing.

"That hitting streak is definitely the hardest record," says Ichiro.

Baseball analysts agree that Ichiro, who has averaged more than 1.4 hits per game over his 10 major league seasons, is the most likely active player to challenge DiMaggio's feat. Yet Ichiro's longest career hitting streak is 27 games -- that is, he has never gotten even halfway there.

Since the record was set in 1941, only one player has hit in even 40 consecutive games, Pete Rose who had a 44-game run in 1978. Maintaining that streak, says Rose, who has appeared in more big league games and come to the plate more times than anyone, "was the hardest thing I did in baseball."

Determining the odds of a player hitting in 56 straight games has proven maddeningly elusive. Scores of probability theorists and other math professionals have tried, and conclusions have ranged from saying a streak like DiMaggio's should occur once every 794 years to once every 18,519 years, with numerous estimates in between. And none of the probability analyses reflect the internal and external pressures that attend a player on a streak. Moments after Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo got a hit to extend what would be a 35-game streak in 2002, and as the crowd roared around him, he said to his base coach, "S--t. I have to do this again tomorrow night."

In 1941, DiMaggio's streak was at the center of the nation's focus, a story that slipped well outside the ballparks. No TV crews trailed him but the newspaper men, magazine writers and radio-station reporters all conspired to put upon DiMaggio a scrutiny rarely endured. The attention on him and the importance assigned to his quest was intensified by the times. America, newly loosed from the grips of the Depression, stood on the verge of war. Men were being drafted by the hundreds of thousands, and in late May -- about two weeks after the hitting streak began -- President Roosevelt, responding to Germany's escalating attacks on England, declared that America was in a state of "unlimited National emergency." Yet as the weeks wore on, radio bulletins interrupted reports of the Nazis' advance with news that DiMaggio had extended his hit streak another day.

DiMaggio became a cherished diversion, on both coasts and in the Midwest cow towns where he appeared on the front pages of local papers. The crowds at Yankee games swelled. Americans of every age, it seemed, put a small measure of hope upon him each day and then rushed to see if he fulfilled them. "Did he get one?" felt like it was as important a question as anyone could ask.

This was the event that vaulted DiMaggio from baseball superstar to American icon. Late that summer, the song "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio" became a staple on radios and diner jukeboxes. ("He started baseball's famous streak that's got us all aglow...")

While DiMaggio allowed only to feeling "a bit of a strain," at the attention, evidence of the pressure was clear. He smoked more cigarettes and drank more black coffee than ever. He developed stomach pains. He kept to his hotel room, so as to avoid the throngs of fans that awaited him. He appealed to teammate Lefty Gomez to talk to the press for him. Once, during the streak, DiMaggio disputed an umpire's call -- something that the demure and silent "Dead Pan Joe" never, ever did in normal times. And through it all he kept on hitting, day after day after day.

It is difficult to imagine, in today's Twitter-fed, media-saturated, fragments-of-news-streaming world, a single athlete so dominating the headlines as DiMaggio did in 1941. It is even more difficult to imagine -- as Rollins, Jeter, Ichiro and any number of ballplayers would agree -- a major-leaguer getting a base hit in 56 consecutive games. DiMaggio's streak, like springtime hope, seems eternal.

Kostya Kennedy, senior editor at Sports Illustrated, is the author of the book 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, which will be published this month by Time Home Entertainment.