Today is like a holy day of obligation for Big Apple sports enthusiasts. On this date in 1916, the “Great DiMaggio” was born in Martinez, CA. He was and probably still is one of the most revered athletes in our country and perhaps the world. As a kid growing up, all I knew about DiMaggio was based on his statistics as a player, the nostalgic observations of sportswriters and the often embellished memories of the older generation of Yankee fans who were my neighbors on the west end of Amsterdam. While his stats indeed indicated DiMaggio was a great player, the latter two sources considered him a “God.” In fact, during my childhood, one of the most frequently heard lines in any argument between a young fan of Mickey Mantle and an older fan of Joe DiMaggio was “Mantle couldn’t carry DiMaggio’s jock strap.”
I’ve since read quite a few books about DiMaggio and about the Yankees during the DiMaggio era. The last one I read was the critical 2001 biography by Ben Cramer. I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the aura that surrounded the Yankee Clipper was based on his amazing baseball skills and achievements. But a large part of it was also due to the fact that the New York and national sports media of his era worshiped the guy and Joe maneuvered that worship brilliantly. This level of celebrity pandering by the media has become much less possible because today’s athletes get too much exposure. For example, Yankee fans can watch their team play every single spring training, regular and postseason game on high definition, big-screen TVs. Sportswriters are no longer free to embellish something that everyone is seeing with their own eyes. The Internet and the proliferation of sports bloggers has also made hiding a star player’s off-the-field behavior nearly impossible. Just ask A-Rod.
I would have loved to watch Joe DiMaggio play the game but I didn’t get the opportunity. As a die hard Yankee fan, I celebrate his accomplishments. But I believe the truth is that DiMaggio eventually got wrapped up in his own press clippings to the point that he actually believed he was perfect and that everyone else was out to get him. It was the pressure of maintaining that image that made DiMaggio a bitter man, the superstar who would not say a single word to a young Mickey Mantle during the Mick’s rookie season, who thought Casey Stengel was trying to embarrass him into retirement, and who pretty much abandoned his only son. Why is it that people who have so much going for them have such a difficult time just being happy?
Several years ago, I took my boys to a Yankee game and we were sitting next to a young Yankee fan who loved Don Mattingly. He knew everything about the then current team but not so much about Yankee history so when he told me that Mattingly was a better hitter than Mantle was, I couldn’t help myself. I found myself saying, “Son, Mattingly couldn’t carry Mickey Mantle’s jock strap.” I have to admit the line felt good coming out of my mouth until the completely unfazed kid responded with “What’s a jock strap, mister?”