They are unimaginably distant figures whose reigns and lives still somehow revealed something about our ownby Benjamin Markovits / December 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
Long after he’d retired, the great American baseball player Joe DiMaggio was being driven around rural New England looking for the autograph show where he was supposed to sign merchandise. He got lost, and his manager, who was at the wheel, pulled over by the side of the road to ask directions. Middle of nowhere, some farmer on his tractor. “You go right ahead until you see the silo on your right, and then you take—”
In the middle of this recital, the farmer leaned over the open window to look at the guy in the passenger seat. “I see ya, Joe,” he said, and then finished his directions. The point of the story was to say something about the kind of respect DiMaggio inspired. But also how you had to acknowledge somehow that you knew who he was, intimately. I see ya, Joe.
DiMaggio retired in 1951. He’s most famous now for his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe, and for the 56-game hitting streak he went on in 1941, which some statisticians consider to be the most remarkable feat in American sports. Also, for his brief mention in the Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs Robinson”: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
DiMaggio, Simon wrote after his death in 1999, represented the values of a certain type of America: “excellence and fulfilment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life.”
When did people start to think this way? At what point in human history did ballplayers take up the space traditionally occupied by kings and queens—unimaginably distant figures whose reigns and lives still somehow revealed something about our own?
Who wins or loses a match has nothing to do with you, but these things become part of you anyway. My nephew is about to turn seven. Two years ago he got obsessed with English football and for some reason picked Liverpool (he lives in Connecticut) as his team. Last year they missed the title by a single point, and this year they’re odds-on favourites to win.
It’s a piece of good luck in my nephew’s life that reminds me of another Paul Simon refrain: “Never been lonely, / Never been lied to, / Never had to scuffle in fear, / Nothing denied to, / Born at the instant, / The church bells chime, / And the whole world whispering, / Born at the right time.”
I was lucky enough to come of age in the Michael Jordan years. My high school prom coincided with game two of the 1992 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trailblazers. Most of my friends went to the dance; I stayed home and watched. (There was no way I was going to the prom anyway.) The Bulls lost in overtime. Part of the intensity of these relations comes from the age gap between adolescent kids and the players that they identify with. In my case, about 10 years. Those 10 years bridge almost exactly what Keats called, in his apologetic preface to his first book Endymion, “the space” between childhood and adulthood:
“The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy, but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted; thence proceeds mawkishness…”
Those 10 years look a lot different these days. I’m 46 now, Michael is 56—it’s the kind of age difference you can almost ignore between colleagues or friends. But when I was for the first time beginning to imagine an adult life, he was in the prime of his own—Jordan’s jump shot and dunks, his hanging tongue, his pulled-down shorts, are still printed somewhere on my hard drive, like the Pledge of Allegiance or the smell of freshly sharpened pencil.
Years after the song became famous, Paul Simon ran into Joe DiMaggio at a restaurant. The baseball player said to him, What do you mean, where have I gone? “I just did a Mr Coffee commercial, I’m a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank…” Simon explained that he didn’t mean the lines literally, that he thought of him as an American hero and genuine heroes were in short supply. But he might have said, who would have thought that the gods of our youth would grow old? Or, I see ya, Joe.