November 25, 1914 – March 8, 1999
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 for 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.
His personal life was always a mess. The slugger’s first marriage was in November 1939, to a pretty blonde actress named Dorothy Arnold. They were married in St. Peter and Paul Church in North Beach (60 years later, the same church where his funeral would be held). 30,000 people jammed the streets outside. He’d lived his life in hotels and restaurants, and he wasn’t a homebody. The couple had one son, Joe Jr., in 1941. They resided at 400 West End Avenue. But the slugger missed the hotels and saloons of a traveling ballplayer, and the marriage collapsed. She divorced him in 1944 and moved to Reno, taking their 13-month old son. DiMaggio was crushed. But it would be his second marriage that people will always remember. After departing Yankee Stadium in 1951, DiMaggio would embark on the next phase of his arc as an American icon.
Marriage to the biggest movie star of the era turned his life upside down. As the New York Post wrote, it was a great love story, but a lousy marriage. DiMaggio was recently retired and didn’t know what to do with himself. He was introduced to Marilyn Monroe at the midtown Manhattan saloon Toots Shor’s, 51 West 51st Street, one of the favorite places the Yankee Clipper hung out in. They dated for about a year, before marrying in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1954.
He was 40, and she was 12 years his junior. Many think the union was doomed from the start: Monroe’s career was taking off like a rocket, while the private DiMaggio hid from the limelight. Marriage to the curvy bombshell created a media firestorm.
They wed in San Francisco’s City Hall. DiMaggio gave her a platinum eternity ring, encrusted with 35 baguette-cut diamonds. At a Sotheby’s auction of Monroe’s personal items in November 1999, the ring sold for $772,500. The brown wool cocktail suit
with white mink collar and six rhinestone buttons, worn by the screen siren when she married DiMaggio, sold for $33,350.
The marriage was a rocky one from the beginning. After marrying and spending their honeymoon night in a $6.50 motel room, they flew to Japan, where Monroe was to entertain U.S. troops in South Korea. The famous story goes that upon her return to the hotel, Monroe gushed, “Joe, you never heard such cheering!”
“Yes, I have,” DiMaggio said quietly, but not without a hint of mocking at his clueless wife. Maybe she forgot his nine World Series rings.
The couple battled because she wanted a busy movie career and he wanted a quiet life of leisure. The retired slugger was reported to be peeved at the incredible attention men paid to his wife. The last straw was broken in New York, where Monroe was filming The Seven Year Itch scene made famous by her standing over a subway grate at Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street (SW corner). DiMaggio was on the set in Sept. 1954 watching as Monroe’s white halter dress flew up, and he flew off the handle. (By the way, Debbie Reynolds now owns the dress – SM) Later at the St. Regis Hotel, the two had a huge row and he flew back to San Francisco. News of their divorce after 274 days was hardly a shock.
Monroe married playwright Arthur Miller two years later, but DiMaggio never remarried. After her death on Aug. 5, 1962, he made sure fresh roses were always at her grave at Westwood Memorial Park, 1218 Glendon Avenue. Rumors abound that the couple was attempting a reconciliation before her mysterious death. He was offered huge sums to write a book about their marriage, but he never granted a single interview about Monroe. People knew it was taboo to ask about her. About the only quote he ever gave was to boxing writer Bert Sugar, who had the nerve to ask the Yankee Clipper what it was like to be with Monroe. “Better than rooming with Joe Page,” was his reply. When DiMaggio traveled to Italy for the first time in the 1980s, he was given a hero’s welcome. Not for his baseball feats, but for being Monroe’s widower.
In the 1960s, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He gave his time to children’s charities. He dated a lot and was a man-about town. DiMaggio got back into baseball when he took a job with the Oakland Athletics as a coach in 1968-1969. This was when Charlie Finley owned the team, and seeing Joltin’ Joe in those horrible yellow and green polyester uniforms was a frightful sight. After ditching the A’s, he became a pitchman for Mr. Coffee in 1972, and the company stock soared. A whole new generation of fans knew his name. The white-haired, perfectly tailored gentleman was always on TV, pitching slow-drip coffee or for Bowery Savings Bank in New York. When he departed Mr. Coffee in a salary dispute, the stock sank.
He entered the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1955.
For years, DiMaggio would return to Yankee Stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day or for Old-timer’s Day. The crowds always went nuts, even though most had never seen him play, or were born long after he’d retired. DiMaggio always insisted on being introduced last, after all others were on the field. In 1996, the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1981, and DiMaggio was tapped to deliver the first pitch, to catcher Joe Girardi. Yankee Stadium was rolling and ready as the Atlanta Braves waited nearby. DiMaggio was always introduced by Yanks’ announcer Bob Sheppard the same way: “Ladies and gentlemen. Please rise and welcome the greatest living ballplayer. The Yankee Clipper. Joe Di-Mag-io.”
DiMaggio last appeared in public Sept. 27, 1998, when he was honored at “Joe DiMaggio Day” and presented with replicas of his nine World Series rings (which had been stolen from a hotel room decades earlier). “Joe DiMaggio is a national institution,” owner George Steinbrenner declared, “and he is a living symbol of the pride, class and dignity which are synonymous with the Yankee pinstripes.”
The end for DiMaggio was a long and painful one. For six months straight, his health woes were in the news daily. On Oct. 12, 1998, his lawyer Morris Engelberg said the Yankee Clipper was checking into Regional Memorial Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., because he’d been walking around with pneumonia. DiMaggio didn’t know that he had cancer.
He had lung cancer, and the doctors went in and operated. During his 99-day hospitalization, DiMaggio suffered a series of setbacks. Each time, news reports came out that he was near death. During the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, CBS even jumped the gun and reported he was dead. In fact, DiMaggio was watching the game.
After a cancerous tumor was removed from DiMaggio’s right lung on Oct. 14, 1998, he promptly required two separate bronchoscopies to drain excess fluid from the lung. No one was even talking about chemotherapy.
Next, on Nov. 16, his blood pressure dropped precipitously, prompting his family to dial up a priest to come in and perform Last Rites. To the world, Engelberg would only say that DiMaggio has been “very ill” — it wasn’t until Nov. 24 that his lung cancer was publicly revealed. The next day was his 84th birthday.
He battled infection and cancer. He was on antibiotics. A breathing tube was inserted into his throat during treatment. The retired slugger was able to speak for the first time on Dec. 3. “I want to get the hell out of here and go home!” he pleaded.
On Dec. 4, a fever and lung congestion flared again. He also had an intestinal infection. Things looked grim and his family contemplated signing a “Do not resuscitate” order. Four days later, he rallied, but the infection wouldn’t go away. On Dec. 11, DiMaggio was in a coma for 18 hours. But to his doctors’ amazement, he pulled through.
He was released Jan. 19, 1999, to his Hollywood home, where he died on Monday, March 8, surrounded by family and friends. He was 84. A private plane flew the body back to San Francisco.
The Rev. Armand Oliveri, who grew up with DiMaggio, celebrated the funeral Mass. DiMaggio’s younger brother, former Red Sox all-star Dominic DiMaggio, gave the eulogy. Dominic spoke about his brother’s quest for privacy, his love of children and the one big thing missing from his life: a woman.
He said his twice-divorced brother had everything in his record-setting baseball career, except for the right woman to share his life. To fill that void, Dominic said, his brother dedicated his life away from baseball to helping children, including establishing a children’s wing in a hospital in Hollywood, Florida. (The same place he was treated).
DiMaggio’s only child, Joseph Paul DiMaggio Jr., was one of the pallbearers who carried the casket from the church after the service. The son, who was a penniless drifter, worked in a northern California junkyard and lived in a trailer park, and had not talked with his father in more than two years. Five months after his father’s death, Joe Jr. dropped dead of a heart attack.
Other pallbearers were Roger Stein and James Hamra, the husbands of DiMaggio’s two granddaughters; Joseph DiMaggio, son of the player’s late brother, Mike; Joe Nacchio, a friend of DiMaggio’s for 59 years; and the lawyer, Engelberg. DiMaggio’s graveside service, like his funeral Mass, was attended by about 50 family members and close friends. DiMaggio had requested the invitation-only services. No Yankees were invited.
Police cordoned off about 300 fans and reporters in a park across from the twin-spired Sts. Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco’s Italian enclave of North Beach, where DiMaggio spent his childhood. The crowd burst into spontaneous applause and shouted “bravo” as the brown casket covered with white flowers was carried down the steps of the church
DiMaggio was temporarily entombed March 11, 1999, in his family mausoleum at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, Calif. The San Francisco Catholic Diocese said a permanent mausoleum for DiMaggio was to be built later.
The death of Joltin’ Joe would continue to make headlines. In New York, Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani battled over which highway should be re-dedicated as Joe DiMaggio Highway. The two loathe each other, and the governor favored the Major Deegan Expressway that runs by Yankee Stadium; the mayor opted for the West Side Highway. Rudy won out. Later, in April 2000, San Francisco renamed a city playground after DiMaggio despite threatened legal action by Engelberg, who called the proposed honor “insulting.” He was holding out for the Golden Gate Bridge, we assume.
In November 1999, DiMaggio’s name was back in the news. When five-year-old shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez
was fished out of the sea and taken to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. He was released one day after being plucked from the ocean. “It’s a miracle that he survived,” said Dr. Yvonne Rutherford. Nobody had any idea how many news stories the kid would generate.
Joltin’ Joe’s lawyer and “friend” Engelberg made the papers in April 2000, when he tried to hold an auction of DiMaggio memorabilia. This included his driver’s license, social security card and passport. But the bulk of the autographed bats and photos didn’t meet the reserve price.
But the most fitting tribute to Joe DiMaggio was the one at Yankee Stadium in April 1999.
The Yanks unveiled a stone monument in the outfield memorial, where tributes to greats such as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle reside. Before the first pitch, the outfield wall opened up, and Paul Simon strode to the spot where Joltin’ Joe used to patrol. He had a very long cord attached to his guitar, and he performed Mrs. Robinson to the sell-out crowd.
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.
Well done, Kevin. Thank you.
January 2002: Findadeath.com friend Ken Wert sends this in: A very interesting book came out a year or so ago about “The Greatest Living (now directory) Ballplayer” – Mr. DiMag. It is called Joe DiMaggio – The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer (Simon & Schuster, 2000). In it, according to Cramer, the ventilator which DiMag was hooked up to was turned off in order to “let Joe go”; however, big brother Dom DiMaggio freaked along with the other family present, and the machine was cranked back on. Welcome back, Joe! The next night nothing was left to chance, and the machine was shut off while Dom was not present. Joe then “struck out” for the last time.
Also, his last meal was some sort of chicken dish prepared by his butler, DeJan Pesut. The next day he was offered lobster, but did not eat.
Good stuff, Ken. Thanks, as always!
May 2002: from Findadeath.com friend Tom: some quick notes about “Joltin Joe”: I met him twice. Both times I was attending a boxing match in Atlantic City. He was signing at an autograph show in a nearby hotel the same weekend, so he attended the fights between signings. The first time, my friend ran up to him with baseball in hand and said “Joe, can you sign, I’m a big fan”, to which DiMaggio replied, “Yeah, so what”, and kept walking.
The second time, he was being asked by about 4 people for his autograph when he held up his hands and said, “I’ll sign everything you want, tomorrow”, meaning we should pay for his signature at the show, for $125 a pop, no thanks, Joe.
Joe also demanded he be announced as the greatest living ballplayer wherever he went.
Findadeath.com friend Lisa Davis sends us this: Dorothy Arnold, DiMaggio’s first wife, moved to Reno to get a divorce; it was granted on 12 May, 1944. She moved to New York, remarried and divorced, then to L.A. DiMaggio tried to reconcile with her many times; it finally took Marilyn Monroe to get her out of his system.
Christie’s sold off the bulk of Marilyn Monroe’s personal property, including the platinum eternity ring DiMaggio gave her, in October 1999; Sotheby’s sold the brown wool cocktail suit Monroe wore when she married DiMaggio that September.
It was NBC who jumped the gun in January 1999, and reported DiMaggio dead during a Dateline Gwyneth Paltrow segment.
DiMaggio’s son, Joseph III (DiMaggio, named after his dad, was the Jr.), died of “natural causes” after years of drug abuse.
DiMaggio also arranged Monroe’s funeral, and paid for her casket.
Great site. Keep it up.
Yours, Lisa Davis