Who were you, Joe DiMaggio?

As the season of the home run ended with yet another New York Yankee championship, I was unsettled to learn that Joe DiMaggio was seriously ill. Although DiMaggio retired almost 50 years ago, in 1951, I have always felt an affinity with him, for I came into this world during the summer of 1941 when he accomplished his incredible 56-consecutive-game hitting streak. At the end of his career, I rushed home from elementary school in time to see DiMaggio hit his last World Series home run on the tiny screen that served as our television set. With millions of others, I took joy in seeing him marry Marilyn Monroe and shared his sadness when it fell apart.

On Oscar night in 1968, when Simon and Garfunkel sang the words, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you," while a film clip showed the ballplayer hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium, tears came into my eyes. The words were appropriate, for the movie, "The Graduate," was about the loss of American heroes and by the late 1960s DiMaggio had gone from a great player to a cultural icon.

More than an athlete

Why had DiMaggio become a hero? His exploits tell part of the story. He came to New York City from San Francisco in 1936, the heir-apparent to the immortal Babe Ruth. His rookie season he batted .325, with 29 home runs and 125 runs batted in. In 1941, he accomplished his incredible hitting streak; at the end of his career between 1949 and 1951, he overcame injuries to help the Yankees win three straight World Series. In 13 seasons, with time out to serve in World War II, his Yankees won 10 pennants. To watch him play centerfield was to see a portrait of grace and power.

But ultimately, DiMaggio's mythic proportions escape us.

What are we to make of an athlete who personified New York City, yet never felt at home there, lived almost all his Yankee years in different hotels and returned to San Francisco each winter? How did his personality go from being cold and reclusive, terms used by his teammates, to being dignified and proud?

Good timing

I suspect some of DiMaggio's knighthood grew out of the sharp contrast to the childish antics of the next generation of Yankees. The pathos of Mickey Mantle, the philandering Whitey Ford, the comic Yogi Berra, the gee-wiz Phil Rizzuto, the alcoholic Billy Martin did little to inspire, especially once they left the game.

Perhaps race made DiMaggio a hero. When he retired in 1951, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier only four years earlier. Over the next 15 years, baseball's color and language was transformed. DiMaggio was the last white ethnic hero, reaching back to the millions of Europeans who settled America. His fans and their children just kept holding on to him.

Certainly, the Monroe epic gave his image a shot in the arm. When she died in 1962, DiMaggio was on his way to see her. He took over the funeral arrangements, effectively becoming her husband once again.

Maybe it is just that DiMaggio was a great baseball player when baseball mattered. Who knows?

I do know that many years ago when I first started traveling from the east coast to San Francisco, I always walked past Joe DiMaggio's restaurant at Fisherman's Wharf. It touched me more than any of the city's other fabled sights. Then one year when I made my pilgrimage to the Wharf, Joe D's was not there; another restaurant was. The new restaurant still served food, as they continued to play baseball in Yankee Stadium, but DiMaggio had gone.

Marvin Lazerson, Ph.D., is the Carruth Family Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education. When Current went to press, DiMaggio was at home after a close brush with death, showing he still had a couple of home runs left in him.

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Originally published on February 11, 1999