On what would be Joe DiMaggio’s 100th birthday, we take a look at seven facts about the life of this imperfect but captivating American sports legend.
On November 25, 1914, Joe DiMaggio was born to poor Sicilian immigrants in San Francisco. He grew up to become baseball’s most famous player, a graceful outfielder with a regal presence off the field, but behind the always-impeccable appearance lurked a complicated man. Here are seven facts about the life of this imperfect but captivating American sports legend.
The fourth of five boys and eighth of nine children overall, DiMaggio was expected to join the family fishing business when he came of age. That presented a problem for the shy boy, who was repulsed by the smell of dead fish on his dad’s boat. The path to greener pastures was paved by the third DiMaggio boy, Vince, who a) first defied their father to pursue a baseball career; and b) finagled a spot for his gifted brother on a local minor league team called the San Francisco Seals. DiMaggio’s success with the Seals and then the New York Yankees proved to dad that a ballplayer could earn a comfortable living, with Vince and the youngest brother, Dominic, eventually carving out big league careers as well.
Well before Norma Jean Baker sashayed into his life as Marilyn Monroe, DiMaggio fell for another beautiful young actress at the beginning of his career. He had met Dorothy Arnold on the set of Manhattan Merry Go-Round in 1937, and although she was under contract with Universal Pictures, she elected to forego her own celluloid dreams to become Mrs. DiMaggio in November 1939. Unfortunately, the baseball star had no interest in surrendering the lavish night life he enjoyed as a bachelor, and the birth of his only child, Joe III, did little to rein him in. The two were divorced by 1944, and DiMaggio’s efforts at reconciliation ended when she remarried in 1946.
Baseball fans have come to associate DiMaggio with the number 56, for his record 56-game hit streak during the 1941 season, but a prominent company was hoping the Yankee Clipper would notch another number. When he went hitless to end the streak on July 17, DiMaggio revealed that Heinz had offered a $10,000 bonus to endorse its popular “57 Varieties” slogan, provided he collected what turned out to be the elusive final hit. DiMaggio actually did hit in 57 consecutive games if you count the All-Star Game, which took place the previous week. He also started a new 16-game streak after the old one was snapped, giving him a hit in an amazing 72 of 73 games — half of the then-154-game baseball season.
With World War II raging on the other side of the globe, DiMaggio enlisted in the Army in February 1943 to quiet the whispers he was ducking his duty. The experience was hardly traumatic, as he played baseball and served as a physical training instructor in lieu of stepping on a battlefield, but DiMaggio nevertheless fared poorly in service of Uncle Sam. He grumbled about the loss of his $40,000-plus annual salary with the Yankees, and fretted about the management of his restaurant and his crumbling marriage. Despite postings to laid-back stations in southern California, Hawaii and Atlantic City, the normally finely conditioned athlete was hospitalized multiple times for stress and gastrointestinal illness until his discharge in September 1945.
Near the end of his playing career, the aging slugger hosted radio (The Joe DiMaggio Show) and TV programs for kids (Joe DiMaggio’s Dugout) in which he asked trivia questions, read mail, and interviewed sportswriters. He went on to host a Yankees pregame show after retirement, but it was painfully obvious that DiMaggio was much more comfortable facing a 90 mile-per-hour fastball than a television camera. Stiff and awkward, he lacked the ability to improvise; once, he refused to go on the air because of a missing cue card, which merely listed his name and a greeting. DiMaggio’s hosting efforts all lasted less than a year, though he later found his niche on the boob tube as a spokesman for Mr. Coffee.
DiMaggio’s famous romance with Monroe began when he had a friend arrange a dinner date in 1952, and they were married in January 1954. But unlike Dorothy Arnold, Monroe had no intention of abandoning her movie career to be a doting housewife, and her bubbly sex-symbol persona brought out the worst of DiMaggio’s jealous impulses. Her famous wind-up-the-dress scene from The Seven-Year Itch ignited a huge fight, and after another eruption she ended their 274-day marriage on the grounds of “mental cruelty.” They rekindled their relationship after she divorced Norman Miller in 1961, and DiMaggio believed they were going to remarry before her sudden death in August 1962. Devastated, he had flowers delivered to her Los Angeles gravesite every week for the next 20 years.
With fans everywhere singing, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” shot to the top of the music charts in 1968. Rather than being touched by the tribute, Joltin’ Joe was suspicious of being patronized and considered suing songwriter Paul Simon for using his name without permission. When the two met a few years later, DiMaggio inquired about the meaning of the lyrics, citing his television commercials as evidence that he had not, in fact, gone anywhere. Simon said he simply meant he was yearning for an earlier time when America still had heroes to look up to, an explanation that seemed to satisfy the sensitive slugger.