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The Life and Legend of Joe DiMaggio

Even today, the very thought of Joe DiMaggio fills me with pride. Just by looking at a photograph of the legendary centre fielder, resplendent in Yankee pinstripes, patrolling the verdant meadows of American history, my heart swells and my imagination runs wild. The Clipper still reigns supreme as a paragon of comportment, a bastion of class. The very idea of his elegance still permeates baseball lore. All these years later, he’s still the ultimate role model, inspiring people he never met, people like me, to dream big and act with dignity.

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The great Joe DiMaggio.

From the most austere beginnings in an Italian fishing district of San Francisco, Joe DiMaggio became the most famous man in America. First and foremost, he was the heart and soul of a dynastic Yankees team that captured the nation’s attention. Joe was a fierce competitor, a winner in the most extreme sense. Defeat gnawed at him. Being embarrassed was his ultimate nightmare and the grist that motivated him to attain greatness. His was a true rags to pinstripes story, the kind America loves so much, which made his aura and identity even more intoxicating.

“Joe would wear the finest clothing,” wrote Marty Appell in Pinstripe Empire, the definitive Yankees history tome. “He would marry a movie actress not once but twice, the second time being Marilyn Monroe, the greatest movie star of her day. He never had to open his wallet. People jumped through hoops to cater to his needs. And, while he could feel a slight even when no one else noticed, and could hold a grudge for years, the Yankees meant everything to him.

“He was, in many ways, the most admired player ever, a hero to the whole generation of fans who came of age in the 30s and 40s, a man of dignity and class, one of the greatest Italian-American heroes in the nation’s history, and a player who gave it his all every day because, in his own words, ‘There may be somebody in the stands who is seeing me for the first time.’”

To a certain extent, the great DiMaggio was a construct of fable, a portrait of perfection created by an awestruck media and enriched by an adoring citizenry. In the cavernous cauldron of Yankee Stadium, he was majestic and poised, gliding after fly balls in fluid poetry. At the plate, he was an artisan, unleashing a lyrical swing from a stance of distilled calm. In New York City, he was a man at every moment watched, fulfilling the role of sporting hero vacated by Babe Ruth, his Yankee forebear.

The Yankees had to look classy. That came from DiMaggio. “Joe, you look great,” was one of the most uttered phrases in New York during that era, at parties and exhibitions, ballgames and press conferences. Joe sought assurance from those around him, and he had more pride than anyone ever to lace a pair of cleats. In the end, that’s possibly what stifled his enjoyment of life.

Yet Joe DiMaggio was a God, in all practical senses of the word. A loving populace was captivated by his skill and his mystique, and thus conveyed meaning onto him. The Jolter was everything and anything the people wanted and needed him to be, like a hub of burning hope. He was an original Italian-American hero, but his significance touched the soul of people from all backgrounds and ethnicities. To most people, Joe DiMaggio was the closest thing to perfection they would ever encounter. There was an untouchable magnetism to Joe that could never be quelled, and that was forever exhilarating.

Fans would sell their box seats at Yankee Stadium just to sit in the bleachers and watch him command centre field with regal precision. “Even with my untutored child’s eye, I could sense something supremely special about DiMaggio’s play,” wrote Stephen Jay Gould in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville. “I didn’t even know the words or their meaning, but I grasped, in some visceral way, his gracefulness, and I knew that an aura of majesty surrounded all his actions.”

Beneath the mythology, it must have been a remarkable sight to see such a tall man run so fast and with such elegance. It may even have been an unprecedented athleticism in baseball. Teammates would be simultaneously uplifted and fazed by his hunger, as a scowl or shake of the head mediated standards on the Yankees. Mickey Mantle felt nervous around, and unaccepted by, DiMaggio his entire life, even after slugging more than five hundred home runs through excruciating pain. Joe D had to be perfect, and that’s what ate at him inside. There was little room for anybody else inside such a complicated and pressured mind.

Deep down, was Joe ever comfortable, ever content, ever settled? When the cheers floated away, when the party lights faded, he was an anxious and addled man. It turns out the perfect man had problems, too, just like all of us.

He rose to prominence during an era where baseball was truly beloved. Accordingly, the Major League lifestyle, indeed the Joe DiMaggio lifestyle, became something millions of kids dreamed about. To walk in that iconic uniform, to sign autographs, to be mobbed, to chase women, and to drink cocktails at Toot’s Shors? Hell, we all wish we were him. Joe D had it all, to the extent that he was jealous of people who had simpler lives.

Even sixty-five years after hanging up his spikes, Joe’s star endures around the world. He transcended the parochial realm of baseball to become a cornerstone of American culture. The name still twinkles and satisfies when spoken aloud. Joe DiMaggio. It’s princely. Prideful. It says anything is possible.

“Have faith in the Yankees, my son. Think of the great DiMaggio,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1951. The famous wordsmith uses DiMaggio as a motif of strength, resolve and determination, just as much of America did. Santiago, a fisherman enduring hard times, thinks about DiMaggio whenever reassurance is needed about his own strength. Just as Joe played on through a serious bone spur injury, Santiago finds the inner heart to continue fishing and win the respect of other fishermen in the town. It’s a wonderfully compelling metaphor.

Seventeen years after the novel, DiMaggio was again referenced in almost religious tones by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in Mrs Robinson, their musical ode to America’s former glory:

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…

Once again, DiMaggio is deployed symbolically to mourn the loss of past dignity and scorn the decadence of American modernity. The lyrics show how the general public looked towards Joe for escapism and held him aloft as the defining avatar of true aspiration, which was seemingly lost in the sixties, a decade besmirched by the Vietnam War.

Yet, perhaps the best praise came from his typically laconic contemporaries on the field.

“DiMaggio was the greatest all-around player I ever saw,” said Ted Williams, his Red Sox adversary. “His career cannot be summed up in numbers and awards. It might sound corny, but he had a profound and lasting impact on the country.”

What a mesmeric life. What a giant story. What a man.

*****

Joe DiMaggio was a 3-time MVP and a 9-time World Series champion. The Yankees won the pennant in ten of his thirteen seasons, and only lost the Fall Classic once with Joe in the lineup. He was the first player to earn $100,000, and boy did he earn it. Joe collected 2,214 career hits and drove in 1,537 runs, in addition to maintaining a .325 career average, 26th best among guys with at least 7,500 plate appearances.

DiMaggio was twice a batting champion and twice led the league in home runs. He had more dingers than strikeouts in seven different seasons, a record that will never be touched. He even did it for five consecutive years beginning in 1937, as if to prove his astounding ability.

Joe only struck out 369 times in 7,673 career plate appearances. By comparison, Mark Reynolds struck out 223 times in the 2009 season alone, while Giancarlo Stanton surpassed DiMaggio’s lifetime total in career game number 331. Joe amassed his mark in 1,736 games. The Jolter whiffed just 4.8% of the time, and the most he ever struck out in a single season was 39 times. Stanton recently struck out 40 times in 24 games.

“One cannot extract the essence of DiMaggio’s special excellence from the heartless figures of his statistical accomplishments,” Gould concluded. Joe’s career numbers were stifled by his service during World War II, as three prime years were wasted. Moreover, the cavernous left-centre field at Yankee Stadium, known as Death Valley, frustrated DiMaggio throughout his career. Indeed, Bill James once calculated that Joe lost more home runs due to his home park than any other player in baseball history.

Therefore, it’s quite incredible that, among position players, DiMaggio ranks 33rd all-time in career Wins Above Replacement, a statistic that accumulates year upon year. Longevity was obviously an issue for Joe, but he still ranks 28th all-time in career wRC+, which illustrates a prodigiously talented hitter.

At this point, it’s worth taking a detour from praising what Joe DiMaggio was to analysing what he could have been.

Even for all the platitudes lavished upon him down the years, there was always a sense that DiMaggio could have delivered even more; that, if the war didn’t happen and Yankee Stadium had less punishing dimensions, he would rank among the greatest who ever lived statistically as well as spiritually.

DiMaggio lost three years to the war. If we add three seasons worth of performance to his overall record, gleamed solely from his pre-war average output, Joe would have finished with 2,792 hits, 454 homers, 1,935 RBI and 493 doubles. Exceedingly good, but not quite in the truly historic realm. Yet, it’s important to note that those lost seasons came right in his prime years, when DiMaggio was 28, 29 and 30-years old. It’s not ridiculous to suggest that those campaigns would have been his greatest, outperforming his typical pre-war baseline. Although his role was far from strenuous, Joe may have been able to prolong his career for perhaps twenty seasons if the momentum hadn’t been lost in its middle. Accordingly, it’s reasonable to suggest that he may have topped 3,000 hits, 500 homers and 2,000 RBI if the war didn’t occur. No player before him had ever accomplished that.

Now, imagine the numbers if Joe was healthy, uninterrupted during his prime and playing his home games at Fenway Park, that lyrical bandbox for right-handed hitters. This almost happened in 1947, when drunken executives from the Red Sox and Yankees verbally agreed to swap superstars, with Ted Williams moving to the Bronx and DiMaggio heading to Boston. When everybody woke up the next day, clearer heads prevailed and the deal was nullified. DiMaggio only played four more seasons after the proposed trade, and only two met his usual standards of excellence, but it’s still fun to imagine what might have been, and how changing ballparks might have boosted his career numbers.

When he eventually retired, DiMaggio ranked fifth on the all-time home run list with 361, behind only Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott and Lou Gehrig. However, even that hallowed position didn’t do full justice to his work. This was a man who achieved so much, but who was destined for even more, had his peak remained undamaged. This was one of the greats, even if statistics don’t necessarily show it.

*****

Joseph Paul DiMaggio was born Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio on November 25th 1914 in Martinez, California. The eighth of nine children, the kid was named after his father, an immigrant fisherman who worked hard in San Francisco and earned enough money to bring his mother, Rosalia, over from their native Italy.

Giuseppe was taciturn and melancholic. He came from a Sicilian village near Palermo hoping to make a better living. Fishing was a family tradition, and Giuseppe didn’t so much hope as expect his sons to follow him out to sea.

“Giuseppe DiMaggio never talked about his boys ‘going far’,” wrote Richard Ben Cramer in his opus Joe DiMaggio, The Hero’s Life. “He talked about them going onto his boat, to learn their trade, to work hard, so they could sleep in a house with a roof. He talked about them bringing home money, so they could eat. They were not to waste time, for instance, playing that baseball. That was buono per niente – good for nothin’ – except wrecking shoes.”

His first sons, Tom and Mike, obeyed these orders and worked on the family boat. But the third child, Vince, had that most American of things: the belief that he could achieve anything to which he aspired. Vince had dreams. First, he wanted to be a singer. When that didn’t work, he turned his hand to baseball, catching on with the semi-professional Tucson Lizards of the Class D Arizona-Texas League. In 1932, Vince joined the San Francisco Seals, his hometown team in the Pacific Coast League. Giuseppe was quietly disgusted.

While Vince played a decent centre field for the Seals, Joe hung around the neighbourhood, selling newspapers and rigging card games for money after dropping out of school. Rather like a precocious pianist, Joe was exceptionally gifted with a baseball bat, but he always need to be cajoled into playing. He didn’t really enjoy baseball, and towering sandlot home runs gave him little satisfaction unless it carried a prize, a carrot, a reward of some kind.

Fortunately, in 1931, a few neighbourhood kids, Frank Venezia and Bat Minafo, put together a team with the promise of real uniforms and baseball shoes. Ever the wily Sicilian, Joe signed up just to receive the cleats.

Nevertheless, his talent began to show in those earliest of games. In a local league with grown men, the Jolly Knights began to dominate, as Joe, then a shortstop, clouted the ball over fields, billboards, roads, and tenement buildings. One day, DiMaggio even hit a huge bomb over the clubhouse located way beyond left field at the Jackson Playground. Bummy Bumgartner, manager of the rival Sunset Produce team, slipped Joe two bucks and, the following week, he batted cleanup in a new uniform. That was the first of payment he received for his sublime physical abilities. It wouldn’t be the last.

As the 1932 season wound down, Seals outfielder Henry Oana organised a barnstorming trip and took star shortstop Augie Galan along with him. With three games remaining, manager Ike Caveney needed to fill some holes on his team. That’s when Vince piped up with his immortal: “I got a kid brother who’s a shortstop, and a good one!”

“So Joe played those last three games with the Seals, got himself a couple of hits, and an invitation to next year’s spring training,” wrote Cramer. “And there, he would prove that all the talk about him wasn’t fiction. He would make the jump, in less than two years, from playground games to the Pacific Coast League, just a notch below the Majors. And that would be, in reality, miraculous.”

******

Joe transitioned to the outfield in 1933, robbing his brother of playing time. That year, at the tender age of 18, DiMaggio embarked on the first of his legendary hitting streaks. The lanky kid hit safely in 61 consecutive games, obliterating the Pacific Coast League record of 49 set by Jack Ness in 1915.

Many argue that, during that golden summer, Joe practically saved the PCL from extinction, as fans flocked to cities like Oakland and Portland and Sacramento to watch him sustain a mesmeric effort. Some 10,000 people crammed into Seals Stadium to watch him pass the mark, as baseball finally came of age on the West Coast. “Baseball didn’t really get into my blood until I knocked off that hitting streak,” Joe said later. “But getting a daily hit became more important to me than eating, drinking or sleeping.”

DiMaggio was a phenomenon, and scouts from many teams were interested in his services. He maintained a .340 average in 186 games through 1933, and improved that to .341 a year later. The Cubs reportedly offered $60,000 for the kid. Yet just as interest in his talents peaked, Joe suffered a debilitating knee injury while stepping out of a car. He tore ligaments that put his career in jeopardy and drove down his value. Nevertheless, Yankee scout Bill Essick stood firm in his assessment of DiMaggio as the next great New York star, and the ballclub even had his knee evaluated. The Bombers eventually signed Joe for $25,000, plus five minor leaguers who journeyed to San Francisco. That was a steal, if ever there was one.

“Joe DiMaggio, twenty-one years old, tall and slender, hawk-faced and buck-toothed, slow to smile and reluctant to speak, made his first trip east of the Rocky Mountains on his way to spring training in 1936,” wrote Cramer. “For DiMaggio, this was his first look at the vastness of a country he would thrill with his exploits. In a few years, he would be said to represent this land and exemplify its virtues: aspiration, hard work, native grace, and opportunity for all.”

He didn’t want to work or talk, but Joe was blessed with an exceptional gift of athletic talent that thrust him into the brightest spotlight of all: as a centre fielder for the greatest team in the biggest city at the height of baseball’s glory. Coverage of the game was growing exponentially on radio, in newspapers and by excited word of mouth. When Joe joined the Yankees, newspapermen were starved for copy and a new hero. The landscape was ripe for a hero, and DiMaggio was the perfect prototype, even if he didn’t seek attention.

Here was the replacement for Babe Ruth.

******

DiMaggio hit .323 with 29 home runs and 125 RBI in his debut season of 1936, becoming the first rookie ever to play in the All-Star Game and setting a standard of greatness from the very beginning. It was a vintage year in Yankeeland, as Lou Gehrig smashed 49 homers and drove in 152 runs as the Bombers won their first pennant in three years. Attendance jumped by 220,000, with fans becoming energised by the next great star. The Yankees beat the New York Giants to win the World Series, as one game attracted a record crowd of 66,669 to the big ballpark in the Bronx. DiMaggio had arrived.

The next year, he pounded out 46 home runs, establishing a club record for right-handed hitters that would probably still stand if Alex Rodriguez had not cheated. Gehrig was equally potent, and the Yankees won another Fall Classic from the Giants. Also in 1937, DiMaggio met actress Dorothy Arnold on the set of a film in which he had a minor role. They married in San Francisco two years later as 20,000 fans jammed the streets. Their son, Joseph Paul DiMaggio III, was born in October 1941, just three years before the couple divorced.

As cries to ‘break up the Yankees’ echoed throughout Major League ballparks, New York rolled to another ring in 1938, with DiMaggio leading the way. The same happened again in ’39, as Joe hit .381 to win the Most Valuable Player Award ahead of Ted Williams, then a Red Sox rookie. While an argument can be made that Williams deserved the award, baseball writers loved DiMaggio for providing a blank canvas onto which they could paint a masterpiece. Joe even homered in the All-Star Game that year, held before 62,892 at Yankee Stadium. There was no stopping the guy.

The Yankees were finally toppled in 1940, the first season of DiMaggio’s career in which they failed to win the pennant. Gehrig was forced to retire due to his worsening battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and that left a humongous void in the Yankee lineup. Joe still hit .352 to complement 31 homers and 133 RBI, but Detroit clinched the pennant behind the slugging of Hank Greenberg and the pitching of Bobo Newsom.

This was the first taste of real failure DiMaggio had ever encountered in big league ball. Nevertheless, it seemed to inspire him to be even better, and to author one of the greatest seasons the game has ever seen.

*****

In 1941, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, beating the Yankee record of 29; the modern record of 40; and the all-time MLB mark of 44. When that stretch ended, Joe unleashed another one, taking his hit streak to 73 of 74 ballgames.

It was, quite simply, the most outstanding achievement in baseball history, and the whole nation was captivated. The daily buzz to see if Joe collected a hit provided a salve for people petrified of Nazi aggression. Indeed, the great DiMaggio even knocked Hitler off the front pages. Nobody had ever done what he accomplished, and the celebrations were epochal.

“DiMaggio’s streak is the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports,” writes Gould. “He sits on the shoulders of two bearers- mythology and science. For Joe DiMaggio accomplished what no other ballplayer has done. He beat the hardest taskmaster of all, a woman who makes Nolan Ryan’s fastball look like cantaloupe in slow-motion – lady luck.

“DiMaggio’s remarkable achievement lies in whatever he did to extend his success well beyond the reasonable expectations of random models that have governed every other streak or lump in the history of baseball.

“DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.”

In a game of thin margins, where failure visits with incredible regularity, to succeed in fifty-six consecutive days, and seventy-three out of seventy-four, is worthy of the lifelong adulation Joe received. It’s so fitting that DiMaggio is most famous for his streak, because it was fashioned in the ethics and traditions of his family: hard work, every day, in staunch silence, dignified to the last. In the end, perhaps his father would have approved after all.

The streak began on May 15th 1941, when DiMaggio went 1-for-4 against the White Sox. It ended in Cleveland on July 17th, after Joe passed George Sisler and Wee Willie Keeler in the annals. In 223 trips to the plate during his streak, DiMaggio struck out only five times, which can be a daily total for some modern players.

If Indians third baseman Ken Keltner didn’t rob DiMaggio of hits with two spectacular plays, his march would have carried on. Nevertheless, New York went 41-13 during DiMaggio’s tear, vaulting back into the pennant race after a slow start.

It was a summer of excitement and pride. As the Yankees rolled to another pennant and World Series triumph over the Brooklyn Dodgers, DiMaggio Mania spread like wildfire. The phenomenon was perhaps best described in a catchy song by Les Brown and his orchestra:

“From coast to coast that’s all you’ll hear,
Of Joe the one man show.
He’s glorified the horsehide sphere,
Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio”

Once again, the mythology often clouds the true magnificence of the Jolter and his accomplishments. Yet, more recently, a research paper by Don Chance of Harvard University put the streak into its correct context. Chance found that DiMaggio’s streak was a 1-in-3,394 occurrence. Moreover, he concludes that the probability of a 56-game hitting streak coming from any of the top one hundred hitters of all-time was 1-in-22, and that, on average, each of the top fifty hitters ever had just a 1-in-124,341 chance of hitting safely in fifty-six straight games at any juncture of their careers. The next best total ever amassed was by Pete Rose, who managed to hit safely in 44 straight games in 1978. Even that total is nowhere near DiMaggio’s.

While the streak took a toll on Joe, leaving him sleepless, coffee-jangled and riddled with ulcers, it also chiselled his unique and lasting place in baseball history, and in the hearts of a nation. For once, no hyperbole was needed.

*****

In 1942, Joe finally experienced defeat in the World Series as St Louis reigned supreme. The Yankees won their tenth title a year later, but DiMaggio and others were part of the war effort by then. Joe enlisted on 17th February 1943, rising to the rank of sergeant, stationed at Santa Ana, California; Hawaii; and later Atlantic City, New Jersey as a physical education instructor.

DiMaggio was paid $21 per month, a steep drop from his annual salary of $43,750 with the Yankees, but his role was largely ceremonial. Joe mostly played baseball against fellow serving Major Leaguers, helping to keep morale high in camp. Though he would hate the notion, many believe DiMaggio was given special consideration due to his fame and popularity. Indeed, the Yankee Clipper ate and drank so well during the war that he gained ten pounds. Ever prideful, Joe demanded combat duty but was turned down. He was eventually released on medical discharge in September 1945.

Giuseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio were among the thousands of German, Japanese and Italian immigrants classified as “enemy aliens” by the government after Pearl Harbor was bombed. They were forced to carry photographic identification at all times, and were not allowed to travel outside a five-mile radius from their home without a permit. Giuseppe was banned from the San Francisco Bay, ruining his chances of fishing, and his boat was ultimately seized. Joe’s parents eventually became American citizens, but it was a difficult time for the slugger, who felt worthless throughout the entire process.

*****

DiMaggio returned to the Yankees in 1946. That year, he failed to hit .300 and drive in at least one hundred runs for the first time in his career. The Bombers finished in third place, as manager Joe McCarthy lost his job. People wondered if the end was drawing near for Joe, who turned 31-years old during the campaign. A comeback was needed.

In January 1947, DiMaggio had surgery to remove a three-inch bone spur from his left heel. A skin graft was later required, as Joe faced a lengthy absence. He was unable to make his season debut until April 19th, and the rest of that month saw him struggle mightily at the plate. Then, all of a sudden, almost as if a switch was flicked, the great one began hitting, and hitting, and hitting. By May 24th, he was over .300. By June 3rd, he was leading the league at .368. Joe hit safely in sixteen straight games, as the Yankees found their old swagger and soared into first place. A 19-game winning streak through midsummer extended their lead, and the pennant was eventually won by twelve games from Detroit. DiMaggio was once again the MVP, and he even slugged two home runs in the World Series as the Yankees beat Brooklyn in seven games. It was the Bombers’ eleventh world championship and their first in four years. Order was finally restored.

Joe hit 39 homers with 155 RBI in 1948, his best output in both categories since 1937. He also hit .320, but finished second to Lou Boudreau in the MVP voting. The Yankees were entangled in a captivating pennant race with Cleveland and Boston, but ultimately finished third again, which wasn’t good enough in the Bronx. Bucky Harris lost his job as manager, to be replaced by Casey Stengel, who catapulted the franchise to whole new levels of greatness. DiMaggio wouldn’t be around for a lot of it, but he still played a big role in the twilight of his career. His appetite for winning never diminished, even as his skills eroded painfully.

The Jolter missed the first three months of 1949 as the heel injury worsened. But on the morning of June 28th, he awoke without pain for the first time in what felt like an eternity. He could finally put weight on his foot, and there was no doubt that he’d be back on the field as soon as possible. Thus, after months in bed, DiMaggio hauled himself into a heated pennant race with the Boston Red Sox, that sworn enemy. In the first game, he homered in a 5-4 Yankee win. In the second game, he homered twice as the Yankees triumphed 9-7. And, in the third game, he homered once more, as the Bombers swept a pivotal series. It was one of the most inspirational vignettes in Yankee history, as the great DiMaggio bravely put the team on his back and carried it to glory. The race was on.

All summer, the Red Sox and Yankees put their bodies on the line in pursuit of a pennant. With two games to go, both against Boston, New York was a game behind in the standings. A sweep in the Bronx would clinch the flag. Anything else would see the Red Sox advance to the World Series.

Game One, on October 1st 1949, was designated Joe DiMaggio Day at the Stadium. A crowd of 69,551 crammed into the monolithic ballyard, and each patron was keen to hear Joe speak and see the Yanks stay alive for one more day. When the sun rose that day, DiMaggio was sick with pneumonia, yet despite a 102-degree fever, he was determined to play. And play he did, but not before making a speech to the assembled throng.

“I’d like to thank the good lord for making me a Yankee,” he said. “This day certainly proves it’s great to be a Yankee.”

The Bombers won the game as Joe went 2-for-4, setting up a final winner-takes-all showdown with Boston, scheduled for the following day.

Another mammoth attendance of 68,055 flooded Yankee Stadium to watch the contest between pitchers Vic Raschi and Ellis Kinder. Phil Rizzutto tripled in a run to put the Yanks ahead, 1-0, before an eighth inning outburst put them in control heading to the ninth. Boston closed the gap to 5-3 when DiMaggio couldn’t run down a drive off the bat of Bobby Doerr, inspiring the Clipper to take himself out of the game rather than hurt the chances of his team. The Yankees held out, clinching their sixteenth American League pennant, before beating the Dodgers once again to hoist another world championship.

It was all like clockwork.

Another title was secured in 1950, as Joe won his eighth World Series ring in twelve years as an active player. He launched 32 home runs and drove in 122 runs, but it was his last great season. At 35, Joe had seen and done a lot. The future was banging on the door, and he could only ignore it for so long. Time was running out for the Yankee Clipper.

For once, the Yankees’ future was embodied not by the staid centre fielder, but by the handsome country kid shoehorned beside him in the outfield. Mickey Mantle, he of blonde hair, blue eyes and comic book muscles, debuted with New York in 1951, and there was always ice between him and the man he was tabbed to replace. Joe resented Mickey’s easy, unearned fame. Mickey always sought Joe’s respect, largely without success. They were next to one another in the lineage of Yankee greats, besides Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, but Mantle never felt comfortable around DiMaggio. They were icons of very different times.

In the 1951 World Series, Mantle suffered a torn ACL after twisting his knee on a drainage hole in right-centre field at Yankee Stadium when DiMaggio called him off a ball late. The injury would affect Mickey throughout his legendary career, as he would never play another game without reams of bandages supporting the legs that ached unbearably. There’s no telling what he may have achieved if that injury never happened. He may have broken every record in the book. Still, in his mind, Mickey wouldn’t feel worthy of playing centre field in pinstripes, filling the shoes of a living God. The pressure was immense.

Joe hit just .263 in ’51, and that amounted to public humiliation for the great man. Rather than seeing his lifetime average erode any further, he retired, leaving the people wanting more.

“I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates,” he said. “I had a poor year, but even if I had hit .350, this would have been my last year. I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game.”

The Yankees retired his number in 1952.

*****

In retirement, DiMaggio lived the life of an eligible bachelor. Sure, he briefly turned his hand to broadcasting baseball games, but that quickly became a chore. Joe divorced Dorothy Arnold in 1944, and his post-playing days revolved around dates with a slew of different women. There was only one he truly loved, however, and that was Marilyn Monroe.

The world’s most famous movie star was initially reluctant to meet DiMaggio, fearing that he was the usual arrogant athlete. But after much wooing, Joe finally won Marilyn’s heart, and the couple eloped on 14th January 1954 in San Francisco. The most popular man and woman in America were duly joined in matrimony. It was almost too good to be true.

At first, the relationship was sweet and full of love. Then, an incident supposedly happened following Monroe’s infamous skirt-blowing scene in The Seven Year Itch. True to his ethics, DiMaggio didn’t approve of such a salacious act, and various accounts state that he launched into a violent tirade. A few weeks later, Marilyn filed for divorce citing mental cruelty during the nine-month marriage. It all ended in tears.

Joe moved on to other women after the divorce, but his love for Marilyn never waned. He remained in regular contact with Monroe, largely through a network of associates in the celebrity world, even as she married the famous playwright Arthur Miller. DiMaggio re-entered her life when that marriage collapsed in 1961, and he even secured her release from the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic.

DiMaggio thought Monroe had fallen in with the wrong crowd. Remarriage was always a possibility, but it never actually happened. Still, when Marilyn killed herself in August 1961, Joe was wounded like never before. He mourned his ex-wife with deep sadness, and ensured that fresh flowers were sent to her grave three times per week for the rest of his life.

They were the golden couple, the two brightest stars of a generation united in love. It didn’t always work out, but even that fit the metaphor. As ever, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were forced to embody America and its values, even when that pressure was uninvited. Our thirst for them never wavered, and perhaps that put additional strain on their relationship. They could never just live a normal existence, for they were Joe and Marilyn, the Clipper and the Blonde Bombshell. In the end, it may have been all a bit too much.

*****

Later in life, DiMaggio was cajoled and controlled by small-time clingers who wanted a slice of his fame and fortune. A boom in the market for baseball memorabilia, particularly signed cards, represented a gap in the market, and slithery crooks exploited Joe in his final hours. Under their direction, the Hall of Famer came to feel slighted and bitter, as if he was owed something. He knew how much his name was worth, to the point where mild-mannered fans in the street or at the stadium would be required to pay for an autograph.

Joe endorsed numerous products for the right price, most notably Mr Coffee, but his later years were spent trying to affirm a legacy that was already secured. Perhaps he just didn’t see it. Everybody in the land admired him. Every baseball player was awestruck upon shaking his hand. But Joe DiMaggio always wanted more, as if the cheers one day fading away was his worst nightmare. He insisted on being referred to as the greatest living ballplayer, and he could become aggressive if he wasn’t introduced last at public events, especially Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium, where he demanded the longest and most vociferous ovation. It was sad, because the people would never stop loving Joe DiMaggio, but outsiders had gotten into his head and distorted his perception of the world. A sense of reality was missing.

A heavy smoker for most of his adult life, DiMaggio was admitted to Memorial Regional Hospital late in 1998 for lung cancer surgery. He remained there for three months before returning to his Florida home, where he died at the age of 84 on 8th March 1999. “Now I finally get to see Marilyn,” were his final words, as an exhausted icon was finally laid to rest.

The Yankees were kept at arms length by DiMaggio’s handlers, but just the fifth monument in team history was dedicated to him at the Stadium when the new season began. The Bombers wore commemorative patches on their uniforms all season, which resulted in a 25th World Series title. The latest heir to Yankee Greatness, Derek Jeter, lead the way, a star fit for the new millennium. DiMaggio would have approved.

All these years later, Joltin’ Joe maintains a strong presence in pop culture, which has exploded in the decades since his death. Even as the internet and social media have provided a platform for innumerable stars to bloom, there’s still an allure to Joe DiMaggio. He must be the only person ever referenced by Ernest Hemingway and Homer Simpson, Billy Bragg and Peter Griffin. But that’s who he was, and that’s what he does to us. In short, people still care, and that means a lot in this capricious age of insouciance.

*****

“There was never a day when I was as good as Joe DiMaggio at his best,” said Stan Musial, the great St Louis Cardinal. “Joe was the best, the very best I ever saw.”

Indeed, DiMaggio is the only player ever to make the All-Star team in every season of his career. Aside from the Yankees, only one other team has won more World Series titles than Joe, a truly remarkable feat.

“He demonstrated to all the strivers and seekers that America would make a place for true excellence whatever its colour or accent or origin,” said former New York Governor Mario Cuomo.

And he always left the people wanting more, left the fans aching with nostalgia. They wanted him to empty the tank, to give it his all, but Joe dominated how much the wider world saw and enjoyed his talents.

In private, there must have been incredible stress, pressure and turmoil being America’s hero, being Joe DiMaggio. Some cynics will say sport is merely a game and sportspeople are of little importance. But the Yankee Clipper was so much more than that. He was a transcendent force that still shines as a beacon of possibility, as an inspiration to the masses. We can only thank him for his toil, and savour the sweet escapism his legend continues to provide.

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One thought on “The Life and Legend of Joe DiMaggio

  1. Pingback: Monthly Writing Round-Up: June 2016 | The Pastime

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