Joe DiMaggio: Still America's Hero

Article excerpt

The thoughts of the sports world these days are focused on Joe DiMaggio, our greatest sports hero.

There are those who contend such a designation perhaps belongs to Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, or Jim Thorpe. They are wrong. While each of the contenders is worthy in some ways, each falls short in others: Ali because of our suspicions about the ways of boxing, Ruth and Thorpe because of their off-field behavior in which they found too much solace in late-night carousing.

It's not only our respect for DiMaggio, who retired in 1951, but the awe in which we stand of him. As he has been struggling with ailments in a Hollywood, Fla., hospital - he has been administered last rites several times by a Roman Catholic priest - we happily have been seeing him in our minds not bedridden but starring in Yankee Stadium. DiMaggio is best known for hitting safely in 56 straight games in 1941; nobody else has exceeded 44. In the pressure-packed last 10 games of The Streak, he hit a scintillating .575. He was Most Valuable Player three times (once beating out Ted Williams in the year Williams hit .406), batting champ, home-run champ. He was an exquisite center fielder and brilliant base runner. He did all of this and much more while having to miss three seasons while serving in World War II, the longest absence of any player with the exception of Williams. Oddly, DiMaggio's athletic ability - replete with silky smoothness - is how we came to know him but not how we define him in our hearts. In his playing days, he was a storied elegance and a stately grace. He was Our American Hero. So we're talking perfection? Absolutely not. And that's how we can measure our admiration. DiMaggio is flawed but we always have forgiven him. For example: When his health failed, the reclusive DiMaggio became furious with his doctors for disclosing his condition to the public. He ordered loose lips sealed. It was the ultimate selfishness. After all, we wanted to know because we care. But that's OK. We forgive. In 1954, he married America's most stared-at movie star of the time, Marilyn Monroe. Gosh, Joe, were you sure this was the right thing? It seemed a trifle cheesy to us prudes. After 275 days of marriage, they divorced. …