Joe DiMaggio’s Retirement
By Dennis Gaffney
All during the spring of 1951, DiMaggio dropped hints that his upcoming season would be his last. If you counted his years in the army and his three years with the Seals, he would have been heading into his nineteenth year as a professional ballplayer.
DiMaggio’s body was beginning to break down. His constant injuries and his propensity to play with pain and push his body beyond normal limits were taking a physical toll. His left heel had been operated on in 1947, when doctors removed a three-inch bone spur. Then there was the bone spur in his right foot. His right shoulder would sometimes pop out of socket on and off the field.
The natural laws of physical decline also caught up with the athlete’s prodigious talent. DiMaggio’s swing was slowing, and pitched balls that he had once pulled to left field now drifted into right.
Conflict with Yankees coach Casey Stengel during his last few years also troubled DiMaggio. The two men were as opposite as men could be. DiMaggio, never a braggart, was a doer rather than a talker. Stengel, often the clown, could talk forever and loved to draw attention to himself.
The two had a chilly relationship even before the time Stengel benched him for another center fielder. In another instance, Stengel asked DiMaggio to play first base rather than center field. "He’s worried all over," is the way Yankee player Tommy Henrich described DiMaggio’s reaction to the move." "He’s afraid of making a dumb play because he’s not familiar with first base. It would have killed him to make a stupid play." On one play, DiMaggio fell, a stumble that was pictured in the newspapers the next day. Stengel also took the liberty of sometimes moving DiMaggio down in the hitting order, dropping him from the clean-up spot he had held since 1939. DiMaggio, a man of enormous pride, was angered by each of these perceived slights.
At the tail end of DiMaggio’s last year, a scouting report written about DiMaggio by Brooklyn scout Andy High was published in a "Life" magazine article. The report, while it may have been embarrassing to DiMaggio, did not stray far from the truth. It said DiMaggio "could not stop quickly and throw hard," and that runners "can taken an extra base on him. . . He can’t run. . . and his reflexes are very slow. . ."
Despite his diminished powers, DiMaggio helped the Yankees win that year’s World Series against the New York Giants, four games to two. He hit a home run in the fourth game and then made major contributions in the fifth and sixth games.
After the winning game, DiMaggio’s teammates handed him bats, balls and other paraphernalia for him to sign. When they asked about next year, DiMaggio answered simply: "I’ve played my last game." If he wanted to go out on top, he had with this last victory, he had won more World Series than any other player.
In December DiMaggio met with Yankee owners Dan Topping and Del Webb. Knowing that DiMaggio could still play in the clutch and was a huge box office draw, the two men tried to convince DiMaggio to come back for one more year. He could pick his spots, they said, just pinch-hit or play in home games. They offered DiMaggio the same salary they had paid him in 1951 —$100,000. DiMaggio refused.
In the afternoon of December 11, DiMaggio held a press conference. Never a comfortable speaker, DiMaggio read a release. He spoke plainly. "I told you fellows last spring I thought this would be my last year. I only wish I could have had a better year. But even if I hit .350, this would have been the last year for me. I feel I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my ball club, my manager, my teammates, and my fans the sort of baseball their loyalty to me deserves."
He stuck around for a while, answering questions and posing for photographers. At one point, the electricity needed for the television and radio equipment blew a fuse. The Yankee offices went dark. By the time the lights went on again, DiMaggio had vanished.
Perhaps the best insight into why DiMaggio quit came from brother Tom: "He quit because he wasn’t Joe DiMaggio any more."