Where have we gone?

In an era of noisy sports superstars, the nation will miss the private dignity of Joe DiMaggio.

Published March 9, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Forget the numbers. Forget the silky acceleration to track down a ball in the gap. Forget the endless line drives. Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio's grudging capitulation to age early Monday at 84 ended a great baseball life, but paradoxically enough, his death registers more as the loss of a man than just the loss of a sports star. There will never be another one like Joe, and we all know it.

The DiMaggio who grew up in San Francisco, making a baseball name for himself along with his brothers Dom and Vince, was the son of Italian immigrants, and every step of the way through his great career in pinstripes, he had a sense of what he was accomplishing. He finished with a .325 career average, hit 361 home runs and struck out just 369 times. He was a fixture on Yankee clubs that won nine World Series championships in his 13-year career, and he will always be counted among the greatest dozen players the game has seen. But with DiMaggio, how he did what he did -- not just what he did -- will always be part of his legacy.

The time has passed when a beloved sports figure could choose privacy, and make it work, but that was what DiMaggio did. He was unique even during his playing days, but his death forces us to reflect on what we have lost. The prying eye of media scrutiny has robbed us of the chance to have sports heroes like DiMaggio, a man who stood for dignity and grace and mystery as much as he stood for greatness on the ballfield. No matter what the baseball purists say, that certainly had something to do with his glamorous marriage to Marilyn Monroe -- but that's only part of the story.

"The amazing thing is how private he was," the New Yorker's nonpareil baseball writer, Roger Angell, told me by phone. "He really pulled it off. Even in that time, when athletes were so much more private, he was more private than the others. It wasn't so much because he was shy, though he was sort of shy. He said, 'Watch me play the game.' That was his view.

"Nobody was impatient with him for this, and he made it work. As far as I know, he said nothing of interest over the decades. The one exception was when Marilyn came back after visiting Korea and told him, 'You wouldn't believe it, thousands of people were cheering just for me, you've never seen anything like it in your life.' And he said, 'Yes I have.'"

Fans loved baseball differently when there was no nightly "SportsCenter" to set the agenda, no television broadcasts of games, and even the radio was only sporadically involved. The day in 1941 that DiMaggio pushed his hitting streak to 56 games -- which may be baseball's most enduring record -- the only radio coverage of baseball in New York was Red Barber offering reconstructed descriptions of the Brooklyn Dodgers game on WOR.

But even back then, it took a genuine, unfeigned modesty to cut the kind of figure DiMaggio did. It's a long road from DiMaggio joking, "Spell it any old way," when he was presented with a gold watch engraved "De Maggio" early in his career, to the ubiquitous third-person references of the contemporary superstar. The difference matters. It's not just a question of whether those who excel at sports are worthy of adulation or not. The question is what counts: the games and what happens in them, or the star power being flashed -- the look-at-me gyrations in the end zone after a touchdown, or the slam-dunk fetish that has long since taken over the NBA.

The news that DiMaggio is really gone, after so many false alarms in recent months, demands quiet reflection, like all losses that matter. Most of us did not have the pleasure of watching the man play. I didn't start going to baseball games until the late 1960s, and the first glimpe I had of baseball royalty came when I saw the aging Willie Mays. Even so, just saying the name "DiMaggio" aloud still gives me a thrill. It transports me, and I don't think that's because of the "woo woo woo" Simon and Garfunkel gave us after the famous lyrics of "Mrs. Robinson" ("Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you") -- although that's probably what many people remember most about him.

DiMaggio is a name with no place in the current sports landscape, a vacuum Simon and Garfunkel acknowledged in the song. The name, the photographs of the long, hangdog face, the legendary 56-game hitting streak -- all of it summons up his emotional presence. Precisely because DiMaggio did not throw himself at his public -- in fact, he held back as much as he could -- there was a sense with DiMaggio that we knew little about him, but the little we knew was fundamentally true. He could not have been faking the sadness that mixed with the quiet dignity. Or the way that, in his final appearances up in the Bronx, he always seemed to be blinking back genuine bewilderment at all that had changed since the years he owned Yankee Stadium. That was real, I can report, since I was there to see it.

"He brought an elegance and grace and dignity and class even just to watching a game," said Wally Haas, the former owner of the Oakland A's, who watched many games with DiMaggio in his father's box at the Oakland Coliseum. "He was a player who transcended being a player. He was Joe DiMaggio. When you were in his presence, you felt that. He had a star power thing that was just different."

There's a tendency to award figures from the recent past with a halo they do not deserve as the memory fills in the blanks. But with DiMaggio, loving the hero, or loving the man, was always about filling in the blanks. It was Hemingway who said that what you leave out of a piece of writing matters more than what you include. DiMaggio authored his own life story like a man who understood the truth of this and understood it well.

That sense of mystery, and longing, was what Paul Simon had to explain to a worried DiMaggio, who thought the famous song lyric in "Mrs. Robinson" might be "derogatory." It also shows up in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," the book that won him the Nobel Prize, when his Cuban fisherman says: "I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."

That same identification came through in the statement released by President Clinton.

"This son of Italian immigrants gave every American something to believe in," he said. "He became the very symbol of American grace, power and skill. I have no doubt that when future generations look back at the best of America in the 20th century, they will think of the Yankee Clipper and all that he achieved."

Let's hope that goes for the players of today, too -- that they think about Joltin' Joe's legacy, and tell their own kids about him, the way all real fans will, sooner or later.

"He was to people all over the world what a baseball player was supposed to be like," said former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. "If you said to God, 'Create someone who was what a baseball player should be,' God would have created Joe DiMaggio. And he did."

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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