Left and Gone Away

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    He spent his 48 years after baseball essentially being Joe DiMaggio. The less he said about himself during his dignified public appearances, the more others talked about him. Ernest Hemingway put him into The Old Man and the Sea ("I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing," the old man said. "They say his father was a fisherman."). Paul Simon's song Mrs. Robinson, written for the movie The Graduate (1967), asked, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you," evoking a '60s sense of vanished heroes.

    Now that he has really gone--a longtime three-pack-a-day smoker dead last week of lung cancer at age 84--those of us old enough to remember him in uniform and full glory feel especially bereft. I not only saw the Yankee Clipper play in person; I got his autograph twice. The first time was in the spring of 1951, when I was an 11-year-old fan hanging around with my schoolmates outside the entrance to the Del Prado hotel on Chicago's South Side, where visiting AL teams stayed when they played the White Sox. The Yankees were in town, and I was waiting for my hero Joe DiMaggio. At last he emerged to get on the team bus for a night game at Comiskey. He told all of us to line up, and he signed our books.

    Several months later, the Yankees were back at the Del Prado, and so were my buddies and I. When DiMaggio came out, I noticed that none of my friends approached him. Maybe it was because they already had his autograph or because he was injured and hadn't been playing much. But I thought it was wrong for DiMaggio to board the bus unpestered by any worshipers, so I turned over a page in my autograph book--to make sure he wouldn't see that I already had him--and asked him to sign it. He did and got on the bus and took what I realized was his regular seat next to the front window on the right side. I looked up at him. He looked down and noticed me and waved. I waved back then, and I do so now for all of us who admired his graceful career and life.

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