When I was growing up, New York City had three center fielders, and each was a legend. The Yankees had Mickey Mantle, the Giants had Willie Mays and the Dodgers, of course, had the Duke — Duke Snider — who was unquestionably the best of the three, as any objective analysis by a jury of 12 Brooklynites would have clearly held.
In the ’50s, baseball was the sport, and center field was where the gods roamed. But no matter how well Mantle, Mays and Snider played, they were merely ordinary gods, and they had the misfortune to be following in the footsteps of a baseball immortal, Zeus incarnate, who went by the name of Joe DiMaggio.
This week, Joe DiMaggio died, and it was the passing of a cultural icon. It’s strange. I never met DiMaggio. I never saw him play. Yet I feel, like most Americans, a sense of personal loss.
It didn’t matter that the Yankees were our perennial enemies. DiMaggio’s name was always uttered with reverence.
It’s practically 50 years since he last played, and yet his luster hasn’t dimmed at all. Kids today know that name as well as the kids of my day.
I think it’s because DiMaggio was the American ideal. He was what we all wanted to be. He was a superbly talented athlete. There was nothing he couldn’t do as an athlete that wasn’t better than just about anyone else. He also did it with a seemingly effortless grace. He always appeared relaxed and casual.
He also was a handsome man who aged gracefully and was always beautifully dressed.
He came from humble origins, and yet he exuded class, and he seemed to do it the way he played ball — effortlessly.
His women were beautiful. He wooed and won the queen of our age, loved her dearly and stayed loyal to her until he died, for which we all loved him.
Perhaps he was just a man of a different time, a much more tolerant time. A time that left its heroes alone. We may never see another DiMaggio, because, I suspect, we live in a time that wouldn’t allow a contemporary DiMaggio to exist. Now we build up idols and then immediately go about tearing them down.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t just the times. Maybe DiMaggio was truly different. He was a man totally under control.
His emotions never showed. He was a man filled with angst, but he kept it all inside, never let on it existed and still performed flawlessly. If he was in turmoil, he never let us see it, for which he must have paid one hell of a personal price.
The only time I can ever remember him showing any emotion as a player was when Al Gionfriddo robbed him of a home run in the World Series, and the great DiMaggio actually kicked the dirt. Not exactly today’s ballplayer. Then again, I can remember him crying at Marilyn’s death, and we cried with him.
He was John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart all rolled into one. Tough, capable, quiet, loyal and laconic. It’s the way we like our heroes, and he certainly was our hero.
So long, Mr. DiMaggio. It will be a long time before we see another one of you.