He Could Play Too

  • Yes, he was noble, and he looked great and he married Marilyn Monroe. But first he played baseball, and it's for what he did on the field that Joe DiMaggio should be remembered. His career, like so many in baseball, can best be divined by a sequence of numbers. First, and most famous, is 56. But several others matter as well: 61, 16, 9, 369, .89, 457, 3, and 13.

    56, 61 and 16
    Accomplishment is a wonderful thing; consistency is as well. And the merger of the two, expressed in DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941, yields the one unbreachable hitting record in baseball. In the nearly six decades since it was established, no one has come within 11 games of it. Was the streak a fluke? Not if you go back to 1933, when the 18-year-old DiMaggio, playing in the extremely competitive Pacific Coast League, hit safely in 61 straight games. Or look past that unfortunate day in Cleveland when third baseman Ken Keltner smothered two torpedoes off DiMaggio's bat and ended the 1941 run: the next day DiMaggio began to unspool another, 16-game streak. Hitting safely in 56 straight games is a miracle; hitting safely in 72 out of 73 is an expression of consistent mastery.

    The number of World Series winners he played on. The great Yankee teams of 1936-1939 and 1949-1951 (not to mention the ones of '41 and '47) had one thing in common, and that thing was out in center field every day. For all the individual glory that baseball celebrates, it remains a team sport, and the core of those teams was DiMaggio. His fans worshipped him; his teammates merely asked in their prayers every night that God watch over him.

    During the three seasons from 1958 to 1960, Mickey Mantle struck out 371 times. Reggie Jackson flailed in vain 313 times in two seasons. It is almost always part of the slugger's makeup, the monstrous whiff as companion to the mighty blast. But DiMaggio's relation to a pitched ball was as intimate as it was brutal. In his entire career he struck out only 369 times--this while hitting 361 home runs. During the magical 1941 season, he had 30 home runs, 13 strikeouts. (There are single weeks when modern sluggers strike out 13 times.) From his spread-legged stance, his twisting follow-through, the absolute balance of his swing, he devised a precision of attack unmatched in baseball history--a baseball smart bomb, as deadly as it was efficient.

    Perhaps the best measure of a hitter is not his batting average but his run production. DiMaggio batted "only" .325 over his career, but he batted in nearly a run per game--the third highest average this century, after Lou Gehrig's and Hank Greenberg's. DiMaggio delivered more runs per game than Babe Ruth; more than Ted Williams; 27% more than Hank Aaron.

    Only 361 home runs? Forget about his ability to hit for average as well as power. Forget that at DiMaggio's retirement, only four men had ever hit as many home runs. Focus instead on those three large numerals inscribed on the left-center-field wall in Yankee Stadium when DiMaggio played there--4 5 7--denoting the preposterous footage from home plate to the seats. For a right-handed power hitter, it marked the outer limits of a place where potential homers went to die. No right-handed Yankee hit nearly as many home runs as DiMaggio until the fences were moved in, years after he retired. Had he hit as many at home as he did on the road, he would've had 426 home runs--for a per-season average nearly identical to Aaron's.

    The seasons he missed to serve in the Army. Like Williams, with whom he was eternally yoked at the center of the Boston-New York rivalry, DiMaggio saw the heart of his career cut out by the sharp edge of war. From ages 28 to 30, he was awol from the thing he did best, at the time of life when he probably could have done it better than ever.

    Finally, his tenure in the majors--a scant 13 sunlit seasons before repeated injuries rendered him unable to play as he had before. This might be the statistic that most reveals DiMaggio's greatness, for it tells us he was blessed with that rarest of athletic gifts: knowing when it was time to leave. He simply would not let the world see him play in a diminished state. Instead, he left us with the image--and the record--of someone who very nearly achieved perfection.