The twentieth century produced few American heroes like Joe DiMaggio. He was arguably the best all-around ballplayer who’d ever taken the field, a unique combination of power, speed and grace, a lifetime .325 hitter with a classic swing and an unworldly calm whose fielding was as nearly flawless as it seemed effortless. He was not a fidgeter, adjusting batting gloves a hundred times (there were no batting gloves). Once he squared his bat, said his friend Tony Gomez, “the guy was a statue.” There was no wasted motion on the field–he flowed to the ball–and no hotdogging: The fielders’ mitts were too small for snap-catches. Those of us who saw him play when we were teenagers would caricature the batting styles of other players, but we all wanted to look and move like DiMaggio. He was also the possessor, as any fan knows, of what is the most extraordinary feat in baseball, and perhaps in any sport, a fifty-six-game hitting streak that defies all statistical logic and that most people believe will never be matched again. That in itself is the material of myth.
But there was something else as well. When he first appeared in a New York Yankees uniform in 1936, he seemed to come from nowhere at the very moment when both the Yankees and a depressed nation–and the rising second generation of Italian-Americans–seemed to need him most. Paul Simon’s line “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,” could have been written as anticipatory longing thirty years before it became ironic sentimentality.
Unlike the boisterous beer-swilling Babe Ruth, who’d retired the year before, DiMaggio, the son of an immigrant Sicilian fisherman from San Francisco, became the essence of that elusive thing called class. He rarely spoke; he dressed superbly–another thing he would become known for–and he seemed to conduct himself, both on and off the field, with a royal calm, even an icy distance, that only enhanced the allure. The Yankees, in those days when baseball was the national pastime, had won the World Series just once since their Murderers’ Row rampage of the 1920s. In the four years after he arrived, they would win four times. In his thirteen war-interrupted seasons–the last was 1951–they would win the pennant ten times. He played not only to win–to drive his team to win, often playing through his own pain, the bone spurs in his heels, the aching knees, the trick shoulder–but to play flawlessly. He was the epitome of Yankees royalty.
And somehow, after those thirteen seasons, when the myth might have faded into an endless haze of celebrity golf tournaments and testimonial dinners, it seemed only to thrive–through the 286-day klieg-light royal marriage to Marilyn Monroe, the ensuing divorce and the love that seemed to survive both, through the Mr. Coffee and Bowery Bank commercials and through tawdry rounds of high-priced baseball-card shows and memorabilia signings–little seemed to tarnish the mythic glow. If anything, the forty-eight years after DiMaggio’s retirement–he died in 1999–seemed only to burnish it. Almost from the moment he arrived in New York, people wanted to touch him, do him favors, run his errands, drive him places, give him things. Cops gave him access to places denied anyone else. He rarely paid for his own meals, his own cars or even his own hotel rooms. There would always be guys eager to be his delivery boys, to bring him women–mostly the blond showgirls he preferred–even some who moved out of their homes to be with him, to take care of him. Anything for the Dago. The namewas used with so much affection that it became an honorific.