On March 8, 1999, Joe DiMaggio died in his 85th year, a baseball legend, but also an American hero who represented the virtues and ideals of his era.
His achievements as a player were extraordinary: a lifetime batting average of .325, with a seasonal high of .381. He had seasonal highs of 167 runs batted in and 46 home runs, with a lifetime total of 361. Twice he led the league in homers, twice in RBIs, and twice again in slugging percentage.
But hitting was only part of the story, for DiMaggio was a complete player, a great fielder and a brilliant, if unobtrusive, base runner. No one played a shallower center field, which permitted him to cut off looping singles and short line drives; no one raced back more swiftly, covered more ground, judged more truly, or threw with a greater power and accuracy. He had good but not outstanding speed as a base runner. Stealing bases was no part of Yankee strategy; but his judgment and skill on the bases caught the attention of discerning observers. George Will, that connoisseur of the game, notes with admiration that Joe was never thrown out while going from first to third on a base hit.
Of all his achievements, however, the one that best accounts for his unique status as an American hero is his feat in 1941 of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, a record that remains on the books after 57 years. A first step to comprehending the magnitude of this feat is to know that the thousands of batters who have played in baseball's century of major league play, the closest anyone has come is 44, and only a handful have approached that.
DiMaggio's record has never been seriously threatened. For that there are reasons. All record-breakers face mounting pressure as their achievement mounts. But a home-run hitter can go for days, even weeks, without success, knowing that there will be time for a hot streak when the slump is over.
By contrast, consider the consecutive-game record-breaker. Each day he must succeed or the race is over. The pitcher he faces may be unhittable that day or so wild as to withhold a good pitch. The fielders may outdo themselves and steal hits with great plays. Never mind—he still must hit safely every day. In a fine book on the streak, Michael Seidel caught its heroic character: "The individual effort required for a personal hitting streak is comparable to what heroic legend calls the aristeia, whereby great energies are gathered for a day, dispensed, and then regenerated for yet another day, in an epic wonder of consistency." There is nothing like it in baseball, and DiMaggio's steadiness, cool determination, and brilliant ability caught the nation's sustained attention in 1941 as no athletic event had done before. The whole country asked each day, "Did he hit?" and rooted for the streak to continue.
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But baseball is a team game, and individual statistics are important chiefly insofar as they contribute to victory, and here DiMaggio was supreme. In his 13 years in the majors, his team won the pennant 10 times and the world championship 9. To be sure, the Yankees of his day were an outstanding team, but his contribution as a player, quiet leader, and exemplar was essential to its greatness. These qualities were never so evident as during the hitting streak of 1941, when DiMaggio's exploits had meaning not for himself alone, but carried and inspired his companions, as the deeds of true heroes do. During the streak, Johnny Sturm, Frank Crosetti, and Phil Rizzuto, none of them normally a great hitter, each enjoyed a lesser streak of his own. At the beginning of Joe's streak, the Yankees were in a terrible slump and five-and-a-half games out of first place. At its end, they had destroyed the will of the opposition, were safely in first place, and on their way to clinching the pennant on September 4, the earliest date in history, 20 games ahead of the next-best team. That summer a song swept the nation:
From coast to coast, that's all you hear
Of Joe the One-Man Show,
He's glorified the horsehide sphere,
Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.
Joe . . . Joe . . . DiMaggio . . .
We want you on our side.
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.
So did the raging Achilles inspire his fellow Achaeans against the Trojans, and, so, at somewhat greater length, did Homer sing of Achilles' deeds.
But there is more still to true heroism: the qualities of courage, suffering, and sacrifice. These DiMaggio displayed most strikingly in 1949. Before the season, he had a bone spur removed from his heel. The pain was so great as to keep him out of every game until the end of June. The Yankees were going up to Boston for a three-game series against the team they had to beat. DiMaggio blasted four home runs in three games, batting in nine runs as New York swept the series. The importance of that aristeia was very clear on the day before the end of the season. The Red Sox came into Yankee Stadium for two last games. Had they won but one of the three snatched from them in June, the championship would have been theirs already. Instead, they had to win one of the remaining two.
DiMaggio had missed the last couple of weeks, felled by a case of viral pneumonia. Once again, the ailing warrior returned to the field of battle.
Weak as he was, he managed two hits and led his mates to victory. The next day, the staggering Joe managed to run out a triple and last until the ninth inning before weakness and leg cramps forced him from the field. The inspired Yankees won the game and the championship. The 1949 season was only the most dramatic instance of the heroic power DiMaggio's example brought to the efforts of his team.
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His major league career of 13 years was cut short by three years of service as a soldier in the Second World War, by the wear and tear of injuries suffered from time to time through his career, and, perhaps, by a quiet but powerful pride that forbade him to play beneath the level of excellence he had established. When asked why he had quit, he replied that it was because he had standards. The memory of even great baseball players generally fades quickly. Within a few years, only true fans and a few others remember them, but Joe's retirement in 1951 somehow did not end the remarkable connection he had made with the American people. Over time, it became clear that he was more than a great former ballplayer, that he had become a hero whose rare public appearances brought thunderous applause and respectful awe generations after he stopped playing. Why was that?
The answer lies in the way he played the game and the manner in which he conducted himself on and off the field. The words always applied to him are grace and style and class, words that carry the values of aristocracy more than democracy.
Class, after all, derives from the Latin word that means rank or social standing; unmodified, it means "of high rank and standing." Webster's dictionary rightly tells us that in slang or common American use, it means "excellence, especially in style." That is what made DiMaggio stand out in his time. On the field, he played the game hard and to win, but with the gentlemanly grace that does not call attention to itself, that makes difficult play look easy. We do not remember him leaping or diving but gliding easily to reach the ball. After a great play or key hit, he never cavorted or capered but simply looked down while the crowd roared. He never argued with the umpires or fought with opponents. Off the field he spoke to the press as little as possible and rarely gave them an opinion. He did all his talking on the field with legs, bat, and glove. Off the field, he insisted on his privacy and maintained a quiet dignity that was rare even in its day. On the field, he employed his unique talents not to polish his self-esteem but to bring victory to the team.
And his day was not ours. America was a democracy, but a different kind. Its people were more respectful of excellence, both of matter and manner, prepared to follow the leadership of those they deemed superior in achievement and "class." People wanted to behave according to a higher and better code because they believed that in doing so they would themselves become better, worthier, "classier." Those who are too young to remember should look at the movies and photographs of games at Yankee Stadium in DiMaggio's day. The men wore white shirts and ties under coats and hats, the proper attire in public, even at a ball game. People were more conscious of the opportunity American society gave them to move into a better way of life than they were of the indignity of not being there already. They were not insulted by the notion that another way of life might be better than their own.
American democracy in DiMaggio's day reached a point in its development where the common man had the power to decide and chose to look up. The people respected and elected their betters in the expectation of reaching the heights themselves. In much of DiMaggio's day, the leader of the democracy was Franklin D. Roosevelt, an American aristocrat if there ever was one, with an accent rare even at Harvard and a cigarette holder characteristic of the classes, not the masses. Ordinary Americans admired these markers of class as they admired the aloof elegance and dignity of the Yankee Clipper. Joe was the son of a poor Sicilian fisherman, not the scion of Dutch patroons from the Hudson Valley, yet his classic grace and style seemed to raise him above the crowd, a model of class and excellence for others to emulate.
In those days such qualities led not to envy and the charge that he had abandoned his roots and heritage. Instead, Italian-Americans all over the country glowed with pride and felt elevated by his success. He himself never referred to his family's origins, much less did he try to use them to any advantage. He was simply an American who quietly went to serve his country when called to war, like other Americans. That is the way they wanted it, no special attention, no privileges or compensations, merely the opportunity to achieve respect, maintain their dignity, and improve themselves and their families.
DiMaggio was a democratic hero when American democracy was closer to the Periclean ideal, when the goal was understood to be the forging of a single people in pursuit of an excellence which all respected and to which all could aspire. It aimed to raise its citizens to a higher level by providing splendid models and the opportunity for all to seek to emulate them. But history seems to show that democracies change and become less respectful of high standards. Then democracy's leaders and exemplars shy from any hint of superiority, seeking to win support by claiming identity with the least of the citizens. They resort to flattery rather than the elevation of the common man, corrupting the culture and the polity by appealing to the masses at the lowest level. If a man of genteel origins is elected, he tries to speak in the inelegant tone and language of the common man and pretends to like eating pork rinds. So has the last half-century changed America, and yet the fame and celebration of DiMaggio have never been greater. His death was a major national story, leading the front page and the network news, the subject of innumerable encomia.
What is it that explains this continued veneration in such a different world? It appears that all eras need true heroes, superior models of qualities that we admire, whether or not they are fashionable. The shining image of DiMaggio, even in a degenerate age, reminds people of a higher ideal, half-forgotten but impossible to ignore. Half a century after his retirement, people who never saw him play somehow retain an idea of his special character, of what he meant to the Americans of his day, and they are elevated by his example.