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Joe DiMaggio would have turned 100 on Tuesday, so it seems appropriate to remember him as I do — as the finest baseball player I ever saw play our delicate little game.
Bobby Doerr, the Hall of Fame Red Sox second baseman, once told me his teammate Ted Williams was the best hitter of their time but that Joe was the best all-around player.
I grew up rooting for the Yankees as a kid in New Haven and, much later, when I got to know Joe well, I never failed to feel as if I were in the presence of a deity. Joe always acted as if he knew he was special.
I also got to know Dom DiMaggio, the youngest of the family and, in his own right, a superb center fielder for the Red Sox. The two brothers had drifted apart over the years, but as Joe lay dying, Dommy was loyal, and he and Joe shared some closing times.
Joe apparently resented the minority opinion that his kid brother was a better fielder. Joe was tough and sensitive and extremely proud. He insisted on being introduced as “the greatest living ballplayer,” though he tolerated Williams being called the “greatest living hitter.”
In my view, Joe stands at the head of the list of those I saw play for the simple reason that he was not simply a superb player. He made his teammates better.
He played 13 seasons for the Yankees and led his team to 10 American League pennants and nine World Series championships.
I asked him about his leadership and whether he ever gave a pep talk to his teammates. “No, I did not do that,” he answered rather formally. “I just played hard, the way Gehrig did, and I guess it worked.” That was Joe. He was quiet, and yet he was totally aware of how the team and the baseball world saw him. He had the self-confidence that comes with being able to perform at the highest level when the game is on the line.
In 13 years he hit .325 and was three times voted the Most Valuable Player in his league. He hit 361 home runs in the old Yankee Stadium with its enormous left center field dimensions. But he struck out only 369 times in his career.
He could hit any fastball, especially when he “calculated” it was coming. He told me he never “guessed” what a pitcher would throw.
I asked him who the toughest pitcher was for him and he quickly told me, “Mel Harder of the Indians, because he had a great curve and I had trouble with it.”
When Dom cited Bob Feller as the toughest pitcher for him, I told him Joe had said he had good luck with Feller. “You cannot pay attention to that,” Dom said. “My brother could hit anyone, even when he was 14.”
I often had lunch with Joe and I was respectful of him and his privacy, so I never asked about Marilyn Monroe.
I let him control our conversation.
He was happy to talk baseball and even to answer tough questions. Once I asked him of his worst day at an All-Star Game, and he told me of his failure to field a line drive hit by Gabby Hartnett in 1936, which led to his being soundly ripped by the baseball press the following day.
He remembered that only one writer defended him. He asked me if I knew which writer. Pausing, he told me his supporter was Damon Runyon, who at the time covered the Yankees for a New York newspaper. Typical of Joe was his ability to recall the writer who stood up for him. He surely remembered anyone who offended him. Forever.
In 1999, at his memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, his former Yankee teammate, Dr. Bobby Brown, brilliantly summed up the reasons Joe was a great player and why his statistics do not tell the whole story.
Bobby explained there are no statistics to tell us how many times in the late innings Joe took the extra base to stretch a single to a double, or a double to a triple. There are no numbers to tell us how many late-inning crucial catches he made or how many times he threw out the tying run at third base or at home. Bobby urged us to accept his testimony as a teammate. I do.
I raise a toast to the greatest player I ever saw play. RIP.