No, this is NOT about Tiger Woods .
And yet,…… in a way, maybe it is.
I idolized Joe DiMaggio though I never saw him play ; he was before my time. A Hall-of-Fame centerfielder who played for the Yankees between 1936 and 1951, he led them to 9 world titles and 13 AL pennants in a 15 year career. A unique combination of speed , power and grace he was voted the greatest living ballplayer back in 1969 and there haven’t been many like him since . A slugger who hit 361 home runs in his career, it is reckoned he might have hit 75 or 80 more had he not played in cavernous Yankee stadium with it’s 425 feet deep centerfield.The numbers would have been even greater but for the years he lost in his prime because of World War II. As a fielder, he had a cannon of a throwing arm and covered the vast expanse of the Yankee Stadium outfield with such effortless grace that he reminded spectators of a ship in full sail and was nicknamed the Yankee Clipper. His most memorable acheivement was in 1941 when he hit safely in 56 straight games , a record which still stands and one which baseball experts say may never be broken.
Long after his playing days were over, when DiMaggio was pushing 70, I caught a glimpse of him in midtown Manhattan. As I watched , a middle- aged man rushed across the street ,autograph book in hand, to a parking garage where Joe DiMaggio was just emerging from a limousine. There was no mistaking DiMaggio. Still slim and fit looking ,exuding class ,confidence and well being ,he was immaculately dressed in a blue pin striped suit , and his thinning white hair perfectly combed . As I watched, mesmerized, he flashed his wonderful smile and scrawled his autograph before ducking into a nearby building. I was instantly hooked.
In the years to follow, I read a lot about him. Fiercely proud of being a Yankee, he was very protective of his image. He used to love to read comics but didn’t want to be seen buying them at a news stand ; so he asked Yogi Berra, then a rookie , to purchase them for him. Not much given to talking, DiMaggio let his bat and glove do his talking and always gave 100percent on the field. Once , during a meaningless game , a reporter asked him why he was still going full tilt. He replied that somewhere in the stands, there might be a young boy who was seeing him for the first, perhaps the only, time and that he didn’t want to let him down. Another Yankee outfielder, ( I think it was Tommy Heinrich) said that in all the years he played alongside DiMaggio he had never once seen him make a mental error. Not once did he throw to the wrong base; never did he break the wrong way on a flyball. Never. Not once. He was a quiet man , who never got on his team mates, preferring to lead by example. Seeing him play so hard inspired his team mates to do the same.
After he retired, he was briefly married to Marilyn Monroe. The marriage lasted less than a year but they remained friends afterwards . When she died years later, it was he who arranged for her funeral and for twenty years thereafter,he arranged for half a dozen red roses to be laid three times a week on her grave. His post -baseball career saw him become a pitchman for the Bowery Savings Bank and Mr. C0ffee and he parlayed his celebrity into a lucrative retirement.In the sixties when our country was mired in VietNam, and the Cold War was a grim reality, his baseball exploits , his style, evoked in the minds of the public memories of simpler, happier times when all was right with the world . In the 1968 movie ” The Graduate”, song-writer Paul Simon touched on this theme when he wrote ” … Where have you gone , Joe DiMaggio ? A nation turns its lonely eyes on you …”. For a while, he seemed perfect, godlike.
It was only much later , as I continued to read about him , that the image began to crumble. He was a tremendous ball player admired by all but , away from the playing field, he was not quite the paragon that we had thought him to be. A high school dropout, baseball was his whole life and he had not much else.Painfully shy, he was a social misfit who was at a loss for conversation. Marilyn Monroe complained that he never wanted to go out or do anything , preferring to watch baseball on TV. In David Halberstam’s ” Summer of 49″‘ , DiMaggio comes across as moody and standoffish, barely communicating with his manager, Casey Stengel. True, he was recovering from painful bone spurs and fearful that his career might be over but still, the portrait painted of him is not an attractive one. Some of his team mates felt he was selfish, concerned about his image to the exclusion of all else. When he later attended Old Timers games at Yankee Stadium he would insist on being the last player to be introduced and being announced as ” the Greatest Living Baseball player”.
There is a telling incident that took place when Mickey Mantle was just breaking in with the Yankees. DiMaggio playing centerfield and Mantle was in right. In the second game of the 1951 World Series, Willie Mays blooped a short flyball to to right – center field and Mantle and DiMaggio both went for it. At the last second, DiMaggio called for the ball and Mantle deferred to the veteran. As he skidded to a sudden halt , his spikes got caught in a drain cover and he tore his knee ligaments , crumpling to the ground as if shot. In his book “The Era ” , Roger Kahn quotes Mantle as follows ” DiMaggio always wanted to look good out there. That was very important to him . So he waited to call Willie’s fly until he was damn sure he could reach it in stride. That’s why I had to stop so short. If DiMaggio had called for it earlier- or if DiMaggio had backed off and let me take it – I don’t believe I woulda hurt my knee.”
The point that I’m trying to make is that we expect too much of our sports icons. Not only do we want them to be perfect on the playing field, we expect them to be perfect off it. And when they fail to live up to our lofty expectations, our admiration turns to loathing and we excoriate them for their ” transgressions” . The truth is that star athletes have to have giant egos . Anything less and they would not be able to compete against their rivals and win. When they go up against others, they have to tell themselves they are the best and that they are going to destroy the opposition. There cannot be any room for doubt or thought of failure. Furthermore, these athletes are so focussed on being the best that they neglect other aspects of their lives and, sometimes , their personalities are warped as a result of their single-minded drive to succeed. Add in the adulation of the public, the sudden undreamt -of affluence, the constant temptations posed by groupies ,drink and drugs, the cocoon that they live in where every whim of theirs is catered to and it is no wonder that we have a Michael Vick, a Tiger Woods, a Kobe Bryant or an Andre Agassi. Of all the superstars of sport, Roger Federer alone seems to have his feet grounded in reality but then , after Tiger Woods, one can never be sure.
I don’t like Charles Barkley but I agree with him when he says that he ” didn’t sign on to be no role model “. We have to learn to appreciate our sports stars for their feats on the field, their determination, their athletic ability, their fierce will to win, their ability to perform under pressure. We may deplore what they do off the field but it should not detract from their athletic feats. Tiger Woods may be an arrogant ,womanizing jerk but he is still a great golfer, perhaps the greatest of all time. Joe Di Maggio is till the great Yankee centerfielder who gave us so much pleasure when he patrolled the Yankee outfield with grace and style. Nothing can change that.