Originally created 03/09/99

DiMaggio touched fans, performing with grace



Have faith in the Yankees, my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.

-- Santiago,

The Old Man and the Sea

The reason you will hear and read so much about the passing of Joe DiMaggio is because he was such a singular athlete.

He is celebrated not so much by what he did on a baseball field, which is remarkable, but more for how he did it, performing with a rare grace under pressure that few have approached.

To top it off, he retired and married Marilyn Monroe -- proof, I suspect, that he was the Lord's favorite ballplayer.

"Joe," she once told him after returning from a performance, "You've never heard so many people cheering."

"Yes I have," answered the man who regularly played before 60,000 at old Yankee Stadium.

DiMaggio once explained his philosophy to a teammate who asked the oft-injured star why he kept playing through pain.

"There is always someone who might be seeing me for the first or last time," the Yankee Clipper answered. "I owe them my best."

That's a nice anecdote.

I've heard it and read it numerous times over the years, but one always wonders if it's just embellishment. So here's the rest of the story.

I had a great aunt, Ella, who died two years ago in a Kentucky nursing home.

She was the youngest of the once large farm family that produced my grandmother.

Ella was in her 90s when she passed away, the last to go.

Toward the end, she had her good days and her bad days. And on one of the better ones a few years ago, I dropped by to visit on my way to Cincinnati to see a baseball game.

"I saw a baseball game once," she said with a smile.

And I smiled, too, watching her face light up at the memory.

Still, I was mildly surprised because she'd never expressed the slightest interest in baseball.

"Was that in Cincinnati?" I asked, mentioning the town some 70 miles away.

"Oh, no," she said. "I was in New York. And I went to Yankee Stadium."

Now I was surprised.

You have to understand this was a woman that I thought had never been more than 100 miles from home. I would have been no less surprised if she had admitted to meeting Elvis.

"You went to Yankee Stadium?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," she said pleasantly. "We took the subway."

"When were you ever in New York?" I asked again.

It turned out that it was "after the war," meaning World War II, and she had gone to visit a friend.

"She had the cutest little boy and he wanted to go to the baseball game, but no one would take him," my aunt said. "I said I would, and we got on the subway and went to the stadium and got tickets and watched the game."

As one of the former little boys she had spoiled over the years, I had no trouble believing her.

"And you enjoyed it?" I asked.

"Oh yes," she said. "We saw Joe DiMaggio play. He was very good."

Bill Kirby can be reached at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 107, or bkirby@augustachronicle.com.