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Sports Profile:  Joe Dimaggio
 

"I'd like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee."

"There was an aura about him," Phil Rizzuto said.
 

"Joe didn't sweat," veteran sportswriter Red Foley said, "he perspired."


The date was March 17, 1936.

In his first game with the  Yankees, Joe DiMaggio rapped our four hits as New York lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in a spring training exhibition game.  That was how he started - and he never let up.

He was born Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio on November 25, 1914 in Martinez, California, one of nine children of Rosalie and Giuseppe DiMaggio, a crab fisherman father, an émigré from Sicily. It was all planned for Joe to become a fisherman like him.

But his real passion was playing baseball, a game his father called "a bum's game." On the sandlots of San Francisco, the young DiMaggio developed baseball skills by hitting balls with a broken oar from a fishing boat. The kids he played with called him "Long Legs," in Italian. He was always tall for his age.

With the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1933, DiMag hit safely in 61 straight games.  The next year, playing shortstop, he batted .341, but injured his knee. Yankee scouts Joe Devine and Bill Essick downplayed the injury in their reports to General Manager Ed Barrow. "Don't back off because of the kid's knee," Essick recommended. "He'll be all right.

"Getting him," George Weiss said on many occasions," was the greatest thing I ever did for the Yankees." The deal contained the clause that DiMaggio be allowed to play one more season for the Seals. Did he play! He played and batted .398, recorded 270 hits, and drove in 154 runs.

In 1936, permission was granted for DiMag to drive cross-country with fellow San Franciscans Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti to the Yankee spring training camp in Florida. Lazzeri turned to DiMaggio after the trio had concluded one day of driving and asked: "Would you like to take over and drive?"    

"I don't drive."  It was reported that those were the only words uttered by DiMag in that three day cross country trek. 

"Joe DiMaggio was a guy who didn't graduate from high school," noted Jerry Coleman. "He went to about the 10th grade. He was totally insecure, and consequently his quietness came from his saying nothing rather than saying something that would make him look bad."

On March 2, l936 DiMaggio finally reported to spring training.  Red Ruffing greeted him with "So you're the great 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. He had another single and then a triple to left field. Joe DiMaggio played 138 games in his rookie season, hit .323, with 29 home runs and 125 runs batted in.

He would step into the batter's box and stub his right toe into the dirt in back of his left heel. It was almost a dance step. His feet were spaced approximately four feet apart, with the weight of his frame on his left leg. Erect, almost in a military position, Joe Dee would hold his bat at the end and poise it on his right shoulder - a rifle at the ready. He would peer at the pitcher from deep in the batter's box with a stance that almost crowded the plate. He was ready.

DiMag held the bat back, and didn't stride very much, maybe four five inches," noted Monte Irvin.  "I watched that. I became a pretty good hitter because I watched Joe. In later years I told him that I copied him."

In DiMaggio's first four seasons (1936-39), the Yankees not only won four straight World Series but they also lost only a total of three Series games.

"Joe was the complete player in everything he did," said his former manager Joe McCarthy. "They'd hit the ball to center field and Joe would stretch out those long legs of his and run the ball down. He never made a mistake on the bases and in Yankee Stadium, a tough park for a right-hander, he was a great hitter, one of the best." 

Secure in his feeling that he was the greatest baseball player of his time, Joe DiMaggio was fiercely concerned about his public image. Being silly in public was not for him. His shoes were always shined, all his buttons were always buttoned, his impeccably tailored clothes fit seamlessly.  DiMaggio led the major leagues in room service. On road trips, no one ate alone in his hotel room as often as he did. It all fit DiMaggio's personality which seemed placid, disciplined, calm.

Only those in the Yankee clubhouse saw the legs scraped and raw from hard slides or diving catches. Only those in the clubhouse saw him sit for a half hour or more in front of his locker after the Yankees had lost or when he thought he had played beneath his exceptionally high standards.

In 1941, the Yankee Clipper put together his season of seasons.  He batted .351, paced the American League with 125 RBIs, hit 30 home runs. He also struck out just 13 times.  But the centerpiece of that marvelous season was DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak which was a main reason for his winning the MVP award, narrowly edging out Ted Williams who batted .406.

Military service and injuries limited DiMaggio to just 13 years in pinstripes. But it was a time the Yankees won 10 pennants and nine world championships.  

On Joe DiMaggio Day in 1949 the Yankee Clipper said:  "When I was in San Francisco, Lefty O'Doul told me: 'Joe, don't let the big city scare you. New York is the friendliest town in the world.' This day proves it. I want to thank my fans, my friends, my manager Casey Stengel; my teammates, the gamest, fightingest bunch of guys that ever lived. And I want to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee."

DiMaggio won three MVP awards, two batting titles, was named to the All-Star team every season he played, slammed 361 career homers, was struck out just 369 times, averaged 118 RBIs and had a .325 lifetime batting average.  The Yankee Clipper homered once every 18.9 at bats, his homer to hit ratio was 1 to 6.13. He won home run titles 11 years apart, 1937 and 1948, slugging percentage titles 13 years apart 1937 and 1950.    

Those statistics," his teammate Eddie Lopat said,"don't even tell half the story. What he meant to the Yankees, you'll never find in the statistics. He was the real leader of our team. He was the best."

In 1951, the man they called the Yankee Clipper, retired at age 36. Management attempted to get him to perform in pinstripes for one more season. But he had too much pride, and too much pain.

"I no longer have it." DiMaggio said. "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." 

Joseph Paul DiMaggio left behind the imagery of a player who moved about in the vast centerfield of Yankee Stadium with a poetical grace. He was one who played when he was fatigued, when he was hurt, when it mattered a great deal, and when it didn't matter at all.  "I was out there to play and give it all I had all the time," he said.      

"Joe could do more things just a little better than others,'' former Yankee pitcher Jim Turner recalled. "He was a superb athlete. So graceful, both at bat and in the field. It would be hard to match him for genuine dignity. He probably was the greatest team player in the history of the game.''

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955, Joe DiMaggio passed away on March 8, 1999 at age 84.

 
(SIDEBAR)  Gifts presented to Joe DiMaggio on his day at Yankee Stadium, October 1, 1949:

Cadillac automobile, Dodge auto for his mother, Cris-Craft boat, Longine Baro Thermo calendar watch, Waltham watch chain knife, a wallet with religious gifts, golf cuff links, gold belt buckle,  14-karat gold cufflinks and tie pin, 51" loving cup trophy, Admiral television set, Dumont television set, deer rifle, bronze plaque, $100 fedora hat, golf bag, General Electric blanket and radio, Thermos water jug set, 14-karat gold key chain autographed in links, silver loving cup, 25 volumes of Joe DiMaggio Capitol records for Yankee Juniors, set of Lionel trains for Joe Jr., driving and sun glasses for Yankee Juniors, Christmas candy and baseball and bat, 500 Joe DiMaggio shirts in Joe's name to Yankee Juniors, ship's clock, oil painting of Joe DiMaggio, carpeting for his living room in Amsterdam, NY, a Westinghouse toaster, a 14-karat gold money clip, open house privileges at hotels Concourse Plaza and Martinique in the Bronx (these hotels also provided a four year college scholarship for a boy of Joe's selection), Il Progresso newspaper medal of honor, 300 quarts of Cardini ice cream for any institution designated by Joe, a statuette neckerchief and clip from the Boy scouts of America, an air-foam mattress and box spring, Fond du Lac Wisconsin cheese, 14-karat gold watch with diamond numerals from the Italian Welfare Association of Elizabeth, NJ, a case of shoestring potatoes, a case of Ventura County oranges, a sack of walnuts, a case of lemonade and frozen lima beans, a hand-painted tie, a polished wood paperweight, a leather wallet, a metal good luck elephant, sterling silver rosary beads for Joe Jr., a portrait from Frank Paladino of Brooklyn, NY, a Sporting News plaque, a dozen gold balls, an ash tray, a Thermo tote bag, a Columbia bicycle for Joe Jr., fishing tackle, luggage, a cocker spaniel from the American Spaniel Club, a plaque from the Columbia Civic Club of Newark, NJ, a traveling bag, a certificate of recognition from the Italian Historical Society of America, Lux Clock Company traveling alarm clock, a sterling silver money clip, hand painted ties for Joe and Joe Jr., taxi service for 300 fans from Newark ("This ride is on Joe D.") -- Brown and White Cab Company of Newark, NJ.

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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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