Monday, October 27, 2014

Joe DiMaggio

Colma,  California       Visited June 2013

October is baseball month at the blog and this month we feature the great New York Yankee centerfielder Joe DiMaggio.  For a brief slideshow on DiMaggio set to Les Brown's 1991 recording "Joltin Joe DiMaggio" go here.

Joe DiMaggio was born to a first generation Italian immigrant family that settled in the San Francisco area at the turn of the century.  Giuseppe Paulo DiMaggio was born November 25, 1914, the eighth of nine children.  His father was a fisherman who wanted his sons to follow in the family trade.  But Joseph hated everything about fishing and constantly fought his father’s insistence on join him on the boat.  Joseph instead turned to baseball, where he showed early promise, even though he had no real drive to excel at the game.  His first significant professional experience occurred October 1, 1932 with the San Francisco Seals, the Pacific Coast League team on which his brother Vince played.    

In his first full year in the PCL, 1932, Joe demonstrated his rare ability to sustain a hot streak by hitting in 61 straight games.  It remains the longest one season hitting streak in baseball history.  The experience of the feat marked DiMaggio, who later said,

"Baseball didn't really get into my blood until I knocked off that hitting streak. Getting a daily hit became more important to me than eating, drinking or sleeping."

Young DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, 1937

The Yankees purchased Joe DiMaggio’s contract from the Seals and he debuted in pinstripes May 3, 1936 in Yankee Stadium.   As rookie in his first game he batted third, just ahead of legendary Yankee Lou Gehrig.  The Yankees had not been to the World Series in four years, but with DiMaggio joining the team in ‘36 they began a streak of four straight World Series championships. 

From 1936 to 1942 DiMaggio emerged as a major league star, developing a reputation as a dynamic hitter and stellar center fielder.  He was given the nickname ‘Yankee Clipper’ by the New York PA announcer, who compared his speed and range in the field to a new Pan Am airliner.   What set DiMaggio apart wasn’t just his hitting but a sense of class that seemed to emanate from him.  Teammate Phil Rizzuto once said,

"There was an aura about him. He walked like no one else walked. He did things so easily. He was immaculate in everything he did. Kings of State wanted to meet him and be with him. He carried himself so well. He could fit in any place in the world."

DiMaggio’s style gave him open pass in Hollywood, where he met his first wife, actress Dorothy Arnold.  They were married in 1949, but the marriage dissolved early on and they were divorced in 1943. 

The Splendid Splinter Ted Williams with the Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio went into the 1941 season at the top of is game.  On May 15, 1941 he went hitless.   However, it would be another 56 games before he would again take an o-fer.  DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak is often considered the greatest hitting feat ever accomplished in the major leagues.  It is remarkable beyond the shear number.   During the streak, Joltin Joe batted .408 with 15 homers, 55 RBIs.  He struck out only five times.  Twenty-two of the games in the streak were multi-hit games.  He even got a hit in the All Star game, which was not included in the streak.  Perhaps what is most remarkable is that, when the streak ended on July 17, he hit safely in the next 16 straight games, giving him a hit in 72 out of 73 straight games.  DiMaggio won his second MVP award after the season, besting rival Ted Williams and his .406 batting average.

Joe DiMaggio in his army uniform with his son, Joe, Jr.  
Following the 1942 season the Yankee Clipper enlisted in the army and was attached to a morale unit.  His wartime responsibilities centered on playing baseball for army teams in exhibitions to raise money and support for the war effort.  DiMaggio didn’t see any combat action and was discharged in 1945.  For a time during the war his parents were classified as enemy aliens.   

Joltin Joe’ returned to Major League Baseball for the 1946 season.  His performance picked up where it had left off after three years in the war effort, with DiMaggio winning his third MVP in 1947.  Also in 1947 the Yankees and Red Sox reached a tentative agreement to trade Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams, but the Yankees backed out when the Red Sox also insisted on the inclusion of Yogi Berra. 

By 1951 DiMaggio’s numbers were down and he realized his career was done.  He told a Sporting News reporter,

I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates. 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, and so, I've played my last game.

All total, The Yankee Clipper played 13 seasons over a 16-year career.  He led the Yankees to ten World Series appearances and nine championships and was an all star in every year of his career.  Maybe the most remarkable stat for his career is that he had nearly as many home runs (361) as he did strikeouts (369).  DiMaggio was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955.

DiMaggio's stuff at the Hall of Fame

Your blogger doing a selfie in front of the DiMaggio HoF plaque - July 2014

If anything, Joe DiMaggio’s celebrity status grew following his retirement.  The chief reason for his notoriety was his romance, marriage and life long devotion to Marilyn Monroe.  The retired player and the budding star met shortly after DiMaggio’s retirement in 1952.  Eighteen months after meeting they married at the San Francisco City Hall.  It seems that DiMaggio was smitten by the actress, who was 12 years younger, while Monroe drew to DiMaggio almost as a father figure.  A divorce in 1954 did not end a life long tumultuous relationship.  But at the time of her death there was no one in her life besides DiMaggio that Marilyn Monroe trusted.  DiMaggio provided for her burial and had flowers sent to her grave on a weekly basis till his own death.

DiMaggio and Monroe in a rare private photo shoot

Joe DiMaggio’s post baseball career was long, varied and largely successful.  He traded on his fame but also managed himself.  Here he is as a mystery guest on What's My Line in 1955.     His last official involvement in baseball occurred as a coach for the Oakland Athletics in 1968-69.   Its a testament to his enduring celebrity that more than a decade after his retirement he was still a well known enough figure to be universally recognized as the spokesman for Mr. Coffee.    While becoming increasingly guarded of his private life as he aged, DiMaggio’s natural grace and cool made him a natural ambassador for the game of baseball, a role he was happy to fulfill.  

1969 baseball card

The Gipper and the Yankee Clipper in the mid-80's.  
As a final example of his enduring celebrity status check out this 1991 clip from "Seinfeld" where Kramer waxes eloquent on how Joe DiMaggio dunks his donuts.    

Joe DiMaggio finished out his life in Hollywood, Florida and died at his home from lung cancer on March 8, 1999.  He is buried near his hometown at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, California.  My son Grant and I visited the Yankee Clipper’s grave on our epic trip to California in June 2013.  He's buried at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, California, just south of San Francisco.

Your blogger at Joltin' Joe's grave - plenty of memorabilia left in tribute