Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Joe DiMaggio's Heel And The Dying Of The Light

Joe DiMaggio's legend was already secure when he went down this week in 1949. He came back swinging, but time was already at work on him and his legend.

by Steven Goldman
Mar 3 2016, 8:34pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Warner Pathe Archives

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

This week in 1949, New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio was forced to leave training camp to undergo treatment for bone spurs in his right heel, a painful injury for which he'd had surgery the previous November. Months later, the three-time Most Valuable Player's foot still hadn't recovered and rumors circulated that he would soon be forced into retirement. Instead, he came on when his team needed him most, saving the season with one of the great series of his career.

And that there is the setup for a fun baseball story, but one that probably pops a bit more for those readers who were personally hanging on the outcome of the 1949 American League pennant race. In 2016, there are probably slightly more Javan rhinos in the world than there are members of that group. It could have greater resonance, though, because for some reason Joe DiMaggio was a guy who kept having episodes like that, something that's pretty unusual. We can debate the reason why he did, whether it was character or coincidence, but what seems inarguable is that people—men or women, athletes or not—who rise to the occasion in quite the same way are strikingly rare. Yet, even if we can recognize and respect DiMaggio for providing the 1940s with a quality we don't have now, he still won't fully satisfy our need to observe greatness because those moments aren't ours. They can't be.

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Let's quickly finish the story. DiMaggio missed the first two months of the 1949 season and was still absent well into June. He could hit, but he couldn't run. His reports during this time were pessimistic. "I suppose I look on the dark side of things, but I think that is wise," he said. "Maybe the pain will disappear." He'd test his foot from time to time, get bad results, slink back to bed. Simultaneously, the Yankees, with an aging, fragile roster, had players dropping all over the field. The only position player to make it through anything like a full season was shortstop Phil Rizzuto, and he did this despite a bad arm that hindered his throws. The pitching staff stayed strong, though, and with some creative patching from new manager Casey Stengel, the team played surprisingly well, holding first place on June 28 as they headed to Fenway Park to play the Boston Red Sox.

The Sox were a good team, with Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr et al. Though they entered the series in third place, they came in hot, having won 10 of their last 11 games. During that stretch they had hit .353 as a team and drawn 63 walks, or seven more than Salvador Perez has drawn in his last 430 games. The Yankees, idling along at 6-5 during the same stretch, looked ready to break.

DiMaggio tested the heel in an exhibition on June 27 and unexpectedly felt no pain. The next day he made a last-minute decision to play. In the three games that ensued, he personally destroyed the Red Sox, going 5-for-11 with four home runs and nine RBI; the Yankees swept. The Clipper would miss time again later that season, that time due to illness, but he saved his best games for Boston: On the season he played 13 games against them and hit .381/.527/.929 with six home runs. The Yankees won the pennant over the Sox by a single game, clinching against them in head-to-head play on the last day of the season. DiMaggio had everything to do with that, and with the World Series championship that followed. Maybe this means something to you and maybe it doesn't.

Joe DiMaggio in 1951, possibly contemplating the end and possibly not. — Image via Wikimedia Commons/Warner Pathe Archives

It is hard to believe that there is anything new to say about Joltin' Joe. He has been simultaneously mythologized—listen to "Mrs. Robinson" or read the Old Man musing at length over those bone spurs in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea—and self-mythologizing; after having been voted America's "Greatest Living Baseball Player" in a 1969 poll of sportswriters, DiMag spent the rest of his life insisting he be introduced by that title. His status as a Hall of Famer and even as a shill for Bowery Savings and Mr. Coffee have been endlessly rehashed. At long last, 17 years after his death, maybe there isn't anything to say—but that's exactly the point.

It's significant that Paul Simon, who wrote, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you," in 1968 is the same the composer who sang, "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts" in 1986. At the time the former song was written, DiMaggio's playing career was just 17 years in the past. The nation teemed with those who had seen him play and had subconsciously used his 1941 56-game hitting streak as a psychological method of prolonging that summer and so holding off the United States' seemingly inevitable entry into the world war that had officially begun in 1939.

On May 27 of that year, President Franklin Roosevelt declared an "unlimited state of national emergency," saying, "The war is approaching the brink of the Western Hemisphere itself. It is coming very close to home." Major League games were interrupted for Roosevelt's speech. "It was estimated," Robert Creamer wrote later, "that 85 million people, or more than half the population of the country in 1941, listened to him." DiMaggio, who was 11 games into the streak heading into that day, went 4-for-5 with a home run against the Washington Senators. It was a frightening time, but DiMaggio collected hits and Americans collected DiMaggio. As long as he kept defying the law of averages, the bombs wouldn't fall and no one would die. (That is, no Americans would die. Asians, Europeans, North Africans—that was already happening.)

The streak, Creamer wrote, "transcended New York; it transcended baseball. Everyone was caught up in it... Every day, all over the country, people asked, 'Did he get one yesterday?'" That's the nature of collecting: Be it comic books, baseball cards, or golden retrievers, there's always one more to acquire. It's how we bargain with mortality. DiMaggio happened to occupy two simultaneously-occurring historic moments, one his own record hitting streak, the other a world in the process of slaughtering tens of millions of people. The convergence of those events provided a distraction to millions.

Literally no other player in baseball history can be said to have earned the emotional loyalty of so many in such a significant way. And yet that day is gone. We are going on 65 years since DiMaggio last suited up as an active player. Had Simon looked back that far when writing "Mrs. Robinson," he would have had to ask, "Where have you gone, Christy Mathewson?" The line still scans, but that's all it does.

Holds up. — Image via Wikimedia Commons/Stanford School of Medicine

The reason why run-of-the-mill greatness has an expiration date is simple. It's inherent in the second line of Simon's quoted above, from "Boy in the Bubble." Every generation has its own heroes, and our idols do not have the same impact on those who come after. You had to be there. Whoever you idolize now probably won't have the same meaning to your children and almost definitely won't to theirs. They'll each find heroes suitable to their moment in time. This is how it works.

The first generation of hero-adopters will try to force it, though. Note the lag in the arrival of monuments; they tend to appear at about the moment that the generation directly involved with the people or events depicted are about to shuffle off the stage. The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, nearly 60 years after the great man's assassination. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial's grand opening was in 1997, 52 years after that president's death in office. The National World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2004, 59 years after the Axis powers surrendered. Graying heads embroider the landscape so their culture does not die with them. Monuments have many meanings, but for the people who erect them they are in part gravestones to their own sentimental memories of the world they inhabited, the world from which they are preparing to take their leave.

Sometimes, as with Lincoln, the transcendent nature of the man being memorialized is apparent. With others, DiMaggio perhaps included, the impact is diluted and abstract if you weren't there. It can be hard not to wonder why the old folks are still going on about him/her/it.

Maybe we should take another look. Count back 17 years from today, as Paul Simon did in 1968. Players who were "gone" after 1999: Wade Boggs, Chili Davis, Willie McGee, Tony Phillips, Otis Nixon, Darryl Strawberry, Mark Langston, Tom Candiotti... No disrespect to any of the players listed, but no one is going to be asking where they have gone. Maybe they could have been the man, but didn't have the moment; maybe they had the moment, but weren't the man. You know what's wrong with that thesis, though: We've had moments of need all over the place.

So maybe every generation doesn't throw a hero up the pop charts. Maybe there is more to say about Joe DiMaggio after all—not, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" but where the next one is hiding. Who today could bring Americans together like he did, and can we even conceive of such a person? Who will we remember, and our children forget?

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