We return today to my list of favorite players from the Classic Era with my selection for #3 — Joe DiMaggio.
Unlike my previous selections, DiMaggio was not a native New Yorker, but rather born (in 1914) and raised in San Francisco, California. The 8th of 9 siblings (and one of five sons) to an immigrant Italian fisherman, DiMaggio knew early on that fishing wasn’t for him and jumped at the chance to follow in his brother’s footsteps as a semi-pro ball player with a local team, officially debuting in 1932 at shortstop. His career was almost cut short a couple of years later when he tore his knee stepping out of a jitney on his way to his sister’s house, and the team was hoping to get rid of his contract.
Enter the Yankees, via a local scout who believed in DiMaggio’s potential enough to help him through the injury and then promote him to the club. The Yankees made a deal with the local team for $50,000 and 5 players, and that the team could keep him for one final season. So, in 1935, he batted .398, earned 154 RBIs and 34 home runs, helped the team to the division title, and named MVP.
DiMaggio was penciled into the Yankees official line-up on May 3, 1936, batting just ahead legend Gehrig, rising quickly through the ranks and becoming one of the players to watch on the team. By 1939, DiMaggio was dubbed the “Yankee Clipper” when he was likened to the new PanAm airliner due to his speed and defensive range (now as an outfielder). His speed helped him around the bases, including stealing home 5 times in his career.
In 1941, DiMaggio earned his famous career achievement with his 56-game hitting streak (May 15 – July 17). It would be Cleveland to snap the streak, mostly due to the Indians’ 3rd baseman. During the streak, DiMaggio hit .408, 15 home runs, and 55 RBIs. DiMaggio would go on several more streaks, but none quite as long. Though that year, he would hit safely in 72 of 73 games.
When America entered World War II, like many of his fellow young players, DiMaggio enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1943 and was stationed in Santa Ana, Hawaii, and Atlantic City as a physical education instructor. Due to his pre-war fame, the military refused DiMaggio’s request for a combat position and instead preferred to keep him busy in other areas like “soldier development”. His immigrant parents were considered “enemy aliens”, kept close to their home and watched, stripped of their income source and many other privileges due to their Italian heritage. They later became American citizens in 1944 and 1945.
After the war, there was a brief time when Yankees and Red Sox GMs talked about trading DiMaggio for Ted Williams, but when the Red Sox demanded Yogi Berra as part of the deal, the Yankees came to their senses and pushed forward into their own destiny with their set players.
DiMaggio played with the Yankees until 1951, an All-Star in all 13 years he played, top 10 in MVP voting in 11 of those years, and voted MVP three times (1939, 1941, 1947). The Yankees went to 10 World Series during his career, winning 9 of them (1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951). And oddly, it took three ballots (and 88.84% of the votes) before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955, despite his .325 lifetime average, 2214 hits, 361 home runs, and 1537 RBIs.
After retirement, DiMaggio refused a managing job with the Dodgers but accepted one as a hitting coach in 1968 for two years with the new Oakland Athletics (recently moved from Kansas City). His quiet legacy of philanthropy was honored in 1992 at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital at Memorial Regional Hospital in south Florida.
Joltin’ Joe went in for surgery for lung cancer in October 1998, a result of over 60 years of heavy smoking. He stayed hospitalized for 99 days, before returning to his home. He died three months later on March 8, 1999. His funeral was held in San Francisco, and his only son died later that same year.
The 1999 Yankees started off that season with heavy hearts, missing a long-term Yankee legend. So they did what they do best. #5 was officially retired and emblazoned in Monument Park on April 25, 1999, and the entire team wore his number on their sleeves in his memory for the entire year. Perhaps with a little inspiration of DiMaggio’s 9 rings, the 1999 team went on to win the Series that year their 3 in 4 years.
DiMaggio was later elected by fans to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Other than the Yankees, the only other team to honor DiMaggio with a retired number is the Florida Marlins because their first team president died five months before the team first played in 1993, and DiMaggio was his favorite player.
DiMaggio is known for many things outside of baseball, but he was a quiet sort who preferred to do what he loved best in public (play baseball) and let everything outside the field be personal. In a 24/7 world, I don’t think he would have appreciated the paparazzi-like culture we seem to live in. He certainly had a touch of it during those playing days, but nothing compared to the likes that our current celebrities seem to face. But I like to think that even if he did, he would handle it with the grace and charm and ease that he seemed to have on the field and in those moments with the press.
He was a class act, like many of those on my list. He was an excellent example of how to play the game right with passion, excellence, and a whole lot of fun.