COUNTING DOWN: The Best Yankee At Each Uniform Number (#5)
By Paul Semendinger
(Note - A version of this article appeared in the IBWAA's newsletter, Here's The Pitch, in March 2023.)
The greatest Yankee to wear uniform #5 was Joe DiMaggio.
I became a baseball fan in the late 1970s. At that time there were certain truths about baseball that almost everyone subscribed to. These were facts that were accepted by all. As I learned about the game and its history, these were the conventional truths. Among these was the idea that Lou Gehrig's 2,130 consecutive games played streak would never be broken. The fans and experts agreed saying, "They just don't make players like Gehrig any longer. No one will eclipse that record."
Another conventional truth at that time was that the three greatest Yankees ever were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. I don't think there was any debate about that. Those were the big three.
I can almost remember the first time I saw an article that surmised that Mickey Mantle was a better player than DiMaggio. When I first read that, I paused, and laughed. "Mantle was great," I thought, "but better than DiMaggio?" No way...
Today, the conventional thinking is that Mantle was the more valuable player. DiMaggio batted .325 for his career, Mantle only batted .298. Back when batting average meant a lot more, that fact alone ended the debate. Mantle also out homered DiMaggio (536 to 361).
But then WAR came along and it told a different story. Mickey Mantle's lifetime bWAR (110.2) is light years better than Joe DiMaggio's (79.2).
With WAR, Joe DiMaggio's accomplishments seems somewhat lessened.
In addition, Joe DiMaggio did not have the greatest lifetime counting statistics, as his career lasted only 13 seasons. Of course, he spent the 1943, 1944, and 1945 seasons in military service which took away three of his prime years.
For his career, Joe DiMaggio didn't have 3,000 hits. He didn't even have 2,500 hits. He didn't hit 500 home runs. He didn't even hit 400 home runs.
Still, as a player, and as a legend, he was among the greatest ever.
There are certain names that say it all.
Joe DiMaggio is one of them.
Joe DiMaggio was a player who captured the imagination of baseball fans and ever since has been one of the biggest legends of the sport.
He might not have attained some of the sports most iconic numbers, but he is, most assuredly, the baseball player referenced the most in song.
All of the following are songs that reference Joe DiMaggio.
I don't believe any other baseball player, or sports legend, had as many superstars in the music industry sing his name. Among the legends to sing about Joe D were Simon and Garfunkel, Les Brown, Madonna, Billy Joel, John Fogerty, Jennifer Lopez, and Bon Jovi. That's a pretty impressive all-star team of music icons.
And, of course, Ernest Hemingway referenced DiMaggio in The Old Man and the Sea. Gay Talese and Joyce Carol Oates also based characters in stories they wrote on Joe DiMaggio.
This was Joe DiMaggio - a baseball player that was bigger than his stats, bigger, in some senses than the game.
Joe DiMaggio played 13 seasons. He was an All-Star 13 times. Joe DiMaggio's Yankees went to 10 World Series in his 13 seasons. The Yankees won nine of those series. (Imagine a 9-1 World Series record!)
And, of course, Joe DiMaggio still holds one of baseball's most iconic and seemingly unbreakable records, his 56 game hitting streak. Sometimes conventional wisdom holds true.
He was larger than the numbers.
He was greatness personified.
This was the great Joe DiMaggio.
Dr. Paul Semendinger's latest book, his collaboration with Yankees great Roy White on his autobiography From Compton to the Bronx will be released on April 11. Paul also wrote The Least Among Them, Scattering the Ashes, and Impossible is an Illusion. Paul is a retired principal but he still plays baseball. Contact him via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of the background research for this project came from Baseball-Reference.com and the SABR BioProject.
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