When Paul Simon wrote his signature song for "The Graduate," he was speaking to the loss of a more innocent and noble time in America. It has been said that Simon chose DiMaggio because of his "unpretentious, yet heroic stature." DiMaggio, the eighth child of nine, was the son of Italian immigrants from San Francisco. By all accounts DiMaggio was a great baseball player; in the class of a Derrick Jeter or Alex Rodriguez. Amidst the glamour and intense public scrutiny, DiMaggio remained a private person with the exception of his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
DiMaggio had an understated grace, an air of dignity and an unquestioned fidelity to the game of baseball. DiMaggio captured the public's attention for his reticence and he held an incredible power in his eloquent silence. Was he a hero? To the extent that a sports figure can be a hero, DiMaggio was. Not a womanizer or an alcoholic as Ruth and Mantle were alleged to be, DiMaggio seemed to realize how lucky he was to play a game and to get paid a lot of money for doing so. DiMaggio acknowledged that he had a responsibility to his team and to his fans.
In fairness to contemporary athletes, the media does not protect sports heroes as they once did. Babe Ruth's off the field exploits are legendary, as are Mantle's. The newspapermen of the day did not focus on the athlete off the field, but rather his performance on the field.
Tiger Woods has recently suffered the public pillory that Ruth and Mantle did not. His greatness as an athlete aside, Woods has been unfaithful to his wife. Many of his high dollar sponsors have dropped him from lucrative advertisement contracts. The women that came forward to "tell all" would have never succeeded in Ruth or Mantle's day because the story would have never been printed.
From where I stand, I can appreciate an athlete's performance and the dedication that it must have taken to perfect their ability. I don't expect athletes to be virtuous, clearly, many are not.
Maybe we would feel better about professional athletes if we let them live their personal lives just as we do. This might put a more rational perspective on celebrities and sports stars. If they are experiencing marital discord, that is their private business. If they have a problem with drugs and alcohol that is their private challenge to resolve.
Joe DiMaggio appears to have been a rare athlete, one who performed at the highest level of his sport, acted with a modicum of humility, while largely rejecting the spotlight, living out his personal life out of the spotlight. If he was struggling with demons, he struggled in private, just as the rest of us do. Remember, all kids count.
Scot Hurlburt can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org