Left and Gone Away

  • He was idolized by millions who never saw him hit or catch a baseball. During the 13 seasons Joe DiMaggio played center field for the New York Yankees, baseball was still the national pastime, but one that a majority of fans followed from afar. The 16 major league teams were clustered in only 10 cities, with St. Louis as the westernmost outpost. In that pre-television era, sports heroes were made out of words, those spoken over the radio during play-by-play broadcasts and those printed in newspapers the next morning. No wonder legends arose. Most people experienced baseball by reading adventure stories in the daily press or by listening, the way the ancient Greeks did, to the voices of the bards.

    Baseball's mythmaking machinery went into overdrive when it encountered DiMaggio. Sportswriters for New York City's nearly a dozen daily papers fell in love with the shy 21-year-old who came up with the Yankees from spring training in 1936. Babe Ruth wasn't around anymore to provide reliably flashy copy, and without him the team lacked charisma. This handsome new kid, the son of a Sicilian immigrant fisherman, looked promising. His awkwardness and reticence with reporters might be portrayed as enigmatic, as might his absolutely deadpan demeanor on the field. And advance word from DiMaggio's minor league exploits with the San Francisco Seals was that he could, in baseball parlance, "do it all": hit, hit for power, run, field and throw.

    Whatever pressure the rookie felt from all these ravenous expectations never showed on the diamond. He not only did it all, he did it with a stylishness that awed sportswriters and spectators alike. DiMaggio was the leading American League vote getter for the 1936 All-Star game. That same summer he appeared on the cover of this magazine. His Yankees cruised to the AL pennant, the team's first since 1932, and beat the rival New York Giants in the World Series. (During DiMaggio's 13 years as the Yankees' star player, the team appeared in 10 Series and won nine.)

    His successful rookie season confirmed and enhanced the DiMaggio mystique. The next year, a radio broadcaster called him "the Yankee Clipper," a tribute to the way he sailed so majestically while pursuing fly balls across the green expanses of center field. His batting skill won him the sobriquet "Joltin' Joe." Meanwhile, the young man from Fisherman's Wharf was acquiring a Manhattan polish. He took up tailored suits and the high life at Toots Shor's nightclub, where the habitues treated him like a god who had inexplicably deigned to join their mortal company. He dated beautiful women, including actress Dorothy Arnold, whom he later married and with whom he had a son, Joe Jr.

    The defining event of DiMaggio's career occurred in 1941, when he got at least one base hit in 56 consecutive games--a feat of consistency no other player has come close to matching. Evolutionary biologist (and sports buff) Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that "DiMaggio's streak is the most extraordinary thing that ever happened in American sports."

    DiMaggio retired at the end of the 1951 season, after having been hobbled for several years by painful bone spurs in his right heel. (A few sportswriters did not blush at comparing him to Achilles.) Those who never saw him play and who consult the common statistical benchmarks may wonder at DiMaggio's renown. His lifetime batting average (.325) was good, but not so high as those of his rough contemporaries Stan Musial (.331) and Ted Williams (.344). DiMaggio's career home runs (361) also trailed Musial's (475) and Williams' (521). But Joltin' Joe drove in more runs per game than either man and had far fewer strikeouts than any comparable slugger. (For an analysis of his performance, please see the article that follows this one.)

    Once out of baseball, DiMaggio did the only thing that would attract more attention than his 1941 streak. Long divorced from his first wife, he courted and in 1954 married Marilyn Monroe. This union was passionate but star-crossed. Freed at last from the demands and expectations created by his on-field heroics, he craved privacy and a quiet life; she attracted, wherever she went, a maelstrom of publicity. He believed in punctuality; she was always late. He expected an Old World housewife; she was a New World sex goddess. He wanted her to abandon the movies and settle with him in San Francisco; she was reveling in a fame that outstripped even her teenage fantasies.

    Gay Talese was one of the few journalists to gain a measure of DiMaggio's trust in later years, and an article in his 1970 collection Fame and Obscurity called "The Silent Season of a Hero" recounts a telling vignette from the nine-month Monroe-DiMaggio marriage. During their delayed honeymoon in Japan, she was asked by a U.S. Army general to visit the troops in Korea. When she got back, she said, "It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering." He replied, "Yes I have."

    Being the man who had won and lost Marilyn Monroe added a new dimension to the DiMaggio legend. So did his quiet grief after her death in 1962, when he arranged her funeral--barring the Hollywood types whom he felt had betrayed her--and ordered fresh flowers placed weekly on her grave. The great poker-faced star had a heart after all, and the world could see that it had been broken.

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