My father was a New York Yankee fan and, from the time he took me to see my first game at Yankee Stadium, I have been too. We walked up the Stadium ramp in the outfield into the bright sunshine. The view that greeted us is still burned into my memory.... emerald green grass, azure blue sky, and there, standing in center field shagging fly balls, was the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Joltin' Joe was in the twilight of his career, but he was my hero.
DiMaggio has been criticized by some as being cool and aloof...not like his more fan friendly teammates Phil Rizzuto or Yogi Berra. So what. Joe played baseball like nobody before or since. His accomplishments speak for themselves: the 56-game hitting streak, the only player in baseball history to be selected for the All-Star Game in every season he played, and his seemingly effortless ability in every aspect of the game: hitting, fielding and base running.
I think the thing that impressed me most as a kid, even more than his physical skills, was the quiet, modest way Joe went about his business. So many of today's athletes are overpaid, substance-abusing, self-promoting jerks who have a couple of good years and think they are God's gift to baseball. Their behavior is embarrassing, and in any baseball clubhouses of the fifties, would have earned them a team beating. The idea of standing at home plate admiring a home run shot would have horrified DiMaggio. Hot dogging was never his style...it was nobody's style in the fifties! Guys like Joe, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays let their deeds on the field speak for them.
According to her autobiography, Marilyn Monroe did not want to meet DiMaggio, fearing he was a stereotypical jock. Both were at different points in their lives: the just-retired Joe wanted to settle down; Marilyn's career was taking off. Their marriage in San Francisco in 1954 captivated the nation. The match ended in divorce 274 days after the wedding. I never quite understood Joe's fatal attraction to Marilyn. Her physical attributes were obvious even to my twelve-year old eyes, but they just seemed worlds apart as a couple. Poor Marilyn died tragically in 1962 after a sad life including a fling with President John F. Kennedy.
"What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin' Joe has left and gone away?" On March 8. 1999, after a debilitating battle with lung cancer, Joe DiMaggio died. The following is taken from his obituary:
"Joe DiMaggio, the fabled slugger and center fielder of the New York Yankees whose superlative play on the baseball field enshrined him in the hearts of sports fans everywhere and made him a universal symbol of athletic grace and excellence, died today at his home in Hollywood, Fla . There was a majesty in his swing, and a self-assured confidence in style and conduct that was uniquely Joe DiMaggio's. In the eye of his public, he was more than a sports hero. He was among the most cherished icons of popular culture."
So long Joe, I feel truly privileged to have seen you play. It was worth all the taunting I got growing up a Yankee fan in Brooklyn.
(Originally published July, 2008)
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