He’ll live in baseball’s Hall of Fame, He got there blow-by-blow. Our kids will tell their kids his name, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.
— From the song
I remember asking a publishing executive once to name the biggest sports book still unwritten. This was at a time when every two-bit athlete seemed to have his own autobiography.
“There’s only one that matters,” he answered. “Joe DiMaggio. He’s still never told his story.”
“And what would his book be worth?”
“Whoo,” he gushed. “Anything he wanted.”
What he wanted, of course, was no book at all. And true to his stubborn elegance, he assured it with his final farewell. In the still-dark hours of Monday morning, DiMaggio, 84, slipped off our pages and away from the world in a manner fitting to his legend: quietly, with dignity.
And at home. DiMaggio always preferred his homes. He stayed inside them for days and weeks on end, as if the weight of his shadow were sometimes too great to lift. During his baseball years, when he lived in hotels, a teammate once joked, “Joe leads the league in room service.” And after baseball, he retreated to his house by the San Francisco Bay. When his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe came undone, he holed up there again. And in his later years, he held quiet court in a private community in Florida, making rare public appearances at old-timers games, card shows or the children’s hospital wing that bore his name.
Yet the more Joe DiMaggio pulled away, the more he was embraced. His death is one of those American moments when we mourn an individual as a means of mourning the past. The truth is, more than half of our population wasn’t even born when DiMaggio retired from baseball in 1951. But his legend, and his guarded protection of it, drew admiration with each passing year. The more he refused interviews, the more he refused tell-alls, exposes or typical celebrity seepage, the more we lined up behind him.
In an era when everyone wants to make noise, it was Joe DiMaggio’s quiet that we admired most.
The good old days
DiMaggio was baseball’s lonesome cowboy, long and lanky, shy and thoughtful, capable of swift acts of heroism followed by silent nights sitting by the campfire. Just as cowboys remind us of simple, dustier times, so do the black-and-white images of DiMaggio in his 13 seasons with the Yankees, holding the bat in that famed high stance, prowling centerfield as if gliding on ice, celebrating five World Series in his first seven years — and, of course, slapping the baseball all over the place during his 56-game hitting streak in the magical summer of 1941.
“DiMaggio’s streak was a story every night,” recalled Ernie Harwell, the Tigers’ broadcaster who was early in the radio business that summer.
As the consecutive-hit games piled up, 30, 40, 50, even Yankee haters celebrated the feat. Bandleaders recorded songs about it.
Who started baseball’s famous streak
That’s got us all aglow?
He’s just a man and not a freak,
Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.
When it came to an end, on a summer night in Cleveland, July 17 — thanks to two stellar defensive plays by the Indians third baseman, Ken Keltner — DiMaggio seemed to shrug, hunker down, and go right back to it. He hit safely in the next 16 games.
Someone once asked him why he tried so hard, even in games when the Yankees were safely ahead.
“Because,” he said, “there might be somebody out there who’s never seen me play before.”
DiMaggio had a career batting average of .325. He was a tremendous baserunner and a stellar outfielder. From the time he arrived in New York, he seemed to understand what he meant to people, even as he suffered with its burden. Perhaps it was the number on his back. Babe Ruth had worn No. 3. Lou Gehrig had worn No. 4.
DiMaggio wore No. 5.
For his efforts in 1941, he was given the MVP award, one of three in his career. But that one was perhaps his single greatest recognition, considering it was also the summer that Ted Williams hit his famous .406. Many call it baseball’s finest year.
A few months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and innocence, as we knew it then, would forever be gone.
Maybe that’s why DiMaggio rang so pure in our minds. He was an anchor to simpler waters, when America operated by a different cultural rule book, when quiet grace was not seen as costing you endorsement money.
And when sacrifice was part of life. DiMaggio left baseball to join the military, missing his prime baseball years — ages 28, 29 and 30 — during the war. Can you imagine his career statistics if he played those seasons?
And then, as if that weren’t enough, there was his post-career romance with Marilyn Monroe. It was everyone’s favorite star-crossed love story, the tall, handsome, quiet baseball star and the beautiful, vivacious pinup girl. Their marriage lasted less than a year (the story was that Joe couldn’t handle her career as a sex goddess and Marilyn couldn’t see herself cooking Sicilian food and having babies).
But when Monroe died from an overdose, it was DiMaggio who made the funeral arrangements. And, determined to keep the ceremony from becoming a freak show, he limited the attendees at the church to 23 people. When someone complained that he was denying Marilyn’s friends a precious moment, he said, “If it hadn’t been for some of her friends, she wouldn’t be where she is today.”
This was no Dennis Rodman–Carmen Electra publicity stunt romance. DiMaggio never remarried. Every week, for 20 years, he sent roses to Monroe’s grave. And in that silent act, America fell in love with his loneliness, and his legend was secured even more.
A final tribute
Of course, as with all public legends, faults were often glossed over. The truth of Joe DiMaggio includes the following moments: when he dropped out of high school, when he held out in contract disputes, when he was aloof with teammates, when he missed the Hall of Fame his first two years of eligibility, when he threatened not to return to old-timers games if he wasn’t the last player introduced, and, in later years, he charged $150 for his autograph at card shows.
But considering that his highest salary in baseball was just over $100,000 — and perhaps remembering that he was the son of an Italian immigrant fisherman
— people forgave DiMaggio his attempts to secure financial gain. And they continued to give him the loudest ovation of all returning Yankees on old-timers days — perhaps because, unlike so many athletes, Joltin’ Joe did not become something else after the game, the way Pete Rose became a talk-show host and a huckster, the way Denny McLain became a shyster and an inmate.
When we saw DiMaggio on his rare public appearances, still tall, white haired, elegantly appointed, always quiet, we saw what we remembered. He grew older, but he didn’t change. We loved DiMaggio because he let us keep our memories of him intact.
They will remain that way forever now. DiMaggio had the last laugh on the vultures who couldn’t wait to be the first to report on his death. Several media outlets had done so erroneously over the last months, as DiMaggio battled a cancerous tumor that was removed from his right lung. Three times he rallied from death’s grip, recovering enough to go home from the hospital.
And finally on Monday, he slipped away in the wee hours, when our TV sets are off and the last newspaper deadlines have passed.
For all the amazing things he did with a bat and glove — and many still consider him the greatest baseball player ever — his exit may be the thing that symbolizes his legend best. Joe DiMaggio gave us a few pages along the way, a few wonderful photos here and there, but when he died, he took his book with him. It was the way he wanted it. And perhaps, as his life teaches us, it’s the way it should be.
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“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.”
– Paul Simon’s lament to lost heroes in “Mrs. Robinson” from the 1967 movie