The song lyric, "Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio? A Nation Turns It's Lonely Eyes to You?" would not have been appropriate Saturday. The often-reclusive Joe D was in Arlington Heights, Ill., for the unveiling of his statue - a 12-foot bronze that forevermore will guard the main entrance of the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame.
The Ferdinand Rebechini sculpture weighs 16,000 pounds and is a remarkably accurate likeness of the great center-fielder at the end of his powerful swing. "Very nice," he said after being introduced by Jack Brickhouse.During the introductions, DiMaggio was hailed as "The Caruso of Baseball," also as "baseball's perfect baseball player," which is precisely what he was.
He excelled in all five areas of play: he hit for average, .325 lifetime; with power, 361 home runs; was the best defensive center-fielder of his time; was swift afoot; and had a gun for an arm. His most revealing stat: 369 career strikeouts, only eight more than his career homers.
Today, when many of the big sluggers strike out as many as 150 times per season, sometimes more, DiMaggio had only one season when he struck out as many as 39 times. This was in 1936, his rookie year when he was adjusting to big-league pitching. From the beginning, he used a heavy, 36-ounce bat, and was a line-drive hitter who seldom swung for the fences. He played half of his games in Yankee Stadium, a graveyard for right-handed batters; only three of his home runs cleared in left-center, a distance, at that time, of approximately 430 feet.
The unveiling of the "The Yankee Clipper" was timed in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his epic 56-game hitting streak. It is baseball's most enduring record. Fifty years ago Saturday was the fourth game of the streak: 3-for-3 against the St. Louis Browns. In the half century since only one player - Pete Rose with 44 in 1978 - has come close.
"I've often said one day the streak would be broken," DiMaggio said before pausing and allowing himself the rare luxury of a small grin. "But I've been saying that for 50 years."
"These days I'm as mobile as that statue," he said, his first sentence after the unveiling. He weighs 190 pounds, five less than what he carried 40 years ago when he played his last season.
The arthritis is in the upper part of his arms, his chest and his back. Most of the pain is in the rotator cuffs, a common ailment for pitchers, not hitters. Another irony: he has no problem with his knees and legs, which gave him the most trouble when he was a player.
"The rotator cuffs are torn from sliding," he explained. "I'd break my slide with my arms. I just didn't fall down by the bag. I'd start my slide from here to there" - he pointed to a distance of 12 to 15 feet. "I thought I knew everything about baseball. I didn't. I didn't protect my arms."
Several times he was asked which game, or games, or which hit during the streak did he consider the most important, or the most memorable. He insisted he had no special memory of any one blow. He also indicated he wasn't overwhelmed by the pressure but was irked somewhat when, after he had hit safely in 30 games, he was advised the all-time record was 44 games by Wee Willie Keeler (set in the 19th century), not 42 by George Sisler.
"I knew soooner or later it had to end," he said. "When it ended I felt bad about it. For a couple of days. I never thought I'd feel that way. That surprised me.
"Winning, winning - that was more important than the streak," he insisted. During his 13 seasons, the Yankees won 10 pennants and nine world championships. "Winning those pennants, those were my biggest accomplishments," he said."I'm proud of my records but they're just a bonus."
Still, there was one cherished moment during the 1941 season, the moment that provided his biggest thrill.
It occurred after a day game against the Senators in Washington. He and his pal, the late Lefty Gomez, had made dinner plans and had tickets for the theatre.
"We were staying at the Shoreham Hotel," DiMaggio recalled. "Lefty said, `I've got to go up to George Selkirk's room. He's got something for me.
"I told him, `Lefty we don't have time. We're late.' But Lefty said no, he had to go up to Selkirk's room. He dragged me along.
"When he opened the door, all the Yankee players were there, all of them holding a glass of red wine. They toasted me and sang `For he's a jolly good fellow.' This was two or three days after the streak was broken."