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
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
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
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
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...."