By Dennis Gaffney
The son of a fisherman, Joe DiMaggio is considered one of the most memorable baseball players of all time. For many of the fans who saw him play, he epitomizes grace and excellence. His play, his demeanor and his short marriage to Marilyn Monroe helped make him one of the icons of American pop culture.
DiMaggio played for the New York Yankees from 1936 until 1951. Babe Ruth started the tradition of winning, but DiMaggio, with his high standards and leadership, took his New York Yankees team to the World Series ten times, leading them to nine championships.
While America was on the brink of World War II, DiMaggio set a record that gripped the entire nation: he got at least one hit in 56 straight games. That 1941 record captured the attention of ordinary Americans, as fans all over the nation checked their radios and asked each other, "Did he get a hit?" The record is one of the most hallowed achievements in baseball history.
DiMaggio’s skills were much-lauded in his day, and he was voted the American League’s most valuable player three times. Fans and writers called him "Joltin’ Joe" because of his hard hitting. He was also dubbed "the Yankee Clipper" because of his graceful fielding in Yankee Stadium’s vast center field.
His lifetime batting average was .325 and he hit 361 home runs in his career. He also hit 131 triples, 389 doubles, and was involved in 4,529 put-outs in the outfield. In 1954 DiMaggio was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In one of his little-known achievements on the baseball diamond, DiMaggio only struck out 369 times in 6,821 at-bats, a remarkably low number for any hard-hitting slugger. His ratio of strike outs to home runs was about one to one, a ratio that is far better than most other home run hitters of his day or ours.
However, his reputation as a player far surpassed his statistical achievements. Part of his reputation had to do with his grace on the field. "He made it look so easy," said Ernie Sisto, a "New York Times" photographer of the day. "It was uncanny, the naturalness. It seemed like he was made for the game. I don’t know how to explain it, maybe it was the other way around, like the game was made for him." DiMaggio was renowned for never slacking on the ball field. When asked why he played so hard, he replied: "Because there is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best."
DiMaggio didn't have the same success off the baseball diamond. In his private life, he was often shy, awkward, and guarded. While still a player, he was married to Universal Pictures’s "Oomph Girl" Dorothy Arnold, with whom he fathered a son, Joe Jr. But his marriage would crumble after three short years.
Following his retirement after the 1951 season, DiMaggio worked briefly as a commentator for Yankee games, but looked and sounded awkward. He later coached and served as vice president with the Oakland Athletics, although his contributions to that team were minor.
DiMaggio's name was catapulted back into the headlines in 1954 when he married Hollywood actress and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. Nine months later the two were divorced, yet had an on-again, off-again relationship afterwards. DiMaggio told friends that the two were going to be married shortly before Monroe died eight years later.
DiMaggio orchestrated the starlet’s funeral. He kept it private and dignified, forbidding many Hollywood stars to attend the ceremonies. In the years that followed, DiMaggio rarely spoke of her. He had roses delivered to her grave site twice a week for the next twenty years. DiMaggio never married again.
In the 1970s, DiMaggio made considerable money as a celebrity in TV commercials for Mr. Coffee, a coffee-making machine, and as spokesman for New York City’s Bowery Savings Bank. DiMaggio spent many of his last years making appearances at baseball and celebrity functions. He was paid well for attending. He also earned income by endorsing, signing, and selling baseball paraphernalia made valuable by his signature.
Despite those commercial endorsements, DiMaggio’s reputation seemed to rise over time. Rock and roll lyricist Paul Simon helped immortalize the baseball star with his song, "Mrs. Robinson," which included the lament, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you."
DiMaggio, protective of his reputation, always wanted to be introduced at functions as "Baseball’s Greatest Living Player," a title he earned in 1969 in a poll of sports writers. He hoped to live long enough to throw out the first ball on opening day at Yankee Stadium in April, 1999. However, this last hurrah never took place.
Joe DiMaggio died on March 8, 1999. He was survived by his son Joe, who died shortly thereafter.