I wrote this essay in 1999 when Joe DiMaggio died, a time when I was undergoing electroshock treatment for depression, and I needed courage.
Joe DiMaggio died today. When I heard the news I began to cry, and I experienced an unexpected flood of emotion and sadness that I rarely feel in these drab and empty days of my depression. I cried until I was sobbing heavily, and I turned the television off rather than hear some sappy commentator try to recount DiMaggio’s career in baseball and his place in American life. I knew the place DiMaggio held in mine.
DiMaggio’s records, especially the unassailable 56 game hitting streak, are engraved in me as permanent memories, as sights I never saw but whose legends I still believe. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” And in some ways, the legends of DiMaggio are better heard than seen, passing through the generations in imagination and memory.
DiMaggio’s records are bright lines running through the fabric of baseball, giving the game definition and shape, and establishing the boundaries of its excellence. But DiMaggio’s accomplishments are not only records on paper. They were the acts of a single man, a singular but extraordinary human being, who endured both the pressures of his struggle — and of his miraculous gift — with dignity and courage. Hemingway would have called it “grace under pressure.”
When I heard the news of DiMaggio’s death, my mind turned quickly to what Santiago says as he fights the great fish in The Old Man and the Sea. He tells himself that he must endure his pain and persevere against his long-sought adversary — as DiMaggio endured the stigmata of bone spurs in his heels — to be worthy of the great man.
To Santiago, DiMaggio is the imagined one, who plays in a place so far away that it might as well be heaven. All that Santiago knows of DiMaggio is what he learns from old scripture-like newspaper clippings and distant radio broadcasts from America. He knows of the great struggles that occur among the titans of the game:: the Tigres of Detroit, as he calls them, and the White Sox of Chicago. And he knows that DiMaggio plays for the greatest of all teams, the Yankees of New York, and that he is the greatest Yankee of them all.
Santiago is a just a fisherman, and a journeyman at best. Like even the greatest baseball players he will inevitably fail in his craft, as even the great DiMaggio failed two of every three times at bat. Santiago himself is in the midst of an 84 day slump when the story begins. But he will perform his craft as he has been taught, and fight as resolutely as he is able. Santiago knows that DiMaggio’s own father was a fisherman, and he believes that DiMaggio would understand his courage, despite his weakness and failure.
The Biblical overtones in “The Old Man and the Sea” are unmistakable, and they are as allegorical as baseball. Hemingway showed us that the blending of Santiago and DiMaggio is what constitutes the figure of the Good Man. We look to them to give us standards, to give us leadership, and to sit beside us in the boat when we lack the strength to succeed.
Santiago was not touched by God, as perhaps DiMaggio was, but he followed his trade as selflessly and relentlessly as DiMaggio and, in the end, even in his failure, became worthy of the great man.