clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #5 Joe DiMaggio

The Yankee Clipper, one of baseball’s immortals, kicks off the Top 5 Yankees of all-time.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Joe DiMaggio Making “Zeros” With Fingers

Full Name: Joseph Paul DiMaggio (Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio)
Position: Center field
Born: November 25, 1914 (Martinez, CA)
Died: March 8, 1999 (Hollywood, FL)
Yankee Years: 1936-51
Primary number: 5
Yankee statistics: 1,736 G, 2,214 H, 1,390 R, 361 HR, 1,537 RBI, .325/.398/.579, 155 OPS+, 151 wRC+, 82.6 fWAR, 79.1 rWAR

Biography

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? The nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

So goes the hit 1968 song “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel. DiMaggio, long since retired, was initially upset, feeling the artists were mocking him. “I haven’t gone anywhere,” he protested.

Eventually, Simon explained the meaning to him. The nation missed DiMaggio. It missed the hero, legend, myth, perhaps because the US was mired in Vietnam, rocked by assassinations and political violence throughout the ‘60s, and struggling to reconcile seismic social change.

DiMaggio wasn’t always that icon. Before his legendary 1941 season, he was a superstar. But he wasn’t the almost superhuman figure he’s become. Joe Posnanski, writing about DiMaggio for The Athletic, explained the Yankee Clipper before 56:

“Joe DiMaggio was already baseball’s biggest star when the streak began. He’d won the previous two batting titles. He’d won the 1939 MVP convincingly over Jimmie Foxx and Feller. His career numbers for his first five seasons were .343/.402/.623… he wasn’t yet DIMAGGIO, all capital letters. You have to remember, he came of age in a time of legends. Babe Ruth had only just retired when DiMaggio began. Lou Gehrig was DiMaggio’s teammate until he could no longer go on and yet considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

DiMaggio, of course, went on to hit in 56 consecutive games and, the day after the streak ended, hit in 16 more. When he came out the other side, he was transformed. His exploits had transfixed the nation and the legend of DiMaggio was born. When he hung up his cleats, his resume boasted 13 All-Star Games, 10 top-10 AL MVP finishes (with three wins), and nine World Series titles in a 13-year career that lost three seasons to wartime service.

Early Life

Joe DiMaggio was born on November 25, 1914, in Martinez, California, to first-generation Sicilian immigrants Giuseppe and Rosalia. The eighth of nine children, Joe would be joined in the majors by two brothers, Vince and Dominic.

You’d be correct if you assumed he played ball as a kid. But some of the specifics might surprise. By the time he was 15, he tall and lanky, to the point that one of his chums nicknamed him Coscilunghi – “Long-legs” in Sicilian. Always chosen first when the captains picked teams — his ability to hit was already prodigious — DiMaggio on your team was close to a guarantee of victory. But the things was … he often didn’t want to. As Richard Ben Cramer recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “you had to get him to play.”

A couple of years later, Vince was playing for the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League. With the club needing a shortstop, he convinced the manager to give Joe a shot.

Young DiMaggio Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

Joe played in the final three games of the season and signed on for 1933 to the tune of $225 per month. For a teenager determined to avoid the family business (fishing boats) and who cherished money (young Joe would often roll his own cigarettes, knowing he’d get many more than if he bought a pack), this must have seemed like serendipity.

Two critical things happened for Joe in the PCL. First, in 1933 he hit in 61 consecutive games. Granted, the stage would be different when he next went on a months-long tear but, paraphrasing an old adage, DiMaggio had “been there before.” He wouldn’t need to act like it. Second, he injured his knee in August ’34, an event that prompted hesitation from MLB clubs about signing him. In a parallel universe where DiMaggio doesn’t hurt his knee, does he even end up with New York?

Ultimately, the Yanks offered the Seals $25,000 and five players for DiMaggio’s contract, with the caveat that he play 1935 in the PCL to show he was healthy. All DiMaggio, now 20 years old, did was club 34 home runs and hit .398. His manager, Lefty O’Doul, who had played at cavernous Yankee Stadium, also taught Joe to pull the ball, to take advantage of the left-field corner rather than Death Valley since it was only 300 feet from home plate.

“Yanks Pin Hopes on Rookie”

So proclaimed the New York Sun as ’36 approached. Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert had trekked to the West Coast to meet Joe after New York missed the postseason for the third straight season. New York picked up its option on DiMaggio, on the way declining $65,000 from the Red Sox for him. By mid-March it was a foregone conclusion the rookie would stick, and play in the outfield.

With the regular season looming, however, there was concern about DiMaggio’s foot. Dr. Harry G. Jacobi examined DiMaggio’s left instep on April 6th and 7th to see if the phenom would be able to play when the season began. In the end, Joltin’ Joe’s introduction was delayed into May. But it was worth the wait. “Joe Plays Brilliantly in His Big League Debut,” proclaimed the New York Times on May 4th, the morning after DiMaggio’s first game. Three hits, including a sixth-inning triple, and he was off to the races.

His batting average never dropped below .314 in on his way to a .323 final mark, an All-Star Game appearance (get used to those), and the cover of Time magazine. It was not the last time he’d grace a magazine cover.

Baseball Magazine Cover With Joe Dimaggio Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

DiMaggio was also up to the challenge when the post-season arrived. He went 9-for-26 as the Yankees beat the cross-town Giants in six games, climbing back atop the baseball world. It was the first of his nine world titles.

Months earlier, Yankee GM Ed Barrow, worried about DiMaggio’s ability to tune out noise and remain focused, tried to counsel him on staying level. “Don’t worry, Mr. Barrow,” DiMaggio interrupted him. “I never get excited.” A year in, that looked like no idle boast.

Greatness Builds

As 1937 approached, DiMaggio found himself preoccupied, for neither the first nor the last time, with money. At the end of January, Joe remained unsigned for the upcoming season, though Yankee management was publicly unconcerned. The Times reported that Joe D. was looking for a $17,500 salary for his sophomore season. Eventually, Joe signed, though sources differ on whether he agreed at $15,000 or $17,000.

He was a bargain either way. Simply put, his sophomore season was spectacular. He scored runs (151), drove them in (167 ribbies), hit for power (46 HR and .673 SLG), hit for average (.346), and hit everything thrown at him (418 total bases). For his efforts, he finished runner-up to Charlie Gehringer for American League MVP. The latter outpaced Joe in … batting average. OK. And stolen bases and on-base percentage, but still. Meanwhile, Yankee teammates Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey finished fourth and fifth. Way to rep the Bronx.

New York Yankees Baseball Stars

DiMaggio was convinced his season could have been even better if not for Yankee Stadium’s dimensions. He later recounted to New York sportswriter (and frequent Joltin’ Joe ghostwriter) Tom Meany that “I could have hit 70 [in 1937] in a field which favored right-handed hitters … every long ball I got hold of that season was a 400-footer, even the outs.”

That fall, the Yanks returned to the World Series, again facing the Giants. DiMaggio struggled at the plate, though he did hit his first playoff dinger — a solo shot that the Times declared would have traveled 500 feet if it hadn’t hit a flagpole, in the fifth and final game of the series, with his father there.

DiMaggio’s ’37 campaign perhaps emboldened him in the offseason — because he wanted a raise. A considerable one, regardless of what he’d made in ’36. The owner Ruppert was holding his bottom line, however, and the press was on board with him. Joe Posnanski recounts Ruppert litigating the issue in the media:

“DiMaggio is an ungrateful young man and is very unfair to his teammates to say the least… I’ve offered $25,000, and he won’t get a button over that amount. Why, how many men his age earn that much? As far as I’m concerned, that’s all he’s worth to the ballclub and if he doesn’t sign, we’ll win the pennant without him.”

Eventually, DiMaggio admitted defeat and signed for $25,000. For anyone wondering whether executives taking tasteless victory laps after picking Yankee players’ pockets is a new thing, it’s not. “I hope the young man has learned his lesson,” Ruppert commented. Seems like a real peach. Worse, the fans at Yankee Stadium showered Joltin’ Joe with boos when he returned to the club, something Posnanski notes Joe never ever forgot.

The next seasons were more of the same. Joe’s play on the diamond was spectacular, culminating in his first AL MVP award in ’39 when he hit a career-best .381 despite missing more than a month early in the season with a torn calf. Presaging when he’d be national news two years later, Joe D. flirted with .400 for most of the season, ending play on September 9th hitting .409. He went 0-for-8 in a doubleheader on the 10th then hit .262 (12-for-65) to close the season.

The team meanwhile kept on winning, notching two more World Series titles in ’38 and ’39, marking four straight. DiMaggio’s razor-sharp baserunning intellect took the stage in the finale of the latter, as he singled and came around to score on the play that — as DiMaggio himself argued — unfairly became known as “Lombardi’s Snooze.”

For the Yankees, however, ’39 was also marked by the untimely retirement of the legendary Lou Gehrig. You might think that losing their icon and missing their superstar center fielder would have put them in the tank. But no: at least one sportswriter who covered the Yankees considered the ’39 club as the best in franchise history, ahead of the ’27 team.

The Last Magic Number in Sports

Oceans of ink and unknowable hours have been spent on DiMaggio’s hit streak. Heck, even I’ve contributed a thousand words and a few hours on the topic. We have relative word limits for these pieces, so I will try to be brief.

The Clipper captivated the country in the summer of ’41. By the time Joe made it into the twenties, the papers were raptly covering the story. Game 30 saw DiMaggio surpass fellow Top 100 alum Roger Peckinpaugh for the club record. Surprisingly, no one was quite sure who owned the major league record. Some sleuth work identified Hall of Famer George Sisler. Posnanski writes that, when asked about what DiMaggio was doing, Sisler said, “if my hitting streak is going to get broken, I’d like to see Joe DiMaggio do it.”

Even Ty Cobb, who boasted a 40-game streak of his own, was rooting for Joltin’ Joe. “DiMaggio is wonderful… Would he hit the dead ball? He’d hit anything. He would be a great star at any time in the history of the game.”

Eventually, someone realized the record belonged to Wee Willie Keeler, who’d hit in 44 straight over parts of two seasons in, as Posnanski observed, a much different era. On July 2, 1941, DiMaggio broke that record with a home run after being robbed twice of base hits earlier that game.

The thing was that DiMaggio didn’t just break the record. He smashed it, and tacked 12 more games onto his streak to reach an unbelievable 56. Eyeing a 57th entering play on July 17th in Cleveland with a Heinz sponsorship on the line, DiMaggio finally — finally — had an oh-fer. With 67,000 fans watching, three groundballs and a walk ended the streak. The first had the best chance of getting through, but Ken Keltner held firm at third.

Joe being Joe, he promptly started a cherry-topper 16-game hitting streak the next day, so he recorded hits in 72 of 73 games. His on-base streak of 74 consecutive games is second-most in MLB history to Ted Williams’ 84 from 1949. Both men were marvels.

I’ll close this section with the thoughts of a couple of writers. Jayson Stark closed a 2011 piece on the streak with: “So seven [eight] decades later, our nation still turns its lonely eyes to the coolest, most romantic record in sports. Would it shock you if those eyes never do wander for the next seven decades?”

For my money though, Stephen Jay Gould has the definitive summary of 56. Writing in 1988, Gould articulated: “DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.”

When the curtain closed on 1941, replete with another Yankees world title, DiMaggio had emerged from the crucible. His career still had a second act, but his legend was already made. As Cramer writes, “The Streak shone as portent of America’s brilliant rise to superpower, and made DiMaggio her poster boy for valor, victory, and God-given grace. Through World War II, and the Cold War that followed, as America bulked up on her mythos and missiles, DiMaggio was said to exemplify the great melting pot.”

Wartime comes to baseball

Joe was back on the diamond in ’42, despite America’s entry into World War II. In January ’42, MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote to President Roosevelt about whether MLB should shut down. The next day, Roosevelt responded with the “Green Light Letter.”

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going… Here is another way of looking at it — if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.”

After the ’42 campaign, DiMaggio felt that at this point, he had to enlist. And he decided not to tell the Yankees. Forgoing $43,750 for the upcoming season in favor of $50/month, Joltin’ Joe decided to take his talents to the Army. Specifically, to the 7th Army Air Force. By August, he was Sergeant DiMaggio as he and his teammates played ball against semipro, college, and PCL teams as morale boosting activities.

Jolting Joe’s Induction Ceremony Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

DiMaggio remained with the 7th until his medical discharge in September, 1945. David Jones, another Joe D. biographer, explains Joe’s feelings on the war that cost him three seasons of his career:

“DiMaggio resented the war with an intensity equal to the most battle-scarred private. It had robbed him of the best years of his career. When he went into the Army, DiMaggio had been a 28-year-old superstar, still at the height of his athletic powers. By the time he was discharged from the service, he was nearly 31, divorced, underweight, malnourished and bitter. Those three years, 1943-1945, would carve a gaping hole in DiMaggio’s career totals, creating an absence that would be felt like a missing limb.”

The Yankee Clipper Returns

When Opening Day ’46 came around, Joe was there. But it sure looked like he was either a shadow of himself or struggling to shake off the rust after three full seasons away from MLB. When the dust settled, it was one of his poorest campaigns on a statistical basis. The Yankees missed the playoffs and Joe would have to wait at least another year for another ring.

As ’47 approached, DiMaggio’s foot flared up again. “Part of the pennant hopes of the New York Yankees will be hospitalized when Joe DiMaggio enters a hospital here for an operation to remove a bone spur from his left heel,” the opening paragraph of a January 4, 1947, Times article read.

Foot surgery be damned, DiMaggio hit the field that year and collected his third and final AL MVP award after an impressive comeback that summer. I’ll begrudgingly note that a Red Sox fan might have a semi-reasonable argument that Ted Williams should have won. But I’ll then dismiss that thesis because the Splinter was a Red Sock.

That fall, Joe managed a paltry 6 hits in 26 at-bats against the Dodgers in the World Series (blame Al Gionfriddo for one lost hit anyway). But two of them were solo home runs in Game 5, the only runs that would cross the plate that day for the Bombers in a 2-1 win. The Yanks went on to win in seven.

1948 looked like Joe had turned back the clock. By the numbers it was his best campaign since his magical 1941. New York though missed the playoffs as Joe finished second to Cleveland’s Lou Boudreau for AL MVP with Williams finishing in third, despite another outstanding season.

It’s around this time that a possibly apocryphal trade discussion between New York and Boston supposedly occurred at Toots Shor’s Restaurant in Manhattan. Legend has it Tom Yawkey, Boston’s owner, and Dan Topping, co-owner of the Yanks, met. Perhaps inspired by some scotch, the two discussed a one-for-one deal: DiMaggio for Williams. The story goes that Yawkey sobered up in the morning and called Topping asking for Yogi Berra to be thrown in.

Did it ever happen? “I don’t think it was ever really serious because it was stupid on its face,” said MLB historian John Thorn in 2021. If any trade talks did occur they almost certainly did so prior to ’49, when DiMaggio played only half of New York’s games.

The Final Act

DiMaggio’s bone spur was back with a vengeance for ‘49. Joe only made it into 76 games that championship season, though the bat was still there when we was in the lineup. On October 1st, he was honored with Joe DiMaggio Day. He echoed the tragic Gehrig when he declared in front of 69,551 fans that he’d “like to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee.”

But his first thoughts that day were with the fans in the crowd. “I’d like to apologize to the people in the bleachers for having my back turned to them,” he stated.

That month, against Brooklyn, he had one of his worst World Series performances but the Yanks emerged victorious, as they would every remaining year of his career.

DiMaggio bounced back with an excellent, healthy season in ‘50, but ‘51 was easily the worst of his career. He had already grown tired of playing for Casey Stengel, who he was never fond of (particularly after a forced first-base cameo). Adding injury to insult, a play he was involved in ended with a catastrophic knee injury to rookie phenom Mickey Mantle, when the latter caught his right shoe on a sprinkler head when he pulled up to allow DiMaggio to make a catch in the outfield. The Mick would never play another pain-free MLB game.

DiMaggio, after his ninth World Series title, announced his retirement on December 11, 1951. “If I can’t do it right, I don’t want to play any longer.”

Post-Playing Career

I’d probably need another 3,000 words to do justice to DiMaggio’s retirement. But how about a speed run. He married Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the most famous woman in America, in January, 1954. It was an ugly relationship to say the least, as DiMaggio’s own son from his first marriage would later recount tales of his father’s abuse. They divorced after just nine months, but stayed in contact and the two agreed in summer ‘62 to remarry, per Cramer. But on August 5th, Monroe was found dead. DiMaggio never forgave the Kennedy brothers or Frank Sinatra, all of whom he blamed for Monroe’s death.

Monroe And DiMaggio Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In July of ‘69, as baseball celebrated its centenary and the 40th anniversary of the All-Star Game, a select group of writers and broadcasters bestowed upon DiMaggio a moniker he would insist on being introduced by for the remainder of his life. Joe DiMaggio was now the “World’s Greatest Living Player.”

Before Game 1 of the 1995 ALDS, the Yankees had DiMaggio throw out the ceremonial first pitch as the club made its long-awaited playoff return. He would do so again for Game 1 of the 1996 World Series, the Bronx’s first in 15 years.

And on September 27, 1998, the mayor of New York had declared Joe DiMaggio Day. Joe was returning to Yankee Stadium, but even then, his health was failing. He’d made himself get out of bed at 4 a.m., coughing up blood from cancer that he wouldn’t give voice to, to get to Yankee Stadium for his day. Shortly after, he’d spend more than three months in the hospital, emerging in January 1999.

On March 8, 1999, Joe DiMaggio died in Hollywood, Florida. He was 84 years old.

The Times paid homage the next day in numerous articles. One wrote: “even now, in death, DiMaggio still owns that green acreage [center field]... DiMaggio was one of those rare sports stars, like Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, who not only set new standards of athletic excellence but also became a distinctive part of American culture.”

Two months after his death, the Yankees honored him in Monument Park. Fittingly perhaps, his was the fifth monument.

I’ll cede the final words to Lawrence Baldassaro, who concluded his SABR bio on DiMaggio with the following: “The answer to Paul Simon’s question — Where has Joe DiMaggio gone? — remains the same: Nowhere. He remains firmly lodged in the American consciousness as a stylish symbol of a time when baseball was the undisputed national pastime and America was enjoying unprecedented prosperity.”

Staff rank: 5
Community rank: 4
Stats rank: 4
2013 rank: 4

References

Baldassaro, Lawrence. “Joe DiMaggio.” SABR.

Baseball-Reference

Callahan, Maureen. “Inside DiMaggio and Monroe’s twisted love.” The New York Post. June 8, 2014.

Cheers DiMaggio Homer.” The New York Times. October 11, 1937.

Childs, Kingsley. “DiMaggio’s 3 Hits Help Yanks Score.” The New York Times. May 4, 1936.

Cramer, Richard Ben. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Dawson, James F. “DiMaggio Assured of Outfield Berth With the Yankees, McCarthy Announces.” The New York Times. March 15, 1936.

DiMaggio is examined.” The New York Times. April 7, 1936.

FanGraphs

Halvorsen, Howard E. “Air Force History: ‘Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio and the 7th AAF.” Tinker Air Force Base. March 24, 2017.

Kindred, Dave. “Joe DiMaggio: 1914-1999.” TSN. March 22, 1999.

Kennedy, Kostya. 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports. Sports Illustrated, 2011.

Koppett, Leonard. “Sport Honors Babe Ruth as ‘Greatest Player Ever’.” The New York Times. July 22, 1969.

McGowen, Roscoe. “DiMaggio of Yanks Set for Operation.” The New York Times. January 4, 1947.

McGowen, Roscoe. “DiMaggio’s Unsigned Contract Lands Back in Yankee Office.” The New York Times. January 30, 1937.

Monagan, Matt. “Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams? Really?MLB. July 26, 1921.

Muder, Craig. “President Roosevelt Gives ‘Green Light’ to Baseball.” National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Posnanski, Joe. “The Baseball 100: No. 56, Joe DiMaggio.” The Athletic. January 31, 2020.

Stark, Jayson. “Baseball’s unbreakable record.” ESPN. May 15, 2011.

Stewart, Barbara. “Baseball; DiMaggio Leaves for Home After 99 Days in Hospital.” The New York Times. January 19, 1999.

The DiMaggio Mystique.” The New York Times. March 9, 1999.

Winterhalt, Kevin. “Reflecting on 56 games that will live forever.” Pinstripe Alley. May 15, 2021.

Previously on the Top 100

6. Yogi Berra
Full list to date