Joe DiMaggio, 1914-1999

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It hardly matters anymore that Joe DiMaggio reached first base safely in 56 straight major league baseball games -- these days we have many more record-setters than heroes. When Joltin' Joe finally left and went away Monday at 84, what thrilled us most is that we could still look up to him. He was the best kind of hero -- incorruptible -- throughout his Hall of Fame career. And then he did us the incredible kindness of keeping it up for the rest of his life.

Joe DiMaggio was a poor, uneducated Italian kid from San Francisco who for 13 seasons (and one World War) quietly gave America lessons in the twin arts of Yankee baseball and celebrity. How he played: the perfect swing, the loping gait, the .325 career batting average throughout all those glorious years as the center fielder and centerpiece of those merciless Yankee teams of the late '30s and '40s. How he lived: Toots Shor's, the glitterati, chatting with Hemingway at ringside, and yet never winding up on the back page with a cop on his arm.

Then, our buttoned-down Joe married Marilyn Monroe, our bombshell, and we felt for him when he couldn't slow her down. After she stepped off the stage in Korea to the roar of the troops, awash in her budding fame, she gushed to him -- to the Yankee Clipper -- "Joe, you never heard such cheering." DiMaggio, the story goes, just drooped a little and replied, "Yes, I have." But he never let her go: Only DiMaggio had the stature to keep the Kennedys out of her funeral. And only he would send flowers to her grave, three times a week, for 20 years.

Everybody who saw him, from Hemingway to Paul Simon to the rest of us, understood what America looked like when it was straight and tall and true. In 1942, when our boys left to fight and win the last good war, DiMaggio went too, and if the nation occasionally lost its footing a little over the ensuing years, DiMaggio never lost his. That immortal 56-game string in 1941 was exactly his kind of record -- home-run totals are built on power, but what a hitting streak demands is integrity, every single day.

The American pastime was Joe's kind of game: clean, neat, with corners -- and high walls. DiMaggio relished those walls, never cared much for the adulation, but he always made sure he deserved it. So when this very solitary man took his last turn for the worse Sunday, his longtime lawyer and friend Morris Engelberg was there to protect him. "He's a very dignified man, and I'm going to make sure he's dignified right to the end," said Engelberg. He needn't have worried. Joe always had a talent for that.