Tuesday, March 09, 1999

DiMaggio the epitome of style, class

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        On the second of October in 1949, he took the train from the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to New York City. It was the biggest place he'd ever seen.

        He caught the A-Train subway from Penn Station to the Bronx, where at Yankee Stadium, he saw the world stand still for Joe DiMaggio Day. The Yankee Clipper's career was winding down. Graceful to the end, DiMaggio finished the day with a triple. Then, his heel aching with bone spurs, he removed himself from the game. This is how my dad recalls it.

        My dad is 66 now. Only today, he feels a little older. We who love sports tend to date ourselves by the accumulated wrinkles of our heroes and the inevitable passing of our idols. Joe D. was 84 when he died Monday. The clock moved a little swifter for those who remembered him.

        “You think about special players,” my dad is saying. “People who just looked good doing things. Willie Mays had it, too. Maybe Clemente. Those were kinder, gentler times.”

        DiMaggio was baseball's last original. When he went, something went with him, more precious than long home runs and graceful striding. He had class. It's a term that seems dated now. We don't use it much anymore, either because we've moved on to different descriptives for those who play games or, more likely, we're a little short on jocks who fit the adjective.

        He was an elegant man, in a time when we believed that important. Dignity never eluded him. He kept it until the end. Elegance and dignity. Amazing traits, really, given our current appetite for Rodmans and Monicas.

        My dad stayed at the Washington Hotel, on 3rd Avenue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He doesn't know, but he doubts it's there anymore. In other seasons, he'd take other trains, to the Polo Grounds and Ebbetts Field. New York had three teams then, and an endless array of other charms.

        He'd walk up and down 6th Avenue, haunting the record shops, hunting Benny Goodman records. “It was a magical time,” my dad says. The world stretched before him like a good, long road.

        Who didn't think DiMaggio would live forever? Or, at the very least, hoped he would? Those who remember him must feel a little sad today. For him, a little, but mostly for themselves.

        My dad loved baseball as a kid. He doesn't watch it now. The game has soured him. Not because there have been no more DiMaggios. Because no one has made the effort.

        “DiMaggio, Mays, (Jackie) Robinson, (Duke) Snider,” he says. “I recall all these guys being special.” (Except, my father noted, Ted Williams, who he says “was a nasty SOB.”)

        “That's the way they were portrayed to us simple-minded fans by sportswriters who weren't always digging up dirt,” my dad says. “There were real heroes in those days. I don't think anybody is a hero anymore.”

Hit in 56 straight
        Nobody is in DiMaggio's league, anyway. It isn't pudding-headed nostalgia that makes us hurt at the Clipper's passing. It is the notion, real enough even to the uninitiated, that we will never see his like again. Grace, dignity and hits in 56 straight games.

        On Joe DiMaggio Day, the Yankees loaded Joe down with televisions, a boat and a car. The stuff covered the infield, as my father recalls. One can only imagine DiMaggio's unease at the protracted fuss. My dad doesn't recall that. It was only 50 years ago.

        He remembers the era, though, and the youth he spent in it. DiMaggio was part of that. Now it's done.

        On Oct. 2, 1949, the last day of the season, the Yankees swept the Boston Red Sox in a doubleheader. Boston came into the day in first place, a game up on New York. The Sox left a game behind. DiMaggio legged out a triple on a bad heel. It's what my dad remembers.

        We all were younger then.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.


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