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March 10, 1999

DiMaggio

One last look

by Greg Spira

Joe DiMaggio died Monday morning. His place in history went beyond baseball, as he became one of those players whose myth grew so large that it often obscured any rational evaluation of his play. Especially now, it is hard to discuss DiMaggio with many fans because he, like Sandy Koufax and only a few others, became a cultural icon. Fans who still debate the relative merits of Willie, Mickey and the Duke don't compare DiMaggio to anyone because of the aura he carried both on and off the field, which lifted him to a higher plane in the public's eyes.

By any definition, DiMaggio was a great ballplayer. Just as clearly, any impartial analysis of his career makes it clear that he was not one of the ten greatest ballplayers of all time. Based on what DiMaggio accomplished in his career, he was a no-brainer for election to the Hall of Fame, but not the achiever that players such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Honus Wagner, and Henry Aaron were. Among centerfielders, off the cuff I'd rank him as the fifth best of all-time, behind Cobb, Mantle, Mays and Speaker.

Offensively, DiMaggio is best remembered for his high batting averages and his legendary 56-game hitting streak. His lifetime average however, is only the 36th-best of all time, and his career took place primarily during a period of high league-wide batting averages. His walk rate was moderate, and thus he finished his career with a .398 on-base percentage, the 45th-best figure of all time. But DiMaggio's remarkable 1941 hitting streak crystallized the nation's image of him. DiMaggio's productivity during the streak wasn't unusual, but the pattern of his hits - at least one a game - almost certainly was. Nobel prize-winning physicist Ed Purcell has found that of all of the various streaks, good or bad, accomplished by individuals and teams in baseball history, only DiMaggio's stands beyond reasonable probability.

DiMaggio's greatest offensive strength was his raw power. His slugging average, at .579, is the sixth-best of all time, and he achieved this despite playing in a stadium whose "Death Valley" in left field greatly cut into his home run production at Yankee Stadium. His road slugging average, at .610, ranks an amazing fourth all-time, behind only Ruth, Gehrig, and Williams. That's astonishing for a player who was also an extreme contact hitter who struck out less than 40 times a season.

It's not surprising, though, that DiMaggio is remembered more for his average than his power; it fits into his image as "the Yankee Clipper" more readily. The great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once wrote that DiMaggio's "gifts as an athlete were marvelous because they were subdued. Here was an outfielder who followed a fly ball with a deft serenity... concerned only with the defeat of awkwardness." Grace is the word that will doubtlessly be used most in the tributes that will pour forth this week, especially in reference to his defense. And he was an excellent centerfielder by all accounts, though perhaps he did not cover as much ground as his brother Dom or Willie Mays.

In evaluating what he did on the field, we should always keep in mind that DiMaggio lost a large amount of his career to his service during World War II, and never seriously approached his peak form again after his magical 1941, although he did contribute significantly to several Yankee pennants in the late forties. Since his career ended, he's been viewed as much more than a great ballplayer, which perhaps makes the legend of Joe DiMaggio his most significant legacy. The person Joe DiMaggio was never really known to us, but that was superseded by what he represented to his generation and subsequent generations of Americans. While Joe DiMaggio the ballplayer showed us greatness with style, the legend of Joe DiMaggio is that of a bigger-than-life hero. We should all be lucky enough to keep both images of DiMaggio in mind when we remember him.

Related Content:  Ballplayer,  Joe Dimaggio

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