During the centennial celebration of professional baseball, Joe DiMaggio was named the game’s greatest living player. Since that 1969 assessment, DiMaggio’s legend has grown with the fans who made it. He remained a top-drawer celebrity almost 40 years after playing his final game. The Yankee Clipper could do everything well. He may have been the best all-around player ever, with a generous dash of class added in. His natural talent became apparent in 1933 when he batted safely in 61 consecutive games playing for his hometown San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League. Scouts flocked to see him, but they shied away when DiMaggio injured a knee. The Yankees’ interest continued, however, and a deal was arranged in 1934 that allowed DiMaggio to play one more year with the Seals. He came to New York in 1936 and set AL rookie records for runs (132) and triples (15), besides hitting .323 with 29 HR and 125 RBI. He was an instant star.
DiMaggio was a beautiful hitter with a classic swing. He had an exceptionally wide stance that gave him a controlled short stride, strong wrists that generated enormous power, and the ability to wait until the last instant before lashing into a pitch. His 46 homers in 1937, including a ML-record 15 in July, remain a Yankee record for a righthanded hitter. What makes his HR total more impressive is that he played half his games at Yankee Stadium, then the toughest power park in baseball for righties. At the time left-centerfield, known as “Death Valley”, extended 457 feet from the plate. DiMaggio also hit as high as .381 in 1939, and struck out only 369 times in his career while hitting 361 homers, a phenomenal ratio for a power hitter.
But DiMaggio was more than a hitter. He was a splendid defensive outfielder with a great throwing arm. He made tough plays look easy. He was graceful and free of theatrics, and he was positioned correctly all the time. He was studious. His positioning encompassed the batter, the pitcher, and the count. He was always alert to the game situation, and always threw to the correct base. He was virtually flawless in 1947, making one lone error on the year. And to his manager, Joe McCarthy, he was “the best base runner I ever saw.” DiMaggio was the quiet, undemonstrative type McCarthy liked. He was introspective, sometimes stoic. But he was a leader all the same, steering the Yankees to nine World Championships.
DiMaggio had two major league careers, one before World War II and the other after it. In each year of the former (1936-42) he hit over .300 and exceeded 100 RBI. This was the time of his magical 56-game hitting streak. The “impossible” streak – traveling a dozen games beyond Wee Willie Keeler’s 1897 consecutive-game record of 44 and 15 games beyond what had been the modern record, George Sisler’s 41-game string of 1922 – began on May 15, 1941. It kept an entire nation enthralled through June and half of July, before two great plays by Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner ended it on July 17. DiMaggio hit .407 during the streak and edged Boston’s Ted Williams for the AL MVP award, even though Williams hit .406 that year.
The war took three prime years from DiMaggio’s baseball life. His second career was beset by injuries and then eroding skills. But he was still DiMaggio. Boston claimed an easy pennant in 1946, but there would be no Red Sox dynasty. The Yankees were World Champions in 1947, 1949, 1950, and 1951. Even while playing most of 1948 with a painful heel injury, DiMaggio almost brought the Yankees home. The Yankees lost out to the Red Sox and Indians on the next-to-last day of the season, but DiMaggio led the league in home runs (39) and RBI (155).
DiMaggio’s career seemed over in 1949. He was unable to stand on his sore heel without pain and, of course, was unable to play. One miraculous June morning, the pain was gone, and DiMaggio made a spectacular return. After missing the season’s first 65 games, he led the Yankees to a three-game sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway Park with four homers and nine RBI. His brother Dom, a Red Sox star, witnessed the display (another brother, Vince, also was a major leaguer).
Many experts consider Joe DiMaggio the best player in the history of the game. He is admired not only for his achievements but for his refusal to rest on his natural skills, working instead to constantly improve his play. He was responsible to himself, his teammates, and his fans. He had pride. He was more than an exceptional athlete; he was the consummate professional. (ArB/MG)