The change of seasons, especially in the East, brings bucolic dreams of springtime and its sister, baseball. For many the game recaptures a pastoral past, the remembrance of childhood aimlessly spent, rather than the problems of free agency and steroids, the greed of players and owners alike, and the spiraling problems of today.
Fifty-eight years ago the man who had been voted the greatest living baseball player of his generation retired at the age of 37. Ten years ago this month, he died quietly. Few of us remember him playing baseball. Joe DiMaggio was celebrated then as the complete ballplayer, the one whose name is linked to the most difficult of all records—the 56-game hitting streak. Baseball historians wax eloquent saying that this achievement shows how the game can overcome the very limitations of mortality itself. Such odds-defying consistency proves that we can triumph over failure and even over death itself.
Baseball writing is a game of great hyperbole. But still, in more modest terms, DiMaggio remains fixed in the popular imagination long after any of us can remember seeing him play. He has become a graceful American icon—the hero like the one Homer wrote about eons ago, Achilles. But long-lasting heroes are individuals whose achievements are linked with causes and ideologies greater that they are. For us, DiMaggio is a symbol of endurance, of grace under pressure, of consistency at high levels of achievement.
Even his disastrous marriage to Marilyn Monroe ends up playing well. For when all is said and done, he, of all her lovers, was the only one to tend to her remains. He sent roses every week to her gravesite for more than two decades. As she once said, “How can I get angry with Joe, for he loved me so.”
Monroe thoughtlessly remarked to him once, upon returning from entertaining the troops in South Korea, “You don’t know what it’s like to hear such cheering.” To which DiMaggio replied, “Yes, I do.”
In his lifetime, DiMaggio became for Americans the symbol of excellence. When he was asked why he played so intensely while hurt, he said that somewhere in the stands was a kid who had never seen him play before. Achievement, excellence, and the belief in standards—internal and demanding—are today the rare characteristics associated with his name.
Joe DiMaggio came to represent a unique and a once common view of manhood in contemporary America—a style and substance that is gone. He grew up in a traditional Italian-American circle of quiet and sullen men who realized that life is harsh, that love is passing, and that death is one’s constant companion. Men of his generation lived in a world of intense competition, proud loyalties, and strong endurance. They believed in traditional roles, set expectations, and exhibited personal honor. They conducted their day-to-day business with a handshake and one’s word of honor.
The family, the schools, and the church believed in training children in rigorous moral codes of right and wrong, of obligation and commitment. It was a view of manhood with clear expectations that infused the uncertainty of adolescence with certain rites of passage. Boys were told that men do not show emotions. They do not cry. They do not whine and complain. This emotional callousness produced a more resilient male—one that is seen now for what it is: a period piece. DiMaggio never departed from this pattern of behavior.
DiMaggio was not as much fun as Babe Ruth, but he was more noble, he was more classical, and he was almost ethereal at times in setting his achievements in stone. He set the standards of excellence he lived by. He became an American icon, not just because of sports or popular culture, but at times, in spite of them. He performed almost flawlessly, without effort, it seems, while he defied the pain and the tension inside.
Our society has moved away from the traditional assumptions, away from understandings that DiMaggio and his generation of men took for granted. But the excess of the present will lead to a reevaluation of the past. When that happens again and again, DiMaggio will remain immortal, for another icon will be drained of flesh and blood and thus will become the idealized example of a far different way of life that has rediscovered appeal.
Michael P. Riccards is the author of The Odes of DiMaggio: Sports, Myth, and Manhood in Contemporary America, a book that chronicles the life of the Yankee outfielder and American icon. A former college president and the author of 14 books, Riccards has been executive director of the Hall Institute of Public policy – New Jersey since 2005.