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Where Have You Gone, Joe?

In 1954, when she married Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe interrupted their honeymoon in Japan to spend a couple of days entertaining the troops in Korea.

She was then at the height of her fame as America's favorite sex symbol, and the GIs welcomed her provocative presence with predictable enthusiasm.

When she returned to her husband in Japan, Marilyn cooed in her breathless way, "Oh, Joe, you've never heard such cheering!"

To which DiMaggio, of course, replied: "Oh, yes, I have."

No wonder the marriage didn't last. The lady clearly had only a dim appreciation of the fact that she had married an American icon, for whom thunderous cheers had been routine events during the years when he led the New York Yankees to 10 pennants and nine world championships.

At a time when baseball was truly the national pastime - far and away the most popular sport in America - DiMaggio was the game's biggest star, a hero of almost mythic proportions.

What other athlete has been immortalized in the pages of a celebrated book by one of America's greatest novelists, as DiMaggio was in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea?

And 16 years after he played his last game, he served as a symbol of a golden past - a lost Arcadia - in the hit song by Simon and Garfunkel:

"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

DiMaggio was not the greatest hitter of his generation. That honor justly belongs to his chief rival for superstardom - Ted Williams. And there may have been one or two other contemporary center fielders who could play that position as well as Joe.

But if you consider all the varied gifts he brought to the game, the sum total of his component parts - hitting, fielding, throwing, base-running, savvy, and temperament - he had no peer. During the late 1930s and '40s, Joe D. was simply the best all-around player in the major leagues - i.e, the best in the world.

My favorite story about DiMaggio concerns a conversation that took place in the Yankee locker room after a World Series game in 1947.

By then, the Yankee Clipper was a little past his prime. His best years had been just before World War II when he won back-to-back batting titles, hitting .381 in 1939 and .352 in 1940.

And that was followed by the epic season of 1941 when DiMaggio accomplished one of the most extraordinary feats in baseball history: hitting safely in 56 straight games, a towering record that has never been broken. Indeed, it has never been seriously threatened.

During that summer in particular, the nation turned its eyes to Joltin' Joe DiMaggio and didn't look away until the streak finally ended.

But then, as was the case with other star athletes of that era, DiMaggio's baseball career was interrupted by military service, and when the war finally ended and all the troops came marching home, Joe's talents seemed to have diminished a bit. So much so that in 1946, his first year back in basebal, he hit only .290 - the only time he failed to reach .300 since he joined the Yankees in 1936.

Still, he bounced back the next year, hitting .315 with 20 home runs and leading the Yankees to another pennant.

Their World Series opponent that year was the Brooklyn Dodgers, and DiMaggio's counterpart in center field was Pete Reiser, who was known for his defensive skills and daring.

But in one of the games at Yankee Stadium, Reiser had a terrible day, misjudging fly balls and almost getting hit on the head a couple of times.

Talking to reporters after the game, DiMaggio urged them not to be too harsh on poor Pete Reiser. And then he proceeded to explain how difficult it was to play center field in Yankee Stadium under World Series conditions.

Part of the problem, he said, was the capacity crowd. It was almost impossible not to lose sight of a fly ball against the background of so many faces, shirt collars, and floral arrangements.

Then, too, there was the October light. At that time of the year, the late afternoon sun hits the ball park at a sharp angle, and whoever plays center field has to contend with what DiMaggio called "tricky, slanting shadows."

After DiMaggio completed his plea that Reiser's bad day should be treated with some compassion, one of the reporters who had been listening to all this had the presence of mind to recall that Reiser wasn't the only one who had been playing center field in Yankee Stadium that afternoon.

And that led to the obvious question: "Well, Joe, do those factors handicap you out there?"

Flashing a shy grin, DiMaggio replied: "Now don't start worrying about the old boy after all these years."

That charming yarn is just one of many stories which reveal what his admirers meant when they said that the name Joe DiMaggio was synonymous with class.

Class was something the Clipper had in spades, and no ball player - of any era - ever had more.

Written by Gary Paul Gates