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Baseball Legend Joe DiMaggio Dies

March 8, 1999

Joe DiMaggio, the elegant Yankee Clipper whose 56-game hitting streak endures as one of baseball’s greatest records, died today at his home in Hollywood, Fla. Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away, as the song said, at age 84.

DiMaggio, who underwent lung cancer surgery in October and battled complications for weeks afterward, died shortly after midnight, said Morris Engelberg, his longtime friend and attorney.

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

DiMaggio’s body was flown to Northern California for a funeral Thursday and burial in his hometown of San Francisco.

``DiMaggio, the consummate gentleman on and off the field, fought his illness as hard as he played the game of baseball and with the same dignity, style and grace with which he lived his life,″ said Engelberg, DiMaggio’s next-door neighbor.

During his 99 days in the hospital, DiMaggio suffered several setbacks from lung infections and even fell into a coma briefly, but he astounded his doctors by repeatedly bouncing back. At one point, NBC reported in error that he had died.

When DiMaggio left the hospital Jan. 19, he was invited by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to throw out the ceremonial first ball at the Yankees’ home opener April 9. After DiMaggio came home from the hospital, a sign was placed on his bed saying ``April 9 Yankee Stadium or Bust.″

Steinbrenner said today he visited a weak but alert DiMaggio five days ago to remind him of the invitation.

``He just smiled,″ Steinbrenner said.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig called DiMaggio ``the personification of grace, class and dignity on the baseball diamond.″

``As an immigrant’s son, he represented the hopes and ideals of our great country,″ Selig said.

The Hall of Fame flag in Cooperstown, N.Y., was lowered to half staff and a wreath was placed around DiMaggio’s plaque.

The New York Yankees’ center fielder roamed the basepaths for 13 years through 1951, missing three seasons to serve in World War II. During that time he played for 10 pennant winners and nine World Series champions, batted .325 and hit 361 home runs.

But more than anything it was The Streak, during the magical summer of ’41, that riveted a country fresh from the Depression and elevated him from baseball star to national celebrity.

He ascended even higher atop the rank of popular culture in 1954 when he wed Marilyn Monroe, a storybook marriage that failed all too quickly and left him brokenhearted. For years after she died in 1962, DiMaggio sent roses to her grave but refused to talk about her.

His swanky swing and classy countenance inspired wistful lines in literature and song, including Paul Simon’s lament to lost heroes in ``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.″

Indeed, but his legend stands _ shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and very few others who could measure up to them on the sports scene this century.

He won three American League Most Valuable Player awards, appeared in 11 All-Star games and entered the Hall of Fame in 1955. He played for 10 pennant winners and nine World Series champions. For half a century, he was introduced as ``the greatest living player.″

Yet DiMaggio’s exceptional numbers don’t account fully for his almost legendary place on the American cultural landscape, the reason why Simon sang about him and Ernest Hemingway wrote 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.″

A handsome man of quiet strength _ unpretentious, proud and intensely private _ DiMaggio embodied the kind of hero parents wanted their sons to emulate. He had class, on and off the field.

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 shined 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.″

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 in Cleveland _ 56 games. 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 of tying DiMaggio during his best challenge in 1978.

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 Municipal Stadium when Keltner robbed him of two hits. That typified the stoic DiMaggio, who rarely displayed emotion.

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. Oh-ho, doctor!″ Barber said.

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

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.

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 Army service during World War II. Though bothered by stomach ulcers part of the time, he spent 2 1/2 years in the Army’s physical training program for air cadets.

Paying tribute to DiMaggio and fellow slugger Ted 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 kept him sidelined 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.

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 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 Boston 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 signed him for $25,000 _ one of the greatest bargains in baseball history.

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.

The Yankees retired his No. 5 in 1952.

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.

Besides his brother, Dom, survivors include a son, Joe Jr.; two grandchildren, Paula and Cathy; and four great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital and to the Hospice Care of Broward County, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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