June 27, 1941

Staff Sergeant Joe DiMaggio, The Yankee Clipper, Dies at 84

By Joseph Durso,, March 8, 1999

 

Joe DiMaggio, the flawless center fielder for the New York Yankees who, along with Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, symbolized the team's dynastic greatness across the 20th century and whose 56-game hitting streak in 1941 made him an instant and indelible American folk hero, died Monday March 8, 1999, in his home in Hollywood, Florida. He was 84.

In a country that has idolized and even immortalized its 20th-century heroes, from Charles A. Lindbergh to Elvis Presley, no one embodied the American dream of fame and fortune or created a more enduring legend than Joe DiMaggio. He became a figure of unequaled romance and integrity in the national mind because of his consistent professionalism on the baseball field, his marriage to the Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe, his devotion to her after her death, and the pride and courtliness with which he carried himself throughout his life.

DiMaggio burst onto the baseball scene from San Francisco in the 1930's and grew into the game's most gallant and graceful center fielder. He wore No. 5 and became the successor to Babe Ruth (No. 3) and Lou Gehrig (No. 4) in the team's pantheon. DiMaggio was the team's superstar for 13 seasons, beginning in 1936 and ending in 1951, and appeared in 11 All-Star Games and 10 World Series. He was, as Roy Blount Jr. once observed, "the class of the Yankees in times when the Yankees outclassed everybody else."

He was called the Yankee Clipper and was acclaimed at baseball's centennial in 1969 as "the greatest living ballplayer," the man who in 1,736 games with the Yankees had a career batting average of .325 and hit 361 home runs while striking out only 369 times, one of baseball's most amazing statistics. (By way of comparison, Mickey Mantle had 536 homers and struck out 1,710 times; Reggie Jackson slugged 563 homers and struck out 2,597 times.)

But DiMaggio's game was so complete and elegant that it transcended statistics; as The New York Times said in an editorial when he retired, "The combination of proficiency and exquisite grace which Joe DiMaggio brought to the art of playing center field was something no baseball averages can measure and that must be seen to be believed and appreciated."

Grace on the Field, Sensitivity Off It

DiMaggio glided across the vast expanse of center field at Yankee Stadium with such incomparable grace that long after he stopped playing, the memory of him in full stride remains evergreen. He disdained theatrical flourishes and exaggerated moves, never climbing walls to make catches and rarely diving headlong. He got to the ball just as it fell into his glove, making the catch seem inevitable, almost preordained. The writer Wilfred Sheed wrote, "In dreams I can still see him gliding after fly balls as if he were skimming the surface of the moon."

His batting stance was as graceful as his outfield stride. He stood flat-footed at the plate with his feet spread well apart, his bat held still just off his right shoulder. When he swung, his left, or front, foot moved only slightly foward. His swing was pure and flowing with an incredible follow-through; Casey Stengel said, "He made the rest of them look like plumbers."

At his peak, he was serenaded as "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio" by Les Brown and saluted as "the great DiMaggio" by Ernest Hemingway in "The Old Man and the Sea." He was mentioned in dozens of films and Broadway shows; the sailors in "South Pacific" sing that Bloody Mary's skin is "tender as DiMaggio's glove." Years later, he was remembered by Paul Simon, who wondered with everybody else: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

Sensitive to anything written, spoken or sung about him, he confessed that he was puzzled by Simon's lyrics and sought an answer when he met Simon in a restaurant in New York. "I asked Paul what the song meant, whether it was derogatory," DiMaggio recalled. "He explained it to me."

When injuries eroded his skills and he could no longer perform to his own standard, he turned his back on his $100,000 salary -- he and his rival Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox then drew the largest paychecks in sports -- and retired in 1951 with the dignity that remained his hallmark.

His stormy marriage to Marilyn Monroe lasted less than a year, but they remained one of America's ultimate romantic fantasies: the tall, dark and handsome baseball hero wooing and winning the woman who epitomized Hollywood beauty, glamour and sexuality.

He was private and remote. Even Monroe, at their divorce proceedings, said he was given to black moods and would tell her, "Leave me alone." He once said, with disdain, that he kept track of all the books written about his storied life without his consent, and by the late 1990's knew that the count had passed 33.

Yet he could be proud, reclusive and vain in such a composed, almost studied way that his reclusiveness contributed to his mystique. In the book "Summer of '49," David Halberstam wrote that DiMaggio "guards his special status carefully, wary of doing anything that might tarnish his special reputation. He tends to avoid all those who might define him in some way other than the way he defined himself on the field."

Quietly Doing It All For 13 Seasons

DiMaggio joined the Yankees in 1936, missed three years while he served in the Army Air Forces in World War II, then returned and played through the 1951 season, when Mickey Mantle arrived to open yet another era in the remarkable run of Yankee success. In his 13 seasons, DiMaggio went to bat 6,821 times, got 2,214 hits, knocked in 1,537 runs, amassed 3,948 total bases and reached base just under 40 percent of the time.

For decades, baseball fans argued over who was the better pure hitter, DiMaggio or Williams. Long after they had both retired, Williams said: "In my heart, I always felt I was a better hitter than Joe. But I have to say, he was the greatest baseball player of our time. He could do it all."

And he did it all with a sureness and coolness that seemed to imply an utter lack of emotion. DiMaggio was once asked why he did not vent his frustrations on the field by kicking a bag or tossing a bat. The outfielder, who chain-smoked cigarettes and had suffered from ulcers, replied: "I can't. It wouldn't look right."

But he betrayed his sensitivity in a memorable gesture of annoyance in the sixth game of the 1947 World Series after his long drive was run down and caught in front of the 415-foot sign in left-center field at Yankee Stadium by Al Gionfriddo of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As DiMaggio rounded first base, he saw Gionfriddo make the catch and, with his head down, kicked the dirt. The angry gesture was so shocking that it made headlines.

In the field, DiMaggio ran down long drives with a gliding stride and deep range. In 1947, he tied what was then the American League fielding record for outfielders by making only one error in 141 games. He also had one of the most powerful and precise throwing arms in the business and was credited with 153 assists in his 13 seasons.

His longtime manager, Joe McCarthy, once touched on another DiMaggio skill. "He was the best base runner I ever saw," McCarthy said. "He could have stolen 50, 60 bases a year if I let him. He wasn't the fastest man alive. He just knew how to run bases better than anybody."

Three times DiMaggio was voted his league's most valuable player: in 1939, 1941 and 1947. In 1941, the magical season of his 56-game hitting streak, he won the award even though Williams hit .406.

In each of his first four seasons with the Yankees, DiMaggio played in the World Series, and the Yankees won all four. He appeared in the Series 10 times in 13 seasons over all, and nine times the Yankees won. And although he failed to get enough votes to make the baseball Hall of Fame when he became eligible in 1953, perhaps because his aloofness had alienated some of the writers who did the voting, he sailed into Cooperstown two years later.

Whitey Ford was a rookie pitcher in 1950 when he first saw Joe DiMaggio, and he later remembered: "I just stared at the man for about a week."

Baseball Blood in a Fisherman's Family

Joseph Paul DiMaggio was born on Nov. 25, 1914, in Martinez, California, a small fishing village 25 miles northeast of the Golden Gate. He was the fourth son and the eighth of nine children born to Giuseppe Paolo and Rosalie DiMaggio, who had immigrated to America in 1898 from Sicily. His father was a fisherman who moved his family to North Beach, the heavily Italian section near the San Francisco waterfront, the year Joe was born.

The two oldest sons, Tom and Michael, joined their father as fishermen; Michael later fell off his boat and drowned. But the three other sons became major league outfielders by way of the sandlots of San Francisco. Vince, four years older than Joe, played 11 seasons with five teams and led the National League in strikeouts six times. Dominic, three years younger than Joe, was known as the Little Professor because he wore eyeglasses when he played 10 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, hitting .298 for his career. Of the three, Joe was the natural.

He started as a shortstop in the Boys Club League when he was 14, dropped out of Galileo High School after one year and joined Vince on the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, the highest level of minor league baseball. It was late in 1932, and Joe was still 17 years old.

The next year, in his first full season with the Seals, he hit .340 with 28 home runs and knocked in 169 runs in 187 games. He also hit safely in 61 games in a row, eight years before he made history in the big leagues by hitting in 56. He tore up the league during the next two seasons, hitting .341 and .398. But he injured his left knee stepping out of a cab while hurrying to dinner at his sister's house after a Sunday doubleheader and was considered damaged goods by most of the teams in the big leagues.

He got his chance at the majors because two scouts, Joe Devine and Bill Essick, persisted in recommending him to the Yankees. The general manager, Ed Barrow, talked it over with his colleagues. And for $25,000 plus five players, the Yankees bought him from the Seals.

DiMaggio was left in San Francisco for the 1935 season to heal his knee and put the finishing touches on his game, then was brought up to New York in 1936 to join a talented team that included Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Red Rolfe, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. It was two years after Babe Ruth had left, and an era of success had ended.

But now, the rookie from California was arriving with a contract for $8,500, and a new era was beginning. It was delayed because of a foot injury, but DiMaggio made his debut on May 3 against the St. Louis Browns. He went on to play 138 games, got 206 hits with 29 home runs, batted .325 and drove in 125 runs. In the fall, the Yankees made the first of four straight trips to the World Series -- they would go on to play in 23 out of 29 Series through 1964 -- and the rookie hit .346 against the Giants and made a spectacular catch in deepest center field in the Polo Grounds before a marveling crowd of 43,543, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

DiMaggio's luster was sometimes dimmed by salary disputes. In 1937 he hit .346 with 46 home runs and 167 r.b.i. and the following year he held out for $40,000, but was forced to sign for $25,000. DiMaggio's holdout lasted a couple of weeks into the season; when he returned, he was booed. When he began the 1941 season, he had missed four of his first five openers because of injury or salary fights, and many fans resented it. "He got hurt early in his career, more than he ever let on," Phil Rizzuto once said.

He also had to endure the casual bigotry that existed when he first came up. Many of his teammates called him the Big Dago, and Life magazine, in a 1939 article intending to compliment him, said: "Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent, and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti."

But he energized the fans by leading the league in hitting in 1939 (at .381) and again in 1940 (with .352). Then in 1941, he put together what has since been known simply as The Streak, and fashioned perhaps the most enduring record in sports. Streaks were nothing new to DiMaggio. He had hit in those 61 straight games for the Seals, in 18 straight as a rookie with the Yankees, in 22 straight the next year and in 23 straight the year after that. In fact, in 1941, he hit safely in the last 19 games in spring training, and he kept hitting for eight more games after the regular season opened.

Forging a Record Still Unchallenged

The Streak began on May 15, 1941, with a single in four times at bat against the Chicago White Sox. The next day, he hit a triple and a home run. Two weeks later, he had a swollen neck but still hit three singles and a home run in Washington. The next week against the St. Louis Browns, he went 3 for 5 in one game, then 4 for 8 in a doubleheader the next day with a double and three home runs. His streak stood at 24.

On June 17, he broke the Yankees' club record of 29 games. On June 26, he was hitless with two out in the eighth inning against the Browns, but he doubled, and his streak reached 38. On June 29, a doubleheader against Washington, DiMaggio lined a double in the first game to tie George Sisler's modern major league record of hitting in 41 straight games and then broke Sisler's record in the second game by lining a single. On July 1, with a clean single against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, he matched Willie Keeler's major league record of 44 games, set in 1897 when foul balls didn't count as strikes. The next day he broke it with a three-run homer.

As DiMaggio kept hitting safely, radio announcers kept an excited America informed, Bojangles Robinson danced on the Yankee dugout roof at the Stadium for good luck and Les Brown recorded "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio . . . we want you on our side."

The Streak finally ended on the steamy night of July 17 in Cleveland at Municipal Stadium before 67,468 fans. The pitchers were Al Smith and Jim Bagby Jr., but the stopper was the Indians' third baseman, Ken Keltner, who made two dazzling backhand plays deep behind third base to rob DiMaggio of hits. It is sometimes overlooked that DiMaggio was intentionally walked in the fourth inning of that game, and that he promptly started a 16-game streak the next day.

In 56 games, DiMaggio had gone to bat 223 times and delivered 91 hits for a .408 average, including 15 home runs. He drew 21 walks, twice was hit by pitched balls, scored 56 runs and knocked in 55. He hit in every game for two months, and struck out just seven times.

The Yankees, fourth in the American League when the streak began, were six games in front when it ended, and won the pennant by 17.

DiMaggio was passing milestones in his personal life, too. In 1939, he married an actress, Dorothy Arnold. In October 1941, his only child, Joseph Jr., was born. He is survived by his son; his brother, Dominic; two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

On Dec. 3, 1942, DiMaggio enlisted in the Army Air Forces and spent the next three years teaching baseball in the service. Along with other baseball stars like Bob Feller and Williams, he resumed his career as soon as the war ended, returning to the Yankees for the 1946 season and a year later leading them back into the World Series.

His most dramatic moments came in the season of 1949, after he was sidelined by bone spurs on his right heel and did not play until June 26. Then he flew to Boston to join the team in Fenway Park, hit a single and home run the first two times he went to bat, hit two more home runs the next day and another the day after that.

The Yankees entered the final two days of that season trailing the Red Sox by one game. They had to sweep two games in Yankee Stadium to win the pennant, and they did. There were poignant moments before the first game when 69,551 fans rocked the stadium and cheered their hero, who was being honored with a Joe DiMaggio Day. He was almost too weak to play because of a severe viral infection, but he did, and he hit a single and double before removing himself from center field on wobbly legs.

A Second Career: DiMaggio the Legend

After the Yankees won yet another World Series in 1951, he retired and eased into a second career as Joe DiMaggio, legend. It included cameo roles as a broadcaster, a spring training instructor with the Yankees and a coach with the Oakland Athletics, appearances at old-timers' games, where he was invariably the last player introduced, and a larger role, with surprising impact, as a mellow and credible pitchman on television commercials.

He had long since created an image of a loner both on and off the playing field, particularly in the 1930's and 1940's when he lived in hotels in Manhattan and was considered something of a man about town. He once was characterized by a teammate as the man "who led the league in room service." But he spent many evenings at Toots Shor's restaurant in Manhattan, where he hid out at a private table far in the back while Shor protected him from his public.

But his legend took a storybook turn in 1952, the year after he retired from the Yankees, when DiMaggio, whose marriage to Dorothy Arnold had ended in divorce in 1944, arranged a dinner date with Marilyn Monroe in California. They were married in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1954, and spent nine months trying to reconcile their differences before they divorced in October. DiMaggio always seemed tortured by Monroe's sex goddess image. He protested loudly during the making of Billy Wilder's "The Seven Year Itch" when the script called for her to cool herself over a subway grate while a sudden wind blew her skirts up high.

But when the actress seemed on the verge of an emotional collapse in 1961, DiMaggio brought her to the Yankees' training camp in Florida for rest and support. And when she died of an overdose of barbiturates at the age of 36 on Aug. 4, 1962, he took charge of her funeral and for the next 20 years sent roses three times a week to her crypt in the Westwood section of Los Angeles.

When DiMaggio made an unexpected and dramatic return to the public scene in the 1970's as a dignified television spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank of New York and for Mr. Coffee, a manufacturer of coffee makers, he did it with remarkable ease for a man who had been obsessed with privacy, who had once confided that he always had "a knot" in his stomach because he was so shy and tense.

Gone was the stage fright that had rattled him during earlier sorties into broadcasting. Instead, he was the epitome of credibility, the graying and trustworthy hero who had hit his home runs and was now returning to extol the virtues of saving money and brewing coffee. He soon became a familiar and comforting presence for a generation of baseball fans who never saw him play.

For some years, he lived in San Francisco with his widowed sister Marie in a house in the Marina District that he had bought for his parents in 1939 and that he and his sister had shared with Marilyn Monroe. When the damp San Francisco climate troubled the arthritis in his back, he began to spend most of his time in Florida, where he established his home. He played golf and made selected excursions to Europe and the Far East, where the demand for his appearance and his autograph returned high dividends.

But he seemed to take the most pleasure in establishing a children's wing, called the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital, at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. And he seemed to relish the invitations back to Yankee Stadium, where he frequently threw out the first ball on Opening Day, tall but slightly stooped, dressed elegantly, as always, in a dark business suit, walking to the mound and lobbing one to the catcher.

It was there on the day the season ended this year, as the Yankees set a team record with their 114th victory, that he was acclaimed on yet another Joe DiMaggio Day, the timeless hero and the symbol of Yankee excellence, acknowledging the cheers of Yankee players and fans.

It was the kind of cheering that accompanied him through life and that he had quietly come to expect. It recalled the time when he and Marilyn Monroe, soon after their wedding, took a trip to Tokyo. She continued on to entertain American troops in Korea, and said with fascination when she returned, "Joe, you've never heard such cheering."

And Joe DiMaggio replied softly, "Yes, I have."

Joe DiMaggio & Marilyn Monroe 1954


 

When DiMaggio and Co. Took Hawaii by Storm

 

By Zander Hollander, , December 5, 1982

 

It was the week that the Fifth Army entered Rome and the Marines landed in Saipan. It was the week in June 1944 that a small army led by Staff Sgt. Joe DiMaggio alighted from a troop ship at Pearl Harbor.

They were a mixed bag of 17 major and minor leaguers gone to war with the equipment they knew best -- bats, balls, gloves and masks. Honolulu -- the site of this week's major eague baseball winter meetings -would never be the same after that invasion 38 years ago by DiMaggio and Company

Of course, they didn't change the history of the war in the Pacific, but they left their mark on servicemen in need of moraleboosting and on the Hawaiian islanders who had a rare opportunity to see big leaguers.

The greatest effect, though, may have been on the players themselves, a fun-loving gang who took the islands by storm. In addition to the nonpareil Yankee, the major leaguers trooping down the gangplank with their duffle bags were Mike McCormick of the Cincinnati Reds, Dario Lodigiani of the Chicago White Sox, Walter Judnich of the St. Louis Browns and Gerry Priddy of the Washington Senators (a former Yankee).

The supporting cast of minor leaguers -- on the way to the majors -- included Ferris Fain (Philadelphia), Charlie Silvera (Yankees) and Bob Dillinger (Browns). And there were such other minor leaguers as Al Lien, Bill Schmidt, Rugger Ardizoia and Bill Leonard.

Also in the group was a young Seton Hall basketball and baseball star named Frank (Pep) Saul, who would go on to a career in the National Basketball Association. They would all be joined later by Joe Gordon and Red Ruffing of the Yankees and Johnny Beazley and Don Lang of the St. Louis Cardinals.

These ground-based airmen without wings were assigned to the 7th Air Force, whose commanding officer, Brig. Gen. William Flood, was a baseball enthusiast who made sure that none of the athletes would get dishpan hands. They were in the Special Services section and they got special treatment -- no K.P., among other things.

I was a privileged observer as sports editor of Brief Magazine, the weekly publication of the 7th Air Force. I'd been a weak-hitting third baseman at Queens College and now I had the chance to hobnob with the big leaguers, playing pepper and partying with them for six months before the itch for action turned me into an Air Force correspondent in areas where they didn't play games.

The players were housed in barracks at Hickam Field, and DiMaggio was told by a colonel that he was in charge and that he would be expected to make sure the players made bed-check.

"I won't forget that moment," recalls Ferris Fain, now in retirement in Georgetown, Calif. "I was a staff sergeant, like Joe, and he turns to me and says, 'No way I'm going to do it. I'm putting you in charge, Sergeant.' "

Within a week the group was playing baseball for the 7th Air Force team. In their first game, against a Navy contingent before a crowd of 20,000 at Honolulu Stadium, DiMaggio came to bat in the ninth against Bob Harris, a journeyman pitcher in the American League with Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

"DiMag slammed it over the left-center-field wall and the crowd went nuts," remembers Pep Saul, now an insurance broker in Livingston, N.J. "It was close to 450 feet and the natives said it was the longest home run ever hit there."

The Air Force lineup in those early days had Fain at first, Lodigiani at second, Priddy at short (to be replaced later by Gordon), Dillinger at third, McCormick in left, DiMag in center, Judnich in right; Silvera and Leonard, catching, and Lien, Bill Schmidt, Don Lang, Eddie Funk (later Beazley and Ruffing), pitching.

The manager was Lieut. Tom (Long Tom) Winsett, a Tennessean who had been a great home run hitter in the minors but a bust in the majors with the Red Sox, the Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

DiMaggio, of course, was held in awe by player and fan alike. He was a loner. "A lot of us were minor leaguers and he didn't associate much with us off the field," says Fain. "But that was his style. He was a really shy man."

The 7th Air Force team initially played games throughout the Hawaiian Islands against native and service teams. The biggest matches were with Navy squads that had such big leaguers as Johnny Mize, Hugh Casey, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Lucadello, Barney McCosky, Vin Smith, Virgil Trucks and Johnny Vander Meer.

It was in a game against the Navy that DiMaggio figured in what Lodigiani calls "one of the oddest plays I've ever seen." "There were men on first and second," recalls Lodigiani, now a West Coast scout for the White Sox. "Somebody hit one deep to DiMag. The runner on second -- Pee Wee Reese -tags up. DiMag's throw has him beat so bad that he pulls up and gets into a rundown. Back and forth it goes; they can't nail him. Suddenly DiMag comes in from the outfield, joins the rundown and tags Reese. 'What are you doing here?' I asked DiMag. He said, 'Somebody had to get him out.' And he trots back to center field."

It wasn't all baseball for the touring troupe. They had parties and dances in their honor at every stop. An Associated Press correspondent made his house and booze available at Waikiki and there was a local pitcher, a brewery worker, who played host many a night, providing real beer, not the 3.2 brew available to most servicemen.

"There was a 10 P.M. curfew and we'd frequently blow it," revealed Lodigiani. "But we had a unique way of getting back to Hickam. We'd made a friend in the dispatcher's office at the army hospital and, when we were ready, we'd call him and he'd send an ambulance. A dozen of us would pile on top of each other and we'd be delivered to the base. What a sight we must have been."

DiMaggio was not one of the party boys. His stomach was kicking up and he was homesick for his actress wife, Dorothy Arnold. You couldn't tell it by his performance on the field. He was his graceful self, making fly balls look so easy, and he hit long and hard. But he was beset by autograph hunters who hounded him everywhere.

There was a dance after a game one night on the island of Kauai. DiMag, determined to avoid it, sat undetected in an Army truck for a couple of hours while the local folk kept shouting, "Where's Joe? Where's Joe?"

Eventually the 7th Air Force team was split up and sent to the Marianas. The games went on down there, but by then DiMaggio was gone. He'd been hospitalized in Honolulu and the next thing anyone knew he was on General Flood's B-24 back to the States.

Joltin' Joe and Babe Ruth 1938


Behind the Mystique, DiMaggio Lives a Quiet, Private Life

 

By Dave Anderson, , September 13, 1998

 

HOLLYWOOD, Florida-- Outside the low Yankee Clipper Center office building, Joe DiMaggio and his attorney, Morris Engelberg, were walking toward a white Dodge Caravan with the words "The Yankee Clipper" in navy blue above the rear window.

The license plate read DIMAG 5.

"Is this yours, Morris?" a visitor asked.

"Yes," Engelberg said as the Yankee Clipper himself turned to the visitor and chuckled.

"You don't think it'd be mine, do you?" he said.

Joseph Paul DiMaggio, who will be 84 years old on Nov. 25, is often introduced as "baseball's greatest living player," but he is also baseball's most private personality. He is seen throwing out the first ball at Yankee Stadium on opening days and Old-Timers' Days, but then it's as if he vanishes inside his mystique.

"I'm not one of those guys who looks to be in the limelight," DiMaggio said in a rare interview recently.

He never did. In his 13 seasons as a Hall of Fame center fielder from 1936 to 1951 (with three years out for Army service during World War II), he had a career average of .325 with 361 home runs and 1,537 runs batted in while the Yankees won 10 American League pennants and nine World Series.

Shy and serious, he always preferred his privacy. He played and has lived with what in his time was known as class.

"When Joe walked into the clubhouse, the lights flickered," Pete Sheehy, the Yankees' clubhouse custodian in those years, often said. "Joe was a star."

He still is. He is the symbol of another era, of another breed of athlete. His name has raised millions of dollars for the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital here at Memorial Regional Hospital, where the motto is, "Whether rich or poor, no child is turned away."

He has a cameo role in a forthcoming motion picture, "The First of May," in which he plays what he called an "ol' dude" advising a youngster on how to hit.

DiMaggio gets dozens of letters from fans each day. His swing will be memorialized in a statue outside the National Italian Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago later this month. He commands six-figure fees at baseball memorabilia shows to sign his name, which he always does in careful, flowing penmanship, never a scrawl.

Sitting in his attorney's office now, DiMaggio was surrounded by photos and memorabilia of himself, but it was Engelberg's collection, not his.

"I don't have that much stuff," he said. "Baseballs autographed by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush. Another ball autographed by both President Reagan and Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev at a White House dinner I was invited to. And I still have the sterling silver humidor the players gave me."

One night late in the 1941 season, DiMaggio walked into a room at the Shoreham hotel in Washington and was startled to see his teammates with raised champagne glasses singing, "For you're a jolly good fellow." He was handed a gift-wrapped package. Inside was a sterling silver cigar humidor.

"Presented to Joe DiMaggio," the inscription read, "by his fellow players on the New York Yankees to express their admiration for his consecutive-games hitting record, 1941."

Engraved on one side was "56" for the number of games in the streak; on the other was "91" for the number of hits during the streak. Below the inscription were the engraved signatures of all his teammates.

"Years later," he recalled, "I met a man who told me he had worked at Tiffany's where they made the humidor. He gave me the blueprints for it."

When he is not traveling, DiMaggio lives alone here in a home on exclusive Harbour Island. He has a white Mercedes-Benz, a gift from the Yankees, but he prefers to drive a gray Toyota Corolla -- without vanity license plates.

"He's a shy, meticulous man," Engelberg said. "He cooks for himself. He pumps his own gas. He shines his own shoes."

DiMaggio's black wing-tips glistened. He was wearing a navy blue cashmere blazer, gray slacks and what appeared to be a new white shirt with a burgundy polka-dot tie knotted just so. On the third finger of his left hand shone a gold ring encrusted with a white diamond in the shape of a baseball diamond, his 1936 World Series ring, his rookie year with the Yankees.

"My other World Series rings were stolen," he said. "In the early '60s, I was living at the Lexington Hotel in New York and working for a company that supplied military post exchanges. I had a beautiful alligator-covered jewelry box for my other rings along with some cuff links and tie clasps. I went to Alaska for five days and when I got back, everything had been stolen.

"The only thing they didn't take was a pair of rosary beads."

DiMaggio has often named the 1936 Yankees the best of his nine World Series teams. With a 102-51 record, they won the AL pennant by 19-and-a-half games and took the Series from the New York Giants in six games. Six players from that team would be voted into the Hall of Fame: first baseman Lou Gehrig, catcher Bill Dickey, second baseman Tony Lazzeri, the pitchers Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez, and DiMaggio.

"Joe has a picture of that '36 team in his home," Engelberg said. "Whenever he looks it, he'll say, 'What a great bunch of guys,' and tears come to his eyes."

In this Year of the Yankees, who have already clinched the AL East title, DiMaggio has seen games occasionally on cable television. He spoke admiringly of center fielder Bernie Williams, saying: "I like that kid. He plays the game to win." But he warned that despite the Yankees' domination, anything can happen in the World Series. As it did in 1942, the only time one of his Yankee teams lost the Series.

"In 1942 we won 103 games, won the pennant by nine games and won the Series opener, then the Cardinals beat us four straight," he said. "We weren't hitting and they had some good pitchers. Johnny Beazley beat us twice. In the last game we had the bases loaded with two out and he threw me a big curveball, but I hit a grounder to third base. I had seven hits in that Series, all singles."

DiMaggio was aware of the assault on Roger Maris' record 61 home runs by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- which McGwire has since broken -- but he sounded somewhat bewildered by it.

"I think it's amazing," he said. "I don't understand the game now. All these home runs, but Hank Greenberg hit 58 home runs one year, Jimmie Foxx hit 58."

Asked about McGwire's use of androstenedione, an over-the-counter testosterone-boosting compound banned in the Olympics and pro football but allowed in baseball, DiMaggio said: "All I ever did was ask Pete Sheehy for half a cup of coffee when I got to the clubhouse. But there were a lot of half a cups. It stayed hot that way."

According to Engelberg, DiMaggio doesn't even take painkillers for the arthritic aches (from sliding hard as a base runner) that have thinned his midcareer 6-foot-2-inch, 193-pound frame. He has a pacemaker. The skin below his left eye is pink from what he described as "dry eye." But he had the laugh of a happy man.

"That's because of my two grandkids and my four great-grandkids," he said.

DiMaggio was married twice, to Dorothy Arnold, who bore him his only child, Joe. Jr., and to the actress Marilyn Monroe. Both marriages ended in divorce. The loves of his life now are his four great-grandchildren: Vanessah, 11; Kendahl, 11; Valerie, 9; and Mitchell, 7. They live in northern California and he phones them almost every night.

"I'm always thinking, what can I do for them?" he said. "What can I get for them? I like to get them the newest computers. I'm big on education."

Maybe that's because he never finished Galileo High School in San Francisco, preferring to join the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League when he was 17.

"I played the last three games of the 1932 season as their shortstop," he said, laughing. "I kept throwing the ball into the stands behind first base, but my first time up, I hit a triple. And they never paid me. They didn't even give me a nickel for my carfare to the ball park."

He didn't need a high school diploma to hit a baseball, or to grow into a suave gentleman who would inspire artists to include him in literature and song.

In the novel "The Old Man and the Sea," Ernest Hemingway has the Cuban fisherman say: "I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand." In the song "Mrs. Robinson," Paul Simon laments, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

He remembered conversations with Hemingway at the old Toots Shor's restaurant on West 50th Street.

"One night we all went to a big fight at Yankee Stadium," he said. "When the crowd saw me walking to ringside, they cheered. Hemingway asked Toots, 'What's going on here?' Toots told him, 'They're cheering Joe,' and I heard Hemingway say, 'The fight is going to be anticlimactic.' "

Not long after DiMaggio heard Simon's song, he met Simon in a New York restaurant.

"I asked Paul what the song meant -- was it derogatory?" he recalled. "He explained it to me."

And early in 1982, his name would be the last words in Red Smith's last sports column in The New York Times. Smith was writing about his relationships with athletes through the years. He wrote of "a longish period when my rapport with some who were less than great made me nervous."

"Maybe I was stuck on bad ballplayers," Smith wrote. "I told myself not to worry. Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio."

Maybe there will be another, but not necessarily.

That was apparent as DiMaggio visited some of the young patients in the hospital, which soon will have 170 beds. In a corridor, gray-haired Stanley Bine walked up to the familiar face with the silver hair.

" DiMaggio," he said, "I just want to thank you for this hospital, for helping my granddaughter Alison get through cystic fibrosis."

Moments later another gray-haired man in a red smock, 90-year-old Edward Wolf, introduced himself to DiMaggio as a hospital volunteer who once owned a Bronx cleaning shop not far from Yankee Stadium.

"That was 60 years ago when you were playing," Wolf said. "I've always wanted to shake your hand."

The youngsters knew him, too. When he stopped to see Marcos Acosta, the 17-year-old leukemia patient predicted that Sammy Sosa would hit more home runs than Mark McGwire this season.

"You might be right," DiMaggio said.

Soon he walked into Alison Bine's room.

"You have a nice smile, so everything must be getting better," he said. "I hope you're up and around soon and going to games instead of watching them on TV."

Minutes later, back in the white Dodge Caravan with the DIMAG 5 plates, Engelberg mentioned the hospital's expanded neonatal intensive care unit.

"We didn't see the neonatal," Joe DiMaggio said, annoyed. "Why didn't we see that?"

August 1, 1941


 

American Icon Joe DiMaggio Dies at 84

 

By Bart Barnes, The Washington Post, Monday, March 8, 1999

 

Joe DiMaggio, the fabled slugger and centerfielder of the New York Yankees whose superlative play on the baseball field enshrined him in the hearts of sports fans everywhere and made him a universal symbol of athletic grace and excellence, died at his home in Hollywood, Fla., shortly after midnight, said Morris Engelberg, DiMaggio's long-time friend and attorney.

The Associated Press reports that his brother Dominick, two grandchildren and Joe Nacchio, his friend for 59 years, and Engelberg were at his side when he died.

DiMaggio's body will be flown to Northern California for burial in his home town of San Francisco, Engelberg said.

DiMaggio played 13 seasons with the Yankees before retiring in 1951, but his name was celebrated in song and story for decades after he stopped playing, and he projected a romance and mystique that aroused the souls and lifted the spirits of millions.

He was an immigrant Italian fisherman's son who lived the quintessential dream of the American boy. On the sandlots of San Francisco he learned baseball skills by hitting balls with a broken oar, and he rose, beating the odds, to the summit of the national sport. He was married, briefly, to the most glamourous of movie stars, Marilyn Monroe.

In his years with the Yankees, DiMaggio led the team to 10 American League pennants and nine World Series championships. He joined the team in 1936, filling a void left by the departure of another baseball immortal, Babe Ruth, and he became his sport's best-known player during an era when baseball reigned supreme as the primary game in America.

In 1941 he hit safely in 56 consecutive games, a record that in more than a half century has not been seriously challenged and stands as one of the extraordinary achievements of a unique career. Three times, in 1939, 1941 and 1947, he was the American League's Most Valuable Player. He had a lifetime batting average of .325, hit 361 career home runs and had 1,537 runs batted in. Had he not missed three seasons in the prime of his career &endash; 1943, 1944 and 1945 &endash; for Army service during World War II, the numbers would doubtless have been more impressive.

There was a majesty in his swing, and a self-assured confidence in style and conduct that was uniquely Joe DiMaggio's. In the eye of his public, he was more than a sports hero. He was among the most cherished icons of popular culture. The old fisherman in Ernest Hemingway's prize winning novel, "The Old Man and the Sea," spoke reverently of "the Great DiMaggio," and felt a special bond with him because DiMaggio's father was also a fisherman.

Songwriter Paul Simon, in an nostalgic expression of longing for the innocence and simplicity of an earlier and happier time, wrote in the lyrics for a popular song of the 1960s, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." That rhetorical question became the title of a 1975 book by sports author Maury Allen.

During his 1941 56-game hitting streak, bandleader Les Brown introduced a song, "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," that became a popular radio and recording hit. In a song from 1949 hit musical "South Pacific," one of the characters, "Bloody Mary," had skin as "tender as DiMaggio's glove."

During most of his years as an athlete, DiMaggio played without the benefit of television. His career was widely reported in the print media, and his games were broadcast on the radio, but he retired before television was a fixture in most American households. This made him famous but not familiar, and all that more appealing and intriguing.

"...radio was an instrument that could heighten the mystique of a player, television (through overexposure) eventually demythologized the famous," wrote David Halberstam in a book, "Summer of '49," about the 1949 American League pennant race in which DiMaggio figured prominently. "It is no coincidence that DiMaggio's fame was so lasting, and that he was the last great hero of the radio era." On the field and off, DiMaggio was acutely sensitive to his special standing, and he comported himself accordingly. His dress and tailoring were always impeccable. "He was a guy who knew he was the greatest baseball player in America, and he was proud of it ... he was always trying to live up to that image. That's why he couldn't be silly in public ... or ever be caught without his shirt buttoned or his shoes shined. He knew he was Joe DiMaggio, and he knew what that meant to the country," former teammate Lefty Gomez told sports author Allen.

In play and in practice he was poetry in motion, chasing a fly ball, running the bases or swinging in the batter's box. Everything he did seemed effortless. "DiMaggio even looks good striking out," Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox once remarked.

"I don't want them to remember me struggling," DiMaggio told New York Times photographer Ernie Sisto, when he decided to retire in 1951 at the age of 37 after a difficult and injury ridden season. Said DiMaggio's older brother, Tom DiMaggio, "He quit because he wasn't Joe DiMaggio any more."

Joseph Paul DiMaggio, the eighth of nine children, was born in Martinez, Calif., a fishing village 25 miles north of San Francisco. When he was an infant his father moved the family to San Francisco because he'd heard the fishing near there was better.

There were five sons in the family, and the elder DiMaggio, having little use for baseball, assumed all his boys would join him on the fishing boat when their times came. It was not to be. Joe disliked the smell of fish and boats. As a teenager he worked for a period on the San Francisco docks, which he also disliked. In 1932 at the age of 17 he began his professional baseball career, playing in three games for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. In nine at-bats he had two hits, a double and a triple, and he batted in two runs.

For three more seasons, DiMaggio played with the Seals, where in 1933 he hit safely in 61 consecutive games, attracting the attention of a West Coast scout for the Yankees. A knee injury in an automobile accident delayed his ascent to the major leagues by one year, but in 1936 DiMaggio made his baseball debut in New York.

Two of his brothers would later join him in the major leagues, Dom DiMaggio who played 11 years with the Boston Red Sox, and Vince DiMaggio who played 10 years with the Boston Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies. Both had respectable baseball careers, but neither approached the lofty standing of their famous brother.

Joining the Yankees in 1936, DiMaggio came to a team that had not won a pennant since 1932, failing to live up to the always high expectations of the New York fans. The team needed a power hitter to complement Lou Gehrig, who was approaching the end of his career.

At spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., that year, DiMaggio was an immediate sensation with his coaches and teammates, the fans and the media. Dan Daniel, the baseball writer for the New York World Telegram and Sun, spent a day observing DiMaggio in the batting cage. "Here is the replacement for Babe Ruth," he wrote for his newspaper after watching the 21-year-old rookie smashing line drives over the fences of the Florida ballparks.

Joe McCarthy, who managed the Yankees during DiMaggio's early years with the team, remembered his uncanny instincts as an outfielder. "(he) ... did everything so easily ... You never saw him fall down or go diving for a ball. He didn't have to. He just knew where the ball was hit and he went and got it," he said in an interview for Allen's book.

In spring training his initial season, DiMaggio burned his foot in a diathermy machine, a heat-generating device commonly used in sports medicine. He was painfully shy, too shy to ask anyone why it was that his foot was getting so hot, and when he did finally remove it from the machine it was red, blistered and too sore for him to play. The Yankees opened the season against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium that year, with President Roosevelt throwing out the ceremonial first ball. DiMaggio sat on the bench. After the game, which Washington won 1-0, he returned to his hotel and had dinner alone in his room.

In two weeks the burned foot would heal, but DiMaggio never got over his shyness. Years later a teammate would remark that in addition to his hitting titles, DiMaggio also led the major leagues in room service. On road trips, no one ate alone in his hotel room as often as DiMaggio.

He played in his first major league game on May 3, 1936 at Yankee Stadium against the St. Louis Browns. In his first time at bat, he hit the second pitch into left field for a single. Later in the game he would hit another single and then a triple to left field. He would play in 138 games that year, hit .323, with 29 home runs and 125 runs batted in.

With DiMaggio in the lineup, the Yankees rediscovered their winning ways. In his first four years with the team, the Yankees won consecutive American League pennants and World Series championships.

At the age of 24, in 1939, DiMaggio won his first Most Valuable Player Award. Early in the season he tore a muscle in his right leg chasing a fly ball, and he missed 34 games. But he returned to the lineup with an inspired bat, ending the season with a .381 batting average, his career best. That year he also hit 30 home runs and batted in 126 runs.

The 1939 season also marked the end of another baseball era. In May of that year, Lou Gehrig took himself out of the lineup after playing in 2,130 consecutive games, ending a streak that began in 1925. His record stood for 56 years until broken by Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles in 1995.

Two years after ending his streak, Gehrig would die of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative disorder of the nerve cells that control muscular movement. The disease has since become known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Gehrig's death, in June of 1941, came in the midst of DiMaggio's 56-consecutive-game hitting streak.

That streak began inauspiciously on May 15 when DiMaggio singled in the first inning of a game the Yankees lost to the Chicago White Sox 13-1. At the time he was barely hitting .300, following a .352 season in 1940. The Yankees were in fourth place at the time, 6 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Indians.

Until the 30th game when the Yankee record for hits in consecutive games was broken, DiMaggio's streak was largely unnoticed. But then it began to attract the attention of the sports media, and newspapers and the radio began to dramatize it. Most games then were played in the afternoon, and radio announcers would routinely interrupt program with the news of DiMaggio's latest hit.

Day and night, radio disc jockeys played the Les Brown band recording:

"From Coast to Coast, that's all you hear

Of Joe the One-Man Show

He's glorified the horsehide sphere

Joltin' Joe DiMaggio

Joe ... Joe ... DiMaggio ... we want you on our side."

On July 1 in a doubleheader in Washington, DiMaggio tied and then broke the American League record of hits in 41 consecutive games set by George Sisler in 1922. Three days later with a home run in Yankee Stadium, he broke the major league record of hits in 44 consecutive games set by Willie Keeler in 1897. He would hit safely in 11 more games until the night of July 17 in Cleveland when in four at-bats he drew a base on balls, hit into a double play and was thrown out twice by Indians third baseman Ken Keltner on hard-hit ground balls down the third base line.

During the streak, DiMaggio batted .408 with 15 home runs and 55 runs batted in. The Yankees took possession of first place in the American League, six games ahead of Cleveland. They would win the pennant that year and defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers 4 games to one in the World Series. DiMaggio won his second most valuable player award.

By the next season, 1942, the U.S. was fully engaged in World War II and the national interest in baseball had dimmed. DiMaggio hit only .305 &endash; his lowest average since joining the Yankees. Once again the Yankees won the American League pennant, but they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals one game to four. After the 1942 season, DiMaggio joined the Army. He was 28 years old, and in the prime of his baseball career.

The war years were not good ones for him. He was a sergeant and physicial education instructor stationed for most of his Army service at Hamilton Field near San Francisco. Most of his time was spent entertaining the troops, running clinics, dining with generals and showing baseball films. He developed an ulcer and his wife, actress Dorothy Arnold whom he'd married in 1939, divorced him. "There were times," she said tearfully, "when he wouldn't talk to me for weeks." They had one son, Joe DiMaggio Jr.

When he rejoined the Yankees after the war, DiMaggio was 31, and he found it hard to regain his prewar stride. For the first time in his baseball career his batting average was below .300. He hit .290 in 132 games for the 1946 season. A bone spur in his left heel bothered him, and the Yankees lost the American League pennant to the Boston Red Sox. In subsequent seasons his play improved substantially. Nevertheless, there were baseball pundits who argued that the postwar DiMaggio never regained the stunning brilliance of the young Joe DiMaggio of the prewar years.

He had surgery on the troublesome heel in 1947 and missed the first two weeks of the season. But then he hit a home run in his first at-bat of the year, and he went on to lead the Yankees in hitting with a batting average of .315, and he won his third most valuable player award. There was another New York subway World Series that year, with the Yankees beating the Brooklyn Dodgers four games to three.

In that series, DiMaggio hit two home runs, including a blast in game five that proved decisive in the Yankees' 2-1 win. He would have had a third home run in the sixth game, but Dodger outfielder Al Gionfriddo made a spectacular running catch of a 415-foot DiMaggio drive to left center field in Yankee Stadium that would have tied the game.

Much later DiMaggio, who as a centerfielder was exacting in his study of the hitting patterns of opposing players and the effects of wind and ballpark peculiarities on the flight patterns of baseballs, told reporters, "Don't put this in the papers, but if he'd been playing me right, he'd have made it look easy."

The 1948 season was another good one for DiMaggio, who led the American League with 39 home runs and 155 runs batted in. But Cleveland won the pennant that year with the Yankees finishing third.

He missed the first 76 games of the 1949 season, but returned to the lineup for a critical series with the Red Sox, where he hit four home runs and drove in nine as the Yankees swept three in Boston. He went on to hit .346 for the rest of the season and the Yankees won the pennant and the World Series.

In 1950, at the age of 35, he helped the Yankees win the pennant again and defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. But his batting average slipped to .301 and injuries were beginning to bother him. He considered retiring, but then decided to play for one more year.

The 1951 season was the worst of DiMaggio's career. He suffered from neck spasms and played in only 116 games. His batting average dropped to .263 and he hit only 12 home runs. In December of that year, two months after the Yankees had defeated the New York Giants in the World Series, DiMaggio announced his retirement from baseball. He was 37. Yankee management had offered him $100,000 &endash; a princely sum in that era &endash; to play one more season, but he turned it down.

"I no longer have it ... I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, my teammates and my fans ... It has become a chore for me to play ... When baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game," he said.

DiMaggio's career with the Yankees included playing for two legendary managers, McCarthy and Casey Stengel, and his teammates ranged the generational gamut from Gehrig and Lefty Gomez to Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin, and Phil Rizzuto. Mickey Mantle replaced him in centerfield.

In retirement, his celebrity status was unabated. He married Marilyn Monroe in 1954, when she was 27 and he was 39. They spent part of their honeymoon in Japan, where an American general persuaded her to visit U.S. troops in Korea as a patriotic gesture.

As reported by Gay Talese in a 1966 profile for Esquire magazine, she returned after having appeared on 10 occasions before 100,000 servicemen and said, "It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering."

"Yes I have," said DiMaggio.

Their marriage lasted only nine months. They were said by society writers to have been tempermentally incompatable; he, jealous, undemonstrative and disliking publicity; she flirtatious and needy of attention. In 1962 she committed suicide. DiMaggio orchestrated her funeral, deciding who could attend and whom to exclude. For 20 years after her death, roses were delivered to her grave site twice weekly at DiMaggio's orders - and expense.

For a period after Monroe's death, DiMaggio only became more reclusive, but in time he re emerged. He appeared in occasional old timers games at Yankee Stadium and elsewhere, and he took low profile positions with companies that paid well. He invested wisely and he did some television commercials, for Mr. Coffee and Bowery Savings Bank.

He served on the board of directors of the Baltimore Orioles.

On Sept. 6, 1995 when Oriole shortstop Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played, DiMaggio, at the age of 80, participated in the celebratory ceremonies, a providing a living link between baseball's past and present. His old teammate, Gehrig, DiMaggio said, would have been pleased by Ripken's achievement.

October 8, 1939


March 9, 1999

The DiMaggio Mystique

 

It has been almost half a century since Joe DiMaggio turned his center-field kingdom in Yankee Stadium over to a strapping youngster named Mickey Mantle, but even now, in death, DiMaggio still owns that green acreage. He roamed the great open spaces there with a grace and grandeur that redefined the art of fielding. Even more than the prolific hitting that earned him enduring fame, his silky, seemingly effortless motion across the outfield grass was the signature of his game.

DiMaggio was one of those rare sports stars, like Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, who not only set new standards of athletic excellence but also became a distinctive part of American culture. As stylish off the field as on, DiMaggio was an icon of elegance and success, a name as recognizable on Broadway and in Hollywood as at the ball park. Millions of baby boomers who never saw DiMaggio play instantly understood the reference in the Paul Simon song of the 1960's -- "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

Other men have hit the ball farther and run the bases faster, but few have excelled at so many elements of the sport. DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941 remains untouched, one of the great benchmarks of consistency and productivity in all of sports. In 13 seasons with the Yankees, DiMaggio produced a career batting average of .325, hit 361 home runs and knocked in more than 100 runs in a season nine times. He played in 10 World Series, 9 of which the Yankees won. He possessed one of the sweetest swings baseball has ever seen, a hitting stroke of such precision that he struck out only 369 times in his major league career.

But the numbers alone do not explain the DiMaggio mystique. Part of it was his brief, turbulent marriage to Marilyn Monroe and his taste for nightclubs and tony hotels. Part of it was his $100,000-a-year salary, a small fortune in his days as a Yankee. For younger fans, there was also an almost mystical link to the past -- DiMaggio joined the Yankees in 1936, just two years after Babe Ruth left and before Lou Gehrig retired. His appearance on ceremonial occasions at Yankee Stadium in recent years was thrilling for fans of all ages.

His fame also flowed from the aura of quiet dignity that DiMaggio carefully preserved throughout his career and retirement. With the notable exception of his service as a pitchman for the Bowery Savings Bank and Mr. Coffee brewing appliances, he dodged the celebrity limelight. The mystery only added to his allure.

DiMaggio, who was 84, died with opening day a month away. Though he will no longer return to Yankee Stadium to deliver the ceremonial first pitch, his singular record of athletic achievement and classy conduct will be long revered.

 


A Designated Hero

 

By Bob Herbert, , 10 March 1999

The streak came to an end in mid-July in Cleveland beneath the blazing, bluish lights of Municipal Stadium. The crowd was enormous, 67,468, which at the time was the largest ever to have seen a night baseball game.

Joe DiMaggio came to the plate four times. He grounded sharply to deep third base and was thrown out by the terrific Ken Keltner. He walked. He hit another sharp grounder to third and was thrown out again by Keltner. In the eighth inning, with the bases loaded, he hit into a double play. The incredible 56-game hitting streak was over, but a mythic American hero had been born.

The headlines the next day, July 18, 1941, suggested why. The sports pages were all about the streak. But an article at the top of page one in The Times began as follows:

"Germany's second offensive against Soviet Russia appeared last night to have reached its full fury as both sides reported violent engagements along the entire front. In Berlin, where the High Command said that the Red Army was desperately throwing its last reserves into a battle of 9,000,000 men, the official news agency reported that German forces had taken the key city of Smolensk, on the road to Moscow."

Next to that was a headline that said: "Konoye Forming Cabinet in Tokyo; Fascist Cast Seen."

Next to that was a story about the beginning of the second wave of the military draft in the United States. And below that was a story about Charles Lindbergh, who, in a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, denied having any link to the Axis powers.

It was, to say the least, a harrowing time. Less than five months after Joe D. went 0-for-3 in Cleveland, the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor.

Joe DiMaggio was tall, handsome, splendidly talented, and a champion. He was modest and came from a humble background. He was tough, and yet he was elegant, both on the field and off. He had class. Americans, still nursing the wounds of the Depression, and now faced with a World War, could use a guy like Joe. He wasn't a middle-aged, over-the-hill rascal, like the retired Babe Ruth. And he wasn't tainted, like Lindbergh.

DiMaggio carried himself like a hero. A teammate, Vernon (Lefty) Gomez, was quoted by the writer Maury Allen as saying: "He knew what the press and the fans and the kids expected of him, and he was always trying to live up to that image. That's why he couldn't be silly in public like I could, or ever be caught without his shirt buttoned or his shoes shined. He knew he was Joe DiMaggio and he knew what that meant to the country."

DiMaggio's career, which ran from 1936 to 1951, coincided with the creation of the colossus that came to be known as postwar America. He embodied the yearning, the anxieties, the willingness to struggle endlessly, the unwillingness to accept failure, and the ultimate resounding triumphs of the men and women of that era. The great DiMaggio, as a character in Hemingway would call him, became the designated hero of the colossus, the pre-eminent god of this secular creation myth.

DiMaggio played the role to perfection. He was quiet and kept his defenses up. He never let the real DiMaggio steal a scene from the idealized hero. He stifled himself. He was aloof, private, at times reclusive. He smoked three packs of Camels a day. He had stomach problems. He was human. But when he trotted onto the field or otherwise appeared in public, he was almost perfect.

After he retired he met and married the goddess of the myth. It was a mismatch made in Heaven. When the marriage ended after only nine months, Joe was distraught and never really recovered. And Marilyn was already lost.

As the 50's became the 60's and the 70's and so on, Joe D. became not the embodiment of the nation's hopes and fears and triumphs, but of its memories. And after awhile the memories were only pleasant ones. The frightening headlines have faded and almost disappeared, replaced by reminiscences of glorious seasons and simpler times.

The wind blew hard and brutally cold through the South Bronx on Monday. The flag at Yankee Stadium, snapping in the wind, was lowered to half-staff. The people who stopped by to pay their respects didn't have much to say. They knew. The United States needed a hero and Joe DiMaggio was good enough to oblige.

 


Funeral of DiMaggio Honors His Desire for Privacy

 

By Evelyn Nieves, , 12 March 1999

 

SAN FRANCISCO -- For one last time, Joe DiMaggio tried to preserve his cherished privacy, and on this occasion he almost succeeded.

Even though he was one of the most famous men of this century, DiMaggio's funeral this morning at SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church, where he had made his first communion and married his first wife, was astonishingly small, devoid of the celebrities of his vanishing era or, for that matter, of this one.

Solemn gongs from the church bell announced the procession, and only six pallbearers carried DiMaggio's orchid-draped mahogany coffin. They were a nephew, the husbands of two of his granddaughters, two longtime friends and DiMaggio's only son, Joseph Paul DiMaggio Jr., from whom he had been estranged for years. Just a few dozen mourners attended the service, at the Yankee legend's request, and police officers kept throngs of reporters and about 200 onlookers behind barricades across the street, in DiMaggio's beloved Washington Square Park.

DiMaggio, who died of lung cancer Monday at age 84 at his home in Hollywood, Fla., was eulogized by his brother Dominic, the only remaining sibling of the four brothers and four sisters with whom he grew up here in North Beach. The Rev. Armand Oliveri, who had known the DiMaggio family for all his 79 years, led the traditional funeral Mass. "They said they wanted it to be family," Father Oliveri said afterward, "and that was about it."

When Joe DiMaggio married Dorothy Arnold at SS. Peter and Paul in 1940, the year after winning the first of his three most valuable player awards as a Yankee, 20,000 people jammed into Washington Square Park to catch a glimpse of him. The divorced DiMaggio was mobbed again in 1954, after he had retired, his 56-game hitting streak stored in the record books, as he brought home Marilyn Monroe, whom he married at City Hall.

But here in North Beach, where he would return often to visit old friends while staying in the house he bought for his parents 60 years ago, it was well established that DiMaggio liked to keep his private life private. Today, probably as he would have wished it, those behind the barricades paying their respects looked outnumbered by a noisy flock of wild parrots and groups of tai chi exercisers seemingly oblivious to the proceedings.

Only a handful of DiMaggio's old North Beach friends stood among the crowd, among them Peter Macchiarini, an 89-year-old artist who remembered watching him play in the minors for the San Francisco Seals. "He couldn't have been a better dancer," he said. "His running and his hitting were all one movement. It was graceful. It was ballet."

Afterward, Macchiarini said that he had never seen DiMaggio's famous exploits as a Yankee outfielder but that he had seen DiMaggio once as they were both driving to Candlestick Park for a game. "We were both driving along and I waved at him, and he smiled and waved back from that big brown Cadillac," he said.

Many in the crowd had never had a glimpse of the man in person. Victor Berardelli, 85, a retired maintenance man, said he was simply proud that DiMaggio, the son of an Italian fisherman, had come from this neighborhood. "He grew up here and played on this playground," he said, gesturing to a lot next to the church. "He never forgot where he came from."

Whether DiMaggio would have been tickled or annoyed by the growing debate in San Francisco about whether to name a street or a park or a boulevard in his honor, no one can say. But it would be surprising if he minded one small, spontaneous tribute today. As the hearse pulled away on its way to the Marina district, where it was to pass the house on Beach Street that DiMaggio had bought for his parents, and then on to the suburb of Colma for the burial, the crowd broke out into applause. There were even a few baseball-park cheers and whistles.

 


 

Joe DiMaggio Jr., the second pall bearer on the right, helping to escort his father's coffin after the funeral mass.
DiMaggio's Last Call: It's About Famiglia

 

By George Vecsey, , 12 March 1999

SAN FRANCISCO -- Once this man lashed home runs in Yankee Stadium and married a glamorous actress, but Thursday Joe DiMaggio came back to the old neighborhood to be buried.

"The funny thing was, Joe never played for our church teams," said the Rev. David Purdy, S.D.B., the pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church, the gorgeous Italianate church, with a quotation in Italian from Dante's Paradise on the facade.

"Joe had some kind of a dispute with the man who ran our team so he played for another church up the hill," Father Purdy said, noting that this happened before his time -- 70 years ago, in fact.

DiMaggio was a free agent as a teen-ager, a right he never achieved as one of the most celebrated athletes of his century. The Yankees could contemplate trading him for Ted Williams, but in those days of the reserve clause, the Yankee Clipper could never contemplate changing teams of his own volition.

Times change. Neighborhoods change. In the park across the way, approximately 100 people concluded their morning exercise, the robust motions and tonal chants of tai chi, just before the funeral cortege arrived.

The couple of hundred people in the news media swarm nearly outnumbered the individuals who came to pay their respects, even though the family had said, thanks but no thanks.

Famiglia. Family. That is a familiar concept in the Italian enclave of North Beach, where Mandarin and Cantonese languages are now as prominent as Sicilian or Tuscan dialects.

The funeral was for about 40 members of the DiMaggio family, and a few close friends, plus Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, and Gene Budig, the president of the American League, which will probably annoy George Steinbrenner, who would have liked to be here.

DiMaggio was once asked what he would say to Steinbrenner if he had the delightful opportunity to negotiate a salary in these days of the nine-digit salaries.

"Hiya, partner," or words to that effect, was his instant response. But even though Steinbrenner had replaced DiMaggio's lost World Series rings last fall, he was most definitely not family. Nor were the Mayor of this charmed city, nor a few prominent actors and ball players and other world figures who had to be pointedly told, please, don't even ask.

Famiglia. In the eulogy, DiMaggio's brother, Dominic, himself a terrific center fielder, spoke of his brother's accomplishments on the field, and reminded the family how proud his brother was to be included in the 10 best-dressed men in America.

Dominic DiMaggio briefly alluded to his brother's never finding a life's companion. There had been one wedding to Dorothy Arnold in this same church in 1940 -- the crowds were tenfold yesterday's modest assembly -- and another marriage in City Hall to Marilyn Monroe, after which the couple posed for photographers in front of SS. Peter and Paul.

In the end, Joe DiMaggio remained elusive, just as he had been all his life.To some people in the North Beach neighborhood, DiMaggio was the solitary old gent who sat in the corner and nursed a beer -- when he was in town. To others he was the cordial neighbor on Beach Street who offered batting tips to a child -- when he was in town.

He was bemused by the Paul Simon lyrics, but Joltin' Joe had indeed left and gone away, a long time ago. Perhaps it was the very act of setting out to conquer the world that made it impossible to truly come home, alive.

In later years, DiMaggio was almost a myth, a specter. A North Beach local, an honorary Italian named John McDermott, would see DiMaggio taking his morning walk down by Fisherman's Wharf. Sometimes he would stop and chat, McDermott said, and sometimes he would not. And that seems to be the way the world remembers Joe DiMaggio.

But there was something else: "He made us proud, as Italian-Americans," said Anthony C. Azzolini, one of the proprietors of Caffi Roma, on Columbus Avenue.

Joe DiMaggio remembered the old neighborhood. When he sat down to plan his own funeral, DiMaggio even specified that the cold cuts for the wake come from the Molinari delicatessen on Columbus.

The singer and the organist were from the neighborhood. The 79-year-old priest who celebrated the Mass, the Rev. Armand Oliveri, had buried two DiMaggio brothers and one sister.

Father Oliveri noted that DiMaggio could have had a cardinal say the mass, but he chose a neighbor.

DiMaggio was estranged from his only child, a son who served as a pallbearer, but at the end of his 84 years, and perhaps a bit late, Joseph Paul DiMaggio revealed that ancient longing -- to come home, accompanied by the only people who matter, famiglia.

 



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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov