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Joe Brightened Our Lives
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Much has been made of the supposed dark side of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, but that should not diminish his stature as a genuine hero whose bright side was so much more important.

I've never forgotten a day in the spring of 1941. The New York Yankees were playing an exhibition game at the home of the San Francisco Seals, the city's then minor league baseball team. I leaned into the visiting team's dugout at Seals Stadium, an incredibly eager, noisy and none-too-polite eight-year-old, pleading and pleading.

Finally he came over. He smiled shyly, took an autograph book and fountain pen from my hands and signed his name in flowing blue script all across a canary yellow page: Joe DiMaggio.

He was my hero then, and why not? Kids have lots of heroes, especially among famous athletes. But DiMaggio has remained a hero to me -- even through nearly five decades in journalism, which have taught me, if nothing else, that there are very few real heroes.

Yes, Joe DiMaggio was vain, often aloof, not the brightest of men, and not above peddling autographs and playing pitchman for coffee makers and other goods and services.

Yet somehow that scarcely mattered to me or the millions of others who made him a genuine American hero, warts and all.

I think I know why. DiMaggio did something that took great skill, and he did it better than anyone else had ever done it. Better than all the millions of people who have been trying to do it for more than 100 years, ever since baseball began.

And he looked extraordinarily good doing it, doing all of it -- hitting, fielding, running, throwing, even the way he wore his uniform. He did all those things very, very well, all the things you have to do in baseball, and he looked better than anyone else has ever looked in doing any of them. You know what they used to say about DiMaggio in baseball? That he almost never made a mental mistake -- almost never threw to the wrong base, almost never tried to take an extra base when he couldn't make it, almost never anything like that.

Joe DiMaggio was a near-perfect all-around player. Just about perfect at a very difficult task. Just about perfect at what he did. Who in the world could say that?

Think about another baseball great, Babe Ruth. Sure, he hit all those home runs ... but, well ... take a look at the old newsreels -- a big beer gut of a guy on skinny legs with lots of power.

DiMaggio, he had power too -- but plus everything else. And more style than anyone in the whole history of baseball. More style, in fact, than some of the most accomplished ballet dancers.

It's not far-fetched to compare DiMaggio with performance artists. That's just what he was -- a performance artist, and one of the greatest.

I recall sitting high in a balcony a few years back, looking down directly at the hands of Teddy Wilson, the great jazz pianist, entranced by his long, graceful fingers gliding over the keyboard with uncanny ease. Suddenly, I was in Seals Stadium, watching Joe DiMaggio chasing down fly balls with equal grace and artistry.

What's more, DiMaggio did what he did quietly. He had immense pride, but he didn't go around telling us how great he was. His pride wouldn't allow him to do that. DiMaggio just showed us what he could do. No fist pumping, no high fives. And when age and injuries finally lessened his skills, he quit the playing field rather than play on as less than the best, even though he could have continued to draw one of the biggest salaries in all of professional sport for doing so.

Why did he play so hard all the time, even when he was hurt, a sportswriter once asked DiMaggio. Because, he said, there might be someone out there watching him for the first time -- or the last time.

Joe DiMaggio wanted to give us his very best. Always. And he did.

Copyright Dick Meister