Preposterous as it sounds, last night, at 10:35 p.m. (New York time), marked “opening day” for the World Champion New York Yankees. The only thing missing-for the first time since 1936-was Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio, who had wanted to throw out the season’s first ball, had- just several weeks before- finally succumbed to complications arising from his bouts with pneumonia and lung cancer.
In my piece entitled “A Half-Century’s Preoccupation,” I spoke of how I wanted to attend “Joe DiMaggio Day” last year to thank him for all he meant to me as a fan. When he became gravely ill during the post-season, I realized what was implicit in my attending that game was a realization that I was, in all likelihood, saying my last good-bye. That I was able to do so on the final day of the season–a “day” game, no less– was a fitting way to tie together the great years Joe spent as a Yankee with the Yankee’s record- breaking year of 1998.
Whenever a living legend dies, the old clichÃ© “suddenly I feel older,” seems particularly apt. This was particularly true for the man who represented the best of my early Yankee memories. Joe embodied the American dream as have few others. Think of it, the son of an immigrant fisherman becomes one of the greatest baseball players of all time and marries a movie star who just happens to be the national sex symbol. (Name another couple who have each been celebrated in popular song. Remember, Bogey & Bacall will always have “Key Largo,” if not Paris, but not their own separate songs. ) This quiet, private man had done it all. Joe had a sense of dignity that he never abandoned, not even when he served as the pitchman for “Mr. Coffee.” We last saw that dignity demonstrated during his final illness when he called off the “deathwatch” and died quietly, on his own terms.
While it is highly unlikely that anyone (with more than 300 career home runs) will ever again have more homers than strikeouts, play on more world championship teams, or hit in as many consecutive games than DiMaggio, it is technically possible. Records of course, as Mark McGwire so recently reminded us, are made to be broken. But let’s not kid ourselves, there will no more be another Joe DiMaggio than there will be another Frank Sinatra. I’m glad I saw him play; I’m glad my kids have his personalized autograph; and I’m glad I got the chance to meet him on two occasions (albeit 33 years apart) and tell him how much he meant to me.
I’m also glad I got to say good-bye. Joe may not initially have understood what Paul Simon meant when he asked “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,” but the rest of us did. At the time, DiMaggio was hurt and puzzled by that line. “I haven’t gone anywhere,” he told Simon. Simon told him that America had a need for heroes that was going unfulfilled, and DiMaggio was symbolic of that need. Well, as the song says, “Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” He has, indeed, and a nation turns its lonely eyes heavenward and mourns.
But another song, however, reminds us “to everything there is a season.” Play ball!