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I wore number five for most of my 12 years of Little League and high school baseball.
My Little Leaguer's impulse to imitate led naturally to Joe DiMaggio, a Yankee with whom I found it easy to identify. Or at least as easy as it can be for a black kid from Brooklyn to identify with a white man playing for the white flag-bearer of a segregated sport.
Given the charmed life I lived then and continue to live, the Yankee Clipper was a natural choice. DiMaggio and I shared an emotionless exterior and a curmudgeonly personality tempered, I hoped, by unparalleled grace on the baseball diamond.
The similarities did not end there. As a public figure, DiMaggio was made a representative of his entire Italian ethnicity and was patronized for filling that role so "ably."
Life magazine once said of DiMaggio, "Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent, and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti."
I also speak English without an accent. Instead of an unruly Afro or dread locks, I wear my hair in a lowcropped fade. And I prefer chocolate and milk to gin and juice. Like DiMaggio for Italians, I am one of the "good blacks."
DiMaggio lived a charmed life. Or better yet, he symbolized one.
America used to be a helluva lot better. Or so some would like to believe.
Because of the welfare state, poor Americans were created and then had their ethics eroded by reliance on their undeserved biweekly government checks. We changed civil rights laws, enabling black people to catch up in the race race, but they stubbornly refused, choosing instead to remain in ghettos and speak their strange pidgin dialects.
Meanwhile, we stopped going to church so our values--whatever those are--disintegrated and our children started listening to rap and heavy metal and subsequently shot their schoolmates.
In days old, kids filled the sandlots and schools, not the jails and penitentiaries. It wasn't a neighborhood unless it had an old woman sticking her head out the window shouting at the cankickers. Your grandfather's memories were everyone's reality.
If you're nodding your head, you believe in Joe DiMaggio. Back when baseball was America, and everyone thought America was better than "Cats," DiMaggio was class incarnate.
And until now, I and most of my classmates have represented what America is supposed to be. Before I have my hair braided as you fire up Hendrix's "The Star-Spangled Banner," allow me to explain.
Life is good. My older brother and I grew up in Park Slope playing whiffle ball on President Street after school, thriving under the tutelage of Coach Dad in the local Catholic Little League and muscling our way through P.S. 282 (Our I.Q. was 282!).
I went to a specialized (read: white) high school on the Upper East Side and spent my teenage years hanging out with a fine group of mama's boys, hitting the books and trading baseball cards with equal aplomb. I swear I would have put them in my bicycle spokes if I had a bike.
Sex, drugs, rock and roll and all that other bad stuff was far, far away--across 96th Street, that is. Blight was a problem only in the abstract, a construct of my parents' liberal imaginations.
I got into Harvard early, so the college process was more like a formality. When I finally got here, I slipped comfortably into my niche, writing sports articles and loving it.
And for the last four years, I have been the boy in the Ivy bubble.
Every beat I have covered here has been wildly successful. It began with women's basketball my freshman year.
I love women's hoops almost as much as I love men's, and that was not nearly the case four years ago. But Ethan Drogin '98 convinced me to join him and Eduardo Perez-Giz '99 covering the up-and-coming women's basketball team, which Ethan said would be a lot more fun than the six-win men's team. He was right.
Both teams improved over their 1994-95 performances, the women to the tune of the first of three straight Ivy League titles. More than just a thoroughly dominating team, the women's hoopsters and their down-to-earth coach, Kathy Delaney-Smith, have proven among the most accessible performers I have ever encountered.
Along with Ethan and "Giz," I tagged along for the team's undefeated 1996-97 Ivy season and won a free trip to North Carolina to cover a game, a loss, to Marion Jones and the Tar Heels. I then wandered fortuitously into the team's magical 1997-98 season, witnessing each record shattered by Allison Feaster '98, as well as the historic upset of top-seeded Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
I even got to see my personal heroine Jamila Wideman sitting at a Palo Alto pizza bar. So what if I missed a couple of midterms? Jamila Wideman!
Women's basketball is only the beginning. No one wanted to cover Harvard baseball in 1996, and not just because the team finished last in the Ivy's Red Rolfe division the previous year. If you have ever been to O'Donnell Field (given the baseball team's overwhelming success the last four years, too many of you have not), you have felt the crosswinds of the Charles River rip through your bones and turn an erstwhile pleasant spring afternoon into a Jack London story.
Frothing over with all the naive energy of a first-year baseball nut, I was no more aware of Allston's mercurial weather patterns or Harvard baseball's poor track record than of the learned arts of "mailing in" response papers or putting a smile on a TF's face during section.
Some would say it is my luck that my arrival coincided with that of prodigious Harvard baseball Coach Joe Walsh; I would like to think that the luck is all his. Give the credit where you want, but the team turned around that year, winning the division and coming a few bounces of the ball and a May thunderstorm away from winning the Ivy League title.
I covered baseball each of the two years after '96, each year the team won the Ivy title and the NCAA play-in series, and won two games in the tournament, both times shocking a higher-seeded team in the process. The price was spending most of my April and May weekends with mild hypothermia, but the weather only lends flavor to my memories.
The only other sport I covered extensively for more than one year was football, and again, my beat coverage took the shape of Dante's Divine Comedy, or perhaps better stated, Groom's Forrest Gump. I shared the football beat with current Co-Sports Editor Bryan Lee in 1997, and that year the football team had its first-ever perfect Ivy League season and recorded its most wins since 1919.
College has worked for me.
Over my four years with The Crimson, I covered games at seven of the eight Ivy League schools (no love to Columbia). I met Leigh Montville and Nancy Darsch. I stormed the field of the Yale Bowl and watched it being stormed from a frigid press box. My eyes took in the wondrous rolling hills of San Francisco while my body was on the clock.
And I have grown. The sports editorship of The Crimson consumed me whole for a year, but I emerged newly aware of the value of leadership, responsibility and a good night's sleep.
When I left the paper behind (except for an occasional column) this past January, I was both happy to have stayed on board for so long and ready to go.
February was out with the jive and in with the love. It was a blast, that is--a wholly joyous, abundantly restful, nearly perfect blast.
Then on March 8 of this year, just as senior bars were starting to become an integral part of my college experience and academic minutia were being relegated to life's back burner with increasing frequency, Joe DiMaggio passed away.
Former Crimson Managing Editor David L. Halberstam '55 once compared DiMaggio to an ice cream cone that you don't want to melt too soon. It is appropriate, then, that he died the same year I graduate from Harvard.
My mythic adolescence ends for real today, when I say goodbye to Harvard and its emblematic athletics. If I have learned anything in the last four years, it is that Harvard and Harvard sports live in their own impenetrable bubble.
At Harvard, coaches are never fired, they gracefully "resign." At Harvard, at least for women's sports, the chants from the bench have the power to bring you all the way back to Little League.
At Harvard, parents galore attend each and every game, even from the far reaches of the continent, often bearing pastries, sandwiches and other assorted goodies. Had I been a varsity athlete, my parents would not have routinely made the trek up from New York. I guess they just don't love me as much.
Or perhaps they are simply not as wealthy and carefree. At times it seems that Harvard families have advanced beyond such trivialities as budget constraints. The subculture of upper-middle class New England soccer moms is alive and well, folks, and it is to be found in the stands of Ohiri Field.
Mind you, I do not criticize, I merely observe. I observe that Harvard athletics, like Harvard itself, is a world of insiders. It is a rich, white landscape with speckles of brown and yellow, a conservative fantasy that I managed to slip into four years ago.
And now, the bubble has burst. As I make the leap into a newer world, part of me recognizes that is also a realer one, and shudders. After all, it remains to be seen which world Harvard has prepared me for.
All I can say for sure is that the ice cream is melted, the tent is up in Tercentenary Theater and Joltin' Joe has left and gone away. Welcome to the Big Leagues.
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