Excerpt 1 - The 100 Most Important Players in Baseball History
by Lincoln Mitchell
September 28, 2023
I am very pleased to tell you that today my newest book The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History has been published by Artemesia Press. The book looks at the history and impact of baseball through one hundred players, some well known and some more obscure, who had unique and significant roles in the development of baseball, and, in many cases history more broadly. The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History offers a new and captivating look at baseball’s complex racial history, labor struggles and relationship to American culture and history through these players.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be providing excerpts from this book for our readers.
Note - The original concept for this work, was a series of articles I wrote here at Start Spreading the News a few years ago.
In the 1960s Paul Simon asked “where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” Fifteen years or so before that, Santiago, the fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea spoke of “the Great DiMaggio” who was the son of a fisherman. That was only a few years after theater goers seeing the play South Pacific heard a song about a woman whose “skin is tender as DiMaggio’s glove.” Somewhere in there, shortly after he retired from playing, DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. This should provide a sense of just how famous and significant a part of the culture Joe DiMaggio was for years-even if Paul Simon wanted to use Mickey Mantle’s name instead of DiMaggio’s. The rhythm worked better with DiMaggio.
My father was born in 1934 and lost interest in baseball around the time Stan Musial retired. However, once, when my father was in his late 70s sometime in the 2010s, Joe DiMaggio’s name was mentioned. My father then told me how he remembered the summer of 1941 when in his little New Jersey town people waited anxiously every day to see if DiMaggio got a hit to keep his hitting streak alive. DiMaggio’s fame, role in the culture and grip on the country in 1941 are all reminders of how big a part of the culture baseball was in mid-twentieth century America.
DiMaggio was a national figure who, like his teammate Yogi Berra and a handful of others, had a national profile that went beyond his abilities on the ballfield. He was also enormously important to Italian Americans. There have been many great Italian American ballplayers including Berra, Tony Lazzeri, Mike Piazza, Ron Santo, Frank Viola and Craig Biggio. The North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco and its surroundings alone sent Lazzeri, all three DiMaggio brothers and many others to the big leagues in the 1920s and 1930s. None of those players, except perhaps Berra, have a role in Italian American history comparable to DiMaggio’s.
To understand DiMaggio’s importance as the first Italian American with widespread crossover appeal, it is first necessary to understand that in first decades of the twentieth century there was substantial prejudice against Italian Americans, some of which lingers on today. In the 1920s and 1930s, much of America saw Italians as dirty, greasy, eating strange food and prone to crime, and due to their numbers, particularly in big cities, a threat to democracy.
DiMaggio grew up in one city, San Francisco, with a large Italian American population, and played his entire career in another city, New York with an even large Italian American population so he was beloved on both sides of the country, but his extraordinary success helped break down prejudices. DiMaggio cultivated an image of cool, grace and sophistication that was also in part to conceal his shyness and in response the pressure he faced throughout his career. That image also helped reshape how Italian Americans were viewed and made DiMaggio a hero to that community.
The 56 game hitting streak in 1941was the highlight of DiMaggio’s career, but he was, when healthy, a wonderful player. DiMaggio was one of three brothers who played in the big leagues. Vince, Dom and Joe were all great defensive centerfielders, known for their grace and range in the field but while Vince and Dom were good hitters, Joe was one of the best ever. He had career slash line of .325/.398/.579 and an OPS+ of 155. Because he missed three years because of military service between the age of 28-30, and wrestled with injuries for most of his career, DiMaggio only played 1,736 games. He only played 140 or more games five times in a career that lasted from 1936-1951. Accordingly, some of his counting numbers, such as his 2,214 hits or 361 home runs don’t seem impressive at first glance. The home run figure was not helped by Yankee Stadium’s unforgiving dimensions for right-handed hitters, but that home run figure looks even more impressive given that DiMaggio struck out only 369 times in his entire career.
DiMaggio lived for 48 more years after his playing career ended in 1951. His post-baseball life had a poignancy to it as he never quite found a place for himself, while his moment, the 1940s and 1950s America, receded. When Paul Simon first sang about him, DiMaggio was only 51 years old and had not gone anywhere. He was briefly a coach for the Oakland A’s, although he looked terribly out of place in the offbeat A’s uniforms rather than Yankees pinstripes, appeared at Yankees functions and was a pitchman for various products such a coffee making machine.
DiMaggio’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe solidified his position as a cultural icon, but the marriage was not a happy one. As the news of the eminent divorce between DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe spread, the press descended on their home in Southern California. As soon as DiMaggio left to a waiting car driven by a childhood friend, the media asked where he was going. DiMaggio responded “home, to San Francisco.” Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in San Francisco, DiMaggio was part of the fabric of an older San Francisco, that as a newer migrant I could never quite know even though DiMaggio lived only a few blocks from me.
When the Loma Prieta earthquake, also known as the World Series earthquake hit in 1989, DiMaggio’s house in the Marina District was badly damaged and he was seen at a local schoolyard lining up with everybody else. It was an honorable moment soured by reports that when he finally was able to get into his home, DiMaggio immediately grabbed two trash bags full of cash, apparently undeclared income from autograph signings. For me that captured the duality of DiMaggio, a wonderful player and unique American legend who never quite found his role once the crowds stopped cheering.