Essay: He was elegant and mysterious - and he didn't talk much

David Thomson honours the memory of Joe DiMaggio (left), a graceful hitter, a loyal ex-husband, and the greatest Yankee of them all
Ahitter comes up to bat four or five times in an ordinary game of baseball. He faces pitching that may come at him at over 90 miles an hour; it may swerve away from the plate, or drop down as he makes to hit it with a bat that is no fatter than the meat of a rolling pin. The ball may be thrown at him.

To get a hit, he has to make contact with the ball and knock it between the foul lines and out of reach of nine fielders counting the pitcher. A first-class hitter is reckoned to be one who gets three hits in every 10 "at-bats" - in other words, over a full year of l62 games he will average .300. A flat-out great hitter might make a seasonal average of .400. The last time that happened was 1940, when the Boston Red Sox hitter Ted Williams managed .406 for the season.

That figure may never be reached again. Though such predictions beg to be broken. For years, people believed that no one would ever hit more than the 61 home runs Roger Maris collected in l961. After all, Maris had been nearly broken down by the strain of press attention as he strove to beat Babe Ruth's old record of 60. Then in l998, Mark McGwire simply went to 70, chased all the way by Sammy Sosa and his 66. There are great years, and you congratulate yourself for being around to see them.

But then there's the record: consecutive games in which a batter gets at least one hit. A lot of players run into double figures before they have an empty day. Sometimes 20. Pete Rose - who has more hits in a career than any other player - once got as far as 44. But in the summer of 1941, at the age of 26, a lean, lanky, dark-haired guy with a sweet, goofy grin went for 56 straight. In the 57th game, three inspired pieces of fielding by the Cleveland Indians shut him out. The streak was over. The guy had been feted all summer. He might have relaxed once the effort was over. But the next day he started another streak and went for 16 consecutive games. Between 15 May (a week after Citizen Kane opened) and 16 July - playing nearly every day - he had 56 singles, 16 doubles, four triples and 15 home runs. His name was Joe DiMaggio and he is a legend.

Why should that be, when DiMaggio retired from baseball in 1951 because a bad knee would no longer let him do everything he wanted, and be graceful doing it? Ted Williams was - technically and statistically - the better hitter of the two, even the greatest of all time. Williams is, as ever, cocky, irritable, volatile, talkative, and often very critical of others, of the very game of baseball. He was always an uneasy man, evidently out to prove himself, not always very interested in fielding, and sometimes inclined to rebuke fickle crowds that turned on him.

DiMaggio was, maybe, a duller, calmer, more accepting man. He was lucky in that he played for the New York Yankees all his major league career. Joe's first four years with the Yankees, they won the World Series. They won again in 1941, were defeated in l942, and then won two more, in l949 and l951. Seven World Series victories - the Red Sox and Williams never had one. And DiMaggio was always part of a winning team. He was called "Joltin' Joe", but in truth his swing - as we later ages study him on film - was fluent, lovely, just waiting for the dumb ball to get in the way. Above all, in the field, DiMaggio was a thing of elegance, moving fast but thinking earlier, so that he seldom had to strain to make a catch. And with an arm throwing back to home that was like his swing. With all of these things, he was shy, modest, happy - or so it seemed - and mysterious, because he didn't talk much. Williams would analyse his own hitting, talking it to pieces. DiMaggio looked at his bat the way the kid Arthur might have just known that Excalibur was his. He was the complete player.

As you might guess, he had not much else going for him. He was one of nine children, born to Italian immigrants, the father a fisherman, in Martinez, near San Francisco. They moved into the Italian section of the city, and Joe began playing minor-league ball for the San Francisco Seals - he had a 61-game hitting streak with them. That's when the Yankees scooped him up - there was no major-league baseball in California then. But he was a fisherman's son, tranquil, yet stunning on the field, keeping to himself off it. Still, some flair for glory or madness showed: he married a movie starlet, Dorothy Arnold, in 1939. They had a son, Joe Jr, but the marriage ended.

Then, as DiMaggio retired - he was only 36 - some urge for the limelight stayed with him. God knows why, but he met and married Marilyn Monroe - two famous people who never quite got each other's light. He wanted her to be a housewife, like Italian fishermen were used to. He likely never f---ed her on Fridays unless they'd eaten fish. She wanted to be doing Chekhov, going off like a bomb, who knows what? She rarely appeared "live", but once she did a show for troops in Korea, and she came back bubbling about the warmth and the cheering. "Joe," she apparently said, "you never heard anything like it." "Oh, yeah, I did," said Joe, used to playing in front of 60,000 people.

It lasted less than a year, and it broke apart one night on the streets of Manhattan, as they filmed The Seven Year Itch. It was the scene where she stands over the subway grille and lets the draught of passing trains lift her skirt and cool her hottest place. There was a mob there when they filmed the scene, and Joe was offended by the dirty jokes and mystified by the helpless, exhilarated way she gave herself to it all. Divorce. Joe was too steady a guy to keep up with all the people inside Marilyn.

But then he found his swing or the streak again. He never let her down, betrayed her or talked. So many men used her and moved on, chuckling at the bimbo she was. And she was likely, technically, crazy, beyond holding or caring for.

But DiMaggio was always there for her, always seeking to look after her. He tended her grave, and he never sold out - never did the "My wild months with Marilyn" book that could have made him safe for life. He never talked about her. Maybe that was because he'd have come off badly. Maybe it was an Italian thing. But he'd never boasted about hitting. And the mystery kept Joe DiMaggio where he belongs - as a great figure of legend.