Joe DiMaggio: still America's hero

The thoughts of the sports world these days are focused on Joe DiMaggio, our greatest sports hero.

There are those who contend such a designation perhaps belongs to Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, or Jim Thorpe. They are wrong. While each of the contenders is worthy in some ways, each falls short in others: Ali because of our suspicions about the ways of boxing, Ruth and Thorpe because of their off-field behavior in which they found too much solace in late-night carousing.

It's not only our respect for DiMaggio, who retired in 1951, but the awe in which we stand of him. As he has been struggling with ailments in a Hollywood, Fla., hospital - he has been administered last rites several times by a Roman Catholic priest - we happily have been seeing him in our minds not bedridden but starring in Yankee Stadium.

DiMaggio is best known for hitting safely in 56 straight games in 1941; nobody else has exceeded 44. In the pressure-packed last 10 games of The Streak, he hit a scintillating .575. He was Most Valuable Player three times (once beating out Ted Williams in the year Williams hit .406), batting champ, home-run champ. He was an exquisite center fielder and brilliant base runner.

He did all of this and much more while having to miss three seasons while serving in World War II, the longest absence of any player with the exception of Williams.

Oddly, DiMaggio's athletic ability - replete with silky smoothness - is how we came to know him but not how we define him in our hearts. In his playing days, he was a storied elegance and a stately grace. He was Our American Hero.

So we're talking perfection? Absolutely not. And that's how we can measure our admiration. DiMaggio is flawed but we always have forgiven him. For example:

When his health failed, the reclusive DiMaggio became furious with his doctors for disclosing his condition to the public. He ordered loose lips sealed. It was the ultimate selfishness. After all, we wanted to know because we care. But that's OK. We forgive.

In 1954, he married America's most stared-at movie star of the time, Marilyn Monroe. Gosh, Joe, were you sure this was the right thing? It seemed a trifle cheesy to us prudes. After 275 days of marriage, they divorced. But that's OK. We forgive.

He then took to doing what charitably might best be described as tacky television commercials. The Yankee Clipper stiffly hawking a coffeemaker? Oh, my. But that's OK. We forgive.

He signed lots of things for big bucks. It seemed a bit mercenary. These days, an autographed DiMaggio bat is available for $3,249.99; autographed baseballs go for $250 to $500. But that's OK. We forgive.

See, because of DiMaggio's extraordinarily rare combination of gentlemanly style no matter what he was doing and lights-out skill, we were perfectly willing to stifle our criticisms. He was flawed. We are flawed. We understand.

What we require of our heroes is that if they misbehave or disappoint us - which they will - that they do it with class and flair rather than with arrogance and malice.

Our adulation was and is unbridled. A high school class in Ohio once voted on the greatest American of all time; George Washington was second to DiMaggio.

During DiMaggio's honeymoon with Monroe in Japan, she left to perform for the troops in Korea. He stayed behind. Monroe needed constant reaffirmation of her beauty. For her, a moment alone was a moment wasted. DiMaggio needed no affirmation from anyone, was alone in a crowd, and the perfect dinner party to him was a group of one. When Monroe returned, goes the story, she bubbled, "Joe, it was wonderful. The troops loved me. You have never heard such cheering."

Responded DiMaggio, "Yes, darling, I have."

Indeed, we loudly cheered the Italian immigrant who played what was then our No. 1 sport for the No. 1 sports team in our No. 1 city and married our No. 1 movie star. Our fascinated cheers never ceased raining on him. He had it all, just like Bogy and Bacall.

As he kept his distance, we wanted him more and admired him more. But familiarity breeds boos. He was always just out of reach, the perfect distance for a hero to keep from us. We knew some things about him but not a lot.

DiMaggio was like the mountains. The best view is not when you're deep in the pines and spruce, but from a distance where the grandeur displays itself and the snowcaps dominate the horizon. Joe DiMaggio dominated our horizons.

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