Tuesday, March 09, 1999

'The great DiMaggio' defined grace, dignity

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The old fisherman had been 84 days without a fish. His net was empty, but his faith was full.

        He believed 85 to be a lucky number. He believed, also, in the New York Yankees.

        “Have faith in the Yankees, my son,” the old man told the boy. “Think of the great DiMaggio.”

        Paraphrasing Hemingway can be presumptuous, but the dialogue in the previous paragraph is a direct quote from The Old Man And The Sea. Joe DiMaggio has died, but he will live on in literature as an icon of his age.

        Oscar Hammerstein immortalized him in South Pacific, proclaiming Bloody Mary's skin as “tender as DiMaggio's glove.” Paul Simon invoked him in Mrs. Robinson with the searching non sequitur, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

        The last lines of Red Smith's last column were a puckish lament on the time he had spent among mediocre ballplayers.

        “I told myself not to worry,” Smith wrote. “Someday there would be another Joe DiMaggio.”

        Those of us who were born too late to bear witness to the baseball career of the Yankee Clipper sometimes wonder exactly what it was we missed. The statistics suggest Mr. DiMaggio's contemporary, Ted Williams, was the better hitter. Mr. DiMaggio's successor, Mickey Mantle, ran faster and hit the ball for greater distance. Willie Mays covered comparable ground in center field and did more damage on the basepaths.

        Yet it was Mr. DiMaggio who was voted the Greatest Living Ballplayer when professional baseball observed its centennial in 1969, and not merely because he once hit in 56 straight games or was married to Marilyn Monroe. Joe DiMaggio defined grace on a baseball diamond, and dignity in everything he did. He had the steely stoicism and rapid reflexes of a Western hero. Had he not played center field, he might have played Shane.

        “The way he handled himself, the team, the game, was impeccable,” said Jerry Coleman, the old Yankee infielder, in an interview for The Men of Autumn. “He understood his role thoroughly. He had incredible mystique. No one else ever did it better.

        “Every player is insecure. The pressure to succeed is great. But he wasn't a normal player. He had to be perfect every day. Joe wasn't happy when he wasn't perfect. He had to be DiMaggio every day.”

Commanding presence
        When I first saw him, in the summer of 1983, he was sitting in the dugout of old Comiskey Park, immaculately dressed, awaiting a cameo appearance before the All-Star Game. A television reporter sat down on the bench beside him, eager for an interview, and Mr. DiMaggio promptly let him know he had pressed too close. He was a man who went through life with the world at arm's length.

        When he deigned to do interviews, it was on the condition that no questions would be asked about Marilyn Monroe. When he agreed to take a bow before a crowd, it was with the understanding that he would be introduced as baseball's “Greatest Living Ballplayer.”

        While negotiating an early contract, Mr. DiMaggio was told he was demanding more than Lou Gehrig was making. He replied that Mr. Gehrig was underpaid.

        As baseball salaries started to explode in the early 1980s, Mr. DiMaggio was asked how much he could have made in a comparable bargaining position.

        “If I were sitting down with George Steinbrenner,” he said, “and based on what Dave Winfield got for his statistics, I'd have to say, "George, you and I are about to become partners.'”

        Ultimately, Mr. Mays might have had a stronger claim to the title of Greatest Living Ballplayer, but no one else could have worn it so well. There was always a touch of royalty to Joe DiMaggio, belying his modest beginnings.

        He was the son of an immigrant fisherman, a high school dropout, a ballplayer who started out so unsophisticated that when first asked for a quote, he thought it was some kind of soft drink. Yet this same unschooled athlete would become synonymous with class and style, as much a symbol of success as the pinstriped suit he wore to work.

        He preferred comic books to the classics, but was so con scious of his image that he would send teammate Phil Rizzuto out to make his purchases. If Mr. DiMaggio was proud to a fault, he had plenty to be proud of.

        “As one of nine men,” said the baseball sage Connie Mack, “DiMaggio is the best player that ever lived.”

Bridged two eras
        Mr. DiMaggio spent 13 seasons in the major leagues — he missed three years because of World War II — and won the World Series nine times. He broke in with Mr. Gehrig still close to the peak of his powers and retired as a teammate of Mr. Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. Yankee Stadium remains the House That Ruth Built, but it was Mr. DiMaggio who shaped the Yankees into a dynasty of cold-blooded dominance.

        When Joe E. Lewis said, “Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel,” he was not referring to the rollicking Ruth era but to the corporate climate associated with the DiMaggio years.

        Mr. DiMaggio frequented saloons during his career, but his public life was carefully modulated. He once scolded his roommate, pitcher Joe Page, for hurting the team with his nocturnal escapades. Though he often engaged in prolonged salary disputes, Mr. DiMaggio was singularly devoted to his craft.

        Asked once why he always played so hard, he said, “Because there is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.”

        At his best, Mr. DiMaggio was dazzling. He compiled a 61-game hitting streak with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League three years before joining the Yankees. He led the American League in triples as a rookie, in 1936, and led the majors with 46 homers the following year.

        Asked whether he had spotted a weakness in the young Mr. DiMaggio, journeyman pitcher Bobo Newsom observed, “He has a weakness for doubles.”

        Mr. DiMaggio often settled for doubles because much of his home-run power was blunted by the vast expanses of “Death Valley,” Yankee Stadium's original left-center field. Mr. DiMaggio batted right-handed in a ballpark built to accommodate left-handed sluggers like Mr. Ruth and Mr. Gehrig. Many of his best bolts — home runs in any park on the road — fell short of the wall.

Never looked bad
        But if the configuration of Yankee Stadium robbed Mr. DiMaggio of home runs, it also served to enhance his reputation as an outfielder. He played shallow, confident of his ability to retreat for fly balls, and he rarely looked rushed despite the enormous ground he was expected to cover. He ran with an elegant, gliding gait, anticipating the arc of the ball much as Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves does today.

        “The phrase, "off with the crack of the bat,' while romantic, is really meaningless,” Mr. DiMaggio said. “The outfielder should be in motion long before he hears the sound of the ball meeting the bat.”

        The gifted ones know where to go. The great ones get there.

        “In all the years I saw him play, I never saw Joe look bad on a ballfield,” Ted Williams said. “He even looked good when making a rare swing at a bad ball. Joe was simply the greatest player I ever saw, as well as the most graceful.”

        Marilyn Monroe missed most of it. She married Mr. DiMaggio in 1954, three years after his retirement from baseball, and evidently failed to grasp what Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Hammerstein and Paul Simon and Red Smith had seen.

        She returned from a tour of Korea eager to regale her husband with tales of entertaining the troops.

        “Joe,” she said, excitedly, “you never heard such cheering.”

        “Yes, I have,” he said.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com


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