DiMaggio, Joseph Paul ("Joe"; "The Yankee Clipper")
DiMAGGIO, Joseph Paul ("Joe"; "The Yankee Clipper")
(b. 25 November 1914 in Martinez, California; d. 8 March 1999 in Hollywood, Florida), one of baseball's greatest players whose varied skills, winning record, fifty-six consecutive-game hitting streak, and role in Marilyn Monroe's life made him a cultural hero.
DiMaggio's parents, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio and Rosalie (Mercurio) DiMaggio, were born near Palermo, Italy, probably in the poor Sicilian fishing village of Isola Delle Femmine, where they married. A fisherman, Giuseppe emigrated to the San Francisco area in 1898, and Rosalie and a daughter followed in 1902. In America they had three more girls and five boys, each with the middle name of Paul, after their father and his favorite saint. DiMaggio was born next to last. The big Italian-American family became a strand in the legend of DiMaggio's life, embodying the American dream of "immigrant to riches" success in arguably the most American of sports—baseball, the national pastime.
As a boy, DiMaggio seemed, like many a traditional hero, an unlikely candidate for greatness. A quiet, moody, self-contained school dropout (from Galileo High School, San Francisco, in 1930) with no discernible ambition, he at first preferred playing tennis to baseball. His largely un-assimilated father considered baseball a "bum's game," but several of DiMaggio's older brothers had shown proficiency at it, particularly Vincent, who in 1931, a low point of the Great Depression, placed on the family kitchen table $1,500 in cash he had earned from the Triple A Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals. That softened Giuseppe's attitude. Vince and another brother, Dominic, would later become major leaguers.
A superb, seemingly natural and untutored hitter and hard thrower from the start, young DiMaggio earned recognition, merchandise, and money playing as a semiprofessional. Like a traditional hero, his narrative has many wonderful but untrue discovery stories. In one version the scout Spike Hennessey sees him peering through a knot-hole at the Seals' park looking for Vince. Hennessey tells DiMaggio, "Never stand on the outside, looking in, unless it's jail," and he hauls the frightened boy to an interview with the Seals' president Charlie Graham that ends with DiMaggio being offered a contract. In fact, his technically amateur exploits had often been observed by local scouts and written about frequently in area sports columns when Vince suggested in 1932 that his younger brother help the Seals out and play shortstop for their last three games. Prophetically, DiMaggio tripled his first time at bat.
In 1933 the right-handed eighteen-year-old batted .340 and set a minor league record, hitting in sixty-one consecutive games. He hit .341 the next year and .398 in 1935. With DiMaggio in the lineup, attendance at Seals' games rose dramatically. He was especially popular among the coast region's numerous Italian Americans, who sought an authentic hero to highlight their increased presence and success as Americans. DiMaggio was the perfect antidote to the clownish, ersatz ex-heavyweight champion Primo Carnera and the un-American Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
The New York Yankees bought DiMaggio's contract in 1934, gambling that he had recovered fully from a knee injury. Already in 1936 the rangy six foot, two inch rookie, so green he thought the "quote" a writer asked him for was something to drink, was heralded as Babe Ruth's successor in keeping the Yankees on top, a role the magnificent but somehow unspectacular Lou Gehrig had not been able to fulfill. DiMaggio delivered. He would win three Most Valuable Player awards. The Ruth Yankees (1920–1934) won seven pennants and four World Series. During DiMaggio's thirteen seasons (1936–1951; interrupted by army service 1943–1945), the Yankees won ten pennants and nine World Series. DiMaggio was the complete ballplayer: a clutch-hitting slugger and consistent hitter who rarely struck out, a brilliant and graceful center fielder with a great arm, an excellent base runner, and a team player who led by performance.
Prior to his service in the military during World War II, DiMaggio led the American League in batting average (twice), runs, runs batted in (RBI), triples, home runs, total bases, and slugging average. His most famous feat was his fifty-six consecutive-game hitting streak, begun in 1941 with a single against Edgar Smith of the Chicago White Sox on 15 May and ended in a night game 17 July by the Cleveland Indians' Al Smith and Jim Bagby, Jr., with a double-play grounder to Lou Boudreau. The streak has become a legendary achievement in American sport, an almost magical phenomenon that, like Babe Ruth's home run records, may fall but will forever remain a part of sports mythology. Further, like only a few sporting events (such as black Jack Johnson's defeat of white Jess Willard for the heavyweight championship on 4 July 1910), the streak has fostered continued analysis: countless attempts have been made to account for the national excitement it generated, and speculation abounds concerning its historic resonance at a time when post-depression America was being pulled into the trauma of World War II.
Although his dominating level of skill diminished following his return from the service, DiMaggio could still demonstrate his greatness. In 1947 he hit .315, and in the American League only Ted Williams had more runs batted or total bases or a higher slugging average. The Yankees won the World Series against Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers, despite Al Gionfiddo's now legendary robbery of what should have been a game-tying DiMaggio home run. In 1948 he hit .320 (his lifetime average would be .325) and led the league in RBI and home runs.
The next year provided possibly the last epic chapter of DiMaggio's playing career. Injuries had prevented him from starting several seasons, including his first, but he had always come back to star as expected. The 1949 season reinforced his image as a wounded hero. In November 1948 he had an operation to eliminate a painful bone spur in his heel and limped through spring training, trying unsuccessfully to rehabilitate himself. Concurrently, the aging athlete and his team's new manager, Casey Stengel, were trying to adjust to each other. DiMaggio did not start the season and grew increasingly depressed and withdrawn. In early May 1949 he attended his father's funeral. In June the "hot" heel, which reportedly felt as though tacks were being driven into it, finally cooled, some accounts say overnight. He returned to the lineup in a critical away series in late June with arch rival Boston, leading what instantaneously became "his" team again to a three-game sweep, hitting five for eleven (.455), with nine RBI and four home runs. During Game 3 a small plane circled Fenway Park displaying a banner that read T HE G REAT D I M AGGIO. Life, the country's most popular barometer of fame at the time, called him on 1 August a "national hero" whose comeback was achieved "in perfect, fairy-tale fashion." DiMaggio retired after the Yankees beat the New York Giants in the World Series of 1951, a season in which he hit .263. In 1955 he was voted into baseball's Hall of Fame.
DiMaggio had married Dorothy Arnold (Dorothy Arnoldine Olson), a former showgirl and starlet, in 1939. Their union produced a son, Joseph Paul DiMaggio, Jr., and lasted five on-and-off years. But the American movie star Marilyn Monroe came to be known as the great love of his life. The two met in 1952, married 14 January 1954, divorced 27 October the same year, and maintained an intermittently distant, angry, friendly, and intimate relationship until Monroe's shockingly bizarre death on 4 August 1962.
Episodes of the couple's intersecting lives form a grand, romantic, tragic narrative. On their honeymoon trip to Japan, Monroe entertained American troops in Korea and told DiMaggio breathlessly he had never experienced a reception like hers. He curtly replied that he had. DiMaggio was both angered and embarrassed when Monroe's skirt lifted high above her knees as she stood over a subway grating in New York while filming The Seven Year Itch (1955). And at her death DiMaggio took control and made the arrangements for a dignified funeral. For decades after, he sent roses to be placed each week at her crypt.
To an unusual extent, he became enshrined as a national symbol, an icon of individual attainment. DiMaggio personified Ernest Hemingway's famous concept of courage—"grace under pressure"—despite injury in his athletic career and ultimately in his relationship with Monroe. Hemingway had presented him as a worthy hero who would well understand an ordinary man's pain in The Old Man and the Sea (1952). While Cole Porter and Oscar Hammerstein II, among other lyricists, had previously alluded in popular songs to his skill and grace, the younger singer-songwriter Paul Simon (then of the duo Simon and Garfunkel) featured DiMaggio hauntingly in the song "Mrs. Robinson" (from the 1967 film The Graduate), embodying old, long-vanished American virtues, representing an entire generation's search for lost innocence.
Aging gracefully, DiMaggio kept sporadically before the public as the star attraction at old-timers' games, memorabilia signings, and in a variety of visible jobs, most famously as media spokesman in the 1970s for a bank and for the "Mr. Coffee" coffeemaker. He died at home on 8 March 1999, after a lengthy illness following removal of a cancerous tumor from his lung. The nation's deathwatch was protracted, but characteristically his funeral in San Francisco was private. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.
The solid basis of DiMaggio's fame was his high and all-around ability, which earned him, according to a poll of sportswriters and fans during baseball's declared 1969 centennial, the title of "Greatest Living Player." At his best he seemed to play at once with no limit to his ability, yet gracefully within self-established but far-reaching bounds. He has been described as painfully shy, "deadpan," not greatly educated, a stereotypical "young man from the provinces" plunged into the world of the country's signature sport, in its biggest city, for sports' most publicized and successful franchise. Yet he negotiated with amazing success a dangerously high-powered, sometimes mutually exploitative, existence. DiMaggio helped carve out an image for himself that seemed on the surface purely spontaneous. He could be sulky, self-centered, cold, manipulative, and, not surprisingly for a child of the Great Depression, penurious. Through his great skill and grace and through the dignity of a nurtured image that he somehow projected as innate, DiMaggio became a nation's model of worthy, virtuous prowess. It could not have been easy, but he made it look as natural as his swing.
Lucky to Be a Yankee, which lists DiMaggio as author, was ghost-written by Tom Meany and published in three versions, the last two "with additional material" (1946, 1949, 1951). Michael Seidel, Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of '41 (1988), is an excellent analysis of DiMaggio's single greatest attainment. Maury Allen, Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio? The Story of America'sLast Hero (1975), is partisan but balanced, with many interviews. Jack B. Moore, Joe DiMaggio, Baseball's Yankee Clipper (1986), clarifies his biography, reviews the literature about him (updated in Richard Gilliam, ed., "Literature About Joe DiMaggio, 1987–Present," in Joltin' Joe DiMaggio ), and analyzes his status as a cultural hero. DiMaggio: An Illustrated Life (1999), edited by Dick Johnson with text by Glen Stout, contains excellent photographs and a well-researched resume of DiMaggio's life and career. Richard Ben Cramer, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life (2000), is extensive and iconoclastic but sometimes undocumented and therefore should be consulted with care. Gay Talese, "The Silent Season of a Hero," Esquire (July 1966), focuses on the dark side of DiMaggio's life after baseball and Monroe, and Roger Angell's New Yorker remembrance (22 Mar. 1999) is a lovely elegy. Special collections at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame contain some archival materials. "Joe DiMaggio: A Hero's Life" in The American Experience series is a good video with supplementary online aids. An obituary is in the New York Times (9 Mar. 1999).
Jack B. Moore