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Where you have gone, Joe DiMaggio

By Douglas S. LooneySenior sports columnist of The Christian ScienceMonitor / March 9, 1999



BOSTON

It is both simple and impossible to reflect on Joe DiMaggio.

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He never was a personality shoot, not even personable off the field. Once asked to explain, he said, simply of course, "I'm a ballplayer, not an actor."

When a young and definitely no hero-worshipping sportswriter was asked in the lobby of a New Jersey hotel if he'd like to meet DiMaggio, the writer's hands got sweaty. DiMaggio said, "Hello." The writer said, "Hello." Then awkward silence. That was it. Conversation over.

It was, for the writer, his most memorable conversation ever.

Mr. DiMaggio, who died Monday, was America's greatest sports hero. Bigger than Ali? Absolutely.

What Joe DiMaggio brought to us in his 13 years in baseball's major leagues was an excellence that made us gasp, a talent that made us envy-green, a presence that made us clutch at our hearts. When DiMaggio walked into a room, time stopped and jaws dropped. Others who thought they were famous suddenly weren't.

DiMaggio had it all, a lot more than Bogey and Bacall.

He was the human equivalent of the most extraordinary sunset ever seen in Bali. Name the best thing you can think of - person, product, place - and DiMaggio was at least equal.

Arguments have raged over who was the better center fielder, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. It's about 50-50. Nobody even discusses who was the best ever center fielder, which was DiMaggio. Hands down. Everybody else is competing for second.

His statistics are numbing. In 13 seasons with the Yankees, he played on teams that won nine World Series. He once hit safely in 56 straight games, was thwarted, then delivered in 16 more in a row. If there is one record in sport that seems likely to go unbeaten, and probably even unchallenged, it's this one. He led in hitting, homers, everything.

But all this was secondary, really, to the essence of the man. He always, always, always tried. There's a lesson there, boys and girls. Asked once how he could keep striving when he had stood atop all mountains, he said, "There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time or last time. I owe him my best."

What DiMaggio did was provide a road map for athletic excellence to anybody who would read it, which regrettably excludes most athletes. In a world in which there is way too much talk and not nearly enough walk, DiMaggio performed.

In a world in which too many tell what they are going to do, rather than doing it, DiMaggio did it. Nobody talks of DiMaggio without talking dignity. Even when he married Marilyn Monroe, a woman associated with a lot of things but not dignity, DiMaggio retained his.

How? Simple. He was a simple man who knew himself. He never pretended to be anything except a baseball player. He didn't make pronouncements on things he knew nothing about. Truth is, he didn't pronounce. He did.

Ego? He had none. When he retired after the 1951 season, he was asked who would replace him. Said DiMag, "There's always some youngster coming up. They'll find somebody."

Sadly, we have learned in the nearly five decades that have ensued, there wasn't and we haven't and we won't.

Retirement was of no particular moment for DiMaggio. He still hit .263 (he hit better than .300 11 times) in 1951, played in 116 games (several times he played in more than 150 games). It was poor for him but darned good for most everybody else. He could have gone on and on. Nothing doing. He simply quit, explaining, "I no longer have it."

And then he walked elegantly into the sunset. He was seen in public on occasion. He was no Howard Hughes. But adulation he detested. He did the bare minimum - occasional returns to Yankee Stadium, autograph signings. He never used 10 words when one would do. Indeed, "Hello" was plenty.

Mostly he wanted to be left alone, a simple request. But it was hard for us. ESPN quoted former Met Ron Swoboda as saying, "Joe DiMaggio is what you get when you build mystique on top of greatness."

It's also what you get when a simple man will tolerate no less than the best in himself.