Say It Ain't So, Joe

DiMag always got there. One of the places he always got to was the heart of any immigrant's son with dreams of making it in America, just as Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby would later get to the hearts of black native sons who had always been excluded from life's game. A sublimely gifted introvert, Joe DiMaggio did his talking with his bat and glove, defying the nativist stereotype of the gabby, emotional "dago." In fact, one of the most illustrative DiMaggio stories places him in a St. Louis hotel lobby with Yankees teammates Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti, who were also fellow San Francisco Italians. For more than an hour, an observant newspaperman reported, the three men sat in absolute silence on couches. Then DiMaggio cleared his throat.

"What did you say?" asked Crosetti.
"He didn't say nothing," Lazzeri snarled. "Shut up."
And so they did--for half an hour longer.

DiMaggio's silence, detachment and modesty did not, however, mean he was unaware of his place in the world. Scheduled to play a doubleheader on a sweltering St. Louis afternoon against the last-place Browns, he allowed as how he was looking forward to the day's work.

"In this heat?" an incredulous newsman asked.
"Well," the Yankee Clipper is said to have replied, glancing at the bleachers, "maybe somebody never saw me before."

DiMaggio's peers certainly saw. No matter what he threw--heat or hook--Feller rarely got him out and frankly admitted it. In the midst of the heroic 1941 batting streak, rookie pitcher Bob Muncrief one day refused to intentionally walk DiMaggio, and Joe eventually hit an eighth-inning single to preserve the string. "Hell," Muncrief said, "he's the greatest player I ever saw."

When Casey Stengel, not exactly a shrinking violet, took over as the Yankees' manager in 1949, he was so deferential to DiMaggio that he took to delaying his lineup card until he got a nod or a shake of the head from his ailing star. Perhaps most telling was the regard of Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox legend whose career roughly paralleled DiMaggio's and a man reluctant to hit behind anyone in baseball's pecking order.

"I was always aware of the other guy," Williams once said. "And the other guy was usually Joe DiMaggio."

The New York Yankees, of course, have just won their 24th World Series, capping off the most successful season in baseball history. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have just shattered the home-run record of another notable Yankee, Roger Maris. The Red Sox have failed in their attempt to snatch Bernie Williams away from New York; he's just signed a new seven-year contract worth $87 million. Meanwhile, Joe DiMaggio lies gravely ill in a hospital bed, all the gliding catches and late-inning heroics and emerald-green dreams pushed so far into the past now that almost none among us can remember what they looked and felt like. Gods, too, are mortal.

What part of us will die with Joe DiMaggio? That's incalculable, a question not for a baseball fan or a pop songwriter, but for a team of philosophers throwing their best stuff. Someday they may figure it out.

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