"April 9," read the sign tacked to Joe DiMaggio's bed. "Yankee Stadium or bust." That was the day he was to throw out the symbolic first pitch of the season for the team that had made him an American icon. When he died at age 84, just one month short of his goal, it was a "bust" the entire nation felt.
What had burst, for many, was the last link to a more wholesome and heroic era. Joe DiMaggio was the personification of that era-an Italian-American fisherman's son who rose from poverty to the pinnacle of celebrity without selling his soul or sullying his name.
Even 32 years ago, when Paul Simon first sang "Mrs. Robinson," his lament for lost heroes, Mr. DiMaggio was already the symbol of a better time in a better America. "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin' Joe has left and gone away ... "
The years since then have only reinforced the feeling that something important went away with Mr. DiMaggio's retirement in 1951. In a world with a glut of celebrities and a dearth of heroes, he was one of the few role models that countless parents could urge their sons to emulate.
That was a responsibility he did not try to shirk. Toward the end of his career, hobbled with injuries and flush with records that had already ensured his place in history, Mr. DiMaggio was asked why he continued to play so hard when he had nothing left to prove. Because, he replied, at every game there is most likely a child in the stands who has never before seen him play.
The children who did see him play were never likely to forget it. From his very first season with the New York Yankees-for which he earned just $7,500-he announced with his bat and his glove that he was something special. In his 13 seasons as a Yankee, his team won the pennant 10 times and the World Series nine times. He batted .325, knocked 361 homeruns, and most remarkably of all, hit safely in 56 straight games-a record that has not faced a serious challenge in 57 years.
The Streak, as it will forever be known, held the nation spellbound throughout the summer of 1941. When Cleveland's Ken Keltner finally ended it on July 17 with a pair of remarkable defensive plays, Mr. DiMaggio betrayed no hint of frustration. Instead, he suited up again and proceeded to hit safely in his next 16 consecutive games.
The numbers, though, only partially explain Joe DiMaggio's status as an American hero. Just months after The Streak ended, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, plunging the country into World War II. Despite his status as the world's most popular athlete, Mr. DiMaggio volunteered for the Army, missing three seasons of major league baseball while he taught physical fitness to recruits at a California military base.
Even his mistakes enhanced his mythic status. Shortly after retiring from baseball, America's most popular athlete married Marilyn Monroe, America's most beautiful woman. It was a disastrous pairing. While Mr. DiMaggio shunned the limelight and cultivated good character, his wife craved publicity and obsessed about image. She stepped on a steam grate to promote her movie The Seven Year Itch, sending her skirt billowing around her head. He reportedly found the display cheap and disgusting. They divorced after just nine months.
Through Ms. Monroe's succession of high-profile marriages and juicy affairs, her ex-husband never spoke ill of her. When she finally died of a drug overdose in 1962, it was he who arranged the funeral. For the next 20 years he had roses delivered twice a week to her crypt at the Westwood Village Cemetery. The card read simply, "With love, Joe." He never remarried.
After Mr. DiMaggio's own death on March 8, his family asked that fans not send flowers, but instead make donations to the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital. To the many who viewed him as a hero, however, monetary donations could not express their sense of loss. Newsgroups sprang up instantly all across the Internet, offering tens of thousands of reminiscences, condolences, and reflections on his life.
While his records on the field were legendary, his legacy went much further, if the cyber-eulogies are any indication. Words like dignity, class, character, and grace crop up again and again. After years of political scandal and pop-culture excess, America's hunger for heroes is clear.
"In an era when professional athletes behave like boors and miscreants, it is important to recall that there once was a time when men of dignity and maturity were employed as professional athletes," said one anonymous writer on the Internet. Although some athletes a half century ago also were boors, the appeal is evident: "Joe DiMaggio was a class act from a bygone day, when athletes could sincerely be considered as national heroes, and his passing signals the end of an era."
Mr. DiMaggio was "someone that you could look up to and say, 'How would he have done it?'" opined another writer, who went on to contrast Joltin' Joe with "a president who did whatever it took to keep from serving [his] country in wartime, [and] basketball players with multicolored hair telling you how great they are."
For a moment, at least, Mr. DiMaggio's death touched a national nerve long deadened by cynicism and indifference. A great hero of "the greatest generation"-to use Tom Brokaw's phrase-was gone, and the current crop of skin-deep celebrities seemed smaller and cheaper by comparison. As he was laid to rest last week, a nation once again turned its eyes to Joe DiMaggio-and its eyes were more lonely than before.