The Yankee Clipper ship has sailed into the sunset
“He was a great ballplayer and hurts to see him go.”
So wrote Arthur Daley in his “Sports of the New York Times” column. The date was Dec. 12, 1951. Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, had just announced his retirement as a ballplayer. The announcement was not unexpected, but it was received painfully by an adoring public.
On a cloudy afternoon two months earlier, I was seated in the upper deck of the right-field stands in Yankee Stadium, looking down at “Joltin’ Joe” manning his familiar center-field post. It was the sixth game of the ’51 World Series; the Yankees were about to finish off the New York Giants and take another world championship. No one was sure, however, until Joe told us in December that “it was no longer fun anymore.”
As young New York teen-agers following his career, we relished his stardom and his leadership. But the dimension of his impact and his ultimate heroic stature for future generations could not be imagined then. To a now 64-year-old Yankees fan, who frequently saw him play in person for six years of his 13-year career, the tributes that he now receives underscore the feeling of profound privilege to have been able to watch him in his prime.
Paul Simon, who composed “Mrs. Robinson” with its lyric “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” suggests because the song’s lines have been embraced over the years, there’s a yearning for heroes, and heroism speaks to the subconscious desires of our culture.
“We need heroes,” Simon writes in the New York Times, “and we search for candidates to be anointed.”
* * *
The sign in his room read, “April 9 – Yankee Stadium or Bust.” DiMaggio was looking forward to another appearance at the plate.
The Clipper had come through in the clutch in January, figuratively taking another swing for the fences. The doctors, pundits and the fans were watching again as the opposing pitcher – lung cancer and pneumonia – got two strikes past him. But why did so many people prematurely count him out?
After all, he had spent his career showing American League and World Series hurlers how difficult it was to get the third strike by him. In that entire time period – through 1,736 games – he incredibly struck out only 369 times. During his historic 56-game hitting streak over a two-month period in 1941, he fanned only seven times.
DiMag lay in a hospital bed during the winter with complications from his cancer. Discussions were rampant about whether life support systems should or shouldn’t be sustained. Last rites were to be administered. The metaphor was clear. Joe D had two strikes on him again. But why should the odds have been any different this time?
It was to be another moment of triumph. He unloaded and sent one into the left-field bleachers. You know, right over that auxiliary scoreboard. Only this time, the crowd who came to its feet wasn’t just in Yankee Stadium, it was all around the world, and it cut across a half-dozen generations.
Who could know then that this would be the last trot around the bases? DiMaggio left the hospital on Jan. 19. The home run had been hit in the visitor’s ballpark. He now could look forward to his next plate appearance at Yankee Stadium only a few months away – opening day on April 9.
The most remarkable part of this story to this fan is that his passing not only impacted those of us who admired his talents firsthand, but that his life and exploits are so deeply affecting all of us, no matter what generation we come from. Only two days’ expressions of praise and reverence from all over the country and all over the age spectrum demonstrate what his presence among us has meant.
The opposing pitcher went into his windup and fired. He finally got the third one by him. The announcement was not unexpected, but it is received painfully by an adoring public. And a nation mourns. He was a great ballplayer and a great hero, and it hurts to see him go.
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