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Jewish World Review March 10, 1999 /22 Adar 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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Joe DiMaggio -- icon of an era

( THE RECENT DEATH of baseball great Joe DiMaggio came as a personal blow to those of us who remember him as an icon of an era. He was judged by many to be the greatest ballplayer of his time and, for some, long after his retirement, as the greatest living ballplayer. He deserved all that -- and more.

In DiMaggio's time, Ted Williams had a higher batting average and Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg hit more homers. But no one put it all together in his own special package like the man they called Joltin' Joe and the Yankee Clipper.

From his first season in baseball -- someone said that DiMaggio was never a rookie -- people marvelled at his combination of great hitting, brilliant fielding, powerful throwing arm and swift, heady base-running.

Although always a home-run threat and twice the league's leader in homers, DiMaggio did not strike out nearly as much as most sluggers. He never struck out 40 times in a season, although many other sluggers struck out four times as often as that.

"Grace" was the word most often used to describe DiMaggio at bat and in the outfield. "Class" was the word most often used to describe him as a man. Legendary Connie Mack, a Hall of Famer who spent 60 years in baseball as player and manager, called DiMaggio the greatest team player of all time. In other words, DiMag added more to a team than players who had better statistics on paper.

Joe DiMaggio's own statistics were impressive enough -- his lifetime batting average of .325, his 46 homers in a season and his record 56-game hitting streak were the kinds of numbers that get ballplayers into the Hall of Fame. But the Yankee Clipper was always more than the sum of his parts.

That is why he was voted Most Valuable Player three times, tying a record that still stands.

DiMaggio's long, graceful strides in the outfield ate up ground without looking like he was making an all-out effort. Everyone remembers Willie Mays' great catch in deep centerfield at the Polo Grounds during the 1954 World Series. Few, however, recall that Joe DiMaggio made a catch even farther back in centerfield in the same Polo Grounds during another World Series more than 15 years earlier.

DiMaggio took the ball about 490 feet from home plate and, without breaking stride, continued on up the steps to the clubhouse, because it was the last out of the game. He made it look easy.

Even after a disappointing season in 1946 -- one of only two seasons when he batted under .300 -- DiMaggio was picked by Dodgers manager Leo Durocher as the man he would most like to have at bat when the game was on the line with two out in the bottom of the ninth and the winning run on base. That year Ted Williams hit .343 and Stan Musial .365 but Durocher still picked DiMaggio as his top clutch hitter.

Two years later, DiMaggio had 155 runs batted in. None of the great sluggers from the 1950s through the 1980s equaled that. Only Sammy Sosa last year topped it with 158 runs batted in, during a longer season. But DiMaggio also had 167 runs batted in during his second season in the major leagues.

After that, pitchers began to walk him more when the game was on the line. Even so, there was many a game that DiMaggio won with a homer in the ninth inning.

When the counter-cultural 1960s movie "The Graduate" wanted to mark the passing of an era, it used a song that asked, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?" and answered "Joltin' Joe has left and gone away." He was the symbol of an age.

DiMaggio's quiet dignity and leadership by example made him a man for thousands of other young men to emulate. He gave many of us not only someone to look up to, but also someone to live up to. We would be better men all our lives because of him.

Fortunately, the fine qualities he represented as a man have not all "left and gone away," though they may now be rarer than they once were. Last year's two most talked-about ballplayers, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, likewise exhibited that elusive thing called "class" at a time when it was most needed and most lacking in other public figures.

May the qualities that Joe DiMaggio epitomized never be something that has "left and gone away."

We would be a much poorer society without them.


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10/21/98: McGwire, Maris and the Babe
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8/17/98: A childish letter
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7/27/98: Faith and mountains
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5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
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5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
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4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
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3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
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3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
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3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
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2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1999, Creators Syndicate