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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.

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