Most New Zealanders probably only know Joe di Maggio as a couple of lines in the Simon & Garfunkle song Mrs Robinson:
Where have you gone Joe di Maggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes turn to you
Maybe some also know that di Maggio was married to Marilyn Monroe for 274 days in 1954. It was he, in 1962, who took control of her funeral away from the Hollywood bigshots, and instructed that fresh roses be placed on her grave – “forever”.
For the uninitiated, Joe di Maggio was a baseball player.
Hmmm. Doesn’t really capture it. Doesn’t explain why dozens of songs, plays, films, paintings, comics, and novels are about him or reference him.
I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing,” the old man said. “They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand.”
Ernest Hemingway The Old Man and the Sea
Giuseppe Paolo, Joe, the son of Sicilian immigrants, was a guy who just happened to have the eye, and the shoulder, and the hip to hit a ball sweeter than any other man, woman or kid.
I once heard an American history professor give a lecture on the meaning of baseball. His argument was that it was the quintessential American game because it represented freedom and democracy.
Freedom, because the two foul lines ran from home base through first and third to a theoretical infinity. The whole space of the limitless continent from east to west reimagined in just a game.
Democracy, because anybody could play. A bat and a ball, make your own, fashion a glove from your shirt. Democracy, because before the illicit thrill of rock’n’roll, before the Freedom Riders of 1961, there was Jackie Robinson. The first black to play Major League Baseball in 1947, because Leo Durocher, the manager, was colour blind when it came to winning and making some green.
I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.
Joe came from the West Coast minor leagues to the New York Yankees in 1936, where he stayed to his retirement in 1951, breaking all the records along the way. That loyalty to a place and a team was part of his appeal, even if you weren’t a Yankees fan. Sure he made some money, the first player to break $100k a year, but it was straight down the line. He gave more than he took.
And he was handsome, yeah? Quintessentially ruggedly 1940s handsome right up to his death in 1999.
Sports stars come and go. It’s what they do after their playing days that determines their real standing. So there’s a question why Joe burned his way into the popular imagination as the icon of a supposedly simpler era of straightforward virtues.
That marriage to Marilyn is a big part of the legend, not because he milked it, but because he didn’t. He didn’t talk about her at all, although there’s plenty to say that he was always thinking of her. It was Joe who busted her out of a psychiatric clinic in 1961 as her marriage to Arthur Miller was breaking up and gave her shelter at his home in Florida.
And there’s a story that on 1 August 1962 Joe told a friend that he was going to remarry her.
She died on 5 August.
There’s a terrific, really seriously great, essay by Gay Talese from 1966 called ‘The Silent Season of a Hero’. It’s about di Maggio and baseball and Marilyn and Bobby Kennedy, and more, much more, than all of that.
“I’m not great,” DiMaggio cut in. “I’m not great,” he repeated softly. “I’m just a man trying to get along.”
If you’re a sports star, or a movie star, or just trying to get along too, do yourself a favour: grab a cup of joe and sit down and read it. Right now.