Every so often, a man will come along who changes the game completely, yet he will do so with such grace and dignity, that it’s hard to see what exactly has changed until he is long gone. Then suddenly, it all becomes clear. This man will leave you awestruck. You will look at him with admiration, yet you find yourself challenged by a skepticism that begs the question: “Where did this guy come from?”
Joe DiMaggio was such a man.
Known as “Joltin’ Joe” and “The Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio was one of the greats – an American icon who enchanted a nation and earned a revered place in history. With a natural grace, undeniable power, and remarkable devotion to the game of baseball, DiMaggio changed the way Americans looked at the sport. People from all walks of life came to see this amazing athlete. He alone found fans in the most unlikely places. From 10-year-olds to 90-year-olds, from every race, class, and creed, DiMaggio drew the masses and entertained America in a way that had never been done before.
DiMaggio was born in Martinez, California on November 25, 1914. The 8th of 9 children born to Italian immigrants, Giuseppe and Rosalia, DiMaggio grew up in a crowded but happy home. When he was just 1 year old, his family moved to San Francisco. Giuseppe, a fisherman, had desperately hoped his sons would follow in his footsteps and become fishermen as well. DiMaggio balked at the mere suggestion, later recalling that he would do just about anything to avoid having to help clean his father’s boat, as the smell left him nauseated.
As a boy, DiMaggio joined the Boys Club League, where he first learned the rules of the game. DiMaggio’s team went all the way to the championships, where DiMaggio hit two home runs and led his team to victory. His innate talent for the game was clear, and it was only a matter of time before others saw it, too.
In March of 1932, DiMaggio’s older brother Vince made the minor leagues—The San Francisco Seals. When a shortstop was needed, Vince talked the manager into letting his younger brother fill in. DiMaggio made his professional baseball debut on April 12, 1935 and helped the Seals finish out the season. In his first full year playing minor league ball, DiMaggio made quite an impact. He batted .340 with 169 RBIs, and had a whopping 28 home runs. From May 27 to July 25, 1933 DiMaggio went on a 61-game hitting streak. Teammates, coaches and fans were astonished. Word of DiMaggio’s prodigy spread rapidly, and professional scouts from far and wide made the journey to see him perform.
When DiMaggio suffered a blow to his left knee in 1934, many counted him out. But New York Yankees scout Bill Essick was convinced otherwise, and convinced the Seals to sell DiMaggio’s contract for $25,000 and five players. DiMaggio worked furiously to rehabilitate his knee. While his injury kept him from reporting to the Yankees that year, he spent one more year with the Seals and finished his minor league career with a .389 batting average, 154 RBIs, and 34 home runs. He even led the Seals to the 1935 Championship title and was named the League’s MVP. Safe to say that Essick made a wise bet.
DiMaggio made his major league debut on May 3, 1936 against the St. Louis Browns. At the time, the Yankees boasted such elites as Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez. Babe Ruth had left the team two years earlier. Despite the prominence and prestige of these players, DiMaggio immediately made a splash. In his rookie season, he helped the team to its first pennant in four years. They even went on to take the World Series over the New York Giants. DiMaggio finished his rookie season against the Giants by making a game-changing catch in deep center field in front of over 43,000 fans, among them President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Yankees hadn’t been to the World Series since 1932, but with DiMaggio, they won the next four Fall Classics. In total, DiMaggio led the team to 9 titles in 13 years.
1941 proved to be a monumental year for DiMaggio, and a historical year for baseball. It was May 15, and the Yankees were down 13-1 against the Chicago White Sox. DiMaggio was up to bat and hit a line drive to left center field and scored a single RBI. This hit became the start of a run on the record books that had never been seen before, which eventually became known as “The Streak.” The nation’s eyes were glued to DiMaggio as he went on a 56-game hitting streak. During this time, he produced unprecedented statistics, with 91 hits in 223 at-bats, averaging a .409. The streak ended on July 17, when Cleveland’s third baseman stopped the run. Though the streak ended, DiMaggio continued what was an already incredible season.
DiMaggio spent his entire Major League career with the New York Yankees. His unflagging loyalty and undeniable talent not only made him a role model and celebrity, but a hero in the eyes of a nation.
In 1948, DiMaggio suffered a debilitating heel injury that would eventually lead to his retirement in 1951. DiMaggio was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
DiMaggio had changed the game of baseball forever. His performance on the field inspired, urging others to strive for something more. His dedication to his team set the standard for loyalty, and what it means to truly be part of something. Generation after generation has looked to DiMaggio as the precedent, as the one to aspire to—not just as a baseball player, but as a man. His perseverance, devotion, and greatness live on through his legacy. DiMaggio, indeed, was truly a game changer.
Also, be sure to check out this week’s episode of The Sports Showcase where we’re featuring a signed photo of Yankee greats Micky Mantle, Reggie Jackson, and of course Joe Dimaggio.