Lost age of a dignified hero

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 March, 1999, 12:00am

With the death this week of Joe DiMaggio, America has lost much more than the greatest surviving star from baseball's golden era.

In a country used to building up celebrity icons, the public - even baseball fans far too young to have seen DiMaggio play - seems to be mourning much more than the loss of a superstar, or even a simple human being.

His death has inspired a national wave of nostalgia for an age of dignity and innocence, when baseball was still a symbol of purity and courage.

The DiMaggio myth was strengthened in the 1960s, when Paul Simon penned the famous lyric in Mrs Robinson: 'Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.' DiMaggio, who was long retired, apparently resented the lyric, and took it literally. When he met Simon in a Manhattan restaurant years later, he complained politely that he had never gone away, and was still on TV appearing in a commercial for a coffee maker.

When Simon explained that his words were meant to bemoan the lack of genuine American heroes like DiMaggio, he thanked him and shook his hand.

In a eulogy to DiMaggio in the New York Times this week, Simon summed up the sentiments of a nation, when he wrote: 'In these days of presidential transgressions and apologies and primetime interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.' In today's America, the noisier and more media-savvy the star, the greater his celebrity is likely to be. The public's yearning for the simpler days before mass commercialism can be detected in the outpouring of emotion for a man who earned his stardom in precisely the opposite way.

Even at the height of his brilliant career with the New York Yankees from 1936 to 1951, DiMaggio let his athletic feats do all the talking and rarely spoke to the press. He became more reclusive in retirement, never giving interviews, jealously guarding his private life and refusing to speak about the one period of his life in which he could not help but court the attention of the paparazzi - his nine-month marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

When baseball went the way of other sports, and players even went on strike in pursuit of multimillion-dollar salaries, fans turned away from the national pastime in droves, turned off by the apparent cynicism of it all. It is no coincidence that the feat which brought the love and passion back to the game was the one which, last season, emulated the kind of pure sporting brilliance with which DiMaggio was associated.

In breaking the long-standing home run record, Mark McGwire single-handedly revived the old spirit of the DiMaggio-era game.

Of course, Americans loved the DiMaggio legend because it was almost an archetype of the American Dream: the son of a Sicilian immigrant fisherman, who grew up poor in San Francisco and who made his fortune by devoting himself to his one true talent.

And as he grew old and even more reclusive, they loved him even more for his refusal to play the normal celebrity role, and for his silent and loyal devotion to the memory of his ex-wife after her death.

DiMaggio was no stranger to the lure of wealth; he was the first player to earn US$100,000 (HK$774,000) a season - a fortune in that era - and was briefly unpopular with the fans when he refused to take a pay cut during the economic downturn brought on by World War II.

But, as Simon's lyrics continued in Mrs Robinson: 'Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.' Now that is finally the case, DiMaggio has left and taken a whole bygone age with him.


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