Thursday, September 7, 2017
The Old Man and the Centerfielder: Papa, Joltin' Joe and a Literary Classic
Baseball has long lent itself to use in great American literature. One of my favorite intersections of baseball and classical literature is in The Old Man in the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's 1952 Pulitzer prize-winning novel. Beyond the book. The confluence of two supernovae of twentieth century Americana is irresistible.
The main character of the book, the old man Santiago, is a small-town Cuban fisherman in the midst of a historic losing streak. One day he ventures far out alone in his small skiff and hooks into the biggest, baddest marlin anyone has ever seen. Santiago resolutely fights an epic battle of will, strength and intelligence, ultimately winning the struggle, but losing in the end as sharks claim the fish before he can make it back to land.
Besides fishing, Santiago's only other interest is the American major leagues. He is a particular fan of the Yankees and "the great DiMaggio." He never uses the first name but anyone in the civilized world would know that he is not talking about Vince or even Dominic, but the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.
Seven times during the story, Hemingway inserts a reference to the Great DiMaggio. When Santiago's young helper mentions, "I fear the Indians of Cleveland," Santiago reassures him, "Have faith, my son. Think of the Great DiMaggio."
Perhaps as a way of connecting with his diety, Santiago notes three times that DiMaggio's father was a fisherman. "I would like to take the Great DiMaggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."
Later, when Santiago, alone and in pain after hooking the great fish, realizes he is in for the struggle of his life, he draws inspiration from DiMaggio's own heroic comeback from a much-publicized bone spur. "I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the Great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel."
As he fights the fish into a third day, enduring excruciating pain in his back, bleeding from cramped and cut hands, experiencing hunger and thirst, he wonders, "Do you believe the Great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one. . . . I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong. Also his father was a fisherman. But would the bone spur hurt him too much?"
As Santiago finally brings in the fish, he takes pride with the thought, "I think the Great DiMaggio would be proud of me today. I had no bone spurs but the hand and back hurt truly."
Hemingway uses Joe DiMaggio and his heroic image as another character in the book. He could have made Santiago a boxing fan who idolized "the Great Marciano," and it might have worked, but not nearly as well. This was 1952 and the Great DiMaggio, freshly retired, was universally held as indeed great; perhaps the greatest of all-time. There was no arguing his results as far as victory: the Yankees had won a remarkable ten pennants and nine World Series in his 13 seasons.
A half-century later, when all we have are statistics that have been surpassed many times, it is easy to forget how well DiMaggio was regarded at the time. There is an old joke that made the rounds in those days: A man goes into a talent agent's office with a dog. "This is a talking dog," he excitedly tells the skeptical agent. "What's on top of a house?" he asks the dog.
"Roof," the dog answers.
"How does sandpaper feel?"
"Who was the greatest ballplayer in history?"
The agent angrily throws the man and his dog out the door. As they are laying in the street, the frustrated dog turns to the man and asks, "I shoulda said DiMaggio?"
In 1952, even a dog understood the greatness of "the great DiMaggio."
DiMaggio was not only a great baseball player, but a celebrity whose hero image was carefully constructed and guarded by the press. And it is this image, rather than the real man, that Hemingway uses as an extra character in the book.
Hemingway once said of his book, "The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The sharks are sharks. All the symbolism people see is shit." That's a nice thought that many brow-beaten college literature students would wish their professors to believe.
But why should we take Hemingway's word for it--he only wrote the thing. He mentions the bone spurs too many times for us to dismiss them so casually. Even as Santiago endures severe pain in a real-life struggle for survival, he somehow doesn't think his pain or struggle is as significant as that endured by the great man who was playing baseball with a sore foot. DiMaggio's bone spur--played up in the press at the time with the gravity of the thermonuclear detonations of the Cold War--is invoked numerous times. Hemingway seems to be trying to tell us something. We know bone spurs can be present for years before manifesting in painful conditions such as Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. Perhaps Hemingway is using bone spurs as symbolism for any mental or physical misfortune that afflicts man. Perhaps he thinks we make too big of a deal about minor injuries to athletes while more true pain is going on around us everyday? Or perhaps our efforts to understand it are, as he so eloquently stated, shit.
It's interesting to remember that Joltin' Joe and Ernest Hemingway were contemporaries. They shared many a drink and more than a few meals at a Manhattan establishment called Toots Shor's.
The owner and namesake, Toots, was a uniquely American character, known to everyone at the time. He made a lifetime of gladhanding and schmoozing every celebrity in seemingly every American field of endeavor. On any night at Toots you might see Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Jack Dempsey, Dean Martin, the stars of whatever teams were visiting New York at the time, and the bevvy of circulating hangers-on those men invariably attracted. DiMaggio was a regular Toots man for years.
For the famous men, Toots was a great pal, quick with a joke and even quicker to come up with choice tickets to the coolest entertainment and the best games in town. Along with free food and drink and the rest, Toots offered his guys a certain protection from being groped and annoyed by fans. It was understood at Toots' that the elite, the best of the best, were not to be bothered. Minor celebrities were allowed to pay homage from a distance--"You're looking great, Joe"-- and might even receive a nod in return, but otherwise the great men were free to enjoy their meal and drinks. And the fun didn't stop when the restaurant closed. Toots kept the drinks flowing in back for his special friends for as long as they wanted to stay. Toots Shor's was a man's place for men's men. Of course, dames were welcome as long as they were gorgeous and agreeable and knew their place.
And so the author and the baseball superstar spent quite a bit of time together with Toots, acquaintances if not friends.
A story has appeared in several books, although it may be apocryphal, that one day not long after DiMaggio retired he went to a game with Toots, Hemingway and several others. DiMaggio was immediately mobbed by admiring fans wanting autographs. As one of the fans was leaving he recognized Hemingway's face from the cover of Time and Look magazines. "Hey," he said to the writer. "Aren't you somebody too?"
Hemingway answered, "No, I'm just his doctor."
This period was the zenith for both Hemingway and DiMaggio. Two years later, DiMaggio himself would hook the greatest catch in the land--Marilyn Monroe. According to her biographers, he was the only man who truly loved her. But, not unlike Santiago, he was tragically unable to keep her away from the sharks.
For Hemingway, shortly after the book was published he was seriously injured in a plane crash in Africa and spent the rest of his life in pain. Less than a decade later he took his own life at 62 years of age.
As Santiago said, "I never had a bone spur. Perhaps we have them and don't know it."