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Who else can match legend of DiMaggio?


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 1999

He is frozen there in his greatness. His arms are extended, and his hips are turned, and his hawklike profile is staring into the ages. More than half a century has left some grain in the picture, but a legend never fades, and there was enough of Joe DiMaggio showing to merit putting the photo on the front page of the newspaper.

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This is his final resting place. The great ones all die on 1A -- in this newspaper and every other one across this country that can be squeezed inside a rack. The front of a newspaper is the recording of history on the first attempt, and it has been obvious for a very long time DiMaggio would wind up there. Would anyone anywhere argue he does not belong?

We are running short of heroes. When we were children, you and I, it seemed as if they were everywhere. Not anymore. There are a dozen, maybe a few more. And, then, who is left?

With the passing of DiMaggio, that seems a fair question to ask. And perhaps the barometer of Page 1A is as good a gauge as any to use. These days, what better way is there to measure fame?

This is not an attempt to be morbid. This is an attempt to recognize the living who have had such an impact on us. Who makes the front page of your newspaper in death? What other sports figure has lived a life so memorable that the editors will shove aside the stories on politics, economics and legalities to record their passing?

A couple of ground rules. We are talking about a peaceful demise at a ripe old age, nothing sensational. We are talking about an average news day. And we are talking about making headlines from New York to Topeka.

Muhammad Ali. You can start with him. In his prime, he had the flair, the ability, the controversy. He made his name known to people who didn't know how many boxers fought at a time. He took on Joe Frazier, George Foreman and the Supreme Court. If he does not make the front page of your newspaper when he passes, you should cancel your subscription.

Who else? Henry Aaron, slam dunk. No question about it. If Aaron dies, he's the lead story in the paper, and if his death happens late at night, somebody better stop the darned presses. Jack Nicklaus, same thing.

Michael Jordan will make the front page someday. Ted Williams, Arnold Palmer and Mark McGwire are 1A. O.J. Simpson will make it, but he won't like the story very much.

These are the easy ones. The athletes who have transended their sport, through impact, records or scandal, until they become a part of how we define our nation.

A bit of controversy doesn't hurt, either. Martina Navratilova, the first openly gay athlete, will make the front page. So will Magic Johnson, whose battle with HIV has been so public. And Pete Rose, as much for his banishment as his ability.

I talked to Paul Tash, Times executive editor and Grand Poobah (it says that right on his business card, and if it doesn't, it should) about the subject Tuesday. He said that a year ago, the obit of IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch probably wouldn't have merited the front page. Now, there would be no question.

Remember, we are not talking about excellence. We are talking about fame. Evander Holyfield will not make the front page, but Mike Tyson might. Carl Lewis is less of a bet than Ben Johnson. Tonya Harding might make the front page, but not if her scandal has sufficiently faded.

Joe Namath goes out front even though he won only one title. Joe Montana goes inside, even though he won several.

Yogi Berra makes 1A, if for no other reason than for the clever quotations that will go with the story. Reggie Jackson goes inside, on the sports front.

I would put Bob Knight on the front page, with all his ups and downs. No, Tash said. Put John Wooden there instead. Bill Bradley, who has played a little in politics, goes on the front. Walt Frazier goes inside. Walter Payton goes on the front, but not for a long, long time, we hope. Lawrence Taylor goes inside.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might go to 1A, but Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, better players, would go inside. Pele would go on 1A but down in the corner. Jackie Joyner-Kersee goes inside.

Cal Ripken Jr. goes out front. Dennis Rodman goes inside, unless the paper in question is the Daily Planet. Or the Daily Interplanet.

George Steinbrenner makes 1A, and probably Ted Turner. Maybe Marge Schott and Al Davis. Jerry Jones goes inside, and he won't be happy about it.

Billie Jean King makes the front page. John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg go inside.

Bobby Bowden and Steve Spurrier go on the front page. In Florida. In Omaha, I'm not too sure. Don Shula, I think, goes 1A everywhere.

Go on, debate Greg Louganis and Richard Petty. Tiger Woods and Chris Evert. Stan Musial and Nadia Comaneci. Bob Gibson and Mary Lou Retton. Shaquille O'Neal and Rod Laver. Gordie Howe and Jerry Rice.

Look at the list then, and it tells you much about our time. With few exceptions, the famous athletes of today come with a few more warts. We look closer at celebrities now, more skeptically, and we tend to pay less attention to quiet excellence.

Which, of course, brings us back to DiMaggio and why his death has had such an effect on so many people. In a time we often know too much about those who interest us, he retained his mystery and, with it, his elegance. Was he really as good as his legend? Was his time really as pure as our memories?

Yes, they were.

It says so, right there on the front page.


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