Burton on the Bay:
Elegy for a Hero:
It Wasn't So with Joltin' Joe
Heroes are created by popular demand, sometimes out of the scantiest materials, or none at all.
--Gerald White Johnson: American Heroes and Hero Worship, 1943
Not so with the late Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, a hero who had all the materials -- and who displayed them best at a time when this nation needed a hero.
The Yankee Clipper's 56-game hitting streak took our minds briefly from the hard times lingering from the Great Depression, from news reports of the pounding the British were taking from Hitler and from concerns -- well founded, it turned out -- that we, too, would soon be at war.
It was 1941, a decade before our paths would cross, that Joe set the major league hitting-streak record. I remember that season well. School chum Bill Stone was a Red Sox fan; I was all Yankees.
It was that way in much of New England but for Massachusetts, which of course was 99.9 percent Red Sox territory. Elsewhere in that Northeast niche, Yankee followers were quite evident -- and vocal.
Amidst ongoing arguments on which team was best, a pair stood out: Joltin' Joe DiMaggio and Thumpin' Ted Williams.
Even Red Smith couldn't have written a more exciting script for the '41 face-off between the two teams.
DiMaggio came up with at least one hit in 56 consecutive games. Terrible Ted's batting average headed for .406. Though war dispatches from across the Atlantic hogged the front pages, baseball news gained some Page One space most days.
The Yankees won the American League pennant, then in five games beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. Sweetening the pot, the Clipper combined his streak, his .357 batting average and his league-leading 125 runs batted to win the Most Valuable Player award.
Williams, the Splendid Splinter, claimed the last batting title of .400 or better in the books to this day, but the Jolter, though he batted only .263 in the World Series, led his team from day one of the regular season to the final out of '41, culminating with the most coveted crown in Sportsdom. Take that Bill Stone, and all the rest of you Yankee haters and Ted Williams boosters.
What a summer it was, that of 1941. Less than six months down the road would be Pearl Harbor. Both Williams, who referred to himself as "Teddy Ball Game," and Joe went off to war. They returned and resumed their rivalry, but the summer of '41 was never to be recaptured.
We Got the Picture
All of this was b.t., before television. The only place one could actually see the graceful swing of the Yankee Clipper and the wicked one of the Thumper was the ball park -- unless we visited the movie house for newsreel recaps and updates.
The pictures in the daily press displayed only a single frame of their stances at the plate. Radio announcers like Red Barber tried their best, but how could even he describe in words alone their trademark swings? Somehow, we got the picture. Dreary and worried lives were caught up in the drama.
Those two were heroes among heroes, legends among legends. The line-ups of both teams were loaded with talent -- whose names, minus pitchers, were already printed in on our dime scorecards. In those glorious and secure days, fans lived with their players season after season.
The Red Sox also had the immortal Western Marylander Lefty Grove, and Joe Cronin, and let's not forget the aging star from the Eastern Shore Jimmy Foxx, good old Double X who was still a kingly swatter in his own right.
My boyhood hero, Lou Gehrig, who was to pass away later that year, was already gone from the Yankee lineup, I believe replaced by Buddy Hassett. Others on the roster included Bill Dickey, a mean man with the bat behind the plate, and Red Rolfe at third. Flanking DiMaggio in the outfield were Tommy Henrich and Marylander Charlie "King Kong" Keller. At shortstop, Charlie Crossetti was not much with the bat but a fellow who could snare any ball in the air or on the ground anywhere near him.
Pitchers included Spud Chandler, Red Ruffing and the clown of them all, Lefty Gomez. Why, even Whitey Ford, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle would have to have earned a slot on that team.
In the Flesh
It wasn't until '48 that I saw DiMaggio play. As news editor of Radio Station WSKI in Montpelier, Vt., I sat in the Red Sox press box for a New England Day game promotion designed to boost attendance from areas surrounding Boston. For the occasion, the Yankees were in town.
DiMaggio hit a homer early in the game. Williams followed an inning or two later. Then in the Yankee ninth with a couple of men on base, the New Yorkers two runs down, Joltin' Joe hit two foul balls into the shadows of the bleachers. With a three-two count, the next one went into the left field stands É and Williams and his Sox couldn't get back into the game.
I was only 22, too young, too inexperienced and too much in awe of my hero to question him in the clubhouse after the game. But I got the opportunity three years later when one Sunday afternoon Gomez, then a rep for baseball-maker Spalding of Springfield, Mass., visited the Springfield Morning Union, where I worked as a reporter.
With him was DiMaggio. No sports reporters had checked in yet, so I got the assignment to interview them for a short piece on a Spalding promotion . They took me to lunch. What a pair: Lefty the jokester would be the life of any party, Joe the wallflower -- just a listener with a word or two now and then. Quiet but nice.
Capt. Buddy Harrison says DiMaggio was the same when Brooks Robinson took him to Chesapeake House at Tilghman Island for a fishing trip the day before an Old Timers game at Washington. "Pleasant company, but quiet, and not much interested in fishing," says Buddy. "He was awfully shy."
But DiMaggio wasn't shy with his Louisville Slugger or his glove -- or even when doing Mr. Coffee commercials many years later. On the ball field, Joltin' Joe had quiet confidence, a classic swing and elegant grace. He made the most difficult feats seem simple and easy for 13 seasons with three years off for army duty. What statistics: .325 lifetime batting average, 2,214 hits, 361 homers, only 369 strikeouts and hardly an error afield.
I called the Sun's John Steadman to ask what he figured DiMaggio, who finally got $100,000 one season at the end, would be worth in the current market. Without hesitation, John responded "double what any players of any sport get today."
And that's just for playing. Think of what he'd be worth today as a role model, a legitimate hero, a sports figure with humility and grace. Even deep pockets George Steinbrenner wouldn't be able to afford him.
Every hero becomes a bore, at last. So Emerson wrote in 1850. But that was 86 years before the Yankee Clipper made his debut at Yankee Stadium.