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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.
All of that, of course, was as a player. His private life was an unholy mess, a riot of contradictions awaiting a tough-minded biographer to sort them out. He was the first great national sports hero of America's immigrants, or at least those immigrants who came here speaking a foreign language. Yet, his demeanor suggested not his Italian blood and upbringing but that of a WASP movie star Cary Grant, many thought. He guarded his private life with fanatic intensity yet courted a public life that practically created tabloid celebrity journalism. He was a symbol of an era that supposedly played for the love of the game, yet he hawked Mr. Coffee on TV and almost single-handedly created the pay-for-autograph circuit.
Millions of words of tribute have been spilled over DiMaggio. Never has nice been one of them. And we can practically see ahead to how his first real biographer will become to sports what Albert Goldman is to rock and roll. All that really needs to be done to stir outrage in the sports establishment is to recount the unpleasant facts of DiMaggio's life that are already known but which the press unofficially agreed to forget. There was the time, for instance, when DiMaggio held out for more money during the war. He was vilified in the newspapers, but forgiven by the time V-J Day came around. Or the time that DiMaggio, along with then-pal Frank Sinatra and a couple of private dicks, kicked open a door the wrong door while trying to catch Marilyn Monroe in an affair. That incident was erased by the image of a weeping, gray-haired DiMaggio, who managed her funeral.
And what are we to make of the pettiness he always displayed toward Mickey Mantle and his mild intrusions on Joe's mythical territory? Surely Mantle wanted nothing more (and probably a great deal less) from DiMaggio than the average fan. Imagine how appalled we would be this week if some Hall of Fame player acted as boorishly during DiMaggio's funeral as Joe did during Mickey's he failed to show up and repeatedly brought up Mantle's deficiencies as a ballplayer.
The press gave him a freer ride than it will ever give another athlete but who's to say he didn't earn it? If his private life wasn't all we or he wanted it to be, there was surely no one for him to look to for a role model. Whose life, whose legend was he to measure himself against? It must have gotten awfully lonely up there at the end, awfully cold.
"You're a legend a lot longer than you're fact," Clyde Edgerton once wrote. Joe DiMaggio was a fact for 84 years and has already been a legend for nearly two-thirds of that. That's got to be a record of some kind, and the streak ain't over yet.