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Jolting Joe

By Carter B. Horsley

When Joe DiMaggio died at the age of 84 March 8, 1999, The New York Times ran his obituary with a three-column headline with a very large picture above the fold on its front page.

The day before The Times had run a front-page obituary of Stanley Kubrick with a two-column headline beneath the fold and no picture.

The "play" of these stories was probably right. Joe DiMaggio was one of the better baseball players in history and Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest film directors in history. While he was the "lesser" talent, DiMaggio was a far greater public icon even though both he and Kubrick were relatively publicity-shy.

DiMaggio was the superstar of the New York Yankees in the era that came after the glory days of the late 1920's and 1930's when the team was led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Towards the end of DiMaggio's era, the Yankees became the most dominant team in professional sports history. DiMaggio retired in 1951 but the Yankees' dominance continued throughout the decade of the 50's, in part because his replacement, Mickey Mantle was as great a superstar, if not greater.

The Yankees' dominance was hard to explain then as the Brooklyn Dodgers were a much better team and the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians were often better as well.

The best explanation was that the team had solidity even if it had no excitement. It was colorful only because its manager, Casey Stengel, was quite loony and famed for his gibberish.

DiMaggio was lanky, but graceful and his gawky, almost goofy, looks just got more handsome as he aged. He was a fine all-around player, excellent in the field and superb at bat. In just 13 seasons he hit 369 home runs, a very respectable and steady production, and had a lifetime batting average of .325, placing him in the top tier of hitters in the game's history. As a hitter, however, he was completely overshadowed by the truly great Ted Williams and both lost peak years of their career to military service in World War 11 that would otherwise have placed them both higher in the statistical heavens.

Known as "The Yankee Clipper," DiMaggio won the Most Valuable Player Award in the American League three times, led the lead in triples with 15 in 1936, led the league in home runs twice with 46 in 1937 and 39 in 1938, led the league twice in runs batted in with 125 in 1941 and 155 in 1948, led the league in runs scored with 151 in 1937, led the league in hitting twice with a .381 average in 1939 and a .352 average in 1940. He also led the league twice in total bases with 348 in 1941 and 355 in 1948. Those achievements are far more impressive than his most famous statistic, his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 during which Les Brown wrong a song about "Joltin' Joe."

In his 13 seasons with The Yankees, the team went to the World Series 10 times, winning 9 times.

As fine a player as he was, DiMaggio's fame was significantly bolstered by his demeanor, his name and his life off the playing field.

He was an authentic American hero, but what did and does that mean?

DiMaggio is an Italian name and an easy and pleasant sounding one. His fame as a player was important to many Italian-Americans eager to spurn the comic images of the Mafia. What made DiMaggio special as a cultural icon was his graciousness, reserve and tranquillity, all of which imbued him with a nobleness. He was an idol parents would not mind their children looking up to with admiration.

Players could also look up to him for retiring when he sensed he was slipping off his peak even though he could have played for several more seasons. There was honor in resignation in those pre-Clinton days. There was an historical sense of continuity in passing the torch to a younger generation, which happened to have Mickey Mantle at the ready. There was still a sense of team loyalty, something that, sadly, no longer exists.

The non-ball-playing DiMaggio became even a larger hero to many Americans when he married the country's ranking sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe.

The DiMaggio-Monroe mix is very heady, a real mythic trip of boundless fascination. The real, quiet, proud man with the exuberant but pathetic and synthetic woman.

While not quite a "dynamic duo," the DiMaggio-Monroe marriage was a quintessential "celebrity" coupling that because it was a match between people in different professions exceeded such illustrious matings of relative equals in the same profession as the Carole Lombard-Clark Gable and Demi Moore-Bruce Willis liaisons. It was made even more exotic by the fact that it lasted only 274 days and that Monroe had another one with playwright Arthur Miller. The fact that DiMaggio remained devoted and respectful of Monroe was nicely noted in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times March 9, 1999 by songwriter Paul Simon: "In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife, and the power of his silence."

DiMaggio, who had been married once before his match with Marilyn Monroe, was not the male counterpart to Greta "I Want To Be Alone..." Garbo, aloof and cool. He wanted to be left alone, but was gracious and perhaps taciturn about it, not self-righteous and supercilious. And as the long-time television commercial pitchman for the Bowery Savings Bank and Mr. Coffee brewing products and a participant in many "opening day ceremonies," he clearly was not trying to avoid the public's eye entirely.

Born in Martinez, Calif., he was one of six sons of an immigrant fisherman. He and two of his brothers, Vince and Dominic, played in the Major Leagues. The former played for five teams in the National League for 10 years, leading the league in strikeouts six times, and the later played centerfield for the Boston Red Sox for 11 years with a very respectable lifetime batting average of .298.

Ted Williams, the last baseball player in the Major Leagues to hit over .400, believed he was a better hitter but maintained that DiMaggio "was the greatest baseball player of our time."

Fantasies are not an American invention, but because America in the mid-20th Century was the pre-eminent mass culture in the world, its self-conscious preoccupations with celebrity were important. In a society that produced such 20th Century talents as Charles Chaplin, Henry Ford, Georgia O'Keefe, Ernest Hemingway, George Gershwin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fred Astaire, Miles Davis, Jackie Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Ernie Kovacs, Martin Luther King, Tennessee Williams, Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan and William Gates, it might not seem necessary to worry about heroes and their existence, but it is.

The above-mentioned pantheon reassures the culture that it is capable of producing worthy individuals and works and such comfort diverts attention from other pressing issues. In the mid-20th Century, the country had a pretty clear perception of itself and the world. The Depression and World War II were sobering experiences that stressed basic, indeed simplistic, values, but the optimism of the postwar era was short-lived.

DiMaggio quit baseball as the Cold War hysteria was whipping up and the excesses of the McCarthy era challenged the country's ethics, much as Watergate in the 1970's and the Lewinsky Affair in the 1990's would trouble the nation.

We look wistfully to DiMaggio's prime time and the period soon thereafter highlighted by the great Mays-Snider-Mantle debates over who was the greatest centerfielder on the three major New York City ballclubs. It's now clear that Willie ("Say, hey") Mays of the New York Giants was the best of these centerfielders, followed by DiMaggio and Mantle, and then Edwin ("Duke") Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers, but for much of the early and mid 1950's it was not at all clear.

There was a purity to the "game" and DiMaggio was its most famous representative in the decade after World War II. The public introduction of television at the start of the 1950's began to alter, at first rather slowly, the nation's hero machinery/celebrity industry. Without television, for example, the civil rights movement might have had even more problems gathering long overdue momentum. If Jessie Owens or Paul Robeson had been white or at least in their prime during the television era, would they have been as revered as DiMaggio, and shouldn't they have been? As a Brooklyn Dodger fan, it is hard to forget that the villainous Yankees were slow to integrate. One certainly cannot attribute too much blame to DiMaggio for that, of course. Greatness in most endeavors requires concentrated focus and as Jimmy Cannon, the great sportswriter for The New York Post, wrote in 1951, the year he would be plagued with injuries and see his batting average fall to .263, DiMaggio was a man "who was meant to play ball on hot afternoons on the grass of big cities." Such an observation applies to most players, of course, but it helps explain DiMaggio's psyche.

While baseball then was "the national pastime," its heroes had to compete with those of the movies and the biggest was John Wayne, and certainly his impact on the American culture was much more than DiMaggio's. Wayne represented the epitome of the white American self-image: self-reliant, independent, get-it-done, nothing fancy, no-nonsense, gut-instinct, arrogant, can-do, simple-mindedness. There have been many other cinematic heroes, of course, like William Holden as Brubaker in "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," Steve McQueen in "Hell is for Heroes," and "Gregory Peck in "Pork Chop Hill," all of whom exemplified the stoicism that Wayne exuded as did another "strong silent type," Clint Eastwood, who added a dollop of angst/anger to the genre. Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger would later inherit Wayne's mantel, if not swagger, while adding a fair bit of fin de siécle snicker. Indeed, their more sophisticated colleagues, such as Harrison Ford as "Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Arc" or Bruce Willis in the "Die Hard" series or Mel Gibson in the "Lethal Weapon" series, would accent the farcical in true Post-Modern parody.

DiMaggio followed the understated but large footsteps of Lou Gehrig rather than the flamboyant leaps of Babe Ruth. He was solid, not slick, simple, not complex, classy, not flamboyant.

He was, in fact, rather dull, or at least one dimensional, and the widespread adulation of him was a rather cheery note for those who often railed against the lowest common denominator of America's mass culture. Hoopla has not always been necessary and there can be too much bravado. Genuine talent is great but so is the humble common man. Doing things very well is wonderful and very honorable.

DiMaggio was a bit like Charles Lindbergh. Both have been unduly exulted to supreme "hero" status, more because of a nation's quirky need for heroes than the merits of their accomplishments, but their accomplishments, of course, should not be demeaned.

A nation and particularly a democratic nation needs heroes, that is the sweet irony of Paul Simon's famous lyrics: "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you...."


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