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The Brothers DiMaggio

Matt Schudel

Dom DiMaggio, the younger brother of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, was a very interesting man, and only in part because of his famous brother. He was a fine ballplayer in his own right, and there was a movement in the 1980s and '90s led by his former teammate, Ted Williams, to have him elected to the Hall of Fame.

Dom was a small guy, at 5-9 and 168 pounds, and wore glasses -- which almost no one else in the game did at the time -- and he didn't have the patrician elegance of his 6-foot, 2-inch brother on the baseball diamond. (A third brother, Vince DiMaggio, also played capably in the major leagues for 10 years; all three DiMaggios played the same position, center field.)

Dom DiMaggio was fast and had a powerful arm (all three brothers batted and threw righthanded), and he willed himself into being a good, if not quite great, baseball player. In 1937, when he was 20, he was one of about 135 players competing in an open tryout for the San Francisco Seals, a minor-league team that was practically the equal of some major-league teams at the time. Dom was the best player at the tryout, and in 1939 he was named most valuable player in the Pacific Coast League, hitting .361. (Of course, all his brother Joe did that year was hit .381 for the Yankees -- his highest average ever.)

Dom said he could do only two things better than his brother: play pinochle and speak Italian. But he was being somewhat disingenuous. He was very fast and used his speed effectively on the basepaths and in the outfield. He was a solid hitter, with a lifetime average of .298, and he drew a lot of walks. He played 10 full seasons in the major leagues (1940-42, 1946-52), and in those years no other player had more base hits than Dom, with 1,680. Only Ted Williams scored more runs than Dom's 1,046 during that time.

Dom was a run-scoring machine and finished in the top three in runs scored six times during his career (twice finishing behind Williams and his brother). He led the league twice, in 1950 and 1951, and in 1950 led the American League in stolen bases, as well. His 15 steals are the lowest league-leading total in history.

But what made him remarkable was his brilliant fielding. While preparing the obituary, I ran across one casual reference, in a 1991 story by The Post's William Gildea, about how DiMaggio would stand sideways in center field, facing the left-field foul line, as he awaited the pitch.

As an amateur baseball historian, I was astonished by this discovery. I have never seen or heard of any centerfielder positioning himself this way. I continued digging and found a fascinating article from Baseball Digest magazine, in which DiMaggio described how and why he adopted the unusual stance:
"I played center field at a right angle to the plate, with my left foot facing the plate and my right foot parallel to the center field fence. It was something I thought of myself. I played outfield that way from the beginning when I played in the sand lots in San Francisco. My feeling was that I got a better jump on the ball that way. I could get a quicker start on fly balls over my head, coud come in faster on line drives to short center, and could charge ground balls better."
... "My defensive game was based on speed and a strong throwing arm. I could go a long way to catch flies and throw out runners trying to move up after a catch. Fenway's distances and its configuration were not ideally suited to my speed as the larger parks like Yankee Stadium, Griffith Stadium or Municpal Stadium in Cleveland. I loved playing in those big outfields where I could really let it out."

Ted Williams, who played alongside Dom for 10 years, said, "He was as good a centerfielder as I ever saw."

David Halberstam's affectionate book, "The Teammates," describes the relationship of four Red Sox players from the 1940s: DiMaggio, Williams, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky. The centerpiece of the book recounts a road trip DiMaggio and Pesky took together to Florida in 2001 to visit the ailing Williams. At one point, DiMaggio broke into song, singing a sentimental Italian ballad.

"Ted loved it," Halberstam wrote. "He started clapping, and so Dominic sang it again, and Ted clapped again. 'Dommy, Dommy, you did really well,' Ted said when he finished."

Despite rumors that Joe and Dom DiMaggio had had a falling out, the brothers remained close, and in many ways Joe may have envied his younger brother. Joe became rich in later years by endorsing Mr. Coffee and Bowery Savings Bank and appearing at celebrity golf tournaments, but Dom earned a fortune the old-fashioned way: He founded a company that made carpeting and upholstery for cars. Dom was also among the first investors in the Boston Patriots football franchise in the old American Football League and twice tried unsuccessfully to buy the Boston Red Sox.

He was also married for 60 years to the same woman and had three children who turned out to be well educated and successful. (He also quietly battled Paget's disease, a bone disorder that causes malformation of the bones and joints, and testified before Congress about the disease.) Joe was married to two actresses, most notriously Marilyn Monroe, of course, and had one son from his marriage to Dorothy Arnold. Joe DiMaggio Jr. turned out to be a ne'er-do-well who died five months after his father's death in 1999.

Joe had a high, if somewhat reserved public profile throughout his life and was more than a little standoffish and prickly. He insisted on being introduced as "the greatest living ballplayer," even though that was a debatable point, at best.

In later years, Dom became quite protective of his brother and was bitterly opposed to what he saw as the manipulative behavior of Joe's lawyer, Morris Engelberg. Engelberg reportedly kept friends and even family members away from Joe, alienating many longtime acquaintances. It was Dom who made all the funeral arrangements after his brother died, inviting the commissioner of baseball and other dignitaries to the funeral.

Dom DiMaggio kept a lot of secrets about his brother, including about Joe's never-ending love for Marilyn Monroe. In 1954, he even tried to patch up their failing marriage to Marilyn by writing a letter to both of them, but it was to no avail.

"Joe wanted a wife he could raise children with," Dom told Sports Illustrated in 2001. "She could not do that. When they separated, I wrote to them that it was important for them to stay together, to try to make it work, that the whole world looked upon their marriage as the ideal. I know Marilyn accepted the letter and read it to Joe, but it did not help. Joe had wanted that relationship to work. He held on to it for the rest of his life."

Joe and Marilyn had no children, but their marriage produced perhaps my favorite celebrity anecdote of all time. Soon after they were married, they toured American military outposts in Korea. Marilyn -- perhaps accustomed to the relative quiet of movie sets -- walked onstage to ecstatic cheers, hoots, hollers and whistles.
When she returned to the wings, she told her husband, "Joe, you've never heard such cheering."
"Yes, I have," he said.

By Matt Schudel  |  May 9, 2009; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Athletes , Matt Schudel  
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