It's..... The happiest blog on earth

Paul Simon remembers walking into a restaurant, where he's introduced to Joe DiMaggio, and "we immediately fell into conversation about the only subject we had in common."

"What I don't understand," DiMaggio said, "is why you ask where I've gone. I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial, I'm a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven't gone anywhere!"

I've always wondered about that. But it turns out Paul Simon finally explained his lyrics about Joe DiMaggio from the song "Mrs. Robinson" - in a 1999 article he wrote the day Joe DiMaggio died.

I said that I didn't mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply. He accepted the explanation and thanked me. We shook hands and said good night.

Now, in the shadow of his passing, I find myself wondering about that explanation. Yes, he was a cultural icon, a hero if you will, but not of my generation. He belonged to my father's youth: he was a World War II guy whose career began in the days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and ended with the arrival of the youthful Mickey Mantle...

Today reports that there's more to DiMaggio's story. The Smoking Gun dug up DiMaggio's World War II medical record, where he's criticized for disliking military service. To be fair, DiMaggio had played in the Major Leagues for the previous six years, and Reason counters that "He'd been in the Army Air Corps for nearly three years, by his own description used only for useless exhibition baseball games and nebulously defined physical training tasks." (Plus, during this time, DiMaggio's Italian parents "were tagged as enemy aliens and prevented from traveling or pursuing a livelihood...")

DiMaggio eventually took on a symbolic significance. As Paul Simon notes, "In the 50's and 60's, it was fashionable to refer to baseball as a metaphor for America, and 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." Though DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe -- and was the one who claimed her body -- "he had a half-dozen red roses delivered three times a week to her crypt for 20 years," Wikipedia notes, and "refused to talk about her publicly or otherwise exploit their relationship. He never married again."

When "The Graduate" was filmed, the director was begging Simon and Garfunkel for songs, but they'd only written one. According to Wikipedia, Simon played a few notes of another new song, saying "It's not for the movie... It's a song about times past - about Mrs. Roosevelt and Joe DiMaggio and stuff."

Nichols advised Simon, "It's now about Mrs. Robinson, not Mrs. Roosevelt."

So did Paul Simon see the same grace of Eleanor Roosevelt in DiMaggio? The songwriter's favorite Yankee was actually Mickey Mantle, and according to Wikipedia, when Dick Cavett asked why Mantle's name wasn't used instead of DiMaggio, Simon replied "It's about syllables, Dick. It's about how many beats there are."

Ironically, DiMaggio has already been the subject of a hit record 25 years earlier, in 1941 -- Les Brown's Joltin' Joe DiMaggio. And more than 50 years later, on an episode of Seinfeld, the characters still stared in awe as they saw Joe DiMaggio in Jerry's coffee shop. (Kramer claimed to have seen him earlier at Dinky Doughnuts, where he'd banged on the table to test DiMaggio's concentration.)

On the day DiMaggio died, Simon wrote that we "mourn the loss of his grace and dignity...and the power of his silence."

BONUS LINK: The meaning of "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard"