Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?
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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
One of sport's hallowed temples, one of America's cultural cathedrals, showcased gloriously at this week's All-Star classic, is closing down at the end of the season. I'm not a die-hard Yankee fan. Not like my friend Arlene who will suffer through every at-bat, every double play, from this time of the season forward, literally unable to leave the house if her Bronx Bombers have a crucial loss. I'm just one of millions who revere the history and the magical moments, Lou Gehrig's farewell and all, of Yankee Stadium. I'm just one of millions who has her own small, personal story of Yankee Stadium to tell.
I was born in New York City in late August, 1949. The Yankees weren't having their best season but, just at the end, they climbed back and won the last couple of games of the regular season and went on to win the World Series. My mother was a French woman with neither knowledge of nor interest in the Yankees but, over the hottest summer on recent record, hugely pregnant and uncomfortable, she would take the newspapers to the park, in search of some shade and slight breeze, and she started reading about this Joe DiMaggio fellow. Earlier that year he had signed a huge contract with the Yankees for $100,000, a sum that would translate to the whopping deals they now sign for tens of millions. My birth father was a native New Yorker and a rabid Yankees fan but he made himself scarce as the event of my birth drew closer so one day, in an attempt to get her mind off her discomfort, and her missing husband, my mom ventured up to the Bronx, thoroughly unfamiliar territory for a woman accustomed to the Champs-Elysses. She bought herself a bleacher seat, and under the shade of her wide-brimmed Parisian hat, became intrigued with the diamond configuration below….and she was particularly enthralled with that DiMaggio fellow. She recounted to me later how elegant he was, quite like a dancer, when he quietly glided across the vast expanse of green and gingerly slid his glove under the ball. She loved the sweep of the stadium, at once grand and yet somehow intimate, all those thousands of people sharing the same moment, moments they evidently cared very much about.
Having been born in '49, I grew into a child of the 60's and, for me, along with Janis, with Dylan, the lyrics of Paul Simon were life-affirming, life-changing. "The Sounds of Silence" "I Am a Rock". Perhaps the one line that summed up the anti-war longing for a former time of national community was Simon's "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio…. our nation turns its lonely eyes to you".
A month after the great Yankee Clipper died, the spring of 1999, Paul Simon sang his famous song out at Yankee Stadium. I was there. I wondered if I was sitting anywhere near where mom sat 50 years earlier. Simon strolled out to the infield with a simple acoustic guitar. No Garfunkle. No band. We fell into silence, mesmerized. When he got to the DiMaggio line, there was a collective lump in all our throats. I scanned the Yankee dugout with my binoculars. Joe Torre, Paul O'Neill, Derek Jeter, Darryl Strawberry. You could see the weight of the moment in their non-blinking stares. One of their pinstriped legends had been honored, mentioned in Hemingway's literature, in Broadway plays, and in this touching song of Paul Simon's, whereby DiMaggio's dignity and the pride of the Yankees were held up as the lost values the nation longed to emulate once again.
Memories of Yankee Stadium will forever cast a long shadow across the Bronx meadows. This is a place that, yes, hosted many of sport's most moving moments. But it's bigger than sports, Yankee Stadium. It's a place that has lived at the very heart of American culture at large.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Photo of 79th MLB All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium on July 15, 2008 by Mike Stobe/Getty Images