Joltin' Joe

November 25, 1994|By THOMAS N. LONGSTRETH

No one who ever saw him play will believe it, but Joe DiMaggio turns 80 today.

Years ago, when the ravages of the Great Depression threatened faith in our economic system and our very way of life, a young ballplayer appeared, as if on cue, publicly to act out the old rags-to-riches myth that is at the heart of the American Dream.

The eighth of nine children of poor Sicilian immigrant parents, Joe DiMaggio became a New York Yankee star at 21, led his team to nine World Series championships, made (for his day) a lot of money, had a song about him on radio's old ''Lucky Strike Hit Parade,'' twice made the cover of Life magazine, married (and divorced and buried) Marilyn Monroe and was revered for his grace under pressure in Ernest Hemingway's last novel, ''The Old Man and the Sea.''

When Paul Simon's popular 1967 lyric asked where he had gone, people understood the line to mean that in a tumultuous era, when time-honored values were under assault, we seemed to have no more heroes. It does not seem unreasonable to assert that Joe DiMaggio, risen from humble origins, playing with ease and grace and always with great dignity, somehow gave people faith during a dark and terrible period in our nation's history.

Realistically, of course, there is nothing very heroic about hitting or catching a baseball, or about being a celebrity. But there is, or at least there used to be, something wonderful about a man being paid money to play a boy's game, being allowed, so it seemed, not to have to grow up and go to work and face adult problems and fears, and allowing others vicariously to participate with him in this great escape from mortality.

Near the end of his career, however, this perennially youthful, larger-than-life figure, who had played not only magnificently, but also, apparently, effortlessly, was struck down by encroaching age. In 1947 his left heel had required surgery, and in 1949 he missed half the season because of a freakish and painful bone-spur growth in his right heel. But in 1950 and 1951, his last two seasons, he played full-time, despite the fact that, at 35 and 36, he was old for a ballplayer -- especially in that pre-physical fitness era and especially for a center fielder, much less one who must roam wide and deep in cavernous Yankee Stadium on a chronically injured foot.

In the first year of his retirement ''The Old Man and the Sea'' was published. It was a tremendously popular best-seller; it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it made a final addition to the legend of Joe DiMaggio by offering a new perspective of his last three seasons.

The old Cuban fisherman, once the greatest in his profession, is locked in a three-day battle to the death with a giant marlin which had pulled his tiny skiff far out of sight of land. Neither will give up. Weary, injured and very much alone, he finds inspiration to persevere by identifying with another aged and suffering master, saying ''I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all the things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.''

Finally he kills the marlin, but on the way home sharks strip it of its flesh. Nevertheless, its huge skeleton, lashed to the skiff, bears testimony to the old man's prodigious feat of skill, will power and endurance as he enters his home harbor.

And so too DiMaggio finally came home, revealing himself at the end to be fallible and human, but able to face life with courage and to endure pain with dignity.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Thomas N. Longstreth teaches as St. Paul's School in Brooklandville.

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