Obituary: Joe DiMaggio

Rupert Cornwell
Tuesday 09 March 1999 00:02 GMT

BASEBALL IS a sport which reveres its statistics, one in which numbers can transcend simple arithmetic to become a catechism of faith. For the believer, 406 signifies only one thing - Ted Williams's average in 1941, the last time anyone batted over 400 for a season. Henceforth, 70 will be forever shorthand for Mark McGwire's single season home run record. Or take 2,632, the number of consecutive games played by Cal Ripken Jnr between 1982 and 1998, almost certainly never to be surpassed. And then there is 56. For the uninitiated, the figure is no more than part of the seven times table. For the baseball fan, however, it summons up at once Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak between mid-May and mid-July 1941, a record which also may never be broken.

Ripken, Williams, McGwire: all of them, like DiMaggio, titanic players, present or future Hall of Famers and as such guaranteed eternal veneration at baseball's temple at Cooperstown in upstate New York. But DiMaggio was something more. Once a decade or so American sport throws up a figure who helps define a generation: Babe Ruth of course, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and today Michael Jordan. Joe DiMaggio unarguably belongs in this company. For his baseball prowess with the New York Yankees, he was known as "Joltin' Joe" or - a title which better captures his grace and fluency as a player - "The Yankee Clipper". But for a couple of decades, either side of 1950, his fame and popularity exceeded that of kings and presidents.

His marriage to Marilyn Monroe ranks up with the Lindbergh kidnapping and the O.J. Simpson case as a celebrity event for the ages. Singlehandedly Joe DiMaggio rescued the reputation of Italo-Americans from the depths to which Al Capone and his ilk had dragged it. After his retirement in 1951 his legend only grew. Ernest Hemingway used him as a symbol in The Old Man and the Sea. He became spokesman for a product, Mr Coffee, which became part of the national vocabulary. Paul Simon referred to him in the theme song from the hit film The Graduate, in lines which became a catchphrase in faraway countries where baseball was unknown: "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you . . . But `Joltin' Joe' has left and gone away . . ."

Until the end, he was one of America's untouchables, a modest and unassuming man who occupied the function of secular saint, who would occasionally emerge from his Florida home to participate in a great baseball occasion. I saw him only once in the flesh, a slow-moving figure, his hair crinkly silver, on the night in September 1995 at Campden Yards in Baltimore when Ripken broke the previous consecutive games record. It had been previously held by the great Lou Gehrig, with whom DiMaggio had played in the Yankee line-up of the late 1930s. He made a brief speech, linking baseball's past and present. On a moving night, it was the most moving moment.

Joseph Paul DiMaggio Jnr was born, the eighth of nine children, to Joseph and Rosalia DiMaggio, immigrants from Sicily who had settled in California. It was a baseball family; not only Joe but his brothers Vince and Dominic would also become major league players (though the family claimed its finest ballplayer was another brother, Tom, who instead became a crab fisherman like his father). In time-honoured tradition, Joe learnt the rudiments of the game in the sandlots, before becoming an outstanding player at San Francisco Junior High School - even though there was no money to buy him a proper uniform.

On the recommendation of his brother Vince, he started with the city's minor league team, the San Francisco Seals in 1932, at the age of 17. His talent was immediately apparent. His fielding might have been erratic, but he hit as sweetly as an angel. Within two years, he was snapped up by the most famous and successful team in baseball.

That year, though DiMaggio was suffering serious knee problems, the Yankees acquired his services for $25,000 and five players, on the understanding that for two more years DiMaggio would remain with the Seals, honing his skills and gaining experience. By the time he moved to New York and the big time for the 1936 season, the shy but sublimely self-confident newcomer was the most trumpeted rookie since the First World War. He did not disappoint.

In his first year, despite a nagging foot injury, the young centrefielder hit .323, and impressed not only with the bat but also for his vastly improved fielding, highlighted by a sensational catch in the Yankee's successful World Series campaign that year. In 1939 he set a career hitting mark of .381, and won the first of two successive American League batting titles. At the plate, he combined power and style, a majestic figure who regularly exceeded 30 home runs a season. Before he arrived, the Yankees had hit a barren spot; during his first seven years, they won the series five times. In 1941 occurred the feat which made him a statistical immortal.

The season had begun, by his standards, appallingly: a batting average of .177, in what DiMaggio called "the worst slump of my life - I looked terrible. The harder you try, the worse it gets." Then everything changed. On 15 May he began to hit - and did so in every game until 17 July. Hitting a baseball safely is famously difficult; the best hitters manage it only three out of 10 times. Yet DiMaggio managed at least one hit in 56 games without a break. The previous mark of 44 had stood for 42 years, and DiMaggio's new record has not even been approached in more than half a century.

That year he won his second Most Valuable Player award. Willowy and darkly handsome, the Yankees' idol had become a figure in New York society, voted one of the 10 best-dressed men in the United States. In 1939 he married Dorothy Arnold, a Hollywood starlet, who gave him a son, Joe DiMaggio III.

As with so many of his generation, DiMaggio's career was interrupted by the Second World War. He volunteered for service in February 1943, giving up his $43,500 salary for $50 a month as a private, serving in an air-force physical training programme. The interruption cost him three seasons, and perhaps a chance of cracking some of baseball's other records. But, when he reappeared in 1946, normal service was resumed.

In 1949, DiMaggio became baseball's first $100,000-a-year man. That year he missed two months with a damaged heel, before returning to face the all- conquering Boston Red Sox. DiMaggio belted four home runs in three games, and an epic season ended with the Yankees catching the Sox for the AL championship, and going on to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. 1 October 1949 was Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium, when a man whose comeback had made him a national hero told 70,000 fans, "I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee." Never, before or since, had baseball been more popular.

Adulation could not, however, erase the discomfort of constant bodily pain. During another shortened season in 1950, he none the less managed to hit .301, and that year, as each year between 1949 and 1953, New York again won the World Series. But DiMaggio had had enough. On 11 December 1951, after a final season disrupted by injury the Yankee Clipper announced his retirement. As a player he had been a loner, liked and respected but never one for nights of hell-raising with his team mates. In the Yankee centrefield he was succeeded by Mickey Mantle, an authentic hell-raiser and linchpin of yet another generation of championship teams. DiMaggio was meanwhile fated to a sporting afterlife of permanent celebrity.

His marriage to Dorothy Arnold had broken up in 1944 when he was in the military. In the early 1950s he met a rising and stunningly attractive young actress named Marilyn Monroe. After a whirlwind romance, they were married in 1954. The union was doomed from the outset; the retiring and private superstar of the sports arena could not cope with the synthetic, brash and intrusive world of Hollywood, and was jealous of the endless attention lavished upon his wife. After only nine months they were divorced. But the couple remained close. DiMaggio helped arrange medical treatment for Marilyn as her life disintegrated. When she died in 1962, it was he who organised her funeral. He blamed the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby, each of them her lover, for hastening her death. Years later, when he met the then Senator Bobby Kennedy at a baseball function, DiMaggio refusd even to shake RFK's proffered hand.

Thereafter he faded from the public limelight. But his name remained among the most instantly recognisable in America. He devoted himself to philanthropy and charities, including the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Florida. With the Yankees he kept in touch, throwing out the traditional first ball each season's opening day at Yankee Stadium, and, whenever the club reached the World Series, becoming - if possible - more dignified with every passing year. But it is as a player he will be above all remembered, one of the finest in history and synonymous with baseball's truly golden age.

Rupert Cornwell

Joseph Paul DiMaggio, baseball player: born Martinez, California 25 November 1914; married 1939 Dorothy Arnold (one son; marriage dissolved 1944), 1954 Marilyn Monroe (marriage dissolved 1954); died Hollywood, Florida 8 March 1999.

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