What Does Joe DiMaggio Mean to America? (Interview with Ken Burns)

Ken Burns

It’s a question we’ve asked historians, authors, key commentators of our times, producers and fans across the web. In this new series, we’ll be featuring some of these insightful interviews with you.

Our first interview is with a man who needs no introduction: film producer Ken Burns.

Elizabeth Kanna:    This is Elizabeth Kanna with Joe DiMaggio, LLC, and I am very excited to have the Ken Burns on the line with me. Ken is a very unique film producer, and of all the amazing documentaries that he’s done, my absolute favorite, of course, is Baseball. (Though they’re all excellent.) Ken agreed to have a conversation about Joe and what Joe means to America.

Ken Burns:    Thank you, Elizabeth, I’m happy to do this.

EK:    The first question that I have is: What does Joe DiMaggio mean to you?

KB:    Well, I think he means a number of things, as I think he does to a lot of different people. He’s one of the iconic figures in the history of baseball—this sort of pure player with a seemingly effortless swing and gait, this elegant outfielder, and an amazing story. And also, one of those kind of quiet heroes that, at a time when baseball was the only sport in America—perhaps college football was nipping at its heels, perhaps the dark netherworld of boxing was a distraction to some—baseball was it. And Joe DiMaggio with it, one of the best players playing on the best team in the history of the game, the New York Yankees. (And I say that as a Red Sox fan, begrudgingly.)


So you’re dealing with one of the great iconic stars. And then of course in that brief moment, as the world is at war but the United States is not yet, he and Ted Williams have one of the most spectacular summers that any two players have ever had, ever. And it left us with the sense that these are works that are not going to be broken.

We’ve seen in our recent years, in very sad ways, a lot of records (i.e., the number of home runs hit in a season) broken once, twice, three times. We’ve watched the total career home runs broken and surpassed—both Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron’s records—in a sad sort of situation. But when one looks back and says, “What’s not going to happen again?” one’s fairly confident that no one’s going to hit .406 again, as Ted William did in the summer of ’41. I think we all agree that there’s something completely unassailable about a 56-game hitting streak. Joe DiMaggio was the proud owner of that record, and it looks like it is a durable, lasting thing that will not be broken.

EK:    Timeless.

KB:    And even if it is, then it marks the importance of baseball in our lives and the way in which we identify with players like DiMaggio. If you’re growing up in New York or you’re a Yankee fan, the identification with DiMaggio symbolizes the sense that baseball means so much more than the outcome of a box score. This is the sport that has accompanied every decade of our national narrative and reflects us, in good ways and bad. And we felt that our [Baseball] series was a perfect sequel to our Civil War series, because if you want to study American history, most people follow just presidential administrations punctuated by wars, but this is a much more interesting story. Those presidential administrations, those wars are there, but through baseball, you get a look at immigration and assimilation.

In fact, Joe DiMaggio is symbolic of an inclusion of a relatively recent immigrant group into the mainstream of America. It was not too many decades before he arrived that someone with a vowel at the end of his name would not have had a chance to play baseball. It was controlled by Englishman and those who had a vowel, an “o” often, at the beginning of their names. Then Germans were tolerated, and then, finally, central and southern Europeans. So there’s a great story, just as today we’re dominated by Hispanic and Asian players. There’s a great way in which baseball mirrors who we are, and I think that’s one of the glories of it. So even if his record is broken down the line, it will be such a national moment that it will only increase our respect for DiMaggio.

EK:    I think a lot of young people don’t appreciate that racial issue of an Italian player. And I love how you said in the beginning of Innings, Volume 6, that in 1941, baseball did become the “national pastime” with Jackie Robinson.

KB:    It did in large part because of what happened six years later, on April 15, 1947, when Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the son of a slave, made his way to first base at Abbott Field and changed not just baseball history but American social history at that moment. It was before Rosa Parks, it was before Brown vs. Board of Education, it was before the lunch counter demonstrations—it was before a lot of things, and Jackie broke the color line so heroically.

We’ve seen baseball at times just mirroring precisely who we were in terms of our acceptance of people. And there had been incredible resistance to Catholics and other immigrants from southern Europe and central Europe. And all of a sudden, when you make it in baseball, that’s a signal that maybe you as an ethnic group have achieved, however begrudgingly, a larger acceptance. And that’s an exciting thing to watch. And I like the fact that baseball quite often does that.

I mean, just think about it in other terms: What happens if you’re a racist, and you’re a Brooklyn Dodgers fan? What do you do when Jackie Robinson comes out? It seems to me you’ve got three options: 1) you can quit baseball altogether; 2) you can move to another team, but it’s inevitable that [things there are] are going to change; or 3) you’re gonna have to change. And that’s what happened—people changed.

EK:    Beautifully said. And that was one of my questions, of the streak and why it’s timeless—what it represents. There’s an amazing story in The National Pastime, when you covered Joe’s streak, where a gentleman talks about a friend of his who was just out of high school, and he was going across the country, and he went into a dusty diner where there were ranch hands and farm hands. It was during Joe’s streak, when it started to capture the nation in a very dark time in our history, and these ranch hands would walk in (there was no television, there was no internet, there was no Twitter to find out), and they would say, “Did he get a hit?”

KB:    “‘Did he hit one?’” Robert Creamer, the great baseball historian, talking about his friend Andy Creichton, who remembers the story. It’s an important moment. World War II has not yet happened to the United States, but a good deal of Europe is under Hitler’s control by now. I believe he’d already invaded the Soviet Union, breaking his own pact with other devil, Stalin, and it’s a very anxious time.

I think in some ways, baseball offered a kind of summer of distraction. But out of it came these two examples—and primarily I think the heroic example of Williams and DiMaggio—of excellence. What we were watching was a kind of perfection that we so very rarely see, and an elegance in both cases to that perfection, and so completely with Joe DiMaggio. And I think that’s what it was, and it just lit everyone on fire. It’s not dissimilar, even in an Internet age, to the summer of ’98, when we were more innocent and we thought this Sousa and McGuire thing was a hearkening back to that incredible moment, the summer of ’41. It turned out it wasn’t; these were steroid-fueled home run bursts. But I remember stopping at the outside of saloons and taverns and bars to see whether McGuire or Sousa was up to bat, and everyone stopping their coverage to go to that at bat. And that was exciting.

But we can’t really fully appreciate—as your excellent question sets up—that this was a country that had newspapers and had radios, and that was it. That was how we got our news about [the streak]. Maybe in the Saturday news reels, you’d get an update after the fact, but the notion that we all sort of held our breath (“Did he get one?  Did he get one?  Did he get a hit?”)—we were all in this together. And we bemoan, when we complain about our contemporary situation, the lack of civil discourse, the lack of sense of unity and common purposes and common cause. DiMaggio was the glue that kept us all stuck together that summer.

EK:    And I would like to think, if I can be so bold, that besides being an American icon, Joe represents all the great things about America—as you said, “the glue.” Joe represents the American Dream: that anyone, regardless of their ethnicity or their economic status, if they work hard and they persevere, they can create a new life for themselves and their family.

KB:    Yeah. That’s exactly right. This is what we promise—that we hope is the promise of America: that we do not favor the rich over the poor, the poor over the rich, but that your talent can take you as far as you can take that talent. And when you see an example of an immigrant kid, a fisherman’s son from the wharfs of San Francisco, making his way from the San Francisco Seals with an extraordinary set of Triple A seasons, and then this extraordinary professional career…This is a reminder to everybody of what is possible. It’s more often than not not possible.

In some ways, we also have to talk of the reverse side of this. You know: If Joe, with his incredible shyness and reticence and reluctance to speak to the press, was around today, how would he fare? Would people treat him the same way? There have been other ballplayers who have exhibited in the modern era, in baseball and in other sports, the same sort of relationship, and they’ve been dismissed as “arrogant” and “snobby” and whatever. At that time, Joe was just shy, and that’s how people described him. You know, somebody asked him for a quote once and he thought it was a soft drink.

EK:    I love that. That’s really one of my favorite Joe quotes.

And he represented humility, perseverance. He truly did love his fans, and he always played hard. I’m sure you know, with all the research you did, that he wasn’t taken with himself. He actually told his close friend, Morris Engelberg that he never really liked “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” He said, “I’m right here.”

He didn’t always like that lens constantly on him. He felt he did his job, he played hard, but one of his best quotes about him is, “He played hard because he never knew if somebody watching him, or a kid, and it was their first time seeing him.” And in that way he was like my father-in-law who was also of that era, where they could build a rocket ship out of a toaster in their garage—that generation of quiet perseverance, grace. There’s a little bit of longing for that, which we don’t have. And part of that is that we know everything about everybody now. Some things that we just should not know, and we should not judge people based on what our assumptions are, just because they’re quiet or shy. Not everybody lives their live well in a fish bowl.

KB:    I agree completely. And we do have to remember that there are aspects of Joe that are utterly modern. He held out for a salary raise, refused to play, and these are all things that we think are just part of the modern era. And I think it’s very important as we build the heroes of the past that we don’t do so one-dimensionally. Joe DiMaggio was a complicated human being, as we all are. And I think we do him a disservice if we just paint him as a statue collecting bird detritus and not show him as a real, complicated human being.

EK:    Which he was. And he had his idiosyncrasies like everybody else. But again, going back to what you said about “the glue”: Joe represents the hope and promise that you work hard—and it doesn’t happen overnight—but you work hard, and it isn’t just the outcome; it’s about showing up every day.

KB:    I like that. The thing that I think sticks with me about all the many stories about him is why he was lugging out a double; he said “because somebody may not have seen me before.” And I like that notion that every time you go up to the bat, you’re conscious of your role as a model.

EK:    That’s very important, yes.

KB:    Very, very important.

EK:    It’s not about the ego, not about the star; it was about the fans. It was about doing your job not for the fame and glory, but as long as you’re gonna be there, it’s about living in the moment. Put your best out there right then and work hard. Joe worked hard. It wasn’t handed to him. He worked very hard for it.

KB:    Yeah, I’m not sure that anybody’s been “handed” anything. But there’s always the worry that somebody’s going to get some extra break. I’m less worried about that than I am about the fact that this is a story about excellence. This is somebody who did what he did for a living extremely well, and elegantly. I mean, there’s nothing like that way he rounded the bases or the way he made the most difficult of fly balls look routine. And I love that about him; that’s what I will cherish.

EK:    The elegance. There are a lot of great stories that he would travel very lightly, with a couple of suits, and wash out his underwear himself. Again, not a pretentious guy at all. Yet when Joe walked anywhere, his fans followed him…in New York, in San Francisco. There were many famous individuals who would say, “When Joe DiMaggio gets out of a cab, he looks like an ad.”

KB:    Yep.

EK:    It was flawless.

KB:    Well, I think that that’s the nature of heroism, you know—that at the beginning, everybody is sort of a perfect person, and he had that sort of Greek-god-ness to him.

EK:    Absolutely. And that’s why—although he was a complicated individual—there’s a part of him that’s an icon. There’s a baseball player, a legend, and like baseball, he’s part of who we are. We all have that potential inside. We’re complicated, as you said earlier. We’re complicated people; we’re all human beings. But if we want it, and we work hard—yes, elegance and grace, he had it in droves—but if we push hard, we can create what our definition of the American Dream is. And it’s a time when it needs to be rebooted, when the American Dream is being redefined. But we do have that glue of what he represents, that hope.

KB:    You know, I think that there are always guideposts. This is why I’ve spent my entire professional life in the past, which is to find those individuals and those events that remind us—not because I want to live in the past, but because history is a set of questions we in the present ask of the past, and so it’s necessarily informed by our desires and our anxieties, our hopes and our fears. And the folks that we collect, in DiMaggio and Williams and Babe Ruth and others, are part of that. They help to define us by what we say is important, what we’ve set aside and said, “This was an important moment.”

That summer of ’41 was great; the arc of that career was great. And we don’t want to make too much of it, but you also don’t want to minimize it—particularly in cynical times when that seems to be what all people want to do, is say “Yes, but…”

EK:    Absolutely. And since I’m going to be at the [Joe DiMaggio Forever Stamp release] celebration (and we’re very sad that you won’t be there, but understand), what are your thoughts about Joe’s stamp? What are your thoughts on the fact that the United States Post Office is honoring our “All-Star” legend?

KB:    I don’t think you can you overstate the significance of that moment that started on May 15, 1941 and ended in July—that hitting streak. That is one of the great accomplishments in baseball. I can think of no other of more importance than except, say, Jackie Robinson’s arrival, because of how much baseball’s a very individual sport. The focus is on the pitcher who throws the pitch, the batter who hits it, and then the fielder who may have a chance to get it. It’s not everybody doing something at once; the focus is on one thing. And this is the only sport in which the defense has the ball, so it’s required of the offense to sort of have to take what’s given them—the pitch that comes their way. And Joe was able to do something over 56 consecutive games that no one else has ever been able to duplicate. And it’s so interesting that he’d had a 61-game hitting streak in the minors and that he went on another, I think, 28-game hitting streak afterwards.

EK:    And in the same year, he hit—

KB:    No, the next day!

EK:    The next day, yeah.

KB:    Yeah. Just amazing.

EK:    And it’s actually—no disrespect to baseball—but in all sports, it’s one of the most amazing records of any sport.

KB:    Yeah, the next day, he went on a 16-game hitting streak, which meant that he’d hit safely in 72 of 73 games. Puh-lease. That’s great.

EK:    That’s really hard to even fathom. So like you said, even if it is broken (and each year, there’s a possibility; someone gets to 30 and…), it won’t change what that streak meant.

KB:    No, no, no. I think it only amplifies it, because it’s the more distance between the actual achievement in the summer of ’41 and when it is—if it is, and I highly doubt that it will be—broken. It only just, again, enlarges.

If somebody appears as presidential as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, that’s still good news for Lincoln and Roosevelt, you know? [laughter] It’s good news for that person who’s in that territory, but we’re also reaffirming their place. And that’s what this whole game is about: memory and history and self-definition. And in the game of baseball, there are very few people for whom the adjective “elegant” is attached to. And if you asked people to name a player based on the adjective first, I bet you 9 out of 10 people who know anything about baseball would say “DiMaggio” after the word “elegant.”

EK:    And people who actually saw him play said even from a distance, you didn’t even have to see the number, you knew Joe.

KB:    Oh, no. No, no, no. There’s a way, just as you know when you’re in love with the game, as we were (and still are, many of us). You don’t have to see the number on the back of the uniform. You see the way they walk to the plate, or the way they swing the bat, or the way they charge something, and you go, “Oh, my goodness, yes, that’s so and so. That’s Joe DiMaggio. I know that walk, I know that gait, I know that lope—the charge of the ball, the swing of the bat…”

EK:    Yes. I hope you have a chance to take a look at one of our first projects last year. We were tasked to create a flagship, iconic brand logo for Joe, and we created a silhouette of his swing that was so representative.

KB:    We know what that is. We know what that looked like, don’t we?

EK:    Yes.

KB:    Well, I hope this was helpful. I have to get back into the editing room.

EK:    This was wonderful. Thank you, and I really appreciate your time.

KB:    Not at all.

EK:    And if you decide to do a new movie on somebody that we both love, let me know.


KB:    I will. Okay.

EK:    Thank you so much, Mr. Burns, I really appreciate it.

KB:    Thank you. Please, “Ken.” And thank you, Elizabeth, and good luck in Cooperstown. I’m sure it’ll go wonderfully.

EK:    Thank you so much, Ken. Take care.


  1. Jean Strong says:

    In the 1950s I was walking north on Broadway (NYC) when I collided with a man walking south. It was Joe DiMaggio. Given his reputation as a man of grace, I have to conclude that I was the klutz.

  2. Joe D was very typical of San Francisco bay Italians of that time. Grace, respect, class! Those days are gone forever! I am proud to say both of my grandfathers had that grace too!


  1. […] to a nation preparing its young men to become cannon fodder. As documentary filmmaker Ken Burns put it, “DiMaggio was considered the glue that kept us all stuck together that summer.” More than 75 […]

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