When he arrived as a skinny center fielder in the mid-1930s, Joe DiMaggio was expected to replace Babe Ruth as the star of the New York Yankees. The bar was set very high for the young ballplayer, but he did the unimaginable – he surpassed the predictions and became one of the very best players to ever play baseball.
“DiMaggio was the greatest all-around player I ever saw. His career cannot be summed up in numbers and awards,” Ted Williams said. “It might sound corny, but he had a profound and lasting impact on the country.”
Williams should have known – he squared off against DiMaggio for nearly a decade, and in 1941 while he was hitting over .400 he saw The Yankee Clipper do the unthinkable by hitting safely in 56 straight games. For those who saw both DiMaggio and Williams there isn’t anyone who believed that Ted was the ballplayer that Joe was. There wasn’t anything that Joe DiMaggio couldn’t do on a baseball field. His grace and brilliance transcended his era and leave him among the few legends of the game.
In his rookie season, DiMaggio batted .323, but most impressively for a 21-year old facing big league pitching for the first time, he hit for power in Yankee Stadium, something that wasn’t easy for a right-handed batter. That season he hit 44 doubles, led the league with 15 triples, and slugged 29 homers in 138 games. It was just the tip of the ice berg: in his second season he led the AL in homers and slugging; at the age of 24 he batted .381 and won his first batting title. He won another the next season. In his first six seasons, Joe D hit .345 and drove in 816 runs in 825 games. He may not have been Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig, but he was an all-around player like the Yankees had never had before. DiMaggio could run, hit, hit for power, field, and throw. He made playing center field an art form. He did everything so gracefully it looked like it was easy for him, so much so that at times he received criticism for not “trying hardf enough.”
DiMaggio won two MVP Awards before World War II, missed three seasons while in the service, then came back and was still a great player, winning another MVP trophy. Though he played only 13 seasons, DiMaggio received MVP votes in 12 of them, finishing in the top ten nine times. He was a natural, as manager Joe McCarthy said, “I don’t think anyone can ever put into words the great things DiMaggio did. Of all the stars I’ve known, DiMaggio needed the least coaching.”
His star was not fixed only to baseball. DiMaggio’s private life was fodder for newspapers and newsreels. His marriage to Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe made the couple even more popular and scrutinized. In 1941 when he had his 56-game hitting streak, a song by Les Brown titled “Joltin’ Joe” hit #1 on the charts.
For more than two months, from May 15 to July 17, the Yankee star got a hit in every game, stretching his record streak to 56 games. During the streak he batted .408 with an incredible 91 hits. He slugged 16 doubles, four triples, 15 homers, and drove in 55 runs. His hot hitting caught the imagination of not only sports fans, but all Americans, who each day asked the question, “How many did Joe get today?” The record has stood for more than 70 years and seems unlikely to be broken.
DiMaggio anchored some of the greatest Yankee teams in history. The 1936-1939 club, which featured the duo of the young DiMaggio and veteran Gehrig, became the first to win four straight World Series. The team was so dominant that they lost only three Series games in the four years and at one point won nine straight. In his 13 years in the majors, DiMaggio’s Yankees won 10 pennants and lost only one World Series (to Stan Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals in ’42). DiMaggio, as much as Ruth and Gehrig, established the Yankees as a dynasty, and he was the first great Yankee star in the feud between New York and Boston. For most of his career his brother Dominic played center field for the rival Red Sox, who fought the Yankees hard for the pennant from 1946-1950. Joe’s older brother Vince was a center fielder in the National League from 1937-1946 who was also known for his great defensive play.
- After his 1941 season, in which Joe DiMaggio hit in a record 56 consecutive games, the New York Yankees president Ed Barrow offered his star outfielder a ,000 pay cut. According to Dom, Joe’s brother, Barrow liked to remind Joe that “our boys in uniform are making a month.”