Joe DiMaggio is dying. The most graceful center-fielder ever to play baseball, one of the game's finest hitters and a fathomless mystery for six decades, is lying in a Hollywood, Florida, hospital, a couple of miles from the major-league spring training site where he first materialized in 1936.
Characteristically, no one in DiMaggio's orbit is talking about him or his condition. For three weeks, switchboard operators at the hospital were even denying that he was a patient. But the news media, every private man's bugaboo, is fixed to the story like barnacles. DiMaggio, who turned 84 last Wednesday, has lung cancer and pneumonia, and there are disputed reports that he recently suffered a heart attack and is on a respirator. Even if half the rumors prove false, it is bottom of the ninth for the Yankee Clipper.
How are we to take the news that he is not immortal after all? By "we," I mean all of America and people in every other country equipped with bats and balls and ballplayers and dreams.
For the scattered, aged survivors of the DiMaggio era, the people privileged to have actually seen him play, his final days must be another sign of Western civilization's imminent demise. After all, from the time DiMaggio came at age 21 from San Francisco to the Bronx, in the fourth year of the Roosevelt administration, until he retired, following the 1951 season, he was more than a ballplayer. He was a condition of life. In the royal succession of New York Yankees outfielders--Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle--he yields nothing to predecessor or descendent. In DiMaggio's thirteen seasons with the Yankees, the team played in ten World Series and won nine of them. He defied gruesome injury and near-fatal sickness. In 1941 he hit safely in 56 consecutive games, one baseball record that will never be broken. In the course of his career, he batted .325 and hit 361 home runs while striking out only 369 times--a ratio that confounds not only baseball historians but physicists. By comparison, Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times en route to his 714 homers; Mickey Mantle whiffed 1,710 times in hitting 536.
As the measure of his public reach in the era before ballplayers started boasting to TV guys and snorting coke and wrecking nightclubs, it's worth mentioning that DiMaggio figured in an Ernest Hemingway novel (The Old Man and the Sea), that in Farewell, My Lovely, private eye Philip Marlowe follows Joltin' Joe's 56-game streak with keen interest even as he steps over a series of bloody corpses, and that once, almost every kid in America between the ages of nine and fourteen imagined himself in baggy pinstripes with number 5 on the back, standing tall, lean and splay-legged at the plate in Yankee Stadium, preparatory to slugging the winning homer off Bob Feller or Johnny Babich or Eldon Auker.
With the possible exception of Willie Mays, DiMaggio is also regarded as the greatest center-field glove in the history of the game, a gliding angel who snared seemingly unreachable drives in the caverns of Yankee Stadium as if casually playing catch with a teammate. Always, he remained expressionless and unbothered. In fact, his aura of stoic dignity, nurtured among the Sicilian-born fishermen of San Francisco, never left him. Not on the field. Not in the clubhouse. Not later, when, in his impeccably tailored suits, he became the eminence gris of the sport--always the last man introduced at Yankees old-timers games, always the presence around whom others gathered (at a respectful distance) in the oak-paneled saloons of Cooperstown or Manhattan.
What Robert Smith said of DiMaggio in the 1940s remained ever so: "He never offered the appearance of either gaiety, or anger, or tremendous effort. His smile was self-conscious, his manner withdrawn to the point of a chill...Joe was not one to burst into transports of either joy or rage--at least in public."
He was also the ballplayer who married Marilyn Monroe only to separate a year later, but his devotion to her memory became as legendary as his exploits on the field. Three times a week, the story goes, he sent six red roses to her gravesite, and we may soon find out what many have suspected for decades--that he is the ex-husband who has claimed the vacant crypt next to Marilyn's for himself. Since her death, friends say, the quickest way to trigger the silent, cold-eyed, dismissive DiMaggio was to ask about Monroe. Excommunication was immediate. And permanent.
Except for the dyed-in-the-flannel baseball fans among them, baby boomers remember Joe DiMaggio, if at all, as the silvery TV pitchman for Mr. Coffee, a persona that pained his older fans back in the 1970s. Others think of him as the object of a Simon and Garfunkel lyric of the Sixties: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Or as the paradigm of courage and heroism Charlie Brown holds up to carping Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip.
Generation Xers, of course, don't know him from Jake Burton. If they follow baseball at all, their idea of a great center-fielder is Ken Griffey Jr.--an opinion that holds some water--or the Yankees incumbent, Bernie Williams, who has thus far proven himself worthy to, say, lace the shoes of Messrs. Mays and DiMaggio. The problem--some would say the beauty part--is that DiMaggio concluded his career just as the television era was beginning, and we are left with a scant visual record of his skill: some murky scraps of black-and-white film, a few ancient kinetoscopes. Here, more or less, is how my late father once described him: "Most of all, DiMag was fluid. No wasted motion. His swing was long and rhythmic, but he never came out of his shoes like, say, Reggie. He had a great eye up there, of course, and he looked just as easy and natural when he was behind in the count as on 3-1. In the outfield, there was no one like him--until Mays came along. He never looked like he was running hard, but DiMag always got there."
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.
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"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.