The First Michael Jordan

Joe DiMaggio was the first Michael Jordan, the first athlete who transcended his sport, and sport generally, to become his generation's archetype of a gentleman. But 30 years before DiMaggio there was Christy Mathewson, who did more than anyone to prepare the nation to make DiMaggio a grace note of the 20th century. Mathewson did this by placing baseball firmly in a new and unrivaled position in the nation's imagination.

Mathewson is buried next to the campus of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. Although he did not get a degree there, he attended that school before becoming a big leaguer, at a time when college men were thin on the ground in the professional game. Not until 1988 did California surpass Pennsylvania as the state that has supplied the most major leaguers. For a long time players were hard men fleeing hard lives in coal mines and steel mills and on hardscrabble farms.

Mathewson was born in 1880 in a tiny town with the no-nonsense name of Factoryville, Pa. There, according to his biographer, Ray Robinson, many young men went to work in the mines as soon as they came of age. At the time, says Robinson of professional baseball players, "too many of them spit on the carpet or threw up in public to allow any in their profession to be canonized." In 1900, he says, ballplayers ranked below circus clowns and itinerant actors in the order of social acceptance.

However, the country hungered for athletic heroes, a hunger only somewhat satisfied by the fictional Frank Merriwell. That paragon from Yale excelled in many sports, his heroics recounted between 1896 and 1914 in TipTop Weekly. By 1914 Mathewson had become Merriwell.

On the field he was brilliant. Four times he won 30 or more games in a season. In some years he had more wins than walks. In the 1905 World Series he won three games--all shutouts. In three games, only one Philadelphia Athletic reached third. In 1909 his ERA was 1.14. Off the field, he was that elusive ideal, a gentleman a democracy could be comfortable with. With wavy brown hair and blue eyes, wearing neatly pressed tweeds and a necktie, Mathewson, says Robinson, "defined baseball in a new, acceptable way for millions."

Back then, baseball had the nation's undivided attention. Nowadays, there are about six weeks between the last NBA championship game and the first NFL preseason game. But before the late 1950s, major league baseball was essentially unchallenged by other professional team sports. Soon after Mathewson made it easier to admire players, baseball produced a very different kind of hero, whose name--Babe--suited his off-field comportment. The bearhug with which the nation embraced him proved that the public was ready to make allowances for a sports star, who could get away with being a manchild. Then Babe left the stage, and on strode DiMaggio, no child.

By the time DiMaggio left the stage, after just 13 seasons--he lost three to the second world war--he had a place in the nation's pantheon that was remarkable for an athlete, and probably possible only for an athlete who played baseball. Ballplayers can partake of a mystique that attaches to one of America's oldest and least changed institutions. (The only substantial rules change since 1903, the designated hitter, is not an argument for change.) And DiMaggio's understated style suited the game of grinding everydayness, which has an ethic suited to a republic--an ethic against flamboyance, against showing up the other guy.

DiMaggio burst upon the nation just nine years after Charles Lindbergh almost inadvertently invented celebrity of a degree--of a kind, really--never before experienced. DiMaggio played a team game but somehow knew, in the intuitive way an artist has of knowing things, that our rough-and-tumble democracy, leveling though it is, responds to an individual with an aura of remoteness. How many times have the obituaries mentioned DiMaggio's "class"? A society that fancies itself classless suspects that it might be missing something.

Now, no one who spent as much time as DiMaggio did in Toots Shor's Manhattan saloon was an enemy of conviviality, and anyone allergic to celebrity would not have married Marilyn Monroe. However, DiMaggio seemed somehow private when in public, at work in front of throngs.

Baseball players have a low-key way of praising other players, a way that expresses the ethic of their craft. They say they like the way a player "goes about his business." They often mean how methodically he makes sure he is ready to play hard through the long season, and particularly how he works at the skill of catching the ball. DiMaggio patrolled Yankee Stadium's center field, one of baseball's biggest and a good place to demonstrate Koppett's Law. Baseball writer Leonard Koppett says: Poor fielding will lose many more games than good hitting will win. You can score only one run and still win, but you must get 27 outs.

DiMaggio was a link in baseball's chain of understated excellence that stretches from Mathewson to Cal Ripken to 23-year-old Alex Rodriguez. Mathewson was to be named in 1939 as one of the five original inductees (with Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson) into the Hall of Fame. But he died in 1925 at 45 of tuberculosis, to which he may have become susceptible as a result of exposure to mustard gas during World War I.

"Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy," wrote an emblematic figure of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not necessarily. DiMaggio died full of years and honors. It has been well said (Charles Evans Hughes said it of Lindbergh) that we judge a great person the way we judge a great ship, by displacement. The Yankee Clipper still takes up a lot of space in the nation's memory.