Baseball star Joe DiMaggio, a towering figure of American popular culture both on and off the field, died in Hollywood, Florida, after a battle with lung cancer on this day in history, March 8, 1999.
The New York Yankees legend was 84 years old.
“Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio was a nine-time World Series champion, three-time American League MVP and, most memorably on the field, hit safely in 56 straight games in 1941 — an incredible record of consistency which has never been approximated since.
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DiMaggio died, according to some accounts, whispering the name of his life-long love and ex-wife, also an American idol, Marilyn Monroe.
Others close to him disputed the deathbed claim.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame has declared DiMaggio a “cultural icon” and “an American hero.”
His Hall of Fame biography says, “He married Hollywood starlets Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Arnold and he was immortalized in Paul Simon’s hit song ‘Mrs. Robinson.’”
It adds, “To a generation he was the face of Mister Coffee, and he was regarded as one of the greatest players who ever played the game.”
“When New York saw itself as the center of the world, he was its paragon of class.” — Richard Ben Cramer on Joe DiMaggio
Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio was born to Sicilian immigrant parents in Martinez, California, on Nov. 25, 1914.
He made his Yankees debut in 1936 and played until 1951, missing three seasons at the height of his career to World War II, when he served as a U.S. Army Air Forces sergeant.
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His graceful style of play earned him the nickname “Yankee Clipper,” after the luxury commercial airliners that took flight over American skies in the 1930s just as DiMaggio’s career took off with the Yankees.
“Coming out of the Great Depression, he was the immigrant boy who made it big,” wrote DiMaggio biographer Richard Ben Cramer.
“Coming back from World War II, he had all the wealth and power that New York aspired to. When New York saw itself as the center of the world, he was its paragon of class.”
He was the biggest star on Yankees’ teams that dominated baseball and sports headlines in America’s biggest media market during a glamorous era in New York City history.
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The Bronx Bombers won the American League pennant in 10 of DiMaggio’s 13 seasons and won all but one of those 10 World Series appearances.
DiMaggio was a baseball All Star in each season of his career.
“I’ll finally get to see Marilyn.” — DiMaggio’s disputed last words
He complemented his seemingly effortless play in the field with dominance at the plate.
DiMaggio was a two-time American League batting champ, two-time home-run leader and two-time RBI leader.
DiMaggio also bridged dynastic periods in Yankees history, taking the field with figures who spanned 65 years of storied franchise lore.
He won titles early in his career with Lou Gehrig and late in his career with Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin.
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Gehrig won his first World Series with Babe Ruth in 1923 and his last with DiMaggio in 1939.
Mantle took his last swing with the Yankees in 1968; Martin returned from his playing career to manage the Yankees into a World Series championship in 1977 and last led the team in 1988.
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” — Simon & Garfunkel in “Mrs. Robinson”
Despite sparkling success on the diamond, DiMaggio is remembered by many Americans today for his romance with bombshell Monroe, a relationship that blazed across the headlines and gossip pages.
The couple wed in January 1954, but divorced in October after just 274 days of marriage. DiMaggio was reportedly jealous and possessive, lamented her substance abuse and despised her relationship with other celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and, later, President John F. Kennedy.
He grew enraged on the set of Monroe’s famous subway grate scene in September 1954 for the movie “The Seven Year Itch.” Her dress billowed provocatively over her head while fans on the street lewdly cheered the spectacle.
Yet, by all accounts, he doted on her the rest of his life.
“I’ll finally get to see Marilyn,” DiMaggio whispered in his last words, according to a bedside account told by lawyer and confidant Morris Engelberg.
“DiMaggio orchestrated the starlet’s funeral. He kept it private and dignified, forbidding many Hollywood stars to attend the ceremonies,” writes PBS American Experience.
“In the years that followed, DiMaggio rarely spoke of her. He had roses delivered to her gravesite twice a week for the next 20 years. DiMaggio never married again.”
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DiMaggio has been the subject of books, documentaries and several popular songs.
He’s a central figure in the Simon & Garfunkel hit “Mrs. Robinson,” from the seminal 1967 period Hollywood production “The Graduate.”
The song portrays DiMaggio as a heroic icon of an America many people felt slipping away in the 1960s: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” Paul Simon wrote. “Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
DiMaggio is also celebrated in John Fogerty’s 1985 baseball anthem “Centerfield”; in Billy Joel’s 1989 romp through American history “We Didn’t Start the Fire”; and in Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue,” a tribute to the great fashion icons of the 1940s and 1950s.
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“Men like Joe DiMaggio are not just of their own time,” actor and baseball enthusiast Kevin Costner once said. “They are men for the ages.”