Thursday, November 15, 2007

Joltin' Joe

Documentarians have long known that ragtime and big band music are perfect accompaniments to footage of baseball games contemporaneous with the eras when those genres flourished. These same genres also frequently turned to the game as a subject matter and source of inspiration for many famous songs and even entire musical productions, the sport at that time being celebrated as one of the delights of the national culture without being weighed down with the ponderousness of middlebrow consciousness, which the move of the Dodgers and Giants to California in and the subsequent nostalgia which suburbanization, television, the mass extinction of minor league teams and the demise of the old inner cities and the classic stadiums where the teams had been playing forever began to unleash in the late 50s and 60s, and from which the game, and perhaps the spirit of the people, have never quite recovered. Back to a happier note, my personal favorite song ever recorded about an athlete has to be "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio" by the Les Brown Orchestra (Here is a mini version, with an all too brief glimpse of the peppy singer Peggy Mann, who looks to be the kind of gal I like). The song is especially poignant because it belongs to the world in which Joe DiMaggio was really Joe DiMaggio, before the war, before television, before Marilyn Monroe, before Simon & Garfunkel, before Mr Coffee and paid appearances at autograph shows, before the old man who was trotted out at so many anniversaries and old-timers' days who had nothing to say to anybody in the present generation because he was increasingly a relic from an utterly foreign world that was supposed to be important but that nobody, including him it seemed, could really remember anymore.

DiMaggio retired from baseball in 1951 at the relatively early age of 37 and continued to live on as a very slowly and gracefully fading celebrity and iconic figure until his death in 1999, but most of his best years as a player, the years for which a generation of Americans actually fell in love with him, were when he was very young, from 1936-1941. This period belongs to baseball's mesozoic era, pre-integration, with the pro game, apart from a few superteams, the Yankees in particular, struggling to stay afloat during the Depression (the 1935 St Louis Browns drew 81,000 fans--the whole season). My impression is that these years have not been mined so thoroughly for analysis and grand themes by baseball's tenured historians and poets as those of others, and therefore the details of the personalities, seasons, games, etc. retain a certain freshness, a still interesting because largely unmagnified quality, that has been drained out of other eras. The legend of DiMaggio originated in the character of the late Depression. He was never a colorful figure by current standards, but right from the start he always projected supreme competence as well as a stately working class son of an immigrant dignity that perfectly suited the needs of the time. He seems to have always been regarded as "one of us" who happened to be a great ballplayer and was able to display various admirable qualities on the ballfield that however did exist among, indeed sprung from the mass of the population, rather than as a genetic freak who had little in common with ordinary human beings and whose exploits bore little relation to anything that went on in their lives, as is increasingly the case with modern superstars.

DiMaggio did play almost all of his career in an entirely segregated league however, and his own team the Yankees did not have a black or any other non-white player until seven years after he retired. The proposition has increasingly been raised in recent years that the Negro League superstar Oscar Charleston, who was also a center fielder and played around the same time, a man who never appeared on a magazine cover, and would never have been heard of by the majority of white baseball fans in 1939, was a better all-around player than DiMaggio. Given what DiMaggio represented in the culture of the time and for many years afterwards, this would certainly be ironic if it were the case, and of course it is far from implausible, though it is hard for me to believe it all the way through. DiMaggio was not regarded by his fellow white players and white fans of the time merely as a great player but almost as the ideal player, the guy who attained the finest possibilities of the game as it was understood/conceived of by the age's cognoscenti. Perhaps they were wrong, but I can't believe they were entirely wrong. It is commonly stated that Americans always go for the attractive lie or fantasy over the inevitably less pleasing truth whenever they are given a choice, but this implies that A) the truth, where Americans at least are concerned, must always be unpleasant, or it has not been properly experienced or understood and B) that myths, which have been employed by every substantial polity in human history, are of no benefit to individual humans as well as societies, which, while perhaps counterintuitive from a purely logical standpoint, seems to be quite demonstrably false.

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