In the annals of baseball history, there are few as celebrated and as beloved as Joe DiMaggio. Born in San Francisco, the son of an Italian-American fisherman, the legend of Joltin' Joe stretches far beyond any exploits attained on the baseball diamond, though there were plenty of those.
Now more than six decades removed from the DiMaggio's achievements, it's easy to forget what the man represented, to allow his name to fade into the archives as a name attached to a number — 56 — and nothing else.
The goal of this piece is not to retroactively overwhelm you with one of those "golly wasn't he grand" narratives, nor is it intended to recant DiMaggio's story as a harkening back to the glory days. The intention is, on what would be DiMaggio's 98th birthday, to look back at a pivotal point not just in baseball history, but American history, and to revisit a sensation that will forever be an integral part of our nation.
Who Was Joe DiMaggio?
What makes the story of Joltin' Joe such a staple of the 20th Century is its origin. His father Giuseppe, a fisherman from the small Italian island of Isola Della Femmine, moved to the United States in 1898 with his wife, Rosalie, eventually settling in the small Bay Area town of Martinez, Calif.
Giuseppe was one of thousands who were flocking to the shores of "America" to seek a new beginning in the land of infinite opportunity (or so they were told). On Nov. 14, 1914, Joseph Paul DiMaggio was born. The second youngest of nine kids, Joe grew up in the throes of The Great Depression, causing money to be tight and good food to be at a premium. He quit high school to provide an additional wage for the family — working various odd jobs that included wage laborer at an orange juice plant, factory worker at a cannery, and loader at the local docks.
He seemed destined to join his father as one of the millions struggling at the bottom of the American economic food chain, that is, until he found baseball and baseball found him.
His career started in October of 1932 with the the minor league San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. Joe had managed to finagle a tryout game thanks to his older brother Vincent, who was the starting center fielder at the time.
It didn't take long for DiMaggio to prove himself as a sensational hitter. Shortly after beginning his career, DiMaggio pounded out a 61-game hitting streak for the Seals — a PCL record. By the 1935 season DiMaggio logged a .398, 34 HR, 154 RBI year and was sold to the legendary New York Yankees, who had not been to the World Series since 1932. With DiMaggio, they would win the next four.
Ted Williams remarked that "he even looked good striking out." Ted, of course, knew a thing or two about pretty swings.
Joe was humbled by the presence of famed Yankees Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri, rarely saying anything to the press. In fact, for as much as Joe knew how popular he was, he was also immensely protective of his privacy and a generally quiet individual. So much so that it was said Dimaggio, “led the league in room service.”
His play, however, would do the talking for him. DiMaggio batted .323, .346, and .353, respectively, in his first three seasons and led the American League in home runs during his sophomore campaign. By the 1939 season, Joltin' Joe captured the batting title, posting a .381 average on the season and earning the nickname "The Yankee Clipper" from Yankee Stadium announcer Arch McDonald.
They say no one ever wore the Yankee uniform better, and nobody had ever played in it with such grace and beauty. But it was the swing most of all that inspired such awe. Hemingway fawned over it, children tried to emulate it and the great Ted Williams remarked that "he even looked good striking out." Ted, of course, knew a thing or two about pretty swings.
An often forgotten fact about DiMaggio is that he wasn't particularly well-liked by the public at the onset of his career. Having become an immediate impact for the Yankees, DiMaggio held out in 1938 for a more lucrative contract. This, of course, is a common occurrence in modern sports, but prior to the strengthening of the players union mid-contract holdouts were almost unheard of. DiMaggio was booed, incessantly, by the Yankee faithful in '38, the media furthering the rip-fest by trumpeting DiMaggio as greedy.
But DiMaggio's magical summer went far beyond altering the record books, it was, perhaps most importantly, a much-needed distraction.
But that magical summer of 1941 would change everything. It came to be known as simply “The Streak” – a stretch of 56 consecutive games in which DiMaggio recorded a hit. Many peg the streak as the pinnacle of baseball greatness – an untouchable record, some say. But DiMaggio's magical summer went far beyond altering the record books. It was, perhaps most importantly, a much-needed distraction. In the backdrop, far away on the fields of Europe, the Nazi War Machine was all-systems go, trouble was brewing on the horizon.
On May 15, 1941 the American people woke up to headlines and photos of something terrifying. Across the Atlantic, London had been decimated by the German Luftwaffe – the United States was on the brink of war. This was also, incidentally, the day that the Yankees underwent a 13-1 drubbing at the the hands of the Chicago White Sox; a game in which DiMaggio recorded a lone hit in four at bats against the stingy lefty Eddie Smith. Nobody knew it yet, but that one hit would be the first installment of Joltin' Joe's 56-game epic.
By May the 24th DiMaggio had hit safely in ten consecutive games – impressive, but not unheard of. He notched number 15 on May 29, also striking out, “Stop the presses!” It was on the same day as game 19, June 2, that Lou Gehrig passed away – a formidable and legendary teammate only a few years prior. By this time, DiMaggio was still a far cry from Willie Keeler's seemingly unattainable 44 consecutive games with a hit, but the newspapers and radio stations began to realize what was unfolding – the sensationalism had started.
By mid June DiMaggio had smashed the thirty game mark, and showed no signs of slowing down. The country, meanwhile, was utterly enthralled. Disc jockeys would belt out Les Brown's “Joltin' Joe DiMaggio” on the radio:
Who started baseball's famous streak
that's got us all aglow
he's just a man and not a freak
Joltin' Joe DiMaggio
Joe, Joe, DiMaggio
we want you on our side
from coast to coast, that's all you hear
of Joe the one-man show
he's glorified the horsehide sphere
we want you on our side
he'll live in baseball's Hall of Fame
he got there blow-by-blow
our kids will tell their kids his name
Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.
In a time when people had to wait a day for news reach them, ranchers would walk into the local diner and ask the stranger holding the newspaper, “Did he get one yesterday?” They wouldn't even have to say who.
Radio news broadcasts would drop everything to announce, “The streak is alive! The streak is alive!” There was a sense of anticipation in opening the sports section every morning.
The fans weren't the only ones intrigued. Umpires would tap DiMaggio on the rear following a hit. Opposing pitchers refused to walk him. “It wouldn't have been fair to him or to me,” said St. Louis Browns right-hander Bob Muncrief, “he was the greatest player I ever saw.”
Joe's brother Dom, who himself was playing center for Boston, said that even the stunning Ted Williams was rooting for the streak.
"Despite their own personal rivalry Ted Williams rooted for my brother Joe,” he said. “They had great admiration for each other. As a great hitter Ted could appreciate what Joe was doing. It was Ted, playing left field for our team at Fenway Park, who would receive info from the scoreboard operator about the streak. And we would yell out to me in center, "Joe's got another hit.”
Meanwhile, the nation stood by, nervously, as the Germans rolled deeper and deeper into Russia, their only reprieve from the looming conflict being the announcement that “DiMaggio kept it going!”
DiMaggio was nervous too, for as cool and collected as he looked on the field, off the field he was a pack a day smoker who suffered from ulcers and insomnia. “I was able to control myself,” he later confessed, “but that doesn't mean I wasn't dying inside.”
That fateful day came on July 2 against Boston, on a sweltering hot day in the Bronx that topped 100 degrees. According to the record books, only 8,862 fans showed up at Yankee Stadium to see The Yankee Clipper potentially make history – the punishing heat being a serious deterrent. The heat did not stop DiMaggio, however, as he crushed a homer over the head of Ted Williams to register game number 45. DiMaggio stood alone – a god in the pantheon of baseball.
The streak would last almost two more weeks, finally coming to a glorious end against the Cleveland Indians on July 16. One more hit would have earned DiMaggio $10,000 from Heinz 57.
DiMaggio stood alone – a god in the pantheon of baseball.
DiMaggio had faced all types of pitchers, played in big games, blowouts, nail-biters, double-headers, and managed at least a hit in all 56 of them. Him and Rizzuto waited for the crowd to thin then quietly returned to their hotel.
Remarkably, DiMaggio would start a new streak in the next game, going another 16 consecutive games with a hit.
He had recorded a hit in 72 of 73 games on the year. More importantly, though, he orchestrated one of the most magical summers in the history of sports, during a time when America sorely needed something to cheer about.
The War and Aftermath
In the following year America went to war, sending its young boys overseas to fight the Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific. DiMaggio was no exception, voluntarily enlisting in the Army in the winter of 1943 and forfeiting his $43,750 salary for the $50 monthly wage of a soldier. He'd reach the rank of Sergeant by August.
President Roosevelt felt it necessary to keep troop and nation moral up, and he saw no better way of doing so than continuing America's pastime through the war. DiMaggio, along with other famous ballplayers like Johnny Beazley, Joe Gordon, Pee Wee Reese, and Red Ruffing were assigned to play baseball for the boys of the Army Air Forces to watch, first being stationed in California's Santa Ana Air Base, then being transferred to Hawaii in the Spring of 1944. DiMaggio was medically discharged due to severe stomach ulcers in September of 1945, having played almost two major league-length seasons with America's armed forces. He rejoined the Yankees the following spring.
Upon returning to Major League Baseball DiMaggio was 31 years old. He would still put up six productive seasons – hitting 39 homers and slugging close to .600 in 1948 and posting a 1.055 OPS in 1949 – but Joe would inevitably decline as he approached 36. Plagued with injury and losing bat speed, DiMaggio opted to retire.
“I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates, he said. “I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game, and so, I've played my last game.”
Joe continued to be a prominent figure even outside of baseball. He married the beautiful Marilyn Monroe, establishing one of America's most famous power couples. And while the marriage would not endure, DiMaggio remained close friends with Monroe, even overseeing her funeral processions after her death in 1962. This maintained Joe's perception as a true gentleman for the remainder of his life.
DiMaggio was not a perfect man. In private, he was short-tempered and particular about his money – growing up with nothing will do that to you. But becoming enthralled with the ethos only to be disappointed by the man is unfair. DiMaggio was a complicated individual that brought hope to a country in the throes of war. Moreover, he embodies the rags-to-riches story that America has been long tried to offer.
Perhaps we shouldn't look at Joe as simply a statue collecting bird droppings. He was human after all, which is really what makes his story so incredible to begin with. We are all complicated, but when we work especially hard at something and use our talents, it's possible to achieve something truly beautiful.