DiMaggio, Joe (1914-1999)

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DiMaggio, Joe (1914-1999)

Joe DiMaggio is one of the few athletes who truly transcend their sport. His Hall of Fame career, leading the Yankees to nine World Series in 13 years, bridged two great eras of baseball—the post-war days of Babe Ruth and the post-integration days of Jackie Robinson. But he will always be best known as "Joltin' Joe," whose record-breaking 56 game hitting streak in 1941 captivated the country. DiMaggio's fame only grew after retirement, with his brief, but highly publicized marriage to movie star Marilyn Monroe, and frequent public appearances. The cool, classy ballplayer was immortalized in music and literature, as an enduring symbol of decency and order during a confusing era. In the words of the New York Times on the day of his retirement, DiMaggio had "something that no baseball averages can measure."

He was born Joseph Paul DiMaggio in San Francisco in 1914, one of nine children; his parents were part of a wave of Sicilian immigrants to emigrate to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The shy, unsociable DiMaggio was expected to get an education, but his only true interest was baseball, so he dropped out of school at age 16 … a decision he would later regret. The story of DiMaggio's discovery has become baseball legend; a member of the San Francisco Seals organization spotted the thin 17 year old peaking through a hole in the outfield fence, hoping to find his brother Vince, a Seals player. The Seals offered the talented sand-lot player an opportunity to play, and he stayed for four years, becoming a hero in the Italian community in San Francisco. The year 1933 proved to be a harbinger of things to come; DiMaggio chalked up a minor league record with his 61 game hitting streak.

At the end of the 1935 season, the New York Yankees signed DiMaggio, hoping he would lead the team into the post-Ruth era. Despite the pressures of following Ruth, DiMaggio had a fabulous rookie season in 1936, hitting.323 with 29 home runs, 125 RBIs, and a league leading 15 triples. Writers across the country marvelled at his exceptional clutch hitting, skilled base running, and graceful defensive play. The shy, conservative DiMaggio, a sharp contrast from the wild gregarious Ruth, became an instant celebrity. He led the Yankees to four straight World Series titles from 1936 to 1939 and constantly appeared among the leaders in batting, home runs, and RBIs. He became the most popular player in baseball, although he angered fans in 1938, sitting out the beginning of the season due to a contract dispute, a theme prevalent throughout his career. Despite the new celebrity status, DiMaggio continued to live a very normal life, returning to San Francisco to live with his family during the winter. At the end of the 1939 season, DiMaggio married Dorothy Arnold, and two years later, they had a son, Joe Jr.

All of the fanfare could not prepare DiMaggio for the 1941 season. DiMaggio collected a hit in every game from May 15th to July 14th, an astonishing stretch of 56 games. Never before did an individual sports record receive so much public attention; radio stations across the country regularly interrupted broadcasts to give updates on "the streak." It seemed to come at a perfect time for a nation on the brink of war. Songwriter Alan Courtney wrote "Joe, Joe, DiMaggio, we want you on our side," as if his hitting streak could protect America from the turmoil overseas. DiMaggio himself joined the Air Force at the end of the 1942 season, while in the prime of his baseball career. Like many ballplayers, he saw no combat, spending the majority of his service time entertaining the troops in exhibition games. But the distance from his family was frustrating, and in 1944 Dorothy DiMaggio filed for divorce.

When DiMaggio returned to baseball in 1946, his finest years were clearly in the past. He did, however, add to his fame by constantly playing though injury. In 1949, he made a remarkable comeback from a leg injury and "took his place in that select circle of athletes, like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, who are no only adored but beloved," according to Life Magazine. DiMaggio continued to show flashes of his former brilliance, but lost consistency and fought with Yankee manager Casey Stengal. At the end of the 1951 season, DiMaggio retired having amassed a.325 lifetime average and 361 career home runs in 13 seasons. That same year, he was immortalized in the Ernest Hemingway classic The Old Man and the Sea, the tale of an tired, aging fisherman, stuck at seas for days, and turning to "the Great DiMaggio" for solace.

Unlike many former players, DiMaggio had little trouble adjusting to life without baseball. He spent his first year of retirement working as a broadcaster for the Yankees, and went on to work in public relations with a variety of companies and charitable foundations. DiMaggio reentered the public consciousness in 1952 when he met a young Marilyn Monroe. The relationship between these two very different celebrities—the quiet, conservative former ballplayer and the beautiful but troubled movie star—was instant front page news. They married on January 14, 1954, but constantly fought over DiMaggio's traditional views of marriage and views of the Hollywood life, and divorced just nine months later. DiMaggio remained a close, dependable friend to Monroe, right until her death in 1962. He made all the funeral arrangements, excluding the Hollywood crowd in the hope it would restore some dignity to her tragically short life.

In 1967, DiMaggio was introduced to a new generation of Americans by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson," a sad lament to lost innocence from the film The Graduate. Simon and Garfunkel asked "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?," looking for a hero to guide them through troubled times. More than 25 years after the magical summer of 1941, Joltin' Joe became a symbol of fundamental good to a confused generation. His image continued to grow through the 1970s and 1980s, through his charitable work and public appearances. DiMaggio died on March 8, 1999, after a bout with cancer.

—Simon Donner

Further Reading:

Allen, Meary. Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio: The Story of America's Last Hero. New York, E. P. Dutton and Company, 1975.

Moore, Jack B. Joe DiMaggio: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, Connecticut, Greeenwood Press, 1986.

Schoor, Gene. Joe DiMaggio: A Biography. New York, Doubleday, 1980.

Seidel, Michael. Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of '41. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Whittingham, Richard, editor. The DiMaggio Albums: Selections from Public and Private Collections Celebrating the Baseball Career of Joe DiMaggio. New York, G.P. Putnam and Son, 1989.