Joltin' Joe Has Gone Away
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 1999; Page A1
Joe DiMaggio, 84, the fabled slugger and center fielder 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 yesterday at his home in Hollywood, Fla.
He had lung cancer surgery in October and had suffered from pneumonia and other complications in the months since then.
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.
The son of a fisherman who emigrated from Italy, DiMaggio 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 glamorous 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, helping to fill a void left by the departure of baseball immortal Babe Ruth, and went on to become perhaps the 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 still 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 -- 1943, 1944 and 1945 -- for Army service during World War II, the numbers would doubtless have been even more impressive.
There was a majesty in his swing, and a self-assured confidence in his style and conduct, that was uniquely Joe DiMaggio's. In the eye of his public, he was more than a sports hero; he was a folk hero, and 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 a 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 the 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 the 1949 hit musical "South Pacific," one of the characters, Bloody Mary, has 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 the 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. DiMaggio's older brother Tom said, "He quit because he wasn't Joe DiMaggio anymore."
Joseph Paul DiMaggio, the eighth of nine children, was born in Martinez, Calif., a fishing village 25 miles northeast 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 father, 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 boats and the smell of fish. 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 & 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. DiMaggio "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 Franklin D. 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 and 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 marked the end of a 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 1941, came during 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 programs with the news of DiMaggio's latest hit.
Day and night, radio disc jockeys played the Les Brown band's recording:
From Coast to Coast, that's all you hear
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 1 in the World Series. DiMaggio won his second Most Valuable Player Award.
By the next season, 1942, the United States was engaged in World War II, and the national interest in baseball had dimmed. DiMaggio hit only .305 -- 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 4 games to 1. After the 1942 season, DiMaggio joined the Army. He was 28 years old, in the prime of his baseball career.
The war years were not good ones for him. He was a sergeant and physical 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 had 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 4 games to 3.
In that series, DiMaggio hit two home runs, including a blast in game 5 that proved decisive in the Yankees' 2-1 win. He would have had a third home run in the sixth game, but Dodgers 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 center fielder 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 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 -- a princely sum in that era -- 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 succeeded him in center field.
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," DiMaggio said.
Their marriage lasted only nine months. They were said by society writers to have been temperamentally incompatible: 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 became only more reclusive, but in time he reemerged. 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 Ripken broke Gehrig's record for consecutive games played, DiMaggio, at the age of 80, participated in the celebratory ceremonies, providing a living link between baseball's past and present. His old teammate, Gehrig, DiMaggio said, would have been pleased by Ripken's achievement.
DiMaggio is survived by his brother Dominick; his son, Joe Jr.; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
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