It's Friday, July 17, 2020, the day of the week when I reprise an instructive or inspirational quotation. Today's concerns Joe DiMaggio, whose amazing 56-game hitting streak ended on this date in 1941.
Few fans are still alive who were in the stands at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on July 17, 1941 when the Yankees came to town. But most baseball aficionados know what happened that day: Joe DiMaggio was robbed twice by sure-handed Indians' third baseman Ken Keltner, ending his the Yankee Clipper's hitting streak at 56 games, an astonishing record. During the streak, which began on May 15, DiMaggio had 91 hits in 223 official at-bats for a batting average of .408, with 15 home runs and 55 runs batted in. He struck out only five times. Was Joltin' Joe disappointed that this feat, which has never been approached in the ensuing eight decades, was over? It doesn't seem so. He laced up his spikes the next day and started another 15-game hit streak by singling and doubling off future Hall-of-Famer Bob Feller.
While on the road playing the Senators later that summer, DiMaggio's fellow Yankees threw a surprise party for him at the team hotel in Washington. Joe's friend Lefty Gomez presented him with an elegant humidor from Tiffany's, engraved with the signature of every player on the squad. Although not the most emotionally demonstrative man, DiMaggio was moved. Tommy Heinrich said he saw tears in Joe's eyes. "I didn't know you guys felt this way about me," DiMaggio murmured.
It turns out that much of the country felt that way, too, and would for another generation. This included Americans who never saw him play in person. Twenty-seven years later, Simon & Garfunkel poignantly expressed this national yearning for heroic excellence and quiet dignity.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.
Some years later, Paul Simon ran into DiMaggio in an Italian restaurant. He'd heard that the song he'd written had displeased the iconic Yankee centerfielder, so Simon approached him with some trepidation. It turned out to be fine. DiMaggio graciously invited him to sit at his table and they had a perfectly cordial conversation. But there was one thing DiMaggio wanted to know: "What I don't understand," he said, "is why you ask where I've gone. I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial, I'm a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven't gone anywhere."
Paul Simon replied patiently that this was too literal an interpretation of the lyrics to "Mrs. Robinson." What he meant by those lines, Simon explained, is that he considered Joe DiMaggio an American hero, and in the late 1960s genuine heroes were in short supply. "He accepted the explanation and thanked me," Simon wrote in the New York Times. "We shook hands and said good night."
Simon related this story in 1999 on the occasion of DiMaggio's death. He continued:
"Now, in the shadow of his passing, I find myself wondering about that explanation. Yes, he was a cultural icon, a hero if you will, but not of my generation. He belonged to my father's youth: He was a World War II guy whose career began in the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and ended with the arrival of the youthful Mickey Mantle (who was, in truth, my favorite ballplayer).
In the '50s and '60s, it was fashionable to refer to baseball as a metaphor for America, and DiMaggio represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment 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. It was said that he still grieved for his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, and sent fresh flowers to her grave every week. Yet as a man who married one of America's most famous and famously neurotic women, he never spoke of her in public or in print. He understood the power of silence."
Reading those words at the time, I realized for the first time, as I suspect many others did, how carefully Simon had chosen the allusion to a retired baseball star. These weren't throwaway lines, and it's no coincidence that they came from the same mind that produced a classic song of that era, "The Sounds of Silence." Then the great songwriter finished his thought about the great Joe DiMaggio:
"He was the antithesis of the iconoclastic, mind-expanding, authority-defying '60s, which is why I think he suspected a hidden meaning in my lyrics. The fact that the lines were sincere and that they've been embraced over the years as a yearning for heroes and heroism speaks to the subconscious desires of the culture. We need heroes, and we search for candidates to be anointed."
And that's our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.