Joe DiMaggio was born 100 years ago today. On the occasion, John Harper of the Daily News talks with baseball historian John Thorn about the Yankee Clipper’s legacy. One that, in Thorn’s view, is a bit greater than the actual baseball merits. Or, to put it like the headline puts it, one that is overrated:
“Baseball is our national religion,” said Thorn. “And belief in DiMaggio is a central tenet. I’m not pooh-poohing him. It’s just that he has been the subject of so much apotheosis — the elevation to the heavens — that it calls for analysis from Dr. Freud rather than Branch Rickey.”
This is undeniably true. DiMaggio was a great hitter, but he was nowhere near the hitter of his contemporary Ted Williams. He was a good center fielder, but he wasn’t even the best defensive center fielder in his own family, for pete’s sake. While one can make a good argument that DiMaggio was the best all-around player on the best team for a handful of years, to suggest — as baseball fans and writers openly suggested for years following his retirement — that DiMaggio was, at any time in his life, “Baseball’s Greatest Living Player” is more than a little crazy. Indeed, at no time in his life was DiMaggio anything close to that, mostly because Willie Mays outlived him and still lives today.
But I think Harper and Thorn get at why the tendency to overrate DiMaggio persists when they talk about how DiMaggio was perceived. And it makes a lot of sense.
Part of it was the hitting streak in 1941 which truly riveted the nation in ways that no baseball event had ever done in close to real time like that. That’s pretty key. Also key: DiMaggio’s Italian-American heritage, which today may not seem like a big deal but certainly was in the 1930s and 40s, giving a lot of people a hero and role model who never truly had one in baseball. Also, don’t sell short the fact that DiMaggio was the star of choice for the parents of Baby Boomers. We’ve seen how outsized a phenomenon can be if Boomers talk about it. You have to figure that also applies to things Boomers talk about their parents talking about, which easily extended DiMaggio’s legacy into the 60s, 70s and beyond.
But Thorn reminds us that, whatever we say about DiMaggio on the merits, that’s not everything when it comes to talking about baseball history:
“But when you put it all together, I think the myth counts. The story counts. It’s not just stats. The DiMaggio myth transcends history and you deny it at your peril. I admire his performance, I’m just letting a little air out of the balloon.”
I think the same can be said about the Derek Jeter coverage of the past few years too. It’s possible to let some air out of the balloon because, man, there’s a lot of air in it, but let’s not forget why there was air there in the first place. DiMaggio (and Jeter) were important to a lot of people. They were leaders of teams that won and the exploits of those teams are, for better or worse, put in their individual columns. Which is fine because most baseball fans don’t consume baseball like analysts do. They have the game as memories and memories often need symbolic placeholders like that.
Anyway, happy 100th Joltin’ Joe. Overrated? Sure. But undeniably great for reasons that transcend our rating of players.