Named the "Greatest Living Player" in a 1969 centennial poll of sportswriters, baseball star Joe DiMaggio (born 1914) took the great American pastime to new heights during his enormously successful career and epitomizes the sports heroes of the 1940s and 1950s.
One of the most popular and fabled players to compete in Yankee Stadium, Joe DiMaggio was winner of three Most Valuable Player awards. His 1941 hitting streak of 56 games was one of the most closely watched achievements in baseball history, and he was so beloved by his fans that Japanese attempting to insult American soldiers on World War II battlefields called out insults to DiMaggio. His career batting average was .325, and he hammered 361 home runs. In 1949 he became the American League's first $100,000 player.
Before the Yankees
Son of Italian immigrant parents, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio Jr. grew up in the San Francisco area with his four brothers and four sisters. At seventeen DiMaggio elected to play minor league baseball with the San Francisco Seals, the team on which his brother was making his professional debut near the end of the 1932 season. With a salary of $250 a month, 6-foot-2-inch DiMaggio became a Bay Area celebrity in 1933, hitting safely in 61 consecutive games, an all-time record for professional baseball, while hitting .340 and driving in 169 runs. A year later DiMaggio hit .341 and was purchased by the New York Yankees for $25,000 and five minor league players. An impressive .398 batting average earned him a Yankee tryout in 1936, where he was billed as the next Babe Ruth. DiMaggio's debut was delayed because of an injury, yet when he appeared on the field for the first time, on 3 May 1936, 25,000 cheering, flag-waving Italian residents of New York showed up to welcome him to the team.
"Joltin Joe, the Yankee Clipper"
By 1936 "Joltin' Joe," as he was called, led the league with a career-high 46 home runs. Even with the depth of the left field fence in Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio hit 361 career home runs, placing him fifth on the major league all-time home run list when he retired in 1951. In 1937 he batted an impressive .346, driving in 167 runs. The next season DiMaggio hit .324, followed in 1939 with a .381 and his first batting championship and the league Most Valuable Player award. Late in the 1939 season DiMaggio was hitting at a .412 pace, but eye trouble, and possibly the pressure, kept him from staying above the .400 mark.
During the 1940 season DiMaggio captured his second consecutive batting title with a .352, but for the first time since he had joined the Yankees his team failed to win the pennant—setting the stage for the 1941 season that would make baseball history. DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak during the 1941 season began on 15 May, when he singled home a run, and ended on 17 July. In between he hit .406, and fans all over the country anxiously checked each game day to see if the Yankee Clipper had kept the streak going. People jammed the ballpark; radio programs were interrupted for "DiMag" bulletins, the U.S. Congress designated a page boy to rush DiMaggio bulletins to the floor, and newspaper switchboards lit up every afternoon with the question of the day, "Did DiMaggio get his hit?" Immediately after Cleveland pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby held DiMaggio hitless on 17 July, with the help of two great plays at third base by Ken Keltner, he started another hitting streak that ran 17 games. At the same time, twenty-two-year-old Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was setting a modern-age batting average of .406. During that same year, young pitcher Bob Feller won 25 games for the Cleveland Indians, and veteran pitcher Lefty Grove won his 300th game. In 1941 DiMaggio won his second Most Valuable Player award and like the rest of the nation began to feel the pressure of a nation readying itself for war. During the 1942 season DiMaggio batted .305 and was drafted into the army along with thousands of other young men. During his three years in the army DiMaggio played baseball in the Pacific and across the United States. The 1946 season was a disappointment (he batted .290), but by 1947 he was back in form, hitting .315 to win his third Most Valuable Player award and lead his team to the pennant.
Hall of Famer
Aided by the media machine of New York City and his own powerful statistics, DiMaggio became a national hero after the war—even though he played for the often-hated Yankees. He was even immortalized in a song called "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," recorded by the Les Brown Orchestra. In 1948 DiMaggio had returned to the height of this form, winning the home run title with 39, the RBI crown with 155, and the batting title with a .320 average. DiMaggio sat out the first two months of the 1949 season with a bone spur in his heel, but as always his return was memorable. Although playing in pain, during his first games for new manager Casey Stengel, DiMaggio belted four homers in three games that broke the back of the league-leading Red Sox and helped the Yankees bring home another pennant. In 1951, with another soon-to-be Yankee superstar, young Mickey Mantle, on the scene, DiMaggio's average slipped to .263 with only 12 homers. Announcing his retirement at age thirty-seven in 1952, he turned down a fourth consecutive $100,000 contract because "when baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game." The Yankees, whose history is replete with heroes, retired his uniform, the world-famous pinstripe number five. In later years DiMaggio hosted pregame television shows, made television commercials, and was briefly married to the voluptuous Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, and in 1969 he was named the "Greatest Living Player" in a centennial poll of sportswriters.
Further Reading on Joe DiMaggio
Maury Allen, Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio? The Story of America's Last Hero (New York: Dutton, 1975);
Jack B. Moore, Joe DiMaggio: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986);
Michael Seidel, Streak: DiMaggio and the Summer of '41 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988).
Durso, Joseph, DiMaggio: the last American knight (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995).