What kind of baseball team would refuse a chance to sign Joe DiMaggio? Believe it or not, most major league teams were uninterested in the future Hall of Famer. Despite his outstanding play in the minors, they believed a knee injury would limit DiMaggio’s effectiveness. Joe Devine and Bill Essick, scouts for the New York Yankees, believed otherwise, and a deal was ultimately struck to bring DiMaggio to New York. DiMaggio more than rewarded the team’s confidence in him.
Born on Nov. 25, 1914, in Martinez, Calif., Joe DiMaggio was the eighth of nine children to Giuseppe Paolo and Rosalie DiMaggio. The family moved to North Beach, a largely Italian neighborhood in San Francisco, the year of his birth. Giuseppe was a fisherman, and his two oldest sons, Tom and Michael, followed in his footsteps, but his three other boys turned their love of playing baseball on San Francisco’s sandlots into professional careers. In 10 seasons, Vince, four years Joe’s senior, played for five teams and led the National League in strikeouts six times. Dominic, three years Joe’s junior, played 11 seasons for the Boston Red Sox. Neither of them, however, would equal the success of Joe, who spent one year at Galileo High School before dropping out and joining Vince in the Pacific Coast League, home to minor league baseball’s best players. Both brothers played for the San Francisco Seals.
In 1933, DiMaggio’s first full year with the Seals, he hit safely in 61 consecutive games and finished with a .340 batting average, 28 home runs and 169 runs batted in. He recorded batting averages of .341 and .398 during the next two seasons, but he injured his left knee on the day of a Sunday doubleheader. It didn’t occur during the games but afterwards, when he stepped out of a cab in a rush to make it to his sister’s house for dinner. This might have prevented him from ever playing in the majors if not for the efforts of Devine and Essick. Yankees general manager Ed Barrow was ultimately convinced to buy DiMaggio from the Seals in exchange for $25,000 and five players. DiMaggio spent the 1935 season in San Francisco to heal his knee before heading to New York.
Babe Ruth had departed the Yankees two years prior to DiMaggio’s arrival in 1936, but the roster still included Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Red Rolfe, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. A foot injury postponed his debut until May 3, but as a rookie DiMaggio played in 138 games and hit .323 with 29 home runs and 125 runs batted in. The Yankees, with only one World Series championship to their credit in the seven years before DiMaggio’s arrival, won the World Series in each of DiMaggio’s first four seasons, compiling a 16-3 record in the championship round. He won the first of his three Most Valuable Player Awards in 1939 and also led the league in hitting, an accomplishment he repeated the next year.
DiMaggio’s hitting ability had never been in doubt; he hit had safely in 18 consecutive games during his first Yankees season, in 22 consecutive games during his second and in 23 consecutive games during his third. The 1941 season, however, would see him make history with “the Streak,” which began when he hit a single on May 15. He broke his team’s record of 29 consecutive games on June 17, and 12 days later he broke George Sisler’s modern record of 41 consecutive games in the second contest of a doubleheader. DiMaggio tied Willie Keeler’s all-time record of 44 consecutive games with a single on July 1, and his three-run homer the next day broke it. “The Streak” extended to 56 games before ending in Cleveland on July 17. Over the course of two months DiMaggio had hit .408 with 15 home runs and 55 runs batted in. He was chosen as Most Valuable Player that year over rival Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, who had hit .406 and led the league with 37 home runs. His team benefitted too; the Yankees, who were fourth in the American League on May 15, won the pennant by 17 games.
Having served the Yankees for years, DiMaggio was about to serve his country during World War II. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces on Dec. 3, 1942, and taught baseball in the service for three years. DiMaggio rejoined the Yankees in 1946, and a year later they were back in the World Series. He was named Most Valuable Player for the final time in 1947, again beating out Williams (who won the Triple Crown that year), but his heels were causing him intense pain. A November 1948 operation was largely ineffective, and he didn’t play again until June 28, 1949. Seemingly nothing had changed upon his return; he hit four home runs and batted in nine runs during a three-game Yankees sweep over Boston. One game behind the Red Sox with two days left in that season, the Yankees won their final two games at home and clinched the pennant. A serious viral infection almost prevented him from playing in the first game, which happened to be Joe DiMaggio Day, but he hit a single and a double before taking himself out.
Thanks to hitting .373 in the final six weeks, DiMaggio finished the 1950 season with a .301 average and 122 runs batted in. Although the Yankees won the 1951 World Series, that season was a personal disappointment for the man known as the “Yankee Clipper,” who hit .263 with 12 home runs. He retired that December, admitting to having stayed a year too long. DiMaggio finished his career with a .325 lifetime batting average, nine World Series rings, two batting titles, 361 home runs and only 369 strikeouts. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955 and was named “the greatest living ballplayer” in 1969.
During his playing days DiMaggio had been perceived as a loner both personally and professionally. His 5-year marriage to actress Dorothy Arnold, with whom he had a son, Joseph Jr., ended in 1944. In retirement, DiMaggio would find himself making headlines for his personal life. He went on a dinner date with Hollywood movie star and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in California in 1952, and they were married on Jan. 14, 1954. Their marriage lasted only nine months, but DiMaggio’s commitment to Monroe lasted far longer. Following the 36-year-old Monroe’s death on Aug. 4, 1962, DiMaggio sent roses to her grave three times a week for the next 20 years.
His endeavors in retirement including appearing in television commercials for the Bowery Savings Bank of New York and Mr. Coffee and establishing a children’s wing at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., but DiMaggio didn’t abandon baseball. He held jobs as a broadcaster, a Yankees’ spring training instructor and a coach with the Oakland Athletics in addition to playing in old-timers games. Many times he threw out the ball on opening day at Yankee Stadium. The 1998 season concluded with another Joe DiMaggio Day. Late in 1998 DiMaggio underwent surgery for lung cancer. Lung infections and pneumonia kept him in the hospital for 99 days before he was able to return to his Florida home on Jan. 19, 1999. DiMaggio died in his home on March 8,1999, at the age of 84.