I’m always torn when it comes to aristocracy. I appreciate the elegance and class. On the other hand, I despise the snobbery and air of entitlement.
Those who saw him play agree that Joe DiMaggio personified grace. They agree he did things regular players couldn’t. Many of them are convinced he was the greatest ever. Although I was alive while DiMaggio played, I don’t recall ever hearing a radio broadcast when he played or saw him on TV. So I don’t know these things from personal experience. But the way he played, the way he carried himself, made DiMaggio baseball’s greatest aristocrat.
After time in the minors, DiMaggio got to New York in 1936. He became an instant starter and in many ways the heir to Babe Ruth. He hit third in front of Lou Gehrig, he played the outfield (although not the same position), he hit for power, he scored a lot of runs, he drove in more. His arrival coincided with the first of four consecutive Yankees pennants and four consecutive World Series triumphs. Losing the AL pennant in 1940 to Detroit, the Yankees bounced back in 1941, highlighted by DiMaggio’s famous 56 game hitting streak. They won the Series in 1941, lost in 1942, then DiMaggio went to war.
He lost all of 1943, ’44, and ’45 to World War II. He returned in 1946, had something like a down season, then roared back for typical DiMaggio seasons in 1947 and 1948. In 1949 came the foot injury. He had one more fine year in 1950, then closed out his career in 1951. He made the Hall of Fame in 1955. His numbers look good. He hit .325, slugged .579, and had an on base percentage of .398 for an OPS of 977 (OPS + of 155). He ended up with 2214 hits, 3948 total bases, 361 home runs, 389 doubles, 1390 runs, 1537 RBIs, 790 walks, and 369 strikeouts. His fielding percentage was .978.
When most people talk about DiMaggio they either begin with his marriage or with the number 56. Me? I’d like to begin with four other numbers: ten, thirteen, ten again, and nine. Joe DiMaggio played thirteen seasons between 1936 and 1951 (the thirteen). In those thirteen seasons he played in ten World Series’ (the first of the tens). Nobody, not Ruth, not Gehrig, has that kind of record. Even Yogi Berra doesn’t do that (He’s fourteen of nineteen.). Want the other numbers? In ten World Series’ (the other ten) the Yankees win nine (the nine). If you’re interested, the loss is to St. Louis in 1942.
All that is impressive to me. Now I know that what I’m looking at is really a team stat, but in this case that’s not that great a problem. Except for 1936 and 1937 (and maybe 1938) it’s DiMaggio’s team. He is the unquestioned finest player on the team once Lou Gehrig’s career wanes in 1938 (and ends in 1939). So I’ll give DiMaggio the impressive team numbers.
Having said all that, he wasn’t a particularly great World Series player. He hit .271 (high of .346 in 1936), slugged.422, never hit more than two home runs in a Series (1947) and never knocked in more than five runs (1951). Those aren’t bad numbers, but do they strike you as DiMaggio-like? His greatness in many ways lies in getting New York through the regular season. Once they get to the Series, the Yankees had to rely on someone else. They had no World Series MVP award when he played, but had they and had I a vote, I would always have voted for someone else.
There’s nothing wrong with his regular season statistics. He led the league in hitting twice (back to back in 1939 and 1940) with a high of .381. On two occasions he won the home run title. He won two RBI crowns, two slugging titles, three MVP awards, and had that streak that everyone knows. To me his most impressive stat is that he has exactly eight (count ’em, eight) more strikeouts than home runs. Going into his final season, his home run total was actually higher (349 to 333). Nine times DiMaggio hit 25 or more home runs. In seven of those seasons he struck out less times than he homered. In 1950 it was close: 33 home runs, 33 strikeouts. The other season was his rookie campaign when he hit 29 home runs and had a career high 39 strikeouts (Hey, everyone’s entitled to a bad rookie campaign.). Think about 39 strikeouts for a career high. For some guy’s that’s a month.
There’s a lot of ink spilled about how many home runs he lost by playing in Yankee Stadium. Back in the 1930s and 1940s it was a bus ride from home to the left field fence. For his career DiMaggio hit .315 at home, .333 on the road, not all that much of a difference. He had 41% of his home runs in Yankee Stadium, which isn’t a bad percentage but isn’t great either. He did have more triples in New York, but like I said it was forever to the fence in left.
There is universal agreement that he was a great Center Fielder. You even hear the word “elegant” to describe him. His range factor is second among Hall of Fame center fielders (to Richie Ashburn). His fielding numbers are fine for his era. He only led the AL in putouts and assists once, but was regularly in the top three or four (which in an eight team league isn’t as impressive as it would be today). Unfortunately, he also led the AL in errors once (1937).
Even in retirement, the aristocrat remained. DiMaggio, unlike a lot of the rest of us, kept his weight down. He seldom, if ever, played in an old-timers game so that we saw his failing skills, he didn’t wear his old uniform in public. Even his Mr. Coffee commercials were quite, calm, dignified. Billy Mays he wasn’t. DiMaggio did carry at least one thing to an extreme that is aristocratic snobbery. In 1969 he was voted the “greatest living ballplayer”. Whether you agree or not, DiMaggio obviously loved the compliment. Ever afterwards he insisted on being introduced with that title. The problem was the increasing presence of people named Aaron, Mantle, Mays, Musial, Williams (listed alphabetical).
Joe DiMaggio is in some ways the hardest of the truly great players to define. His numbers aren’t just overwhelming, but his career is short (Sandy Koufax has the same kind of problem). His personality sometimes becomes more the story than the play (see all the fuss and feathers over his kicking the dirt in the 1947 World Series). And then there is the transcendent nature of 56. It so dwarfs his other stats, his other accomplishments, that it pushes everything else into something akin to oblivion. But for all that, and possibly because of all that, DiMaggio is one of the single most fascinating players to study.