Ninety-nine years ago today in the quiet fishing village of Martinez, California, the eighth of nine children born to Italian immigrants Giuseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio entered the world, probably to little fanfare. The fanfare began soon after, and continued to the end of the century.
It’s only the truly exceptional athlete who transcends his sport and becomes a national icon the way Joe DiMaggio did, beginning at a very young age and continuing long after his playing days were over. Nearly every man of a certain age considered DiMaggio his favorite player, as did legions of non-fans who knew nothing of the game but appreciated his humble upbringing and grace off the field. In an era in which players’ personal lives were whitewashed by willing reporters and clever PR men, DiMaggio was nothing short of a saint. Even now, a few damning stories and biographies later, DiMaggio epitomizes dignity and professionalism both on and off the playing field.
I’ve been a fan of the great DiMaggio since I was seven years old. That was 38 years after he played his final game. DiMaggio in my family, though, held a place similar to that of John Kennedy or the Pope in Catholic families across America. The following is from a piece I composed for a high school writing class at age 16, shortly after Dimaggio’s death at age 84.
Few Americans have captivated the nation’s attention like Joe DiMaggio. He played baseball with a grace and style that is no longer found in today’s game. Just as important was his behavior off the field. Uniquely American as baseball is, it seems baseball stars are more than just entertainers; they are our idols. (I think this was even more true in Joe’s playing days.) Many of today’s professional baseball players, no matter how well they play the game, do not portray positive role models off the field. Players are often arrested for drunk driving or caught starting fights in bars (not to mention the dreaded paternity suit). Even seemingly benevolent Mark McGwire sets a bad example for young people: steroid use (ephemerally legal as it may be). Let us not forget Dimaggio’s military service during World War II, costing him three seasons in which he was in his prime. (Many players left professional baseball during the war.) I find it hard to believe that any of today’s players would want to leave their million-dollar homes to fight in a war overseas.
It would be hard to pinpoint DiMaggio’s best season. One thing is for certain: he never had a bad one. Joe retired when he was only (I use the word loosely) thirty-six, so he never lapsed into mediocrity (which happens to players who simply can’t give up the game after their talents have left). During his career, DiMaggio was a model of consistency; his most notable baseball achievement is his incredible record of hitting safely in fifty-six consecutive games (he had a sixty-one game streak in the minors). So often today’s players seem lackadaisical in unimportant games. Said Joe when asked why he gives it all in every game, “Because there might be somebody out there who’s never seen me play before.”
So why is this fisherman from Martinez, California, revered as an American icon? According to teammate Tommy Henrich, “He does everything better than anyone else.” Yankees manager Casey Stengel said of DiMaggio, “He makes big league baseball look so simple. It ain’t so simple.”
The man was married to Marilyn Monroe and played centerfield for the New York Yankees. That’s tough to top.
In DiMaggio’s nearly forty-eight years of being retired from baseball, he truly was a living legend. There was something about him that gave him an air of deity. He would go to Old Timer’s Day every year at Yankee Stadium, but in later years he never played. He would be there in a suit, probably throw out the first pitch (as he did quite often), and salute the crowd. That was it. That was Joe DiMaggio.
So, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” This line, from Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson,” troubled Joe when he first heard it. After all, everyone knew where Joe was: he was Mr. Coffee. Paul Simon met DiMaggio at a benefit once and explained the misunderstanding. The line was not meant to be taken literally. Paul Simon used “Joe DiMaggio” as a symbol for a true American idol (of which we were lacking in 1967 and still are). To me, a more effective lyric would have been, “Where has your style gone, all you American positive role models, such as Yankee baseball great Joe DiMaggio? We need some new role models; not necessarily you, Joe, but someone younger maybe.” However, this line would have been difficult to fit in the song.
It’s not as though DiMaggio’s death came as a surprise to anyone. (We had been prepared for it since about September.) In what turned out to be the last six months of Joe’s life, the American public was bombarded with news about his health. Every three days or so, the front page of the Sports section would contain a headline and a brief article about DiMaggio’s condition. There were really only two articles: one said that Joe had suffered a tremendous setback and that the end was near; the other, said that Joe had made a miraculous recovery and would be returning to his newspaper reporter job in Metropolis shortly. (These two articles were run alternately every three days from September to March.) My theory is that we simply wanted to root for Joltin’ Joe one more time. A game is more exciting when it goes back and forth, and that is exactly what the media portrayed. The media (namely, NBC) was also responsible for making Joe’s recovery truly a miracle. (This would come in handy if Joe were ever up for canonization.) For about twenty minutes in December, Joe was dead. The peacocks at NBC were the first to break the story (and, actually, the only ones). The error was rectified when a friend of DiMaggio’s called the company.
No one is perfect. Not even baseball gods like Joltin’ Joe. But even flawed gods give us something to root for, perhaps even more so than would infallible ones. I reserve a special place for DiMaggio in my life, the baseball-playing uncle from California I never had. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. So, here’s to you, Joe DiMaggio, as timeless at 99 as you ever were.