American idol has a different meaning than seventy years ago.
| In the summer if 1941, America needed a diversion from growing global tensions that would eventually drag the country into World War II. The bombing of Pear Harbor occurred latter that year on December 7th.
The diversion came from an Italian-American Major League Baseball player in the form of a 56 game hitting streak that stands unbeaten to this day. The streak is an amazing athletic accomplishment that major league players have chased for almost 70 years. In 1941, people gathered around the radio or eagerly read newspapers, waiting to see if the streak would continue. “Did he get a hit?” was the question on everyone’s lips. His graceful running and fielding, along with an admirable work ethic, propelled him to become one of the best baseball players of the century. He will be remembered not only as a great baseball player but also as a humble person who avoided attention.
DiMaggio's icon status was bigger than life. The man retired from baseball almost 60 years ago. There two generations of baseball fans, like myself, who know him only from scratchy black and white highlight reels and Mr. Coffee commercials? But we still consider him one of the greatest ball players ever.
So why has his fame woven its way into American History? Perhaps folks identified with the discrimination he faced as an Italian-American or maybe it was his marriage to Marilyn Monroe after his retirement. People liked him for whatever reason. His death in 1999 brought back remembrances of a time when baseball was both played with and held to a higher level of dignity and respect.
DiMaggio felt a responsibility to his hero status. His pursuit of excellence permeated the way he conducted himself as a player and a person. He quietly went about his work in a calm, stoic and polite manor. He made no controversial statements to reporters. He rarely said much, letting the public form its opinion from his performance. He did nothing to damage the American Idealism and aura people placed on him. He held himself to the highest standards and retired from the game when he no longer felt he could meet those standards. He considered no prolonged comebacks. He walked away from the game still performing at his best.
In 1941, money was not the driving problematic force that plagues Major League Baseball today. Salaries have escalated beyond even imaginable amounts alienating fans. How can average folks struggling with the costs of just getting by relate to a baseball player making millions a year? Greed has driven a wedge between Major League Baseball and the American public. Joltin' Joe's salary was quite modest compared to today’s standards.
In their 1960's song Mrs. Robinson, Simon and Garfunkel sing, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Will there ever be another hero big enough in America that unifies and strengthens the country as the "Yankee Clipper" did? People will argue it was a simpler time. That might hold some truth, but if DiMaggio were playing today, would young and old hold him up as America's "Golden Boy"? Or would his modesty and grace be lost in the materialism and self-centered "me-first mentality prevalent in the game today?
One can only hope and dream that through all the layers of hype, greed and commercialism people would allow DiMaggio to be their role model and hero. I wait patiently for the next great American hero. I long to be part of embracing everything that is still good about America.