Joe DiMaggio by Kevin Fitzpatrick
In American pop culture, there is one 20th Century icon who stands above all others for crossing over from professional sports to page-one celebrity: Joe DiMaggio.
In the decades before 24-hour TV, ESPN or Web sites slavishly devoted to celebritydom, DiMaggio (1914-1999) touched all the bases for going from the sports page to the gossip page. Here are three reasons: He was a Hall of Fame baseball player who holds records that won't ever be broken. His short, stormy marriage to sex bomb Marilyn Monroe. His cult of personality that grew with the 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song Mrs. Robinson, and as pitchman for coffee machines and savings banks.
DiMaggio's death March 8, 1999, in his Hollywood, Fla., home was anxiously awaited by newspaper headline writers and TV news producers. DiMaggio's tribute packages were ready to roll because he'd been on death's doorstep for six months. He'd received last rites and had been in a few comas. When he finally checked out of the ICU in January 1999, he and the media all knew it was time to go.
DiMaggio occupies a special place in a lot of fan's hearts for a variety of reasons. Once dubbed "the last American hero," and in 1969 voted baseball's greatest living player, the aloof, silent star shunned the spotlight and had a reputation as a recluse. He was mythologized in stories and in song. He was cold to his teammates and warmed up to only his close friends, which included Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
The "Yankee Clipper" kept to himself and was intensely private. Teammates who played with him for 10 years never had dinner with him. When rookie Mickey Mantle joined the team in 1950, DiMaggio frightened him so much, The Mick never spoke to him the whole season. "He's one of the loneliest guys I ever knew," fellow Yankee Eddie Lopat once said. "And he leads the league in room service."
Born Joseph Paul DiMaggio in Martinez, Calif., on Nov. 25, 1914, he was the son of a Sicilian immigrant fisherman, and the second of three brothers who would play in the major leagues. All three started for the local San Francisco Seals. His poor roots were immortalized in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing," the Hemingway character Santiago says. "Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."
Fame came calling in 1936 when he joined the New York Yankees. As a rookie he played with Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey. He wore uniform No. 5 and starred in centerfield. He led the Yanks to 10 Word Series, winning nine championships. In Yankees pinstripes he achieved baseball immortality with a 56-game consecutive game hitting streak in 1941. Joltin' Joe only played 13 years in the big leagues -- injuries and service in Word War II as an army sergeant cut his career short -- but he left an indelible mark. He compiled a .325 batting average and slammed 361 home runs. After the 1951 World Series, he retired due to injuries. "I'm not Joe DiMaggio anymore," he lamented. New York cried.