From the Archives: Baseball’s Joe DiMaggio Dies at 84
Joe DiMaggio, the majestic “Yankee Clipper” who played baseball with a grace and elegance matched by few others and in the process became an American icon, died Monday at his home in Hollywood, Fla. He was 84.
DiMaggio had been in failing health for several months. In October, he was admitted to Memorial Regional Hospital near his home to have a cancerous tumor removed from his right lung. While hospitalized, he was stricken with pneumonia in his left lung and had fluid drained from his lung several times. His condition continued to deteriorate, and he slipped into a coma in December. He was given last rites of the Catholic church and his family was called to his bedside when his doctors believed the end was near.
Surprisingly, he rebounded when his doctors began administering antibiotics intravenously to stem the lung infection. After 99 days he was released from the hospital and went home to convalesce. It was there that he died shortly after midnight, with his brother Dominic and two grandchildren at his bedside. Also in attendance were his longtime friend and attorney, Morris Engleberg, and his friend of 59 years, Joe Naccio.
In addition to his brother and grandchildren, DiMaggio is survived by his son, Joe Jr., and four great-grandchildren.
DiMaggio’s body will be flown to his hometown San Francisco for a funeral and burial Thursday. The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital and to the Hospice Care of Broward County, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“Joe DiMaggio was one of San Francisco’s finest. A man of integrity and class, a superb ballplayer, a man both inspiring and inspired,” said San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The city’s flags were lowered to half-staff, as were those in DiMaggio’s birthplace, Martinez, Calif.
On Monday, Gov. Gray Davis ordered California flags lowered to half-staff.
As word of DiMaggio’s death spread, the flag at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., also was lowered to half-staff and a wreath was placed around his plaque there. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that city hoped to rename its West Side Highway after the baseball hero.
DiMaggio had been asked by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to throw out the ceremonial first ball at the team’s home opener April 9. A sign on DiMaggio’s bed in his home read “April 9 Yankee Stadium or Bust.”
Admired for Classy Image
DiMaggio rose to fame with the New York Yankees in the mid-1930s, the best player on the country’s best-known sports team, admired as much for his classy image as his unparalleled baseball ability. Many still consider him the best all-around player in the game’s history.
He was the ultimate contact hitter, rarely striking out despite being a power hitter. He recorded a batting average of .325 for his 13-season career, which was interrupted by three years of military service during World War II. DiMaggio set one of baseball’s most cherished records in 1941, when he hit safely in 56 consecutive games.
His batting stance was statuesque. He stood ramrod-straight, his feet far apart. And he held his bat rigidly upright, without so much as a wiggle.
His swing was level and explosive. His follow-through, a favorite of photographers, was a portrait of power and grace.
DiMaggio came to transcend sports in a way only his Yankee predecessor, Babe Ruth, did before him and boxer Muhammad Ali did after. As virtually the last untarnished American hero, DiMaggio rose from his humble background as the son of an immigrant fisherman to become baseball’s first $100,000 player, keep company with presidents and, after his retirement from baseball, marry the era’s most glamorous actress, Marilyn Monroe.
He was mentioned not only in song (“Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio”) but also in the world’s heroic literature (Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”).
His retirement from public life produced this plaintive plea during the social upheaval of the late 1960s in Simon and Garfunkel’s hit tune “Mrs. Robinson,” in which lyricist Paul Simon asked of his symbol of virtue: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
Despite his great accomplishments on the baseball diamond and the pride he took in his status as a baseball immortal, what DiMaggio least wanted was America turning its eyes to him. “I know more back doors than any man in America,” DiMaggio once said. It was DiMaggio’s quest for privacy that lent an intriguing air to his low-key personality. A teammate of DiMaggio once said that the slugger “led the league in room service,” so protective was he of his privacy.
His fierce fight for privacy continued long after his playing days were over. After his surprising recovery from the coma caused by pneumonia and complications from lung cancer surgery earlier this winter, DiMaggio reportedly admonished his doctors about providing public updates about his condition. Those reports immediately stopped.
That decision soon proved problematical for DiMaggio in that it led to speculation about his condition that often proved misleading or inaccurate. In early January, the New York Daily News reported that he was bedridden at his home in grave condition. NBC News picked up the report and put together a hold-for-release bulletin that reported DiMaggio’s death. That report was sent out inadvertently and was seen by DiMaggio, who was furious at the mistake. It prompted the release of a statement from DiMaggio’s physician saying that “reports of his condition worsening were not true.”
But what was true throughout his illness was that more than 63 years after he came on the scene, news of Joe DiMaggio still fascinated the nation.
DiMaggio’s angular face and gaptoothed smile became familiar parts of the baseball landscape as soon as he hit New York in 1936, and the shy Californian quietly took to the Fifth Avenue lifestyle, cutting a dapper figure in finely tailored suits and dating Broadway showgirls. A marriage in 1939 to one, Dorothy Arnold, whom he met while appearing in the movie “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round,” produced one son, Joe Jr. The marriage ended in divorce in 1944.
The DiMaggio the public didn’t see was an intensely driven man who chain-smoked and battled insomnia and ulcers, whose solitary ways drove Monroe to file for divorce after nine months of marriage, a man who considered himself the ultimate New York Yankee to his death but who fought bitterly almost annually with management over his contracts.
Through it all DiMaggio maintained a hauteur, a sometimes icy persona that made it hard for even his teammates to know him. He had few close friends and rarely let anyone glimpse his private side. His few shows of emotion on the field prompted headlines. Teammates held him in awe.
But he was painstakingly courteous in public, reserved but cooperative with the press and a figure who held the public’s fascination to his death despite his purposefully bland public personality.
A Contagious Mystique
DiMaggio cast an aura in which male and female, famous and anonymous, wanted to bask. New York restaurateur Toots Shor, one of DiMaggio’s few intimates, once described DiMaggio’s mystique to the writer Maury Allen:
“There never was a guy like DiMaggio in baseball. . . . Everybody wanted to meet Joe, to touch him, to be around him—the big guys too. I don’t know what it takes to be a real hero like Joe. You can’t manufacture a hero like that. It just has to be there, the way he plays, the way he works, the way he is.”
That mystique was contagious and affected the ways in which the press covered DiMaggio. Some reporters, who lionized the Yankee star, shielded his private life. Those who didn’t were cut off by DiMaggio, which was akin to losing their lifeline.
Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Red Smith wrote in 1948: “Sometimes a fellow gets a little tired writing about DiMaggio. A fellow thinks, ‘There must be some other ballplayer in the world worth mentioning.’ But there isn’t really, not worth mentioning in the same breath as DiMaggio.”
Joseph Paul DiMaggio—Joltin’ Joe to legions of baseball fans from the Depression era to the post-World War II baby boom—was born Nov. 24, 1914, in Martinez, and grew up around the San Francisco wharves, the eighth of nine children of Giuseppe and Rosalie DiMaggio, who both emigrated from the Palermo area of Sicily.
An indifferent student who abhorred working on the family fishing boat, DiMaggio shared a love of sports with older brother Vince and younger brother Dominic. All three would become major league outfielders.
As a youngster, DiMaggio excelled in tennis and played baseball with Vince and older friends. At 16 he began playing semipro ball, and when the season ended he would hang around with Vince, who played for the San Francisco Seals, a team in the old Triple A Pacific Coast League. At the end of the 1932 season, the team’s shortstop left a week early, leaving the Seals a man short. “What about Joe?” Vince suggested. The teenager grabbed his glove and played the last three games, though DiMaggio admitted he wasn’t born to play short.
“I could not play shortstop, as everyone soon learned. I’ve still yet to throw anybody out from there,” he later recalled. “My arm was very, very strong—strong enough to break the seats back of first base—but not at all accurate. As the series went on, no fans would sit over there.”
The next spring, not yet 18, he became a full-time outfielder for the Seals and immediately gave notice of what was to come: He batted .340, knocked in 169 runs and set a Pacific Coast League record with a 61-game hitting streak that gained national attention.
Shy and reticent, the budding star earned the nickname “Deadpan” around the league and didn’t complain when his name was spelled “DeMaggio” in newspapers outside the Bay Area. He was already a Yankee star before the error was universally corrected.
“I remember a reporter asking me for a quote,” DiMaggio once recalled, “and I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a soft drink.”
DiMaggio put in two more years in the Coast League, the second after the Yankees signed him as something of a risk. DiMaggio tore knee cartilage during the 1934 season and most teams shied away. But Yankee scout Bill Essick insisted that his organization take the chance. The Yanks made a conditional agreement to purchase him for $25,000 if he had a successful 1935 season, which DiMaggio assuredly did—collecting 270 hits and batting .398. By the time the season ended, he was already projected as a Yankee starter for 1936.
After signing for $8,500, then a record for a Yankee rookie, DiMaggio arrived at spring training a complete package, a broad-shouldered 190-pounder with a 6-foot-2 frame. His weight rarely fluctuated during his entire career. He possessed a sprinter’s speed, a strong, accurate arm, a long, fluid swing, and an uncanny ability as a fielder to take off at the crack of the bat and glide to the ball.
“I watched him day in and day out,” said longtime teammate Tommy Henrich, “and I never saw such perfection in all my life.”
By the time the team broke camp for New York, DiMaggio was the most magnified Yankee since Ruth, who had left the team in 1934. In fact, they hadn’t won a pennant since 1932 despite the imposing presence of Lou Gehrig. Before the season even began, one New York columnist noted that Gehrig, who had been overshadowed by Ruth for most of his career, was likely to be obscured now by the newcomer. It proved an accurate forecast. A month into the season, writers were calling DiMaggio the best rookie since Ty Cobb. He hit .323 with 29 home runs and 125 runs batted in during his first season with the Yankees. He also was impressive defensively, leading the American League with 22 outfield assists.
With DiMaggio in the lineup, the Yankees went on to win the next four World Series, and they appeared in six Series in his first seven years before he reported to military service in 1943, along with most of baseball’s stars. When DiMaggio returned after World War II, the Yankees won the Series in each of his last three seasons.
DiMaggio overcame an assortment of injuries before retiring in 1951 at age 37 because of painful bone spurs in his feet.
The nine World Series victories and the 10 American League pennants in his 13 seasons were accomplishments that exceeded even those of Ruth.
Fought Yankees Over Contracts
Despite his excellence, DiMaggio didn’t immediately win fan affection the way his predecessors had.
By the late 1930s, Gehrig was fading and DiMaggio had supplanted him as the Yankee star. By his sophomore season, 1937, DiMaggio would lead the league with 46 home runs. In 1939, when Gehrig—visibly suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—tearfully removed himself from the lineup, DiMaggio hit a career-high .381 and won the first of his three Most Valuable Player awards. He was dubbed the Yankee Clipper by a sports broadcaster, Arch McDonald, to reflect his grace in the outfield. DiMaggio won his second consecutive batting title the next year.
But DiMaggio wasn’t Ruth, and his early contract holdouts were not popular. The penurious Yankee front office crucified him in the press—something DiMaggio never forgot. In the days before players had agents, he proved to be a tough businessman. He asked for $40,000 before his third season and was chastised by the Yankee front office: Not even the great Gehrig was making that much. By one account, DiMaggio replied, “Then Mr. Gehrig is badly underpaid.”
He ended up settling that spring for the $25,000 offered by the Yankees, who also fined him and lectured him through the media. And so, despite his nonpareil level of play, many fans withheld their affection until 1941, when he accomplished his most famous feat: hitting in 56 consecutive games.
Biographer Robert Creamer wrote: “In 1941 he was . . . undoubtedly a star of the first magnitude . . . but he was not yet DiMaggio the god.”
The hitting streak changed that. The streak started on May 15 when he singled in a game against the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. It ended on July 17 when he went hitless in a game against the Indians in Cleveland.
DiMaggio’s record surpassed the mark of 44 games set by Wee Willie Keeler in 1894. Since then, only Pete Rose has seriously approached the record, hitting in 44 straight in 1978 for the Cincinnati Reds.
In the summer of ’41, the streak was often the first item of radio news, preceding World War II bulletins from Europe. All across America, the question each morning was simple: “Did he get a hit yesterday?” From that year on, DiMaggio was held in a reverence that never ceased. Wrote Creamer: “No athlete before or since—not Babe Ruth, not Muhammad Ali, not even Bo Jackson—has held the country’s fascinated attention, day after day, week after week, the way DiMaggio did in 1941.”
The song “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” came about in 1941 as a result of the streak. It was introduced by Les Brown and His Orchestra, vocal by Betty Bonney, and became a best-selling record.
After the season, DiMaggio won his second MVP award, though outfielder Ted Williams of the Red Sox--his only contemporary of equal magnitude--hit .406, the last player to hit above .400. When DiMaggio left for the Army Air Corps, Red Sox Manager Joe Cronin said, “I do believe he is the greatest all-around ballplayer of all time.”
Branch Rickey, the architect of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams, echoed Cronin: “In my lifetime I never saw a ballplayer superior to him, and that goes for Ty Cobb and all the other great ones.”
And Williams, known more as a great hitter than a stylish player, said, “DiMaggio even looks good striking out.”
Which he didn’t do often.
One of DiMaggio’s least known statistics is probably most telling of his proficiency with the bat.
In seven of his 13 seasons, he had more home runs than strikeouts, including one year, 1941, when he had 30 home runs and only 13 strikeouts. For his career, he had 361 home runs and only 369 strikeouts, almost a 1-1 ratio.
Today, it isn’t uncommon for a major league hitter to strike out 100 times or more in a season. DiMaggio never struck out more than 39 times in a season.
During the 56-game hitting streak, in 223 at-bats, he struck out seven times.
No power hitter in baseball history (and possibly no hitter at all) ever achieved more consistent contact with the ball.
DiMaggio’s own feeling was that he played the game the way it should be played--hard and efficiently. Asked about his no-nonsense approach, DiMaggio coolly answered: “I’m a ballplayer, not an actor.”
But during the 1947 World Series he made a rare public show of emotion to be treasured forever by those in the ballpark and celebrated to this day in World Series highlight films.
The Dodgers’ Al Gionfriddo made a spectacular, circus catch of a DiMaggio drive at the wall in left field to end a rally.
No one thought the ball was catchable when DiMaggio made contact. But as the Yankee Clipper looked up while nearing second base and saw Gionfriddo glove the ball, DiMaggio gave a disappointed kick at the infield dirt.
DiMaggio’s frustration was captured for all time by broadcaster Red Barber, and the next day it was illustrated in newspaper pictures nationwide.
“I think I was entitled to that one,” DiMaggio sheepishly told reporters. Later, he privately said the catch had offended his sense of baseball purism:
“He was playing me wrong. If he hadn’t been playing me so shallow it wouldn’t have been a tough catch.”
Baseball’s First $100,000 Player
Like many of his contemporaries, DiMaggio lost three prime years to the service during World War II, serving in the Army Air Corps. Though he came in for some criticism for not seeing combat, DiMaggio was often sick during that period and was hospitalized for ulcers. A different DiMaggio returned to the Yankees after the war, and he put together only one season uninterrupted by injury.
After a disappointing return in 1946--he batted what was then a career-low .290 and the Yankees failed to win the pennant--DiMaggio responded with his third MVP season in 1947, then had his last big season in 1948, leading the American League with 39 home runs and 155 runs batted in.
As befit America’s top athlete, that year he became the first player to sign a $100,000 contract.
In 1949 he missed more than half the season after surgery for bone spurs on his right heel. When a photographer snapped his picture at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the frustrated DiMaggio unleashed a rare verbal outburst.
Later, during his convalescence, he called the reporters together and said: “You guys are driving me batty. Can’t you leave me alone? This affects me mentally, you know.”
In mid-July DiMaggio made a remarkable comeback, hitting four home runs in a three-game series in Boston. The Yankees surged back into the race, tied Boston on the final day of the season and won a one-game playoff to claim the pennant.
By then DiMaggio knew his career was on the downside. Casey Stengel had taken over as the Yankee manager, and they had a cool relationship. DiMaggio’s pride was stung when Stengel tried to shift him to first base—an experiment that lasted one game&madash;and dropped him out of the cleanup spot to the fifth position in the batting order.
DiMaggio grew moodier as he battled more injuries. In his final season, 1951, when he hit .263 and knew it was time to leave, DiMaggio had a big game one day and reporters jokingly asked if he was trying to prove them wrong. DiMaggio responded with feeling, “You’re darn right I wanted to make you writers look bad. . . . Some of you guys are the ones who washed me up in 1946. But here I am, five years later. I don’t want your pity.”
DiMaggio announced his retirement after the World Series, finishing with a lifetime batting average of .325. He hit .315 with 148 home runs at Yankee Stadium and .333 with 213 home runs on the road. He was just 37 when he retired.
He spent part of the 1952 season as an uncomfortable member of the Yankees’ radio broadcasting team and three years later was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.
DiMaggio had a heart pacemaker installed in the 1980s and moved from San Francisco to Florida. He spent his latter years traveling between the two cities, golfing and attending horse races.
Though he turned down most endorsement offers, a new generation knew him as the spokesman for the Mr. Coffee coffee-making machines and for New York City’s Bowery Bank. Well into the 1970s he continued to participate in old-timers games, still trim and athletic in pinstripes, always introduced last as the “greatest living ballplayer,” which he was voted in 1969 during ceremonies commemorating baseball’s 100th anniversary. At autograph shows, ever dapper and unfailingly polite, he drew the highest appearance fees and adoring crowds. To the end people remained respectful, even awed, in his presence.
In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of his 56-game hitting streak, DiMaggio still said his biggest thrill was “putting on the Yankee pinstripes every day.”
While playing for the Yankees, DiMaggio’s romantic interests were discreet, not the subject of the usual locker room banter and not to be discussed in the press. The reporters respected his wishes. Toots Shor fell out of DiMaggio’s favor for an ill-timed remark he made about Marilyn Monroe.
While the DiMaggio-Monroe romance was obviously more public, DiMaggio moved her to San Francisco after their marriage in January 1954, hoping to settle into a traditional lifestyle--something he thought Monroe would take to once away from Hollywood. He once called her “a warm, bighearted girl that everybody took advantage of.” He was 39, recently happily removed from the spotlight. She was 27 and attracted the spotlight like a circus trapeze artist.
Though the marriage dissolved before the year was out, they remained friends and DiMaggio had hopes of their remarrying until her death in 1962 at the age of 36. At her Los Angeles funeral he banned much of the Hollywood film community from attending. When her attorney complained that DiMaggio was hurting her friends, he replied, “If it weren’t for those friends persuading her to stay in Hollywood, she would still be alive.”
DiMaggio remained devoted to Monroe’s memory, caring for her Westwood grave site and carrying a lifelong resentment against the movie community and others he felt misused her. When Robert F. Kennedy--supposedly romantically involved at one time with Monroe—attended Mickey Mantle Day at Yankee Stadium in the late 1960s and shook hands with the dignitaries at home plate, DiMaggio casually snubbed him.
The marriage was responsible for one of the most memorable lines ever attributed to the normally unresponsive superstar.
Shortly after their marriage, Monroe had joined a USO troupe for a tour of South Korea, where she was wildly received by American GIs. “Oh Joe, you’ve never heard such cheering,” she reportedly gushed upon returning.
“Oh yes I have,” DiMaggio said quietly.
Times staff writer Earl Gustkey contributed to this report.
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The Making of a Legend
Nov. 24, 1914: Joseph Paul DiMaggio is born in Martinez, Calif.
1932: Begins professional baseball career, playing shortstop for San Francisco Seals of Pacific Coast League during last week of season.
1933: In first full season with Seals, he moves to outfield and hits .340, drives in 169 runs and sets league record by hitting in 61 consecutive games.
1935: His contract is purchased by the New York Yankees from Seals for $25,000 on provision that he have a successful PCL season. He ends season with 270 hits and a .398 average.
1936: Hits .323 in his first season with the Yankees.
1937: Leads American League in home runs with 46 in his second season as a Yankee.
1939: Wins first of three American League MVP awards with career-high average of .381.
1940: Marries Broadway showgirl Dorothy Arnold. They have one son, Joe Jr.
1941: Hits safely in 56 consecutive games, setting a baseball record the still stands. Named American League MVP for second time.
1943: Begins three years of duty with Army Air Corps.
1944: Marriage to Dorothy Arnold ends in divorce.
1946: Returns to baseball after military service, hits what was then a career low .290.
1947: Named MVP for third time as he hits .315 for Yankee team that wins world championship.
1948: Becomes first $100,000 player after leading American League with 39 home runs and 155 runs batted in.
1949: Misses more than half the season after surgery for bone spurs in his heel.
1951: Retires from baseball at age of 36 after hitting .263.
1954: Marries Marilyn Monroe in January. Their marriage ends in divorce 273 days later.
1955: Inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
1962: Marilyn Monroe dies.
1968-69: Batting coach for the Oakland A’s.
1974-85: Works as spokesman for Mr. Coffee.
1998-99: After surgery to have cancerous tumor removed from a lung, DiMaggio slips into a coma. He is given last rites by a Catholic priest but survives the crisis and is released from hospital in January after 99 days.
March 8, 1999: DiMaggio dies at his home in Hollywood, Fla.
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