BOWEN COLUMN: Joe DiMaggio and the rest of the story

Published 9:30 am Saturday, May 14, 2022

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With our career now spanning a quarter of a century, I find myself scrolling back through our twenty-five years of serving as a scribe for the Daily News right in my old stomping grounds and a little city called LaGrange –- in the great state of Georgia, the land of red clay and tall pine trees.

As I scrolled through the archives, I paused at this piece you are about to read, one about a Hall of Fame baseball player you all know, Mr. Joe DiMaggio. I paused here, of course, because baseball is in full swing, and our Braves and my Astros are setting the tone for a hot summer surge. Well, the Astros are. They’ve won ten in a row at this writing and are hitting their stride. The Braves are kind of floundering around, it seems, but still hovering near the .500 mark. Remember last year they were around .500 when they made those trade deadline deals and took off like a rocket.

As usual, I deviate a bit here, because I’m telling you about this column about the great DiMaggio. When we first wrote it, several Hall of Fame players died one after another:  Joe Morgan, Lou Brock, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Jimmy Wynn. Since then Hank has died, too, so we could have a whole new ‘Field of Dream’ movie with just these players, and, of course, DiMaggio.

Read on, here’s his story, and then some:

I picked up the paper on Saturday morning and read with interest that the 84-year-old Joe DiMaggio continues to startle doctors with his resiliency.  Later the same evening on the television news, I listened with satisfaction that the baseball great had awaken from his coma and was sitting up in bed today, defying those who thought the game for him had ended. It is only now — thirty years after I first encountered the drama I’m about to relate — that I think I really understand the … rest of the story.

I probably wasn’t ten years old when I was first introduced to the following story one sultry Georgia summer afternoon. I jogged over to the fire station by my house to watch the noon “Playhouse Theatre” movie one day, as I often did during the summer since we didn’t have a TV until I hit double digits in age. It was then I encountered the courage of an old man named Santiago in Hemingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea.

Quite a story it is: The old man goes out on the boat fishing, the fisherman of notoriously bad luck. He hasn’t caught a fish in more than eighty days. But this day will be different. He gets out to sea and hooks the greatest fish of his life, his greatest accomplishment, a marlin bigger than any fish any Cuban from his village has ever caught.

But the fish is too big for the old man, Santiago. It pulls the old man further and further out to sea, controlling him as some men’s dreams do them. You understand.

For a biblical three days and nights the old man fights the great marlin. When his body and spirit’s weariness cause him to relax and rest, the fish runs with the hook in its mouth; and the line that the old man holds tears rapidly through his hands, cutting and piercing hands now tattered and raw. Clearly, there is an allusion there to the greatest man who ever lived.

The old man’s back is bent and tired; the sun, beating upon his brow, has blistered his face and drained his strength. The discouragement from within and the pain from without take their toll on the man with mala suerte — bad luck. But this Santiago has a special strength about him — that’s the great point of the story.  He is not easily deterred; he is not one to give up.  He gains his strength from deep within, thinking, among other things, of lions on the beaches — a mental imagery that serves as a tranquilizer for his pain.

Hemingway describes the old man’s resiliency in this famous quotation:

“A man may be destroyed but not defeated.”

I have spent many hours discussing that concept with a class full of young and eager teenagers.

As long as he doesn’t fall out of the race — As long as he doesn’t succumb to the pain and give up the battle — he can prevail. He can win. He may be beaten down and destroyed physically, but he will not be defeated mentally.

Again, you understand.

Something else Santiago thinks about besides the lions on the beach. Something else gives the old man courage and stamina when he grows so tired physically. He thinks about a baseball player who is the epitome of toughness, whose fifty-six-game hitting streak in 1941 still stands as a symbol of mental stamina. The player Santiago thinks of is one who played on through the grueling pain of bone spurs without ever giving in.

At this moment, this same player is fighting a battle for life against a serious lung disease.  And he fights so valiantly and long that the doctors are amazed, amazed that he could be so destroyed but not defeated. Ah, you already know, don’t you, that when Santiago’s back and hands ache and his will grows weak that he thinks about one of baseball’s greatest, a man of courage who’s trying to keep that hitting streak alive for one more day, one more game.

Yes, the great Joe DiMaggio. And that is the rest of the story, just as it was told in December 1998. P.S. Braves fans, hang in there, now you know that it’s not over ‘til it’s over. Maybe if we hang on we can have another Braves-Astros Series in 2022, which is great if for no other reason than the Dodgers and Yankees would be nowhere to be found. That’s reason enough to not give up, right!