Gliding around basepaths and outfields with the grace of an antelope traversing the Serengeti, Joe DiMaggio lit up a Depression-torn nation eager for heroes.
Tall, lean and humble, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio spiraled from the aimless son of an immigrant fisherman to become an elite achiever — a Hall of Famer and nine-time world champion with the New York Yankees.
He was a high school dropout, yet schooled the major leagues in athletic excellence.
DiMaggio overcame that lack of education plus personal demons to become a national baseball icon. His transcendent reputation was so enduring, he made a fortune in endorsements decades after retiring from the game.
Rise From California
Joltin’ Joe discovered his core competence of extraordinary diamond skills after many setbacks early on. He then followed a strict code of conduct with relentless self-discipline. That rigor elevated his athletic achievements and forged his status as an almost mythic hero to millions of Americans, especially for a generation of recent immigrants who drew energy from his rise beyond the working-class docks near San Francisco.
DiMaggio (1914-99) played with instinctive grace and insisted on playing hard throughout the long, hot baseball seasons.
He also drove himself to conduct public interactions with humility, decency and dignity.
“He cared about public perception and worked hard to meet expectations,” Marty Appel, a former Yankees public relations chief who co-authored the book “Pinstripe Empire” and knew DiMaggio well, told IBD. “His greatest legacy might be the excellence he brought to the diamond on a daily basis.”
DiMaggio stuck to his code, raising his stats and stature. The elite batter became a pitcher — of commercial products in the emerging markets of home coffee machines and sports memorabilia.
His on-field achievements alone were mythmaking:
Making the American League All-Star team all 13 years of his career.
Playing for 10 pennant winners and the nine World Series winners.
Hitting safely in 56 straight games in 1941, a legend-defining record that may never be broken.
Swatting 361 career home runs.
Having 10 top-10 finishes in Most Valuable Player voting, winning three times.
Entering the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
Yet few would’ve pegged DiMaggio as an achiever in his early days.
The Young Man And The Sea
He was born near San Francisco — the eighth of nine children parented by Giuseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio. The patriarch was a career fisherman, as were DiMaggio generations back in Sicily.
Giuseppe tried to, well, lure Joe into the fishing business.
Joe bolted high school to work the boats. Yet he couldn’t stand the smell and stole away to play in sandlot games. He wielded a broken oar as a baseball bat — murmurs of greatness to come. As a teenager, DiMaggio knocked around the docks, a cannery, orange-juice bottling plant and as a truck loader.
His father called him “lazy” and “good for nothing.” The kid was a drifter, then found his stride in baseball at age 18.
An Immediate Hit
DiMaggio tore up the tough Pacific Coast League and became a Yankee sensation starting in 1936. He batted .323, with 206 hits, 29 home runs, and 125 runs batted in for the world champs in his rookie year.
He led the American League with 46 homers and 151 runs the next year while hitting .346 and driving in 167 runs.
He led the league in hitting with a .381 average in 1939, and again at .352 a year later. The legend was launched and stayed orbital for seven decades until his death from lung cancer at 84.
“He certainly had to fight against his lack of education,” said Bill Francis, a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. “He was probably struggling personally and publicly with his lack of education. He fought against and surpassed any projections.”
More than anything, that 56-game hitting streak defined DiMaggio’s athletic archetype.
He pounded hits for two months in 1941, crushing George Sisler’s 41-game record for the modern era. The streak ended only when Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner made two remarkable backhand stabs of sharply hit balls.
Arguably, that streak was the greatest feat in baseball history.
The Hitting-Streak Odds
A total of 52 batters would have to hit .350 in careers spanning more than 1,000 games to create a greater-than-50% chance that even a 50-game streak will happen once, Nobel physics laureate Edward Purcell calculated in the late 1980s.
Only three players had hit thusly at the time.
Playing hard every day was core to DiMaggio’s sense of public duty. “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best,” he said.
Publicly shy, DiMaggio the dropout became a tough contract negotiator, Appel said: “He was no shrinking violet in business matters.”
DiMaggio also generously autographed balls and game programs for fans. Not surprisingly, he appeared on boxes of the squeaky-clean brand cereal Wheaties (and also Camel cigarette ads).
Yet his personal life had a darker side.
He lived by an obstinate and sometimes hurtful private code. Break it — dress improperly, act impolitely or be late for a meeting — and he might wordlessly elbow you from his inner circle.
DiMaggio also was prone to brooding, chain smoking and self-isolating dark spells away from the ballfield. And he could be abrupt, unforgiving and penny-pinching despite being the game’s first $100,000 player.
Meanwhile, he married two of the most glamorous actresses of the times. He had a son with Dorothy Arnold in a marriage of five years. Marilyn Monroe filed for divorce in less than one stormy year.
With baseball, DiMaggio went out on top — retiring after winning the 1951 World Series. He pitched ads for Bowery Savings Bank in New York and other firms — though he was far from a commercial superstar. He turned the corner when two ambitious businessmen astutely recognized DiMaggio’s still-potent brand-selling power decades after retirement.
Vincent Marotta had built a home drip-coffee maker and touted his java as being as good as a restaurant’s brew. The Mr. Coffee machine sold well, though Marotta wanted to reach the next level.
He tracked down DiMaggio’s unlisted phone number, cold-called and soon convinced him to pitch Mr. Coffee in 1974.
Those TV and radio commercials beamed into millions of homes, with Joltin’ Joe delivering caffeine jolts until 1990. His ads were a hit, propelling big sales.
DiMaggio also linked up with a lawyer named Morris Engelberg in 1983. Engelberg helped make the Yankee Clipper a heavy hitter on the autograph circuit.
Name On The Game
Engelberg negotiated lucrative deals for DiMaggio to sign baseball cards, photos and bats for sports firms and at memorabilia shows.
That graceful, flowing signature earned him millions, with $350,000 alone coming from signing 2,000 pieces at one show.
DiMaggio’s net worth shot into the tens of millions of dollars.
He died as an American icon, transcending baseball even today.
And in large measure due to the DiMaggio success formula: “A person always doing his or her best becomes a natural leader just by example.”
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