From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 13, 1999

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / March 13, 1999

A nation’s lonely eyes got a little lonier Monday morning.

When Joe DiMaggio passed away Monday after a five-month long battle with lung cancer, so did part of a simplier time. DiMaggio was not just abaseball legend, he was an American one as well. The son of a fishermanshowed all that was right not only about the game he played but the country itself.

Lou Gehrig, DiMaggio’s teammate in his early years, was called the Pride of the Yankees. DiMaggio was the pride of the country, the epitome ofgrace and dignity. Few players before or since have gotten the kind ofrespect, or deserved it, from not only his own fans but in every city he visited, than DiMaggio.

Most fans probably know DiMaggio from his 56-game hitting streak in 1941, a streak that turned the country’s attention away from the war raging in Europe at the time. DiMaggio would later serve his country inthat war, sacrificing three years in his prime. Who knows what his careernumbers might have been had he played those years.

Despite missing those years and playing in what was not the most ideal hitter’s ballpark, Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio still put up some impressive figures. In a 13-year career, the Yankee Clipper had 2,214 hits, 361 homeruns and 1,537 runs batted in while batting .325. Only twice in his careerdid his average fall under .300 for a season – 1946, his first year backfrom the war (and he still hit 25 home runs and had 95 RBIs); and his last year, 1951.

In addition to his 56-game hit streak (he went on to get a hit in 16 more games after it was stopped, meaning he had one in 72 of 73 games), DiMaggio had a 61-game hit streak with San Francisco in the minors. Butthere are three statistics that might be even more impressive. Whilehitting his 361 home runs, he struck out only 369 times, the best ratio for a slugger this century. In his 13-year career with New York, the Yankeeswon 10 pennants and nine World Series titles. And not once during allthose years was Joltin Joe thrown out going from first to third.

DiMaggio’s hit streak may be one of baseball’s unbreakable records but the grace and class he showed on and off the field will also go on. Playingcenter field, DiMaggio was a symbol of grace chasing down a fly ball in Yankee Stadium.

Only once, it is said, did he show emotion of the field, that when Brooklyn’s Al Gionfriddo robbed him of a hit in the 1947 World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers.

DiMaggio was immortalized by both Ernest Hemmingway and Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Off the field, he gained attention by both marryingMarilyn Monroe and by being “Mr. Coffee.” But No. 5 left his own indelible images on the field, images tht made himnot only a baseball hero but an American hero as well.

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