Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Out In Left Field...

By Clark Westfied

"You can observe alot just by watching."
-Yogi Berra

“Where Have you Gone Joe DiMaggio?”

I grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s and inherited my religion (Jewish) and politics (Democratic) from my parents. I also inherited my baseball team—the New York Yankees. Despite the image of the Yankees as the “Evil Empire,” the team of multimillion dollar players, and an owner who buys his way to the playoffs and World Series, I have remained a faithful Yankees fan for the past fifty years. I do so because for me the Yankees will always represent the working-class Bronx neighborhoods in which I lived that surrounded the Stadium and to this day remain the home of a new generation of immigrants. The Yankees were my neighborhood team. On game days and nights I could hear the cheers rise up above the Stadium whenever something good happened for the home team on the field. I also remember seeing some of the ballplayers walk along 161st Street on their way to the apartments they rented during the season or to the Concourse Plaza, the hotel in which they stayed.

My earliest baseball memories date back to 1951 when Joe DiMaggio still strode center field, a majestic figure who looked like he was a member of the British royal family. He only looked that way, but like me he was the son of working-class immigrants who settled on the West Coast in search of the American Dream. “Joltin’ Joe” more than fulfilled their dreams by becoming the highest paid baseball player of his era and marrying the all-American dream girl, Marilyn Monroe. My family loved DiMaggio, even idolized him, I think, because he represented hard work, grace under pressure, discipline, and success. You didn’t have to be Italian to worship Joe and see him as a symbol for all ethnic-Americans. They also revered him because DiMaggio remained aloof, somewhat apart from the rest of us. His regal manner did not put people off from him; it made them believe that he was a demi-God and deserved to be worshipped. His popularity came, in part, because he seemed patrician and above it all. He stayed in the penthouse and did not mingle with the people like his contemporary, another Joe, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who attracted fame by dwelling in the gutter and acting like a demagogue (not a demi-God).

I think about all this upon hearing the news that the diaries Joe D. kept from 1982-1993 are up for sale. Those who have seen them emphasize their quotidian nature. He jotted down his routine appointments, tabulated his daily expenses, and brooded about how many people made demands upon him for his autograph or interrupted his dinner to shake his hand (indeed, my father who was retired and living near Fort Lauderdale in the 1980s, ran into DiMaggio in a restaurant and did just that). Whatever grace and charisma old number 5 showed on the ball field, in his private life he was boring and uncomfortable around most folks. Even the Yankees Hall of Famer, Whitey Ford, who played with Joe in 1950, recently remarked that he never understood DiMaggio. Who else’s humdrum writings could command the asking price of $1.5 million? Yet none of this bothers me or diminishes my reverence for this son of immigrants who brought so much happiness to us Bronxites. The fact that he was uncomfortable with celebrity only enhances his appeal. In an age of false stardom, i.e., Paris Hilton and her ilk, it is refreshing to recall a man who derived his fame through his abundant talents in his chosen profession and not through a publicist’s fantasies and the unrelenting demands of entertainment T.V.

America needs more of you Joe DiMaggio


July 17, 1941

Clark Westfield is a pseudonym for a Professor at Rutgers University and a non-fiction writer, who in the twilight of his distinguished career, wishes to fan the flame of mystery. Out In Left Field is a column devoted to all things New York, Baseball, Entertainment, Politics, and History.

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