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Best Songs Ever: Serenading Joe DiMaggio

April 16, 2011

No ballplayer has been immortalized more often in song that Joe DiMaggio. This, however, is a dubious distinction since among those dropping DiMaggio’s name include Billy Joel, Jennifer Lopez and Bon Jovi. Of course, that is the price of fame, everyone wants to ride your coattails. Meanwhile, one the most quoted lines in all of pop music is ‘Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns it’s lonely eyes to you” courtesy of Paul Simon, who elegantly wrote about the song’s meaning in a New York Times op-ed shortly after DiMaggio’s death in 1999: “DiMaggio represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life.”

“What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away?” Well, with a little help from Paul Simon, Joe DiMaggio won’t soon be forgotten, even if the grace and dignity he embodied is now rarely exhibited by modern athletes.

If only it were that simple. More likely, it seems, the grace and dignity attributed to DiMaggio was just an illusion propelled by our pathological need to create heroes (and then destroy them). After all, Joe DiMaggio is notorious for insisting on being introduced as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer,” which certainly rankled many of his colleagues. I’d think Willie Mays would be especially offended. By every metric he was superior to DiMaggio, who incidentally was the player Mays had most tried to emulate. Nonetheless, insisting on being called “The Greatest” tarnishes the very notion. The kind of bravado may work with boxing, but with baseball – a team sport – it doesn’t go down so smooth.

While his ego may have gotten a bit out of hand, still, I love Joe DiMaggio. Thanks to the three or four minutes he gave me and two of my friends on a summer evening in 1981, I will forever be a fan. That night, he was throwing out the first pitch for the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees’ AAA team.  Coincidentally, a colleague of my dad’s was hosting our family in a skybox – the only time I’ve watched a game behind glass – and the press box was right next door. Like giggling hyenas, we waited for Mr. DiMaggio to come up after he had fulfilled his ceremonial duties. As he exited from the elevator, there were three of us there to ambush him and to our immense surprise, he graciously invited us all into the booth. It felt like ten minutes, but the interaction must have been less than half that. It doesn’t really matter, for those few moments, Mr. DiMaggio was completely engaged. He seemed honestly happy to meet us. He asked our names and gave us a brief tour of the box. I collected autographs from ballplayers back then and of all the greats whose path I crossed, Joe DiMaggio was the one who made the most effort to connect. From the height of his monumental fame, he actually made me feel like a person, a feat seldom accomplished by an adult, let alone a living legend. Each of us walked out with a huge smile on our face and an autographed ball that proved it wasn’t all just a dream. I was giddy for weeks.

While I think Joe DiMaggio is great, the songs about him unfortunately tend to come up short. Certainly, “Mrs Robinson” deserves to be the classic that it is, but it’s not really about DiMaggio or, for that matter, baseball. So it doesn’t qualify. “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, features DiMaggio, but I could quite happily live without ever hearing it again. It’s off the list. “Bloody Mary” from South Pacific says a girls’ skin is “as tender as Joe DiMaggio’s glove” – which is disturbing on so many levels. Pass.

The song that was most associated with DiMaggio during his career was “Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio,” originally recorded by Les Brown’s Orchestra in 1941. Betty Bonney is the singer. Sadly, this song is largely ruined by the unctuous, snearing male background vocals. Their hearts clearly weren’t in it, leading me to believe that the boys in the band rooted for the Dodgers. It’s the kind of novelty tune that was routinely churned out in the 1940s and 50s and like ditties about Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson from the time, you can hear them on just about any baseball compilation. The soundtrack to Ken Burns’ excruciatingly boring documentary “Baseball” comes to mind. Don’t buy it, though, it’ll only encourage him. Better yet, just listen to Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. He did a glorious show on baseball. Listen to (and download) it all here. It’s great.

Les Brown’s “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio”: Les Brown’s Orchestra – Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio MP3

Joe DiMaggio of the SF Seals

For a much better, less grating, version, check out the SF Seals take from 1993. Joe actually played for the San Francisco Seals, so they are uniquely qualified to sing about him. Their EP, Baseball Trilogy, now has two mentions on the Best Baseball Songs Ever list. “He’s just a man and not a freak,” they sing. Ironically, Tim Lincecum, the best player in San Francisco, is now heralded as The Freak. Oh, how the times change, no one wanted to be a freak back in the old days. Now it’s a badge of honor.
SF Seals – Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio MP3

Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded two albums worth of unpublished Woody Guthrie songs in the early 200os. There are some real gems in the collection and “Joe DiMaggio’s Done It Again” may be one of them. It’s the best of the DiMaggio tunes, but I’m torn. And I suspect Woody Guthrie was, too. There’s certainly a reason why he never actually wrote music to accompany the lyrics in his lifetime. In many ways, it would be as if Bob Dylan penned a love letter to Richard Nixon. As a notorious subversive, it’s the kind of secret you might want to hide in your attic, which is exactly what Guthrie did. After all, Woody Guthrie was a man of the people, an advocate for the discarded and downtrodden. The Yankees, meanwhile, were – as they are now – an Evil Empire. Joe DiMaggio was the most popular guy in school; he didn’t exactly need a folksinger to sing his praises. Guthrie tries to mitigate this issue by casting DiMaggio as an underdog: “Some folks thought old Joe was done!” There’s also a reference to a hurt heel. Guthrie wrote the lyrics in 1949 when DiMaggio only played 79 games. Two years later Joltin’ Joe’s baseball career was over. Perhaps, Guthrie should have written a song about Jackie Robinson instead.

Billy Bragg and Wilco – Joe DiMaggio’s Done It Again MP3

So, while none of the songs heralding Joe DiMaggio are as great as he was, there are enough of them to collectively lock up a spot on the list. I probably wouldn’t feel that way had I not met the man and seen him live up to the platitudes attributed to him by Paul Simon. DiMaggio was not just the hero I wanted him to be, he was one of the defining heroes of the 20th century. It can’t be easy to live that life, to be a god among men. Yet, he was gracious and kind. He treated us as if it was his privilege to meet us. That signed ball remains one of my few prized possessions, but much more than his autograph, he gave me something much more valuable: a few moments of his time.

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