Joe DiMaggio Dies of Cancer at 84

Article excerpt

Joseph Paul DiMaggio, 84, who went from being one of America's best baseball players to being a national icon as a senior citizen, died yesterday at his home in Hollywood, Fla., following a five-month battle with lung cancer.

DiMaggio, the biggest star on New York Yankees teams that won 10 World Series titles during his 13-year career (1936-42 and 1946-51), died shortly after midnight according to Morris Engelberg, his longtime friend and attorney. At his bedside were his brother Dominic, a former major league outfielder; two grandchildren; Engelberg; and Joe Nacchio, his friend of 59 years.

DiMaggio had been in poor health since entering Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood on Oct. 12. He spent 99 days there battling pneumonia and complications following removal of a cancerous tumor from his right lung.

"DiMaggio, the consummate gentleman on and off the field, fought his illness as hard as he played the game of baseball and with the same dignity, style and grace with which he lived his life," said Engelberg, DiMaggio's next-door neighbor.

Although DiMaggio's Hall of Fame baseball career ended nearly a half-century ago, he remained in the public eye for many years because of his brief marriage to movie star Marilyn Monroe in 1954 and his later television ads in New York for Mr. Coffee and the Bowery Savings Bank.

His name also was featured in the Simon & Garfunkel song, "Mrs. Robinson," from the 1968 movie "The Graduate." Looking for a way to evoke nostalgia in their lyrics, the performers sang, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

The career highlight for DiMaggio - widely known as both the "Yankee Clipper" and "Joltin' Joe" - was the record 56-game hitting streak he compiled in 1941 - five games shorter than a similar streak for the minor league San Francisco Seals eight years earlier.

During DiMaggio's run in '41, a popular song screeched, "Joe, Joe, DiMaggio - we want you on our side!" - a sentiment undoubtedly shared by every pitcher on the seven other American League teams.

Although no player has come close to his hitting streak in the 57 seasons since, DiMaggio's feat could have been much longer. After it ended against Cleveland on July 15 - with the help of Indians third baseman Ken Keltner, who robbed him of two potential doubles - DiMaggio hit safely in his next 16 games.

Born Nov. 25, 1914, in San Francisco, DiMaggio was the second of three sons of an immigrant Italian family to make the major leagues, following Vince and preceding Dom. His father operated a fishing boat in San Francisco and expected his sons to follow in his footsteps. But Joe and his brothers spent most of their time playing baseball.

Despite his slugging feats in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, many major league scouts were scared off after DiMaggio tore up a knee getting out of a taxicab in 1934. Taking a gamble, the Yankees bought his contract for only $25,000 - perhaps the biggest bargain in baseball history.

Starting in 1936, DiMaggio turned in batting averages of .323, .346, .324 and .381 as the Yankees became the first team to win four consecutive World Series. After 1942, he joined the Army and lost three seasons at the peak of his career while serving in the Pacific during World War II.

When DiMaggio returned in 1946, his skills obviously had eroded. He still had the poise and grace that always marked his play in center field, but his batting average dipped to .290. He rebounded to have a big season in 1948 but missed the first half of the 1949 season with a bone spur on his heel after becoming the first player to command the then-huge salary of $100,000 a season. However, he returned dramatically by hitting four home runs in three games in a July series against the archrival Boston Red Sox - the final time he commanded nationwide attention as a player. …