In the 1930s the New York Yankees needed a new hero on the field; they found him in Joe DiMaggio. Little did they know they had also found a man who would come to define the all-American hero for his generation. Jerome Charyn, author of Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil, now out in paperback, reflects on why DiMaggio embodied what baseball – and the American people – needed most.
Today, people only want to go to a basketball game when LeBron James is playing. The same thing was true back in the thirties in baseball. There was no such thing as the National League. There was only the American League, because the American League had Babe Ruth.
Now, what happens when Babe Ruth retires? What do you do? You need a new Babe Ruth, but you don’t want a replica of him. You need someone with a different style. And suddenly, there’s Joe DiMaggio.
He came up as a Rookie in 1936. Babe Ruth was already retired, the Yankees were no longer pennant-winners—and you had a man who was perfectly formed. He had a beautiful swing, he didn’t look nervous out there, he inhabited the outfield, and there was so much press around him—the new star—that suddenly, the club was reborn again. That type of moment would happen again with Mickey Mantle. But Mickey Mantle didn’t appear until ’51. From ’36 to 1950, the New York Yankees were Joe DiMaggio and Joe DiMaggio alone.
He was an instant star: he couldn’t even leave Yankee stadium, he had to sneak out. He was famous by the time he was in his first game. And with all that publicity, all that hype, he lived up to it. He was better than they had thought he was. He played in thirteen seasons; the Yankees won ten pennants, and nine World Series. Every single player who played with him said, “When he was out there in center field, whether he was hobbled or not, we knew we really had a chance to win.”
Everyone likes to talk about Joe DiMaggio’s streak and how incredible it was. But in his own time, the streak was not really talked about except in 1941. The nation was going to war, and you had this man who personified stability. It wasn’t that he hit in 56 games, it was that he hits in game after game after game. You could depend on it. You could count on it. In a very scary time, there was always Joe DiMaggio.
The streak was completely forgotten for a long time, until the 50th anniversary when it was brought up again. When that happened, Joe DiMaggio said, “If I knew there’d be all this nonsense about the streak, I wouldn’t have hit more than forty games.” Of course, he was only kidding, but that’s the way he was.
What was great about DiMaggio? He had a sense of form that no other player ever had, and no other player ever will have. He was a kind of artist, a consummate artist who could hit, who could field, who could run—and who didn’t want the allure of fans. He only wanted to play. He wanted to be loved, to be worshiped, but he didn’t want to sign autographs. If you saw him, you saw him out on the field.
Jerome Charyn is the author of Johnny One-Eye, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, and The Seventh Babe, a novel about a white third baseman on the Red Sox who also played in the Negro Leagues. Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil is on Facebook.