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Joe DiMaggio was a living legend longer than any other American athlete. Date the start of his story from the mid to late '30s, when he was a symbol of Yankee invincibility more potent than Ruth, Gehrig, or Mantle (DiMaggio's Yankees were invincible: nine world championships in 10 World Series. Go fish, Michael Jordan). Date it from 1941, if you like, when radios were blaring "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," by Les Brown and his Orchestra, while Joe pursued his 56-game hitting streak (In Farewell, My Lovely, Robert Mitchum's Philip Marlowe
follows Joe's day-to-day progress on the streak). Date it from 1949, when the sailors in South Pacific sang about a girl whose skin was as "Tender as DiMaggio's glove." Date it to 1952, when Ernest Hemingway, speaking in the voice of an old Cuban fisherman, wrote, "Have faith in the Yankees, my son. Think of the great DiMaggio." Date it as late as 1967 when Simon and Garfunkel, just 16 years after Joe's retirement, were asking where the great DiMaggio had gone. Whenever you date it from, Joe DiMaggio started being a legend earlier and stayed a legend longer than anyone else. In the end, it seemed to be just about all he had left to live for.
DiMaggio was so much more than a ballplayer to so many people for so long that it's easy to forget that he wouldn't have been any of those things if he hadn't played ball in the first place. Was he the greatest baseball player of all time? He might have been. There can be no clear answer to that question; a baseball player has to have so many skills to be considered great that it's almost impossible to dominate in all of the categories. Let's assume that over the last 30 years only Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan had the all-around skills to rank in DiMaggio's class. And that, when we're finally able to evaluate their entire careers, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and maybe Alex Rodriguez have a chance of ranking with him as well. After a pause, one can see that none of them is quite DiMaggio's equal. So let's start earlier: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays are names everyone would concede. Anyone else? Hank Aaron came close, and Stan Musial and Ted Williams didn't have DiMaggio's varied skills. So, a quick survey of the last 100 years demonstrates that DiMaggio is at least one of the top six players of all time.
And there's no clear evidence that he wasn't the best. Anyone who ever saw him play said that he was one of the greatest defensive outfielders of all time. He played in an era when base stealing was relatively unimportant he stole just 30 bases in 39 career attempts but, again, everyone who saw him maintains that he was a terrific base runner. And as a hitter? Most baseball analysts, if asked, "Who is the greatest hitter in baseball history?" would reply, "Ted Williams." Well, at Yankee Stadium, where DiMaggio was severely handicapped by a left-centerfield gap that ate up his power, Joe had a career batting average of just .315, while Williams hit .361 at Fenway Park in Boston. But on the road, in neutral venues, DiMaggio's career average was .333 to Williams's .328. This doesn't mean that DiMaggio was a better hitter than Ted Williams; it also doesn't mean that he wasn't.
The irony of Joe DiMaggio's career is that it has been largely defined by two amazing statistical feats that are more oddities than indications of his greatness. First, his strikeouts-to-at-bat ratio. DiMaggio struck out just 369 times in 1736 games. This is absolutely astonishing. Compare this to other great sluggers: Babe Ruth, who played 2503 games with 1330 strikeouts, or Mickey Mantle, who played 2401 games and struck out 1710 times, or even Ted Williams, who played 2292 games and fanned 709 times. Forget them; Phil Rizzuto, whose job it was to spank out singles, played 1661 games and struck out 398 times.
The other great statistical feat DiMaggio is known for, of course, is hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. It was, after Roger Maris's 61 home runs, the second most famous record in American sports. Post-Mark McGwire, it's probably still number two.
Neither the strikeout-to-games played nor the 56-game hitting streak add anything to the reality of DiMaggio's greatness as a player. Strikeouts are relatively neutral when it comes to a hitter's ability to produce runs. As Darryl Strawberry wisely pointed out, if you're striking out, you're not hitting into double plays, and DiMaggio, as a point of comparison, hit into more DPs over the last 10 years of his career (the only years during which the stat was kept) than Mickey Mantle did in 18 130 to 113. As for the 56 games, DiMaggio would have been just as great if he had two 28-game streaks, or three 19-game streaks. But would he have been perceived as being as great?
Ah, but those statistics added so much to Joe DiMaggio's image. They were perfect for DiMaggio, seeming to reflect his personality. Such tremendous power, yet such outstanding control. Such dignity, such cool. Possibly the most famous film clip of DiMaggio shows him kicking the dirt around second base after losing a home run to Brooklyn's Al Gionfriddo in the 1947 World Series. The reason it's famous is that it's the only recorded instance of DiMaggio losing his cool. And what does the 56-game hitting streak incident indicate but consistency? Dignified, cool, consistent. He seemed to be turning into a statue while still in his prime.