Have you ever visited the grave of a celebrity or idol? Not a monument, nor a national park site dedicated to a politician or leader but the actual grave?
Life in baseball put me in Oakland last week for the opening day of the season and the baseball hours meant most days I was free until lunch time before I had to be at the park for night games. There’s much to see in the bay area so I spent time explorer Berkeley, San Francisco and Marin County by car and foot – all interesting places in their own right, if only seen (mainly) from the window of a rental car. I mentioned my morning freedom to a friend of mine in the bay area who met up with me at a game. Knowing that I was just as big as a fan of baseball as he, he suggested I visit the grave of Joe DiMaggio in Colma, fairly close to the South San Francisco BART stop. The next day time was available in the morning, so I headed across the bay from where I stayed in Emeryville.
The stories about DiMaggio transcend baseball. He was married to the most desirable woman in America, Marilyn Monroe (whom he would leave a rose on her grave many times after her untimely death). Mrs. Robinson – the Simon and Garfunkel song – was a generational coming-of-age, just like the character in the movie, for many baby boomers. After Babe Ruth, Joltin’ Joe may be the most famous ballplayer of all time, maybe the most famous athlete other than Ruth. As a Yankee fan, DiMaggio’s name brings to life the song about his 56-game hit streak (basically the cliché for all records that will never be broken), a time when the Yankees played in the series and won titles almost every year. DiMaggio is just as famous to Yankee fans of my generation for his appearances at Old Timer’s Day and other team functions. Joe was brought out by The Boss whenever it was an important occasion, almost like he was Steinbrenner’s best suit or lucky marble. DiMaggio was famous for elegance and class during his post-baseball life. He probably heard the whispers of “There goes Joltin’ Joe” in the voices of people he walked by for most of his adult life. When he died, generations of baseball fans, not just Yankee fans, saw part of the game disappear into a vault of memory and yesteryear. Another friend of mine said he’d read a book that said DiMaggio was signing baseballs for cash in his dying hours and smiling at thinking of how much they would be worth, although he had very little family left to enjoy the wealth. DiMaggio, from a baseball family, had one son who died the same year as his father (just like long time contemporary Ted Williams, who also had a son die young). While critics of cryogenics point out the alleged mishandling of Williams remains, DiMaggio lies quietly in Colma, a city known by locals to be filled with cemeteries. If you are in Colma and you are still alive, you are lucky, my friend who recommended the visit said to me. It’s mostly cemeteries - in fact according to the article linked below, 73% of the town is zoned as cemeteries. My friend said he was shocked how back east there were cemeteries everywhere but they were all localized in the bay area and many in that one town.
I entered Holy Cross Cemetery through Mission Street, up a slight hill. The plots are laid out I a grid and the first plots upon entry are giant, stately family vaults, some with benches and statues. That’s not where you will find Joe’s grave. Further up hill, the tombstones become more modest. At the first turnaround circle, there is one single parking spot that seems out of place. There’s also a small tree. The first word you’ll read if you look from the spot is “DiMaggio”. A few steps from the park, in the shade of the tree is Joe’s grave. It’s not much larger than the graves around it; people who died well before Joe and probably never thought they’d have so many visitors to their graves. The large silver-colored headstone bares a large grey cross. On the day I was there, people had left bats on either side (one, interestingly enough, aluminum) and along the bottom a row of baseballs of different ages and colors. One that stuck out (I only read the part visible) mentioned someone taking a journey to get to the grave and finally making it. Another was signed “To Joltin’ Joe”. Among those that visited these were tributes.
“Grace, Dignity and Elegance Personified” is the description of the plaque by the grave that bares his full name above. There is a small path around the grave. That’s it. Other than being the grave of a baseball great, there’s not much to separate it from the moments around it other than the gifts of visitors. Death is humbling, just like being in the presence of a legend. It is a place where all are humbled. Humbled that a man like DiMaggio would bow before death, almost against his legendary qualities. But he was human. He did strike out sometimes (although he homered more). The Yankees didn’t win the title every year he played.
Joe is buried alone. At first this made me sad that he had no wife next to him or other family members near by. After all, even in greatness, no one wants to be alone? Or do they? Upon second though, maybe this is exactly what he wanted, peace. Quiet. Just like the cemetery. Shortly after that, I heard bagpipes as a funeral began further down the hill.