Number five batted fourth
and always seemed first
by Martin Siegel
Copyright ©by Martin Siegel, 1999

THE EMBLEMS FOR television commercials have eliminated the dignified, graceful athletic hero for youth to aspire to—the worst of electronic babylon, for our children are our link to the future. The Rodman grotesque, the megalomania and greed of Michael Jordan, the pill-popping of Mark McGwire, the ever-weary (and ever-false) network commentator sighs offered about fathers of out-of-wedlock children, drug abuse and domestic violence, have made proper public conduct of today’s sports luminaries anachronistic. With next-to-nothing to contradict these images, based always on sensation wrapped in deception (TV replay), the young accept such as norms. It wasn’t always so, not when Joe DiMaggio played.

I was fortunate to grow up in the Bronx when baseball was everything. Three teams—the New York Giants, the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers—drew endless and good-humored argument about who was best and worst. Ten newspapers covered the action with verve, informative opinion and savvy. Few sports writers have ever written with the vision of Jimmy Cannon, and the cartoons of Willard Mullin remain unsurpassed. Television, still new, was actually a form of social cohesion. A kid with a ten inch RCA quickly became the center of his tenement’s universe. Until the mid-50s, it was radio that brought drama to fans, with announcers enjoying nearly equal renown as athletes. The “who is better?” competition was not limited to Mantle, Mays and Snider, and Campanella and Berra; it extended to Red Barber (the announcer for the Dodgers), Russ Hodges (Giants) and Mel Allen (Yankees). Possibly because I rooted for the Yankees, I felt Allen was peerless. His knowledge of the game, enthusiasm and unique euphony set him apart. How about that!, the most of ordinary words, became a Yankee broadcasting benchmark. Going, going, it is gone was another gem for describing a home run, which, depending on which half of the game it came, got dubbed as a Ballantine Blast or White Owl Wallop.

My brother Jack, almost exactly nine years older, took me to Yankee Stadium for the first time when I was eight, affording the chance to see the legendary DiMaggio play; a supreme thrill though he had long passed his prime. Sports were people rather than media-dependent then, and being part of a throng of 50,000 to see the star of stars perform was a breath-taking (and affordable) opportunity. The 54-inch projection television screens, surround sound, instant replay and ceaseless drivel from PR shills with network blazers were decades away. Can young people imagine a period where there was an absence of finger-pointing or dropping a bat to watch how far a well-hit ball travels or, to put it the other way, when players had genuine team spirit and unity? Joe DiMaggio was the Yankees, as Ted Williams was the Red Sox, as Stan Musial was the Cardinals, as Bob Feller was Cleveland. Fan loyalty and team consistency went hand-in-glove.