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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,374

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This is the grave of Joe DiMaggio.

Born in 1914 in Martinez, California, DiMaggio grew up in the Italian working class of the Bay Area, one of the largest migrations from eastern or southern Europe to the West Coast. This was a family of fishermen going back many, many generations. The DiMaggio boys were a lot less interested in fishing than they were in baseball. In fact, this is one of the only families to have three siblings play major league ball–Joe, Dom, and Vince. They all had very good careers. But of course Joe became one of the greatest players to ever put on a uniform. This caused family tensions. DiMaggio Sr. thought his boys, and especially Joe, were lazy and worthless. Joe certainly hated fishing, boats, anything to do with the industry and he shirked working for his father at all costs.

DiMaggio dropped out of high school, worked this and that job, and played semipro ball. Vince meanwhile had a contract with the San Francisco Seals, the local AAA team. They were short some players and Vince suggested that they sign Joe. That was at the very end of the season in 1932. The next year, DiMaggio was on the team full time and he was a sensation, hitting safely in 61 straight games, the Pacific Coast League record. His career nearly ended with a knee injury in 1934, one that had nothing to do with baseball, but rather walking off a jitney. But the Yankees believed he was still going to be worth it and we can definitely say that he was. They signed him to a major league deal before the 1935 season and had him play there one more year. He was the MVP.

In 1936, DiMaggio started opening day for the Yankees and he never looked back. He led the league in triples as a rookie with 15. The next year, he led the league in runs, home runs, and slugging, finishing 2nd in the MVP race. 1939 would see him hit .381/448/671 and win the MVP. He won the MVP in 1941 and 1947 too. Over his 13 year career, he would finish in the top five in the MVP voting 6 times and except for his last year, he got MVP votes every single year. Remarkable. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR stat, although DiMaggio led the league in WAR in 1937, 1938, and 1940, his best year was in 1941, when he did not lead the league but finished with a remarkable 9.3 WAR.

Then of course there is the 56 game hit streak, which was one of the most remarkable, if not really that important, accomplishments of all time. This kind of thing obsessed DiMaggio, who later said that he never really loved baseball until that hit streak with the Seals. After that, he really wanted streaks like that. In the end, if you get 2 hits one day and zero the next, it’s not that big of a deal. But still, it absolutely captured the American imagination in 1941.

That WAR is miles above an MVP year. But Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of all time other than Barry Bonds, was just starting his ungodly run and was at a mere 10.4 WAR, which he actually surpassed the next year. Yeah, that guy was kinda good. But so was DiMaggio! And the hitting streak, I mean, how could you not give it to DiMaggio?

The streak also contributed significantly to the way DiMaggio is remembered today. As I have stated many times, the overwhelming nostalgia for 1940s and 1950s baseball is not based on old people remembering a better game so much as it is them remembering New York. No one is nostalgic for the Pirates or the Reds or the Senators of this era. But there is a good reason to be nostalgic for DiMaggio. He was, simply put, one of the all time greats.

In 1947, the Yankees almost traded DiMaggio to the Red Sox for Ted Williams. But the Sox wanted the Yankees to throw Yogi Berra into the deal and the Yankees weren’t that dumb. The idea of this trade taking place is hard for me to wrap my head around given how central all three players are to their cities and team identities. This was right after DiMaggio had just won his 6th World Series title so I don’t know what that was all about except perhaps that Williams was younger. In any case, he remained with the Yankees. In 1949, he became the first player to get a $100,000 contract. He was also a very good center fielder and he was fast on the base paths. He was true complete player. Moreover, Yankee Stadium was a disaster for right handed power hitters and he would have a ton more homers in a more measured park. In fact, DiMaggio hit a career 213 homers on the road and 148 at home. That’s 361 total. Plus there’s the years he missed due to the war–43 through 45. He was only a physical education instructor on a couple of stateside and Hawaii bases during these years, so it seems like a real waste given he could have played. But then what would that have looked like, especially with Williams out there risking his life? In fact, DiMaggio was pretty embarrassed by this and wanted a combat assignment, but the military told him no.

In 1951, DiMaggio, now 36, saw his numbers really slip for the first time. He was still a functional player. But he was a vain man and he was not going to be one of those guys to hold on until the last possible day. He didn’t want to be remembered that way. So he retired at the end, saying that if he couldn’t be the greatest, he didn’t want to play anymore.

Now, we know that DiMaggio was a…difficult lonely guy. He was famous, but that didn’t make him any happier. He married the actress Dorothy Arnold in 1939 and divorced in 1944. Then he married Marilyn Monroe in 1954. This was a disaster. DiMaggio was a mess post-career. He was jealous, he was a drunk, and he beat her. The marriage lasted for only nine months. Interestingly, right before Monroe’s death, DiMaggio tried to rescue her, getting her out a psychiatric clinic after her divorce from Arthur Miller and trying to separate her from the horrible people around her taking advantage of her. He probably would have married her again (probably would have been another disaster) but then she died in 1962. He then refused to let JFK attend her funeral.

DiMaggio didn’t exactly take care of himself. He was enough of a financial mess that he had to work for money, including as a pitchman for Mr. Coffee in the 70s. He also coached with the As for a couple of years in the 70s, which allowed him to get to 15 years service and qualify for a pension. He had mostly quit drinking after his divorce from Monroe, but he never quit smoking and that did him in. He had surgery for lung cancer in 1998 and died of it the next year, at the age of 84.

Joe DiMaggio is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma, California.

If you would like this series to visit other center fielders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS stat, DiMaggio ranks as the 7th best center fielder of all time. Had he not missed those three years, he would be ahead of Griffey and Trout for sure, but Mantle might have been a reach for 4th. In any case, Tris Speaker, who is 3rd all time, is in Hubbard, Texas and Duke Snider, who is 8th, is in Fallbrook, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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