This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 22, 1999
In the 13 years that Joe DiMaggio played centre field for the New York Yankees, he patrolled a Grand Canyon in left-centre with the grace and sweep of a sea gull. He looked after right-centre, too, but because of the peculiar outfield perimeter of Yankee Stadium in Joe's time, right-centre wasn't as imposing a wasteland.
When he died last week at age 84, after battling a series of complications following lung cancer surgery in October, millions who saw Joe play baseball half a century ago found something special to remember - the wide batting stance, the arrow-like throws. What comes into my mind's eye is a short video of him tracking down soaring fly balls to left-centre. The plains of Yankee Stadium measured 461 feet to centre field and 457 feet to left-centre before the stadium was renovated in 1973 (by contrast, deepest centre in Toronto's SkyDome is 400 feet from home plate, and the left-centre alley is 375). Joe always seemed to know, without looking, where the ball would come down, and in smooth, flowing strides he'd arrive there just as it did, almost casually allowing it to end its journey quietly in the magic black glove. No sweat, no visible sweat.
But perhaps invisible, for away from the ball park he seldom seemed at ease. In public he rarely smiled, features set in solemn lines, his emotions always concealed. In the book Summer of '49, David Halberstam writes that DiMaggio's fear of being publicly humiliated never diminished. Once, the Yankee manager Casey Stengel told Joe to play first base. He apparently felt uncomfortable with the switch although he said nothing. But teammate Tommy Henrich noticed late in the game that Joe's uniform shirt was soaked in sweat. "It was caused by tension from the fear of embarrassing himself," Halberstam concludes. Also, when he was discharged by the U.S. army air force in 1945 after three years in Hawaii, the reason was stomach ulcers.
Shy and aloof when he joined the Yankees as a 21-year-old high-school dropout and son of a San Francisco fisherman from Sicily, DiMaggio shunned the spotlight though frequently was trapped in it. There was a dignity about him and a reserve that kept newspapermen at their distance. Indeed, most of them seemed in awe. Once, years ago when Joe was in his early 60s, he was a guest at baseball's annual midsummer all-star game in New York City. In the afternoon, he was unexpectedly ushered into the hotel press room by a baseball official, a room where Roy MacGregor, then of the Ottawa Citizen, and I were chatting. We were both slightly astonished when this gathering of baseball scribes burst into lengthy hand clapping and even cheers upon DiMaggio's entrance. He seemed uncomfortable being the focus of attention, fidgeting with a handkerchief, dabbing at his forehead. He looked as he'd always looked away from the ball park - trim in a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie - a lean six-foot-two and 193 lb.
Even after his marriage to Marilyn Monroe in 1954, Joe tried to avoid attention. They honeymooned in Tokyo where he remained in the obscurity of their hotel suite while she went to Korea to visit American troops. She appeared on an open-air platform before tens of thousands of soldiers, and upon her return to Tokyo, she said to her husband: "It was so wonderful, Joe. You've never heard such cheering."
"Yes, I have," said Joe DiMaggio.
He was 39 and she 27 in a marriage that lasted only nine months. When she died eight years later, he went to Los Angeles to take charge of her funeral. Then, he ordered roses to be placed on her grave "forever." These actions, in the words of Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times, "lifted him forever above the players of Washington and Hollywood who had used and discarded her."
DiMaggio grew up in San Francisco amid a brood of five boys and four girls. His two oldest brothers, Tom and Michael, followed their father into the fishing fleet and the next three sons, Vince, Joe and Dominic, became major-league ball players. Vince had a fine singing voice and, at one point, was tagged for training in Italy. Instead, he spent 10 undistinguished years with four National League teams, mostly with Pittsburgh. Dom, two years younger than Joe, became an excellent 11-year fixture in centre field for the Boston Red Sox. It was said of the DiMaggios that Joe could hit, Dom could field, and Vince was a singer.
But it was Joe's name that appealed to songwriters and novelists. "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" was a Simon and Garfunkel line in the song Mrs. Robinson. Big bands thumped out music for the lyrics "Joe, Joe, DiMaggio. We want you on our side." A severe foot injury that plagued DiMaggio and sidelined him for the first 69 games in 1949 found its way into Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. The weary fisherman, adrift in his boat, murmurs: "I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel." And in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 Broadway hit South Pacific, there's the ribald character Bloody Mary "whose skin is as tender as DiMaggio's glove."
So he was a legend, a man who played in 11 all-star games, 10 World Series, was the American League's most valuable player three times, and whose 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is still a record. As always, dignity intact.
Maclean's March 22, 1999