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Legacy: Joe DiMaggio

Legacy: Joe DiMaggio — We remember the New York Yankees baseball player

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Legacy: Joe DiMaggio

Paul Simon said the words came to him ”from the ether.” He’d been singing ”Here’s to you, Mrs. Roosevelt” when another name came to him. He knew right off he’d keep it. ”It made the song feel like it was about a larger subject,” said Simon.

Joe DiMaggio, who died March 8 at age 84 after complications from lung cancer, was larger than life well before Simon immortalized him in ”Mrs. Robinson.” Most of his stature stemmed from his exploits as a New York Yankee — arguably the New York Yankee. And at first, his pop-cultural fame corresponded to his on-field feats. But in the years after his playing days, the weight of his legacy grew. More than simple nostalgia, DiMaggio’s above-the-fray demeanor held the attention of a generation caught between postwar headiness and ’60s-era discontent. In 1952, Ernest Hemingway wrote reverently about the ”great DiMaggio” in The Old Man and the Sea. Even then, he was a symbol of lost values.

Soon the public persona took on its own momentum. When his 1954 marriage to Marilyn Monroe broke down after nine months, people saw him as an idealist who wouldn’t succumb to Hollywood’s temptations. After the filming of The Seven Year Itch‘s subway-grate scene, he was furious at Monroe’s ”public spectacle.” The same wind that blew up her skirt sent him packing.

By the time he reinvented himself as a corporate pitchman in the ’60s, hawking Mr. Coffee, DiMaggio the symbol had long since supplanted DiMaggio the man. ”DiMaggio was a celebrity,” says NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, ”but his very reticence and reserve set him apart from most of celebrity culture.” That’s a distinction that’s impossible to imagine from a sports star — or pop-culture figure — today.