Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio

He liked small talk. He hated signing autographs. He was married to one

of the most famous women in the world, but he

never– never –talked about it. And even his teammates found

him an enigma.

Joe DiMaggio was a sports legend, an American icon and a modern Mona

Lisa–haunting and unknowable, open to a thousand interpretations.

Millions loved him from afar, but he was estranged from his only child and

namesake, who works in a junkyard and lives in a trailer in northern

California. His annual visits to Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium

always inspired affectionate ovations, yet he was a man with few

friends.

Some who knew him–and some who didn’t–tried to explain

the man’s accomplishments, complexity and contradictions:

Bill James, statistics maven

The New York sportswriters of a certain generation, the postwar

generation, idolized DiMaggio and built him up to be the greatest player

who ever lived. What I would say is, O.K., you can rate him there if you

want to. I’m not going to say that he doesn’t belong there, but I

can’t point to anything that says that DiMaggio was better than Willie

Mays.

A lot of what made DiMaggio great escapes me. People who saw him play

often tried to tell me how fantastic he was, but I don’t understand

what they’re saying. There are things about that I can see that make

him a great player, but there’s a lot that I really don’t

understand. Yes, he did everything well. He hit .325 with a lot of power.

But if you didn’t see him, you wouldn’t understand it.

His ratio of runs-driven-in to games played was exceptionally high: He

drove in 0.89 runs per game, which is the third-highest in this century

behind Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg. That’s certainly an exceptional

statistic. And his strikeout-to-home-run ratio was the best of any player

in history, 361 home runs, 369 strikeouts.

Other than the 56-game hitting streak, DiMaggio has no single number

that is remarkable. The people who understand him are the people in his

generation. There’s something that you hear about him all the

time–that he never made a base-running error. I personally think

it’s a lot of crap. I imagine he made as many base-running errors as

anyone else did. It’s just that it’s been a long time and people

have forgotten. I don’t believe it at all. His base-running

statistics–30 stolen bases, and he was caught nine times in his

career–that’s completely unremarkable. Gates Brown, who was kind

of a fat pinch hitter from the 1960’s, had 30 stolen bases and was

caught eight times. It’s nothing, really. DiMaggio’s R.B.I.

total, 1,500, is not that high.

He played in an era that was largely dominated by hitters. It took a lot

of runs to win a ball game at that time. The two guys he’s behind on

the list of R.B.I.’s per game–one of them was a teammate, Gehrig,

and another is a player who is almost an exact contemporary, Greenberg.

Conditions were different then. The ball parks were larger and the games

were played during the daytime. Hitters see the ball better during the

daytime.

The only thing that’s remarkable about him is the balance of his

skills–power, hitting for average, driving in and scoring runs, and

playing defense.

His statistics are not that remarkable. People try to rank him among the

greatest players ever, and maybe he was, but his statistics are not that

remarkable on any level. His greatness does not come out in his statistics.

I rank him as a great player, but it’s based on reading underneath the

statistics and keeping in mind what people said about him.

Ray Robinson, author

There was one anecdote–I will not use the name of the

person–that gives some insight. About eight or nine years ago, when

Joe was visiting New York on a summer evening, he told a very close friend

that he hadn’t had a good Italian meal in a long time. “Do you

know any good places?” he asked. And the friend did, it was some place

down in the East Village. It was a very satisfactory meal, after which his

friend, of course, paid for it. He was very reluctant to pick up tabs. Then

when they walked outside into the heat of the summer night, Joe said,

‘You know, I haven’t had a good ice cream cone in a long

time.” So they went into an ice cream place around the corner and

immediately, of course, the guy behind the counter said, “What’ll

you have, Mr. DiMaggio?” And DiMaggio said, “I’ll have the

best thing you have with all the trimmings.” And this guy presented

him with this magnificent ice cream cone with all sorts of stuff on it. And

Joe said, “How much is it?” And the guy said, “Five

dollars.” And Joe said, “Take it back.”

I imagine he was a very lonely guy, even though he was always treated

like a potentate. He was almost like a head of state. I think he was very

cognizant of the fact that he was one of the first Italian heroes and he

wanted to behave properly in every way, including how he looked and how he

appeared on the ballfield. DiMaggio was silky, elegant. I can see him now.

He always looked good on a ball field. So you can tell Bill James that he

can unwrap himself from those statistics.

Jeff Kisseloff, author

My mom tells a Joe DiMaggio story. It was during a World Series. Her

grandfather took her to the Series, and Joe DiMaggio and [Yankee pitcher]

Red Ruffing were sitting underneath the stands, talking. Nobody was

bothering them whatsoever, and my mother goes over there and she says,

“Mr. DiMaggio, can I please have your autograph?” He just ignored

her. He didn’t say, “No.” He didn’t say, “Excuse

me.” So she asks again. And he refused to even turn around. Finally

Red Ruffing said to him, “Come on, Joe, just sign for the girl.”

And he just sat there. It was like she didn’t even exist. My mother

said she would never buy Mr. Coffee.

Marty Appel, former head of Yankee public relations

He was a tough friend. He only had a handful of friends over the

years. They were the people who tended to cater to his business needs. It

was important for a lot of people to be able to say, “Joe DiMaggio

knows who I am.” Those people would really go to great lengths to

nurture a friendship with him.

He always knew his worth, going back to his playing days in the

30’s when he would hold out on his contracts with the Yankees. He had

a great sense of self at all times. He also knew when it was time to stop

playing in Old-Timers’ games–when it was time to stop wearing a

uniform ceremonially because he might look foolish. A photographer once

snapped a picture of him in the clubhouse while he was putting on his

uniform shirt [on Old-Timers' Day]. Joe obviously felt it was

inappropriate. While he was still in great shape, he just felt he

wasn’t the muscular athlete of his youth. That was the last year that

he ever changed in the clubhouse.

Robert Creamer, former Sports Illustrated writer

He was pleasant enough but not very revealing. He was a very private

man. He was a professional ballplayer when he was 17. So that was his life.

He wasn’t a scholar, he wasn’t a student, he wasn’t really

interested in anything but playing baseball, which he did very well. He

goes back to the Sicilian mystique–keep your mouth shut. The less you

say, the less stupid you appear. Not that DiMaggio was stupid, but I

don’t think he was interested in an awful lot of stuff. I don’t

think he was that interesting a man. DiMaggio wasn’t a myth, he was

real. He was a baseball player. He was a tremendous ballplayer. The myth

grew up around this great quietness.

One time I talked to him I was [in Florida] in a restaurant and bar in

some place called the Yankee Clipper Motel. I was there with a

photographer, Tony Triolo, and all of the sudden here’s DiMaggio on

the other side of this very empty bar. And Tony went over and started

talking to him. I joined them. Tony and Joe were talking about Italian

boyhoods–what their mothers cooked, what kind of food they liked. I

think that’s what DiMaggio liked–small talk with people he could

trust who weren’t trying to get something out of him.

Marvin Miller, union lawyer, former head of the Major League Players

Association

I met him on my first trip around spring training camps in 1966. I

had been nominated as executive director of the players’ association

and I was meeting with all the players. At that point, DiMaggio was the

batting instructor during spring training for the Yankees. When the meeting

with the Yankees was over, all the players left [except for] Mickey Mantle.

He was busy wrapping his legs with the most god-awful length of tape

I’ve ever seen. And as I was leaving the locker room, a tall man was

coming in. It’s still funny when I think of it–as if I

wouldn’t recognize him he said, “My name is Joe DiMaggio. I

wonder if I could talk to you for a minute.” He had let his health

care under the benefit plan lapse and he wondered what were the rules and

regulations about getting back on the plan.

During the conversation, he asked me: “Would you take a look at

this uniform of mine and tell me what you think?” And I looked at it

closely. It was shabby. Of course he wasn’t even a regular player at

that time, but it was shabby. It was old and frazzled and there was a

button missing. I didn’t know what to say. And he said seriously, in a

rather bitter tone, “You would think the Yankees could do better by me

than this, wouldn’t you?”

Tommy Henrich, onetime Yankee teammate

He wasn’t very outgoing. He was a fine guy. He had good morals

and all that stuff. But he wasn’t a conversationalist. I didn’t

talk about anything of a personal nature with Joe. He was introverted.

That’s all there is to it. You are what you are. He didn’t hurt

anybody, I’ll tell you that. That’s more than a lot of guys can

say.

Dick Schapp, sportswriter and author

My favorite memory of DiMaggio will always be him and Hank Greenberg

singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with a chorus of female

athletes at a party in Las Vegas after a tennis tournament. I have it on

videotape. There’s DiMaggio and Greenberg each leaning on a bat and

singing with terrible voices. It was such an un-DiMaggio moment. It was one

of those rare moments when he did not seem totally dignified and it was

wonderful.

I tried for 20 years to persuade him to work with me on a book, and it

reached the point where he would kid about it when he would see me. You

know, “When are we going to do the book?” he’d joke. And I

knew the answer was never. He never wanted to do the story. Even if you

said, “Joe, I just want it to be about baseball,” which was the

code for, “I don’t want to ask you about Marilyn [Monroe].”

He knew what people really wanted to talk about.

The only guy who commanded a room like DiMaggio was [Muhammad] Ali. Ali

is alone now.