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New York weeps for legendary Joltin' Joe

NEW YORK bowed its head in mourning yesterday for a man who in life was closer to the city's soul than almost any figure you can think of and who will always remain one of its most powerful and beloved legends. Joe DiMaggio, arguably the world's first sporting superstar, had passed away in Florida.

DiMaggio, who earned the name "Joltin' Joe" after securing his still unbroken 56-game hitting record - the Streak - in the summer of 1941, died in the early hours of yesterday morning in a South Florida hospital after fighting a months-long battle with lung cancer. He was 84 years old.

While there were expressions of grief from across the United States, nowhere was the loss more deeply felt than in New York, home to Di- Maggio's baseball team, the Yankees. Radio and television stations aired tributes and played the Simon and Garfunkel song "Mrs Robinson", which laments "Joltin' Joe has left and gone away".

Only last week, the owner of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner, visited DiMaggio in Florida and invited him to perform the ritual of throwing out the first ball in the season's opening game in Yankee Stadium on 9 April. He was too weak then to respond. "He just smiled," Mr Steinbrenner reported yesterday.

DiMaggio was declared close to death several times over recent months since having surgery in October last year. To its intense embarrassment, the NBC news network four weeks ago accidentally aired a bulletin saying he had passed away, which it immediately retracted.

In spite of DiMaggio's fame, which deepened when he wed Marilyn Monroe in 1954 - a marriage that quickly soured and left him heartbroken - he remained always a shy and very private man.

"He felt uncomfortable with a lot of people, yet he was always there as a tremendous representative of our game of baseball," said Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Common to all the tributes paid to DiMaggio yesterday was the notion of a star whose standing as a popular icon had long transcended the sport of baseball itself. He may be remembered in part as the first of a category of superstars whose members include Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali.

"Even though I was never one who cared about baseball, I care a lot about Joe DiMaggio," conceded Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York. "He represented the best in America. It was his character, his generosity, his sensitivity. He was someone who set a standard every father would want his children to follow."

President Bill Clinton paid tribute: "I have no doubt that when future generations look back at the best of America in the 20th century, they will think of the 'Yankee Clipper' and all that he achieved. Hillary and I extend our thoughts and prayers to his family," he said in a statement.

The Paul Simon song "Mrs Robinson" was composed for the film The Graduate. Meant to evoke a simpler and prouder time in American history, when DiMaggio ruled on the diamond, it will be on the New York airwaves for days to come. "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What's that you say, Mrs Robinson? Joltin' Joe has left and gone away."

Obituary, Review, page 7