A Brief History
On July 16, 1941, Major League Baseball had a new and enduring record, when The Yankee Clipper, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, hit in his 56th consecutive game, the longest batting streak in major league baseball history. All 13 of DiMaggio’s major league seasons were played for the New York Yankees.
Joe DiMaggio was the heir apparent to fill the shoes of the mighty Babe Ruth on the field and in the hearts of Yankees fans. The graceful center fielder made his debut with the Yankees in May of 1936, only one year after Ruth had retired from baseball. The promise of a great career was realized quite soon for DiMaggio, as he hit 77 home runs in his first 2 seasons, tied for 3rd place with Mark McGwire (as of 2009). As of 2011, Joltin’ Joe was 1 of only 7 men to have 30 home runs and 100 RBI’s in 4 of his first 5 seasons. Joe’s team record of 29 home runs by a rookie in 1936 stood for 81 years until Aaron Judge hit 30 (and still counting) in 2017.
Incredibly, although Joe and his 2 brothers, Vince and Dom, were well known major league baseball players (and Joe was in the Army Air Forces from 1943 to 1945), the DiMaggio parents were treated like enemy aliens during World War II due to their Italian-American heritage. The DiMaggio dad, a fisherman, had his boat seized by the Government!
DiMaggio, voted in 1969 as the Greatest Living Baseball Player in a poll of sports fans, was #5 on the All-Time home run list when he retired (361), and certainly would have hit many more if not losing 3 seasons in the prime of his career to service in the Army Air Forces during World War II. For that matter, being a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium also cost Joe many home runs, as Left Center measures a massive 457 feet from home plate, whereas normal stadiums are usually 380 feet or less. This difference may have cost DiMaggio an estimated 50 to 70 career home runs. Still, his career numbers are impressive, with a .325 career batting average, 2214 hits and 1537 RBI’s, an average of over 100 RBI’s per season! Joe was the American League MVP 3 times, was a 13 time All-Star, played on 9 World Series Champion teams, and led the league in homers, RBI’s, and batting average twice each. Hi number 5 is retired by the Yankees, and also by the Florida Marlins, whose first team president was a big DiMaggio fan.
The Yankee Clipper was a superb center fielder, gracefully out running fly balls to make outs out of apparent hits, bedeviling opposing hitters. His judgement of where the ball was going made his catches look easy, since he nearly always got a great jump on the ball. As great as his accomplishments on the field are, the one that stands out is the 56 game hitting streak, a record many sportswriters predict will never be beaten. The closest anyone has come so far since 1941 was Pete Rose, with a 44 game hitting streak in 1978. DiMaggio also stole home 5 times, just for variety. He was notoriously hard to strike out, and holds the record for having more home runs than strikeouts in a season by performing the feat 7 times. (Note: DiMaggio had a 61 game hitting streak in 1933 in the minor leagues, the second longest such streak in minor league history.)
Famous in retirement for demanding to be introduced as “The Greatest Living Baseball Player,” Joe became a familiar and trusted spokesman for Mr. Coffee products, and was sometimes referred to as “Mr. Coffee.” DiMaggio’s main off the field claim to fame was to have been married to Marilyn Monroe, the blonde bombshell movie actress, in 1954. With the most popular baseball player married to the most popular movie sex symbol, the couple were the darlings of sports and movie fans. Unfortunately, the marriage did not work, as DiMaggio expected a more conventional wife that cooked, cleaned, and kept house, while Monroe expected to be pampered and live a life of luxury and ease. Though they divorced, DiMaggio was devastated by her death by drug overdose in 1962, especially since he had reconciled with her and had reportedly decided to ask her to re-marry him just a few days before she died. Joe handled the burial arrangements and sent flowers to her grave 3 times a week until he died. Joe never remarried, and never really spoke of his marriage. DiMaggio never remarried.
Joe DiMaggio, a heavy smoker most of his life, died in 1999 at the age of 84 due to complications of lung cancer. His last words were, “I’ll finally get to see Marilyn.” Question for students (and subscribers): Was Joe DiMaggio the “Greatest Living Baseball Player” in the 1960’s through the 1990’s? Remember, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were around at this time. Please give us your opinion on this subject in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cramer, Richard Ben. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (Touchstone Book). Simon & Schuster, 2013.