Baseball requires an uneasy combination of individual excellence and selfless teamwork. Joe DiMaggio epitomized both.
His 56-game hitting streak, his 361 career home runs compared to only 369 strikeouts, and his graceful mastery of Yankee Stadium's vast centerfield attest to his skills. And unlike the other premier ballplayer of his era, Boston's Ted Williams, DiMaggio was always willing to sacrifice his personal statistics for the team. With a game on the line, for instance, he wouldn't hesitate to swing at pitches out of the strike zone, whereas the more statistic-conscious Williams was notorious in such circumstances for accepting walks.
But DiMaggio's ballplaying abilities alone don't explain the aura around him that has been widely remarked on since his death early this week. Here let us recall that in the summer of 1941, as he achieved baseball immortality and riveted the nation's attention with his hitting streak, Nazi troops were gobbling up Europe and President Roosevelt was declaring a state of national emergency. The next year, DiMaggio took a three-year furlough from baseball to serve in the army air force. And throughout his post-1951 retirement he preserved a quiet dignity that is now so rare among the rich and famous that it seems as attached to a bygone era as boater hats and cigarette girls.
Thus DiMaggio became a symbol of the America of World War Two, and his death has been the occasion for an outpouring of a kind of national nostalgia. Indeed, this comes on the heels of a series of best-selling books celebrating the World War Two generation most recently Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, which argues that it surpassed in virtue and achievement any generation of Americans before or since.
Honoring heroes of the past is a good and grand thing, and is an indispensable help to maintaining high standards in the present. But a nostalgic or sentimental regard for the past is more likely to dispirit and weaken us. For instance, Saving Private Ryan is an inspiring movie to those of us who watch it with the kind of wonderment with which children study their hard-working and loving parents. But its director, Steven Spielberg, has been quoted as saying that for him, the movie is a nostalgic tribute to past heroism that he knows he (and presumably we) could never emulate.
George Will has criticized Yale classicist Donald Kagan and other "baseball romantics" who take the view that baseball's "golden age" is past, and that the heroic likes of DiMaggio are unlikely to be seen again. Will has pointed to then-Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser's 59 scoreless innings in 1988 and would likely point to Mark McGwire's 70-home run season in 1998 to suggest that such nostalgia is misguided.
Will is correct. Baseball in 1999 affords the same possibility of excellence as in 1941, and today's ballplayers are as capable of achieving it as those of DiMaggio's generation. The same is true of America, and of our potential as citizens. It is in this spirit that we should mark the passing of Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, and should pay our respects to his generation not with wistful sentimentality, but with awe and admiration for these men who were the glory of their times.