Tuesday, November 25, 2014

This Day in Yankee History (Joe DiMaggio, Best—and Loneliest—Player of His Time, Born)

November 25, 1914—Joe DiMaggio—the first “five-tool” baseball player, the first to sign a $100,000 contract, a figure celebrated in popular culture as perhaps no contemporary was—was born the eighth of nine children to Italian immigrant parents in Martinez, Calif.

In his short 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway has his simple but brave Cuban fisherman reflect on the New York Yankee. "I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing, the old man said. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."

Would he ever. The slugger knew the life of a fisherman, all right, and the smell of dead fish on his father’s boat convinced him that the family business would not be his. Poverty not only left him without riches but without formal education or any of the polite social graces. What it did give him was a goad to extraordinary achievement.

"A ball player has to be kept hungry to become a big leaguer,” DiMaggio told a reporter from The New York Times in 1961, 10 years after his retirement. “That's why no boy from a rich family has ever made the big leagues."

That hunger is usually forgotten whenever baseball fans try to make sense of DiMaggio’s assets. As much as the next person, I’m in awe of the grace and uncoiled, explosive power of the swing that led Boston Red Sox infielder Bobby Doerr to point out that his American League rival “hit balls like rockets, with top-spin, that exploded past third basemen. It always seemed as if he hit the ball hard. Every at bat."

Surely other players, then and now, possess astonishing physical gifts. But DiMaggio’s were welded to an all-consuming competitiveness. When brother Dom, a centerfielder for the Red Sox, made a set of acrobatic catches that deprived him of as many as eight runs batted in that day, he could scarcely speak to his sibling when they dined that night. At the height of his 56-game consecutive hitting streak in 1941 (a record still unsurpassed), he was wound tight—caffeine- and cigarette-addicted, sleepless.

DiMaggio’s obsession with getting the best out of himself so that he could lead his team to victory—a quest that not only won him three Most Valuable Player awards, but the Yankees 10 pennants and nine World Series titles—was all-consuming. It left him little if any interior life outside the game itself. His two marriages (including, most famously, to Marilyn Monroe) terminated in divorce; he ended up estranged from his only son; and even the teammates who knew he was their meal ticket regarded him as a loner who “led the league in room service.”

As time went on, money not only became DiMaggio’s means of ascent but also his armor and validation. His failed holdout for more money after his second successful season led—incredibly—to booing by fans upon his return—and a resolve that he would not lose the upper hand in negotiations with management again.

After his career, DiMaggio became even more grasping. His lawyer, Morris Engelberg, won him lucrative advertising contracts and memorabilia-signing appearances, but they never seemed enough. On the cable show Arli$$ three years after the Hall of Famer's death in 1999, James Coburn, in his last TV appearance, played "Slaughterhouse Sid" Pirelli, a surly, greedy slugger uncomfortably close, to many who knew him in his final years, to the Yankee Clipper.

In "Mrs. Robinson," Simon and Garfunkel famously sang, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" It was a lament for the disappearance of American heroes. In the case of the man who inspired the line, it was probably just as well that the public kept its vision confined to the ballpark where "baseball's greatest living player" had reigned supreme--a tendency that the notoriously private slugger would have preferred anyway.

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