A friend tells me the dreams he and other young men had growing up in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. Two stood out the most: to play baseball for the New York Yankees, and to marry Marilyn Monroe. And here's this guy, my friend marvels, who's done both!
For many, those things alone would be enough to associate Joe DiMaggio with the American dream. But Mr. DiMaggio actually meant much more. His life celebrates that dream, but also challenges it.
DiMaggio left the San Francisco Seals for the Yankees in 1936. While the Irish and the Germans had eroded major league baseball's Anglo-Saxon bias, blacks and most Latinos and Asians remained excluded, and Native Americans were marginalized. Other ethnic groups, such as Jews and Italians, had access to baseball but only at great cost. Ethnics were cruelly stereotyped and taunted. Rising above the abuse, DiMaggio broke down anti-Italian barriers, and become a role model for other Italians who followed.
DiMaggio assumed this task in difficult times. Italy's alliance with Nazi Germany intensified anti-Italian sentiment in the US. By the '40s, Italian-Americans were threatened with the same fate as Japanese-Americans: arrests, restricted movement, evacuation, and internment. In opposition, DeMaggio and his family were invoked at congressional hearings to show how devastating - and unnecessary - such policies would be. To erase any further doubts, DiMaggio volunteered for World War II, sacrificing a part of his baseball career.
Some have labeled DiMaggio a "useful ethnic" who submerged his ethnicity in favor of "Americanism," and who did little to buck the system. This sells him short. Both on and off the field, he challenged conventional thinking about Italians and other ethnics. He brought a dignity and dedication that undermined the stereotypes. And he demanded to be paid what he was worth. People quickly took him seriously.
DiMaggio ended his career in great style. Turning down big money, and a chance to play several more years, he quit while he was still good, thereby avoiding the embarrassing declines suffered by other stars.
Rather than having only "15 minutes of fame," DiMaggio's time in the limelight would last nearly 50 years beyond his 15-year playing career. Of course, it didn't hurt having married Marilyn Monroe. But DiMaggio's staying power came primarily from himself. He carefully maintained his image, revealing both his flaws and his strengths along the way.
To some, DiMaggio was cold and aloof. He was isolated and reclusive, perhaps lonely. He never remarried after Marilyn and seemed to have many admirers but few real friends. Through his selective endorsements, he made an impressive income: Many people today know him best as Mr. Coffee. But in the end he might have "cashed in" a bit excessively, making millions in the baseball memorabilia market by jealously guarding his signature, even putting off some lifelong fans.
But these things might not describe DiMaggio so much as they do some of the drawbacks of the American dream. How does it shape our values? What's the price of fame and fortune for the few who attain it?
Whatever the price, we remember DiMaggio as having stood above it all. He was not merely a man with an illustrious career. He symbolized a better past, of days when America was simpler, prouder, more innocent, more graceful. He represented those things because he was those things. It wasn't merely what he did, but how he did it. The good old days weren't necessarily better, but we want to think of them that way. Baseball brings out that kind of nostalgia but he took it to a new level.
DiMaggio stood as a living reminder - amid today's wavering standards - of how great we once were, even if only in our imaginations. He made us feel good about ourselves. We should examine very closely what this reveals about us, and why America has needed this so desperately over the last half century.
How can you tell a baseball player has profoundly affected his society? By having a tribute to his life that mentions none of his awesome baseball accomplishments. Instead, it's more important to still wonder: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Now, he's really gone. Imagine how much lonelier we're likely to be.
*Robert Elias is chairman of the politics department at the University of San Francisco where he teaches 'The National Pastime and the American Dream.'