American baseball player
One of the greatest of all baseball players, Joe DiMaggio played the game with grace (one of his nicknames was the Yankee Clipper), power (the other nickname was Joltin' Joe), and an all-around level of skill that few others have approached. His talent, combined with his desire to win and his team's sustained success, led to him become an icon of popular culture—the man who was considered baseball's greatest living player after his retirement.
The son of Sicilian immigrant parents, Joseph Paul DiMaggio was born in Martinez, California, a tiny East Bay village, on November 25, 1914. Named for his father, Giuseppe, he was the eighth of nine children. Not long after DiMaggio's birth the family moved to San Francisco where Giuseppe continued to ply his trade as a fisherman. DiMaggio grew up in the Italian neighborhood of North Beach, not far from Fisherman's Wharf where his father docked his boat. He attended public schools until age 16 whereupon he dropped out of Gallileo High School. By then he was already showing prowess as a baseball player as had his older brother, Vince. In fact, the last three DiMaggio siblings—Vince, Joe, and Dominic—would all become major league baseball players.
From 1930 to 1932 DiMaggio resisted working on his father's boat, and after numerous odd jobs and a growing
reputation in San Francisco as a semi-pro baseball player, he signed late in the 1932 season to play for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League (PCL). At that time the PCL was not a minor league but a highly regarded independent league, just a half-step below the major leagues. He joined his older brother, Vince, who had already signed with the Seals earlier in the year. He appeared in the final three games at shortstop and hit for a .222 average. The next season, 1933, DiMaggio's greatness on the diamond first shone. Replacing his brother as the team's slugging star and center fielder, he hit for a .340 average with 28 home runs and 169 runs batted in (RBIs). More importantly he put together a 61-game hitting streak that was only stopped by the outstanding effort of Ed Walsh, Jr. of the cross-bay rival Oakland Oaks who pitched a no-hitter. Vince DiMaggio, meanwhile, caught on with the Los Angeles Angels.
Following the 1934 season the New York Yankees decided to purchase DiMaggio's contract from the Seals. (1934 was Babe Ruth 's last season with the Yankees.) Unfortunately for Seals owner Charley Graham, DiMaggio injured his knee and the original sale price of $75,000 was cut to $25,000. However, both teams publicly announced the higher figure. Furthermore, DiMaggio spent the 1935 season with the Seals.
DiMaggio's final season with his hometown team was another memorable one. The Seals had brought in former major leaguer Lefty O'Doul as a player-manager and won the league's second-half pennant. (The Angels won the first half). The Seals then went on to win the league championship against the Angels, four games to two. DiMaggio was the league's most valuable player (MVP) with a .398 batting average, 34 home runs and 173 RBIs. He had an astounding 270 hits. He was more than ready to join the Yankees.
Off to a Fabulous Start
If the Rookie of the Year award had existed in 1936, there is no doubt that DiMaggio would have won it in the American League (AL). DiMaggio joined a Yankee team that had not won the league pennant since 1932 and was now led by first baseman Lou Gehrig . The sportswriters, always in search of a colorful angle, dubbed DiMaggio as the next Ruth on the strength of his incredible 1935 PCL season. But when the Yankees season opened, DiMaggio was on the disabled list with an injured foot—in later years, bone chips and botched surgery on his heels would prove to be DiMaggio's physical undoing. He played his first regular season game for the Yankees on May 3, 1936, against the St. Louis Browns (since relocated and renamed the Baltimore Orioles) at Yankee Stadium. DiMaggio went three for six with a triple, an RBI, and three runs scored.
His rookie season pretty much kicked into gear then and he finished the year with 29 home runs, 125 RBIs, and a .323 average—all very good statistics but all far behind Gehrig, who won the AL MVP award that year. Still, DiMaggio was the final component in the powerful Yankee club—he was the first rookie to play in the All-Star Game. The Yankees not only won the league pennant, but defeated their city archrivals, the New York Giants, four games to two in the World Series. DiMaggio hit .346 in his first World Series. Furthermore, he proved, throughout that first season and during the World Series, to be a graceful outfielder. Unfortunately the Gold Glove Award, given to players in each league for defensive prowess, was not instituted until 1957, six years after DiMaggio retired.
There proved to be no sophomore jinx for DiMaggio. As good as he was in his rookie season, he was better in nearly every offensive category in his second year, including leading the AL in home runs in 1937 with 46. He also led the league in runs scored, total bases, and slugging percentage. That season DiMaggio became the fourth player in the history of the game—after Shoeless Joe Jackson , Lloyd Waner, and Johnny Frederick—to record at least 200 base hits in his first two seasons. The feat has since been accomplished by Johnny Pesky, Harvey Kuenn, and Ichiro Suzuki . The Yankees again won the league pennant and the World Series. The team was now in the midst of a tear, winning the World Series four years in a row, 1936-1939.
Prior to the 1938 season DiMaggio held out for more than the $25,000 per season offered by the Yankees. With the nation still staggering through the Great Depression public feeling was not on his side, and DiMaggio eventually signed for the amount offered. In 1939 the Yankees officially became DiMaggio's team. Gehrig, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS (from which he died two years later), retired prematurely and DiMaggio had to carry a heavier load. He responded by winning the AL batting championship with a .381 average, hitting 30 home runs and driving in 126 runs. DiMaggio was named AL MVP that season, and the Yankees swept the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Perhaps the biggest DiMaggio news of the year occurred on November 19, 1939 when he married actress Dorothy Arnold in the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in San Francisco. Thousands turned out to see the wedding of their hometown hero, or at least glimpse DiMaggio and Arnold as they emerged from the church.
The 1940 season was an "off" year for the Yankees—they fell to third place—but not for DiMaggio, who still put up excellent numbers at the plate; he repeated as the AL batting champion with a .352 average. Although not involved in postseason play, the urbane DiMaggio was by then a regular in the café society that dominated Manhattan night life.
DiMaggio was one of the leading performers, if not the leading performer of the incredible 1941 season. The Yankees won the AL pennant and went on to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series four games to one. (Within ten years Brooklyn would replace the New York Giants as National League archrival to the Yankees, before both NL teams decamped to the West Coast in 1958.) DiMaggio hit .357 in 1941 with 30 home runs and a league-leading 125 RBIs. He again led the league in total bases and was second in slugging percentage and runs scored, but he did not win the league batting title. That honor went to DiMaggio's hitting rival, Ted Williams , who that season hit .406—that last man in major league baseball to bat over .400 for an entire season. DiMaggio, however led his team to the pennant and for that, and other exploits on the field he won his second MVP award.
The other exploits during the 1941 season included what is known simply as The Streak, which many baseball experts and fans consider the one baseball mark that will never be surpassed. Beginning on May 15th and continuing until July 16th DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games. Against the Boston Red Sox (Williams's team) on July 2nd, DiMaggio hit a home run to break Wee Willie Keeler's record; it was the 45th consecutive game in which he got a least a hit. The streak was finally halted two weeks later in Cleveland by Indians pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby and two outstanding defensive plays by third baseman Ken Keltner. DiMaggio then hit safely in 16 consecutive games beginning with the game after the streak ended. In that run he hit in 72 out of 73 games. The only sad note for the Yankees during the streak was Lou Gehrig's death from ALS on June 2nd. When the season was over the Associated Press named DiMaggio as Athlete of the Year. To top off his year, Joe DiMaggio, III was born on October 23, 1941.
The 1942 season was DiMaggio's last for the Yankees for a long time. His offensive numbers were down from the previous few years, but only slightly—he still finished in the top ten or even the top five in most important hitting categories—and the powerful Yankees again won the AL pennant, though were defeated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. But in 1942 war, which had been raging in Europe and Asia for years, finally embroiled the United States. Like many ballplayers of the era, DiMaggio volunteered for the military, though grudgingly. A few, such as Williams, actually saw combat action, but most were ensconced on military bases playing exhibition baseball games to lift the morale of the servicemen. DiMaggio, who enlisted in 1943 and held the rank of sergeant in the Army Air Corps, fell into the latter category. During these years the DiMaggios' shaky marriage fell apart. They were divorced in May 1944. Dorothy Arnold was granted custody of their two-and-a-half-year old son, and thereafter the extremely private DiMaggio's relationship with Joe III was strained, even into adulthood.
|Born November 25 in Martinez, California
|Signs first professional contract with San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League
|Hits in 61 consecutive games for the Seals
|Contract sold to the New York Yankees
|Begins his major league career
|American League All-Star Team
|Wins his first American League MVP award
|Sets major league record with 56-game hit streak
|Wins his second American League MVP award
|Son Joseph DiMaggio, III born
|Enlists in the U.S. Army
|Dorothy Arnold divorces DiMaggio
|Returns to baseball
|Wins his third American League MVP award
|Retires from baseball
|Marries and is divorced from actress Marilyn Monroe
|Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame
|Arranges funeral of Marilyn Monroe
|Becomes coach of the Oakland Athletics
|Is named baseball's Greatest Living Player
|Dies March 8 in Hollywood, Florida
DiMaggio was stationed first in Southern California and later Hawaii and all told missed three full seasons from his prime athletic years, 1943-45. The Yankees still managed to win the AL pennant the first year he was gone and took sweet revenge on the Cardinals in the World Series. DiMaggio did not return until 1946 and when he did he was obviously rusty—or perhaps merely mortal. His batting average was .290, the first time in his major league career he hit under .300. He hit only 25 home runs and drove in 95 runs, both numbers were also career lows. However, his outfield play remained superb.
Without a doubt the 1947 season was DiMaggio's comeback year. His offensive numbers were still down from his prewar years, though he did hit .315. Prior to the season DiMaggio had two surgeries on his left heel: the first to remove a bone spur, the second a skin graft. Still he answered the bell for most of the season and led the Yankees to another pennant and a World Series victory over the Dodgers, against whom he hit two home runs and drove in five runs. At season's end DiMaggio was awarded with his third AL MVP.
In 1948 DiMaggio discovered the quirkiness of the game, or rather, the fickleness of the writers who vote for postseason awards. His offensive statistics were much better than they had been the previous season, and a fairly healthy DiMaggio resembled his prewar self. For the season he batted .320 and led the American League in home runs (39), RBIs (155), and total bases (355). He was second in slugging percentage and fourth in number of hits, but he came in second in the MVP voting to Lou Boudreau whose team, the Cleveland Indians, won the pennant that year.
In 1949 the Yankee Clipper signed a contract that made him the first ballplayer to earn $100,000, topping Babe Ruth's historic $80,000 annual salary. 1949 also was the year DiMaggio proved what a champion he really was. Out with illness and injuries (his heel again) for most of the season—he played in only 76 games—he still managed to hit for a .346 average and drive in 67 runs, including four home runs at Fenway Park late in the season that broke the hearts of the Boston faithful who, nevertheless, gave him a standing ovation. On October 1st the Yankees celebrated "Joe DiMaggio Day" at the Stadium, but more importantly they played their archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, who held a one-game lead over the Yankees with just two games left in the season. The Red Sox not only featured Williams but their center fielder was DiMaggio's brother Dominic.
DiMaggio was determined to play despite a recent battle with viral pneumonia, which had kept him out of the lineup for almost two weeks. In that first game DiMaggio had told manager Casey Stengel that he expected to play only three innings, but as the game wore on and the Yankees chipped away at a Boston lead he managed to play all nine; he collected two hits. The next day, the final game of the season a noticeably ill DiMaggio played for eight and one third innings, but took himself out of the game with one out in the ninth when a ball was hit over his head for triple that drove in two runs and cut the Yankee lead. The Yankees held on to win the game, the pennant and the World Series, in five games, against the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the start of their most amazing championship run of all—five in a row.
Awards and Accomplishments
|American League All-Star Team
|American League MVP
|American League MVP
|Associated Press Athlete of the Year
|American League MVP
|Baseball Hall of Fame
|Baseball's Greatest Living Player
|Major League Baseball All-Century Team
The DiMaggio Nobody Knew
Joe DiMaggio was our first modern media star, an athlete of extraordinary gifts and grace, a personage of regal dignity, an icon of American glamour. He was also the loneliest hero we have ever had.
In the end, he was free of the crowds that cheered and revered him, the crowds that made his fortune and that he detested. He always hated it when fans would interrupt him in restaurants, stop him on the street, ask him to sign. Now, at last, with the help of a roaring squadron of San Francisco motorcycle cops, Joe DiMaggio would make his last trip on earth nonstop, beyond all annoyance, in perfect privacy. Perfection was always the goal. Joe's brother Dominic, the old Red Sox center fielder, ruled that only family could say goodbye in the grand old church. Dom said that's what Joe would have wanted. Yet even among those 60 mourners, there were many whom Joe had pushed away in life…. That pallbearer with the gray ponytail—that was Joe DiMaggio Jr., whom Big Joe bitterly cut out of his life. Father and son never spoke. Even Dommie, the youngest and sole surviving brother, didn't speak with Joe for years. Only as lung cancer was killing Joe at 84 did the brothers try to repair the breach….
That was the point: he died as he lived … without intimates of any sort, an object of feverish curiosity, in impenetrable secrecy, swaddled in myth, without even a formalistic nod to the public's right to know. Dominic was correct: that's what Joe would have wanted … as the family in the church, the fans in the morning chill on the street who politely applauded his casket, as the nation as a whole looking in on TV … said goodbye to the loneliest hero we have ever had.
Source: Richard Ben Cramer. Newsweek, March 22, 1999, p. 52.
Age and injury were now creeping up on DiMaggio, yet he was still the most celebrated man in the game. He turned in a respectable year in 1950 with a .301 average, 32 home runs and 122 RBIs, while leading the league in slugging percentage. In 1951, though, he knew he was finished. He missed 38 games and when he played his performance was subpar. The World Series against the New York Giants was DiMaggio's swan song in which he hit a home run and drove in 5 runs. After 13 years in the major leagues Joe DiMaggio hung up his spikes for good; he relinquished the coveted center field position to the young Mickey Mantle . Announcing his retirement at a press conference DiMaggio said, "When baseball is no longer fun it's no longer a game. And so, I've played my last game of ball.… I feel I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my ballclub, my manager
my teammates, and my fans the sort of baseball their loyalty to me deserves."
Marriage to Marilyn Monroe
DiMaggio was an extremely private man who was nevertheless in the public eye. After retiring as a ballplayer he briefly worked as a Yankee announcer. In the late 1960s he served as a coach for the Oakland Athletics. In the 1970s he gained celebrity with a new generation as a spokesman for Mr. Coffee and the Bowery Savings Bank. DiMaggio was celebrated in song and literature both during his career and after. Ernest Hemingway referred to him in his 1954 Nobel Prize-winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea, as did Paul Simon in the 1968 Grammy-winning song, "Mrs. Robinson," which plaintively asked, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?/Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you." In 1941, the year of his 56-game hitting streak, radios throughout America played "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," a swing paean to the Yankee Clipper. DiMaggio was a frequent visitor at Yankee Stadium through the years, especially at the annual old-timers' game where he was the last person introduced and the one who received the loudest applause.
Despite his baseball heroics and the adulation he received from fans and the media, DiMaggio remained aloof throughout most of his career and afterward. He was a man with few friends, even becoming estranged for many years from his brother Dominic. The one thing that made him seem mortal was his love affair with, marriage to, divorce from, and ongoing relationship with Marilyn Monroe. During the 1950s Monroe was Hollywood's biggest female star. Twelve years younger than DiMaggio and almost his polar opposite in temperament—she sought the kind of personal adulation and contact with crowds that he shied away from—they nevertheless fell in love after a blind date in 1952. They were married in a civil ceremony in San Francisco's City Hall on January 14, 1954. The conservative DiMaggio was looking for more of a stay-at-home type of wife, which Marilyn was anything but, and consequently the marriage lasted only nine months. During their honeymoon in Japan, Monroe made a side trip to Korea to entertain the troops. As Roger Kahn described it in Joe and Marilyn: A Memory of Love, "When she was reunited with DiMaggio she described the crowds and then burst out, 'Joe, you never heard such cheering.' 'Yes I have,' DiMaggio said.… He told her not to take the cheers seriously because he knew from his own life that they could quickly turn to boos."
Magazine and newspaper writers of the time attributed their breakup to one incident in particular—the famous scene from the Seven Year Itch in which Marilyn's skirt was blown up from the wind coming through a New York subway grate. DiMaggio was present and witnessed the crowd's reaction. That incident—her exhibitionism and his shyness turned to anger—epitomized their relationship. Monroe subsequently married playwright Arthur Miller; DiMaggio never remarried. Indeed, he carried a torch for Monroe and never ruled out reconciliation, especially since they continued seeing each other. Following her August 1962 suicide, it was DiMaggio who took charge of her funeral arrangements.
DiMaggio's own last years were spent going to baseball memorabilia shows, old-timers games and other events related to his greatness as a player. He died of cancer on March 8, 1999, in Hollywood, Florida.
As the best ballplayer on the best baseball team (at a time when baseball itself was far and away the primary sporting attraction) in the largest market and media center of the country, Joe DiMaggio was a natural to become the first sports superstar. Arguably, he was the first athlete to transcend his sport and every sports superstar since his time has emulated his combination of grace, power and a will to dominate his opponents. In fact, his name remained a byword for success in heroism long after he retired. Joe DiMaggio's career statistics for what amounts to less than 13 years are a .325 batting average, 2,214 hits, 361 home runs, 1,537 RBIs, and .579 slugging percentage. Incredibly, DiMaggio struck out only 369 times in his career. He led the Yankees to nine world championships in 10 appearances and was a member of the American League All-Star team 13 times. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. In 1969, as part of baseball's centenary celebration, Joe DiMaggio was voted baseball's greatest living player.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY DIMAGGIO:
Lucky to Be a Yankee, New York: R. Field; Greenberg, 1946.
|NYY: New York Yankees.
Baseball for Everyone, New York: Whittlesey House, 1948.
Cramer, Richard Ben. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Halberstam, David, Summer of '49, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989.
Johnson, Dick, ed. DiMaggio: An Illustrated Life, New York: Walker and Company, 1995.
Kahn, Roger. Joe & Marilyn: A Memory of Love, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986.
New York Daily News. Joe DiMaggio: An American Icon, New York: Sports Publishing, Inc., 1999.
Newsweek (March 22, 1999): 52.
Seattle Times (September 23, 2002): D14.
"AP Athlete of the Year," http://www.hickoksports.com/history/apathloy.shtml (October 8, 2002).
"Joe DiMaggio," www.baseball-reference.com (September 23, 2002).
"Timeline of Joe DiMaggio's Life," http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/dimaggio/timeline/index.html (September 26, 2002).
"When Joe Was a Seal," http://www.tdl.com/~thawley/dimag.html (October 7, 2002)
Sketch by F. Caso
Joe Di Maggio
Joe DiMaggio was named the "Greatest Living Player" in a 1969 poll of sportswriters. He took the great American pastime of baseball to new heights during his career, and he was the epitome (the perfect example) of the sports hero of the 1940s and 1950s.
Before the Yankees
Giuseppe Paolo (Joe) DiMaggio Jr. was born on November 24, 1914. He was the son of Italian immigrant parents. He grew up in the San Francisco, California, area with his four brothers and four sisters. All eleven DiMaggios lived in a small, four-room house. His father fished for crabs and his sons helped him when they were old enough. Joe did not like fishing, and he always found ways to avoid going out to sea with his father and brothers or to avoid cleaning the catch when the boat came home.
At the age of seventeen DiMaggio started to play minor league baseball with the San Francisco Seals. One of his older brothers was playing on that team and recommended Joe for a position. Joe started with a salary of $250 a month. He became a Bay Area celebrity in 1933 when he got hits in sixty-one consecutive games, an all-time record for the league. His batting average (the percentage of time that a batter gets a hit) was .340 and he batted in 169 runs.
A year later DiMaggio hit .341, and the New York Yankees purchased his contract for twenty-five thousand dollars and five minor league players. DiMaggio's debut (start) in centerfield with the Yankees was delayed because of an injury. When he appeared on the field for the first time, on May 3, 1936, twenty-five thousand cheering, flag-waving, Italian residents of New York showed up to welcome him to the team.
"Joltin' Joe, the Yankee Clipper"
By 1936 DiMaggio was known as "Joltin' Joe" for the power of his batting and "The Yankee Clipper" after the ships built for speed that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. He led the league with a career-high of 46 home runs. Over the term of his career DiMaggio hit 361 home runs. He placed fifth on the major league all-time home run list when he retired in 1951.
In 1937 DiMaggio batted an impressive .346, driving in 167 runs. The next season DiMaggio hit .324, followed in 1939 with a .381. This gave him his first batting championship and won him the league's Most Valuable Player award. Late in the 1939 season DiMaggio was hitting at a .412 pace, but eye trouble kept him from staying above the .400 mark.
During the 1940 season, DiMaggio captured his second consecutive batting title with a .352, but for the first time since he had joined the Yankees his team failed to win the pennant (the league championship). However, DiMaggio made baseball history in the 1941 season.
DiMaggio began a fifty-six-game hitting streak starting on May 15, 1941. He got a hit in every game he played until July 17, 1941. In between he hit .406, and fans all over the country anxiously checked each game day to see if the Yankee Clipper had kept his streak going. People crowded into the ballpark, radio programs were interrupted for "DiMag" bulletins, the U.S. Congress designated a page boy to rush DiMaggio bulletins to the floor, and newspaper switchboards lit up every afternoon with the question of the day, "Did DiMaggio get his hit?" Two pitchers on the Cleveland Indians ended his hitting streak on July 17, but after that game he started another hitting streak that went on for seventeen games.
In 1941 DiMaggio won his second Most Valuable Player award. Like the rest of the people in the country, he also began to feel the pressure of a nation readying itself for war. World War II lasted from 1939 until 1945. During that time the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) tried to gain control of the world, but the Allies (the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France) defeated them. During the 1942 season DiMaggio batted .305, but he was drafted into the army along with thousands of other young men.
DiMaggio spent three years in the army and returned to professional baseball in 1946. That season was a disappointment—he batted only .290—but by 1947 he was back in form, hitting .315. That year he won his third Most Valuable Player award and led his team to the pennant.
Baseball Hall of Fame
Aided by New York City newspapers, radio, and television, as well as his own powerful statistics, DiMaggio became a national hero after the war. Even people who did not like the Yankees liked Joe. In 1948 DiMaggio had returned to the height of this form, winning the home run title with 39, the RBI (runs batted in) crown with 155, and the batting title with a .320 average. DiMaggio sat out the first two months of the 1949 season with problems in his heel, but, as always, his return was memorable. In 1949 he became the American League's first player to earn $100,000.
DiMaggio played in pain during his first games for new manager Casey Stengel (1890–1975), but he hit four home runs in three games and helped the Yankees bring home another pennant. In 1951, with another soon-to-be Yankee superstar, young Mickey Mantle, on the scene, DiMaggio's average slipped to .263 with only twelve home runs.
DiMaggio announced his retirement in 1952 when he was thirty-seven. He turned down another $100,000 contract for that year. This would have been his fourth contract of this size in a row. DiMaggio said, "When baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game." The Yankees honored him by retiring his uniform number, number five. This means that no Yankee baseball player will ever wear that number again.
After DiMaggio retired he hosted television shows shown before baseball games, made television commercials, and was briefly married to the Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962). He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, named the "Greatest Living Player" in 1969 in a poll of sportswriters, and was named as a member of the All-Century Team in 1999.
Joe DiMaggio died at his home in Hollywood, Florida, on March 8, 1999. He was always a modest man and always worked to play his best game even when faced with health problems. Joe DiMaggio is remembered as an inspiration not only for sports fans, but for all people.
For More Information
Allen, Maury. Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio? The Story of America's Last Hero. New York: Dutton, 1975.
Cramer, Richard Ben. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Seidel, Michael. Streak: DiMaggio and the Summer of '41. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
Testa, Maria. Becoming Joe DiMaggio. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2002.
Named the "Greatest Living Player" in a 1969 centennial poll of sportswriters, baseball star Joe DiMaggio (born 1914) took the great American pastime to new heights during his enormously successful career and epitomizes the sports heroes of the 1940s and 1950s.
One of the most popular and fabled players to compete in Yankee Stadium, Joe DiMaggio was winner of three Most Valuable Player awards. His 1941 hitting streak of 56 games was one of the most closely watched achievements in baseball history, and he was so beloved by his fans that Japanese attempting to insult American soldiers on World War II battlefields called out insults to DiMaggio. His career batting average was .325, and he hammered 361 home runs. In 1949 he became the American League's first $100,000 player.
Before the Yankees
Son of Italian immigrant parents, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio Jr. grew up in the San Francisco area with his four brothers and four sisters. At seventeen DiMaggio elected to play minor league baseball with the San Francisco Seals, the team on which his brother was making his professional debut near the end of the 1932 season. With a salary of $250 a month, 6-foot-2-inch DiMaggio became a Bay Area celebrity in 1933, hitting safely in 61 consecutive games, an all-time record for professional baseball, while hitting .340 and driving in 169 runs. A year later DiMaggio hit .341 and was purchased by the New York Yankees for $25,000 and five minor league players. An impressive .398 batting average earned him a Yankee tryout in 1936, where he was billed as the next Babe Ruth. DiMaggio's debut was delayed because of an injury, yet when he appeared on the field for the first time, on 3 May 1936, 25,000 cheering, flag-waving Italian residents of New York showed up to welcome him to the team.
"Joltin Joe, the Yankee Clipper"
By 1936 "Joltin' Joe," as he was called, led the league with a career-high 46 home runs. Even with the depth of the left field fence in Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio hit 361 career home runs, placing him fifth on the major league all-time home run list when he retired in 1951. In 1937 he batted an impressive .346, driving in 167 runs. The next season DiMaggio hit .324, followed in 1939 with a .381 and his first batting championship and the league Most Valuable Player award. Late in the 1939 season DiMaggio was hitting at a .412 pace, but eye trouble, and possibly the pressure, kept him from staying above the .400 mark.
During the 1940 season DiMaggio captured his second consecutive batting title with a .352, but for the first time since he had joined the Yankees his team failed to win the pennant—setting the stage for the 1941 season that would make baseball history. DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak during the 1941 season began on 15 May, when he singled home a run, and ended on 17 July. In between he hit .406, and fans all over the country anxiously checked each game day to see if the Yankee Clipper had kept the streak going. People jammed the ballpark; radio programs were interrupted for "DiMag" bulletins, the U.S. Congress designated a page boy to rush DiMaggio bulletins to the floor, and newspaper switchboards lit up every afternoon with the question of the day, "Did DiMaggio get his hit?" Immediately after Cleveland pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby held DiMaggio hitless on 17 July, with the help of two great plays at third base by Ken Keltner, he started another hitting streak that ran 17 games. At the same time, twenty-two-year-old Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was setting a modern-age batting average of .406. During that same year, young pitcher Bob Feller won 25 games for the Cleveland Indians, and veteran pitcher Lefty Grove won his 300th game. In 1941 DiMaggio won his second Most Valuable Player award and like the rest of the nation began to feel the pressure of a nation readying itself for war. During the 1942 season DiMaggio batted .305 and was drafted into the army along with thousands of other young men. During his three years in the army DiMaggio played baseball in the Pacific and across the United States. The 1946 season was a disappointment (he batted .290), but by 1947 he was back in form, hitting .315 to win his third Most Valuable Player award and lead his team to the pennant.
Hall of Famer
Aided by the media machine of New York City and his own powerful statistics, DiMaggio became a national hero after the war—even though he played for the often-hated Yankees. He was even immortalized in a song called "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," recorded by the Les Brown Orchestra. In 1948 DiMaggio had returned to the height of this form, winning the home run title with 39, the RBI crown with 155, and the batting title with a .320 average. DiMaggio sat out the first two months of the 1949 season with a bone spur in his heel, but as always his return was memorable. Although playing in pain, during his first games for new manager Casey Stengel, DiMaggio belted four homers in three games that broke the back of the league-leading Red Sox and helped the Yankees bring home another pennant. In 1951, with another soon-to-be Yankee superstar, young Mickey Mantle, on the scene, DiMaggio's average slipped to .263 with only 12 homers. Announcing his retirement at age thirty-seven in 1952, he turned down a fourth consecutive $100,000 contract because "when baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game." The Yankees, whose history is replete with heroes, retired his uniform, the world-famous pinstripe number five. In later years DiMaggio hosted pregame television shows, made television commercials, and was briefly married to the voluptuous Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, and in 1969 he was named the "Greatest Living Player" in a centennial poll of sportswriters.
Maury Allen, Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio? The Story of America's Last Hero (New York: Dutton, 1975);
Jack B. Moore, Joe DiMaggio: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986);
Michael Seidel, Streak: DiMaggio and the Summer of '41 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988).
Durso, Joseph, DiMaggio: the last American knight (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995). □