NEW YORK — "They lost today," the boy told him. "That means nothing. The great DiMaggio is himself again." --ERNEST HEMINGWAY in "The Old Man and the Sea."
He broke in 50 years ago on a May afternoon. The country was fighting out of the Depression and Prohibition was over. "Gone with the Wind" was published that year and Boulder Dam was completed.
The pitcher for the St. Louis Browns that day in the Bronx was Jack Knott. In left field--where he would stay for much of the season--was a quiet 21-year-old Californian for the New York Yankees named Joe DiMaggio.
DiMaggio, for whom the Yankees had great hopes after his extraordinary stay in the Pacific Coast League, batted third that day in a game that was like so many others for the Browns. They lost, 14-5.
The rookie outfielder went 3 for 6 and, for all practical matters, didn't stop until he amassed a lifetime of accomplishments and left an imprint on his sport that perhaps no one in baseball will ever match.
"This is certainly a great day," DiMaggio said upon his Hall of Fame induction in 1955. "It's certainly a long step from that time twenty years ago when I was riding to St. Petersburg (Fla.) with Frank Crosetti and Tony Lazzeri. They asked me to take the wheel and I had to say, 'I don't drive.' At that point, I thought I'd never be a big leaguer."
He became a big leaguer, all right. He played in 10 World Series. He was three times the Most Valuable Player. He hit in 56 consecutive games in 1941, one of the monuments in baseball's record books. And those are just some of the notations on his plaque at Cooperstown, N.Y.
DiMaggio lent an elegance to the game that could not be learned. He stood wide at the plate with the bat tucked behind his head. He glided across the outfield like a hawk in flight. Spectacular catches were for others; DiMaggio was always in position to make it look easy. He unfailingly threw to the right base. On the basepaths, he ran from first to third on a single as if it were his territorial right.
He was revered by teammates although he kept his distance. He was an unobtrusive man who sat alone at corner tables in deluxe restaurants. He stayed at home while those around him partied into the night. That he married Marilyn Monroe did not exactly diminish his mystique.
Casey Stengel, his manager, called him "the greatest player I've ever seen." Branch Rickey, then president of the Dodgers, called him "an artist."
"The head of the table at any baseball dinner," remarked the sportswriter Grantland Rice, "is where Joe DiMaggio sits down."
Of course, there have been superstars since: Jackie Robinson, the catalyst of the great Dodger teams who broke baseball's racial barrier; Stan Musial and Ted Williams, the master craftsmen with the bat; Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, forever linked as the supreme center fielders of their era, and Hank Aaron, the home run champion who chased the shadow of Babe Ruth.
But, as Hemingway wrote, there was always the "the great DiMaggio." Maybe it was at a time when the nation regarded its athletes differently? Maybe it was that television and big money and drugs were years away? Maybe the country had yet to lose its innocence and its sports heroes along the way? Likely, it was all of this, and so the aura of DiMaggio remains today.
"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Simon and Garfunkel sang in 1968. "A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What's that you say Mrs. Robinson? Joltin' Joe has left and gone away?"
Years later Paul Simon was quoted as saying he didn't plan to write a song about DiMaggio, but that he liked the meter and rhythm of those lines. He also said the verse fit the image was seeking--"an American hero with a certain mystique; a man who transcends baseball."
DiMaggio's fame came in the years preceding World War II and in the flush of victory afterward. Never had the country been so united then--or since--in its singlemindedness of purpose. Baseball was the undisputed king of sports and DiMaggio was its prince. When the Yankee Clipper joined the Army in 1943, he was asked if he missed his baseball uniform.
"Sure I do," he said. "But it'll have to wait until we've won the war."
Hemingway was not the only one of that time drawn to the legend. Rodgers and Hammerstein, the celebrated composing team, wrote of a woman in "South Pacific," the 1949 musical. Her skin was not white as snow or alabaster, but "as tender as DiMaggio's glove."
DiMaggio was probably the last of the giants to play before the television era of baseball. Television has done many remarkable things, but it surely has done little to preserve the mystery of an individual. Somehow the image of DiMaggio on pregame shows and postgame wrapups--where his every comment on baseball and every nuance of his personal life is suddenly dumped in the laps of millions of viewers--does not seem right. The great DiMaggio does not sit and chat for the amusement of others.