Originally created 03/09/99

Baseball great Joe DiMaggio dies



HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- He was simply and forever the Yankee Clipper, amazing America with The Streak, captivating it with his class and inspiring wistful lines in literature and song.

Joe DiMaggio died at home Monday, surrounded by family and friends, following a five-month battle with lung cancer.

At age 84, Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.

But his legend lingers, shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, his fellow Yankees. Very few others could measure up to them on the sports scene this century.

DiMaggio underwent surgery in October, battling complications for weeks afterward and even falling into a coma briefly during his 99-day hospitalization. But he also astounded his doctors by repeatedly bouncing back.

DiMaggio left the hospital Jan. 19 to recuperate at home, where his bed was decorated with a sign that said, "April 9. Yankee Stadium or Bust."

He died shortly after midnight, said Morris Engelberg, his longtime friend and attorney, one month and one day shy of making it back to the Bronx for the home opener. For years DiMaggio had smoked three packs a day, and at times he even sneaked behind the runway at Yankee Stadium during games to have a cigarette with Gehrig.

At DiMaggio's bedside when he died were brother Dominick, a former major league outfielder; two grandchildren; Engelberg; and Joe Nacchio, his friend of 59 years.

Tributes poured in from baseball's past and present.

Said Ted Williams, who shared the spotlight with DiMaggio in the '41 season by batting .406 for Boston, the last time anyone batted .400: "There is no one Ted Williams admired, respected and envied more than Joe DiMaggio. Because of my close relationship with the DiMaggio family, I feel a very deep personal loss."

Said former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda: "If you said to God, `Create someone who was what a baseball player should be,' God would have created Joe DiMaggio. And he did."

Commissioner Bud Selig said he idolized DiMaggio: "I never saw a player who was as graceful. There was an aura about him that was amazing."

The Hall of Fame flag in Cooperstown, N.Y., was lowered to half-staff and a wreath was placed around DiMaggio's plaque. U.S. flags at Yankee Stadium, including the one in left field's hallowed Monument Park, were also at half-staff.

DiMaggio roamed center field and ran the basepaths for 13 years through 1951, playing for 10 pennant winners and nine World Series champions despite missing three years because of service in World War II.

He batted .325 lifetime, with 361 home runs. He won three AL Most Valuable Player awards, appeared in 11 All-Star games, and entered the Hall of Fame in 1955, his third year of eligibility. For half a century, he was introduced as "the greatest living player."

Yet, the numbers don't account fully for his almost legendary place on the American cultural landscape, the reason Ernest Hemingway wrote about him and Simon and Garfunkel sang about him. There was something about the courtly bearing of this son of Italian immigrants that made him special.

"I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing," the ancient Cuban fisherman says in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." "They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."

Perhaps it was the swanky swing and classy countenance that inspired Simon and Garfunkel's lament to lost heroes in the song "Mrs. Robinson" from the movie "The Graduate":

"Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

"A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

"What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?

"Joltin' Joe has left and gone away."

The summer of '41 was magical largely because of DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, one of baseball's most enduring records. The streak riveted a country fresh from the Depression, with war just months away, and elevated DiMaggio from baseball star to national celebrity.

He ascended to the top rank of popular culture in 1954 when he wed Marilyn Monroe, a storybook marriage that lasted less than a year and left him brokenhearted. For years after she died in 1962, DiMaggio sent roses to her grave but refused to talk about her.

A handsome man of quiet strength -- unpretentious, proud and intensely private -- DiMaggio embodied the kind of hero parents wanted their sons to emulate.

Though unusually shy, DiMaggio also could come across as your friendly neighbor, as he did in his later years, touting the virtues of a savings bank and Mr. Coffee on television to a generation that never saw him play. In more recent years, he devoted himself to his grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and to raising money for the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Fla.

DiMaggio's only child was a son, Joe Jr., from his first marriage to Dorothy Arnold, an actress he met while working on a movie, "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round," in 1937. Their marriage ended in divorce.

He didn't seek the limelight but lived his life slipping into and out of it, uncomfortable when it shone on him. The story goes that when Monroe squealed delightedly that she had been cheered by tens of thousands of troops in Korea and told DiMaggio he couldn't imagine what that was like, he deadpanned, "Oh, yes, I can."

And no ballplayer ever heard more cheers than DiMaggio did during the streak. There was a song written about it, and crowds waited for him to come to town. In city after city, he kept the streak alive, getting at least one hit in every game from May 15 until July 17. No one has come close since.

During an appearance in 1991, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the streak, DiMaggio expressed surprise it was still a record.

"There are a lot of great ballplayers," he said. "One day, someone's going to come along and break it. But I've been saying that for 50 years."

Pete Rose fell 12 games short in 1978, the best challenge.

During the streak, DiMaggio batted .408 with 91 hits in 223 at-bats, 15 homers and 55 RBIs.

It took a pair of remarkable fielding plays by third baseman Ken Keltner in the 57th game to stop DiMaggio. He then immediately began another streak of 16 games -- meaning he batted safely in 72 of 73 games.

There was no demonstration of disappointment that day in Cleveland's League Park when Keltner robbed him of two hits. That typified the stoic DiMaggio.

A rare departure from the DiMaggio cool was captured on what is probably the most famous film clip of his career. It was one of the greatest plays in World Series history -- a game-saving catch by Brooklyn's Al Gionfriddo in 1947 -- and a broadcast classic by Red Barber.

"Back, back, back, back, back, and he makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen. Ohhh, doctor!" Barber said.

The camera caught DiMaggio kicking the dirt in an ever-so-gentle display of frustration as he neared second base.

DiMaggio was born on Nov. 25, 1914, in Martinez, Calif. His father operated a fishing boat in San Francisco, and expected his sons to follow in his footsteps. But Joe and his brothers, Vince and Dom, spent most of their time playing baseball.

The elder DiMaggio called it "a bum's game," but he lived to see all three of his boys become professional players. Dom, the youngest, played with the Red Sox. Vince, the eldest, was with five National League teams.

New York actually took a chance by signing Joe. He had been a star with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and once had a 61-game hitting streak. But a knee injury scared off all but the Yankees. They bought him for $25,000 -- one of the greatest bargains in baseball history.

DiMaggio arrived in New York in May 1936 at age 21. He introduced himself to Yankees fans with two singles and a triple in his first game, and never slowed until retirement.

DiMaggio earned $7,500 in his first year, but got $100,000 in each of his final three seasons, making him the highest-paid player of his time. He made more than that in recent years just for signing his name at baseball memorabilia shows.

Before DiMaggio, baseball's biggest stars were men like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Although his accomplishments rivaled theirs in many ways, DiMaggio's style was in sharp contrast.

Cobb and Ruth were colorful, larger-than-life characters, one a belligerent, short-tempered man who played the game with a vengeance, the other a gregarious, party-going slugger who set the standard for all home-run hitters.

DiMaggio was quiet and reserved with a gift for making everything look easy, whether it was an over-the-shoulder catch of a 400-foot drive or a home run to the deepest part of then-cavernous Yankee Stadium. He also had a strong, accurate arm rarely challenged by base runners.

"I was out there to play and give it all I had," he said in 1991. "I looked at it like, `I'm doing my best.' If I got the hit, fine. I always felt good that I had given my best."

Only twice did DiMaggio bat less than .300. He accumulated 3,948 total bases and drove in 1,537 runs. He finished his career with 2,214 hits.

He was the MVP in 1939, 1941 and 1947. He was the AL batting champion in 1939 with a .381 average and in 1940 at .352. He led the league in RBIs in 1941 with 125 and in 1948 with 155. He had the most homers in the league in 1937 with 46 and in 1948 with 39.

There were other records, and undoubtedly there would have been even more had he not volunteered for the Army during World War II. Though bothered by stomach ulcers for part of the time, he spent 2« years in the Army's physical training program for air cadets.

Honoring DiMaggio and Williams in a 1991 White House salute, President Bush said their military service "deprived them of even greater statistics, but also enhanced their greatness in the eyes of Americans."

DiMaggio battled a string of injuries during his career and seven times missed opening day. He underwent three operations within two years for bone spurs in his heels and bone chips in his arm.

In 1949, an inflamed heel sidelined him for 65 games. When he returned to the lineup, his home run helped the Yankees beat Boston 5-4, and he went on to bat .500 in their three-game series. It was as if he'd never been gone.

DiMaggio decided to call it quits at age 37. It was not a sudden decision.

"The old timing was beginning to leave me, and my reflexes were beginning to slow up," he explained.

By the end of his last season, he said, "It had become a chore for me to play."

"I found it difficult getting out of bed in the morning, especially after a night game," he said. "I was full of aches and pains."

The Yankees won the World Series in his final year, and he finished with a flourish. He hit a home run in the fourth game and had six hits in 11 at-bats.

Long after retiring as a player, DiMaggio served briefly as a vice president and coach for the Oakland A's, and as a member of the board of directors of the Baltimore Orioles. When he was not traveling, DiMaggio lived alone in his home on exclusive Harbour Island, Fla.