No. 22: Joe DiMaggio

Yankee pride personified
By Larry Schwartz

"All this dignity that he carried himself with was really about his own worship and adoration for what Joe DiMaggio meant to other people"
-- says New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, August 20, 10:30 p.m. ET and Sunday, August 22, 8:30 a.m.).

DiMaggio, whose 56-game hitting streak in 1941 remains one of baseball's most cherished records, was voted No. 22 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.

 Joe DiMaggio
Even in his later years, Joe DiMaggio was never too far away from the spotlight of Yankee Stadium.

Signature game
June 28-30, 1949 -- Though DiMaggio underwent surgery for bone spurs in his right heel last November, he still was experiencing pain through the first two months of the season and had yet to appear in a regular-season game. "There was considerable doubt that I'd ever play again," DiMaggio said. "Many believed the bone spurs in my heels spelled the finish."

Finally, on June 28, he took a flight from New York to Boston and told first-year Yankees manager Casey Stengel, "I'm ready."

The Yankee Clipper exceeded even his own expectations. In the first game of the three-game series against the Red Sox, DiMaggio singled in his first at-bat and then belted a two-run homer in his next to lead the Yankees to a 5-4 victory.

The next game, DiMaggio jump-started a New York comeback from a 7-1 deficit with a three-run homer in the fifth inning and then, with the game deadlocked at 7-7 in the eighth, he slugged a game-winning solo homer as the Yankees won, 9-7. In the series finale, DiMaggio capped his legendary series with a three-run homer in a 6-3 victory. A plane flew over Fenway Park with a banner that read: "The Great DiMaggio."

In the three games, DiMaggio went 5-for-11 with four homers and nine runs batted in. "It was like a new lease on life for an old machine that lots of people thought was washed up," DiMaggio wrote after he retired.

Odds and ends

In the last 10 games of his 56-game hitting streak, DiMaggio batted .575 (23-for-40) compared to .372 (68-of-183) in the first 46 games. Overall, he batted .408 (91-for-223), just two points higher than Ted Williams hit for that entire 1941 season.

While DiMaggio's hitting streak is one of the most impressive records in baseball history, other players have batted higher in a 56-game stretch. Some examples: Rogers Hornsby .480 in 1924, George Brett .465 in 1980, Ty Cobb .455 in 1911 and Babe Ruth .452 in 1923.

On July 17, 1941, the cab driver who took DiMaggio to the ballpark in Cleveland told him his streak would end that day. They would meet again. "Now this is over 30 years later," DiMaggio said, "and the guy said he was that cab driver. He apologized and he was serious. I felt awful. He might have been spending his whole life thinking he had jinxed me. But I told him he hadn't. My number was up."

  DiMaggio's career can be divided into two parts:
  Before service (1936-42) Postwar (1946-51)
  Batting average
.339 .304
  Home runs/yr
31 24
133 101
123 89

In Game 6 of the 1947 World Series, with theYankees trailing 8-5 in the sixth inning, DiMaggio was robbed of an extra-base hit (and possibly a game-tying homer) by Dodgers sub left-fielder Al Gionfriddo, who made a leaping catch in front of the bullpen. As DiMaggio neared second base he showed more emotion than he ever had on the field, kicking the dust in disgust.

On May 23, 1948, DiMaggio hit three consecutive homers for the only time in his career. Two of the homers were off Bob Feller. DiMaggio knocked in all six Yankee runs in a 6-5 victory in Cleveland.

A Yankees press release in 1951 said that in DiMaggio's 13 seasons, newspaper stories estimated his salaries totaled $646,250. They said he started out at $8,000 as a rookie and was paid $100,000 in each of his final three years. They also wrote his 10 World Series shares came to $52,073.

DiMaggio batted just .271 (54-for-199) in his 10 Series, with eight homers and 30 RBI. He was selected to play in the All-Star Game every season of his career. In 11 games (he didn't play in two because of injury), he batted .225 (9-for-40) with one homer and six RBI.

When DiMaggio's marriage to Marilyn Monroe ended in divorce, Oscar Levant said it all proved that no man could be a success in two national pastimes.

Before Monroe, DiMaggio was married to Broadway actress Dorothy Arnold. They had one son, Joe Jr., who died at 57 in August 1999. Joe Jr. had been a pallbearer at his father's funeral five months earlier, though the two had not spoken in two years.

Ted Williams: "In my heart I have always felt I was a better hitter than Joe, which was always my first consideration, but I have to say he was the greatest player of our time. He could do it all."

When asked why he played so hard all the time, DiMaggio said, "Because there might be somebody out there who's never seen me play."

--Larry Schwartz