Joe DiMaggio was always regarded as a hero in New York, and across the country. The attention that surrounded his every move was relentless, and was something he both relished and resented. He was voted America’s “Greatest Living Ballplayer” in 1969. The parades that followed him stretched longer than his incredible hitting streak in 1941. Deserved or not, it is hard to bring up DiMaggio without hearing “hero” echoed closely behind his name.
On this day, 67 years ago, DiMaggio took his hero persona to an entirely new level. However, this level bordered on the line of superhero.
Let’s back up for a second. It was in March of that 1949 season when DiMaggio finally succumbed to a long aching right heel, and announced that he would not be ready for Opening Day. Bone spurs lingered, and the pain was as powerful as his swing. He was bed-ridden and would regularly try to apply pressure to the heel, only to feel the pain still there and retreat back to rest.
The brutal cycle continued for months. Thanks to solid pitching, the Yanks kept a hold on first place, despite subpar hitting. It was tough getting the offense moving without their best hitter, who literally had a hole in his foot. He described the pain as an “icepick stabbing his foot” with each step. There was seemingly no relief in sight, and murmurs of retirement began to surface.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox began making their move on the American League. Their team was stacked, led by Ted Williams, and they rode a hot streak into a showdown at Fenway against the Bombers. They now sat five games back, and planned on ending the series with the deficit slimmed to just two. They had won 10 of their last 11, and the Yanks were only 6-5 in that same stretch. The teams seemed to be going in opposite directions.
That was when DiMaggio climbed out of bed and changed the direction of the team with one gentle step onto his carpet. The pain was gone. The heel that had been suffering a “hot condition” since 1948 felt cool, and the Yankee Clipper could walk around freely.
DiMaggio worked out in an empty Yankee Stadium, and participated in an exhibition game. The pain was gone, but the rust wasn’t. DiMaggio popped up four times, and the Yanks boarded the train for Beantown, without their star.
It all seemed like it was taken straight out of a movie script. DiMaggio loved playing in righty-friendly Fenway Park, and he did not want to miss that opportunity. In a last-minute decision on June 28, 1949, he flew to Boston as manager Casey Stengel stalled the press to announce the lineup. DiMaggio arrived, and would play. He didn’t just play—he dominated.
Joltin’ Joe put the entire weight of his team on his magically healed foot and carried them to a three game sweep of the shocked BoSox. He lined a single in his first at bat of the series, and took off from there. He homered his next at bat. With the tying run on third in the bottom of the ninth, Ted Williams launched a gapper to the deepest part of Fenway, only to watch the ball disappear into DiMaggio’s glove to end the game.
The Sox jumped out to a 7-1 lead in the second game, and then Joe DiMaggio happened. Two blasts and six RBI later, the Yankees had completed the comeback and won the game. It would be more accurate to say that DiMaggio himself completed the comeback. He was a one-man wrecking crew.
The Yanks clung to a one-run lead in the seventh of game three. DiMaggio came up with two on, and left absolutely no doubt that he was back. He launched a moonshot that clanged off the light tower that loomed over the now-shocked Fenway faithful. As the Red Sox stared at the light tower, entranced, a plane flew overhead, lugging a banner that read “The Great DiMaggio”.
DiMaggio’s resurrection had Hollywood written all over it. The sweep of Boston was one of the most heroic displays of sport the game had ever seen. DiMaggio finished that series batting .455 with four dingers and nine RBI. He would end the season batting .346 with 14 homers, in a season that would come down to the wire.
The pennant race was one of the best in baseball history. the Sox wound up storming back into the race, and with DiMaggio hospitalized due to a fever of 102, Boston beat the Yanks three consecutive games to take a one game lead with five to play. It came down to the final two games of the season, against each other. DiMaggio, having lost 18 pounds due to his illness, elected to play. Of course he did.
Down 4-0 in the first game, DiMaggio laced a double to start the Yankees rally that would end in a Yankees win. DiMaggio dragged himself through the second game as best he could, but exited in the ninth when he couldn’t run anymore. The Yanks held on, and won the pennant after a 5-3 win in the finale.
The summer of 1949 was the stuff of legend for DiMaggio. The heel problems would eventually come back and force him into retirement, but for that stretch, the pain somehow disappeared. The battle against Boston that entire summer was epic, and was always when DiMaggio shined the brightest. He batted .381 against the Sox that year, with six homers through 13 games.
The Yanks would eventually win the World Series in 1949, the first of a record five straight. Without their leader rising from the confines of his bed and making his triumphant return 67 years ago today, who knows how this fairy tale story would have ended.