The Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, would have been one hundred years old on Tuesday of this week. Unfortunately, Joe passed away at the age of 84 in Hollywood, FL in 1999.
Joe was with the New York Yankees from his debut in 1936 until 1951 but spent three of those years, 1943-1945, in the Army in World War II. Like many players of this era, he spent most of his time in the military instructing physical education and playing baseball but did his duty to his country.
He was born in Martinez, California, on November 25, 1914 and played three years for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League from 1933 to 1935, hitting .340, .341 and .398. If the averages weren’t high enough, he had a 61 game hitting streak in 1933, his first year in organized ball. The Yankees bought him from San Francisco for $25,000. and five players and he made his debut with them on May 3, 1936.
In his first four years with the Yankees, 1936-1939, the team won the American League Championship and went on to win the World Series, the first of nine times he would be on a World Championship team. He was also in one other World Series, in 1942, but the Yankees lost that year to the St. Louis Cardinals. He was named to the American League All Star team every one of the thirteen years he played.
He had a career batting average of .325 and slugging percentage of .579 and won the American League Batting Championship in 1939 and 1940, hitting .381 and .352. He was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1939, 1941 and 1947 and led the league in home runs in 1937 and 1948 with 46 and 39. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
In addition to his hitting ability, Joe was a fine defensive center fielder. Teammate Yogi Berra, one of the greatest catchers of all time once said of DiMaggio, ‘ He never did anything wrong on the field. I’ve never seen him dive for a ball, everything was a chest high catch and he never walked off the field. ‘ He was an extremely graceful and gifted athlete who could run at top speed while looking like it was effortless which made him a great base runner. The fact that he hit 10 or more triples in seven different seasons is a testament to his base running ability and speed.
Much has been written about his 56 game hitting streak in 1941. Prior to this accomplishment, the longest a player had ever gone with at least one hit in every game was the 44 game streak of Wee Willie Keeler in 1897. This record is one of very few baseball records which will probably never be broken. More amazing than the streak was his record at the plate for the entire season. While hitting .357 and winning the Most Valuable Player Award, he came to the plate 617 times, including 76 bases on balls, and struck out just 13 times in that entire season, a mind boggling one strike out in every 47.5 at bats.
His brothers, Dominic and Vince were also major league center fielders. Dom, three years younger than Joe, was with the Red Sox his entire career, from 1940-1953, and spent the years 1943-1945 in the service like Joe. He was a lifetime .298 hitter and an All Star seven times. At 5’9” and 168 pounds and wearing eye glasses he was dubbed the Little Professor.
Vince, two years older than Joe, played center field for the Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates and had a .249 life time batting average. He was named to the National League All Star Team twice, in 1943 and 1944, when his more famous older and younger brothers were in the military.
Joe DiMaggio was a charismatic figure and one of, if not the most, popular of all the great Yankees. He was a great representative of the game both on and off the field. Whenever anyone talks about the greatest all around players of all time, DiMaggio’s name is always near the top.
As New York Mayor Ed Koch once said of him ‘ He represented the best in America. It was his character, his generosity, his sensitivity. He was someone who set a standard every father would want his children to follow. ‘
If you saw the commercial Gatorade made for Derek Jeter’s retirement, you saw Jeter touch the sign at the entrance to the field from the clubhouse that says ‘ I’d like to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee ‘. That was Joe DiMaggio’s quote and summarizes his life, career and dedication to the game and the team.