Glorifying DiMaggio, but Not His Times

By the time you read these words, the death of Joe DiMaggio will be old news. I grew up in a New York City in which he was the greatest of our sports heroes, and I was blessed as a child with an Uncle Ike who took me to the bleachers in Yankee Stadium. My love for baseball and loyalty to the Yankees have remained strong (although George Steinbrenner can really test a man’s faith…).

New York Jews in the 1930s and 1940s were divided into two, the all-rightniks who rooted for the Yankees and the poor schlumps who favored the Brooklyn Dodgers. (The New York Giants must have had some Jewish fans, but I cannot recall any, offhand). Not until 1941 (I don’t count 1916 and 1920) did the Dodgers, perennially mired in the National League basement, win a pennant, only to be crushed by the Yankees in the World Series.

I don’t believe that we young, Jewish Yankee fans ever thought of DiMaggio in ethnic terms, although ethnicity was a factor in our lives. In 1940, I attended junior high school in Corona, a largely Italian community in Queens. That was the year that Mussolini joined Hitler in World War II. On the day that sad event occurred, there was loud cheering from the nearby classrooms; our Rapid Advance class, filled with young Jewish scholars from neighboring Forest Hills, was silent and depressed.

Before World War II, ethnicity was not viewed as positively as it is today. The New York Times’ obituary of DiMaggio included the following quotation from Life Magazine, in a 1938 issue that featured his picture on its cover:

“Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent, and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.”

The Times obituary writer pointed out that this was intended to be complimentary.

Such a jarring statement, appearing in a major publication not noted for its ethnic or religious biases, reminds us that, while society has changed over the years and not always for the better, the “golden ages” of the past, lovingly recalled by politicians and some religious leaders, were as much fancy as fact.

For a more accurate picture of America in those years, tune in any evening to American Movie Classics on cable. There, you will see, in grainy black and white, the movies we were viewing while growing up. In them, blacks are jungle savages, housemaids, tap dancers and comic foils. Asians (Mr. Moto, the perfect Asian stereotype, excepted) are present only as assistants, evil enemies (during the war) and background natives for adventure stories that star white Christians. And Jews don’t exist at all.

In the DiMaggio obituaries that I read, there were several references to Muhammad Ali as being the only American sports figure who matched the Yankee Clipper in stature. In DiMaggio’s time, we would have substituted for Ali, Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” who endeared himself to Jews by knocking out Max Schmeling in the first round of a much-anticipated rematch. The German, to the evident delight of Hitler and his propaganda experts, had stunned Louis in their first bout.

But Louis was not a hero to Jews only; he was, in the patronizing phrase of his day, “a credit to his race.” Louis was praised in the media precisely because, outside the ring, he was humble, deferential, apolitical and “knew his place” — the antithesis of Ali, whose showbiz aura and aggressive but controlled persona were as much reflections of America in the 1960s as was Joe Louis of the earlier period.

In some of the DiMaggio obituaries, I sensed an undercurrent of resentment that today’s heroes and celebrities are so different from those in the years of his prime. It is true that DiMaggio did not conform to our modern concept of celebrity (although he did marry and divorce Marilyn Monroe). He did not live flamboyantly, and he did not seek out the media; he even resented publicity in his post-career life.

I grew up in New York. Nevertheless, Joe DiMaggio was one of my heroes. But I was a child and didn’t appreciate, until much later, how greatly DiMaggio exemplified values at variance with those of the society in which he lived. In the 1930s, the United States was, in large measure, racist, sexist, homophobic, uncaring about the less fortunate, and isolationist. Never did DiMaggio’s image include any of those characteristics.

Six decades later, while we have not eliminated these evils, we are a far different, far more tolerant society. Joe DiMaggio would still be a highly regarded athlete and a highly respected individual. But those who urge a return to some of the questionable values of the years of his triumphs lead us astray. It was enough that he did what he did; we need not, in his name, glorify the past he belonged to.

Contributing writer Yehuda Lev writes from Providence, R.I.