Carl Cannon’s Morning Note May 3, 2017

On this date in 1936, 21-year-old Joe DiMaggio, the pride of San Francisco, made his major league debut as the New York Yankees’ centerfielder.

“An astonishing portion of the crowd,” noted the New York Post, “was composed of strangers to the sport — mostly Italian — who did not even know the stadium subway station.”

Neither New York Yankee fans nor the far-flung Italian-American diaspora that reflexively rooted for the handsome rookie out of California were disappointed by Joe DiMaggio’s May 3, 1936 Yankee Stadium debut. Hitting third ahead of the great Lou Gehrig — in Babe Ruth’s old spot in the Yanks’ lineup — DiMaggio scored two runs while collecting three hits, one of them a screaming triple.

He would go on to lead the Yankees to nine World Series wins in the next 13 seasons, form a spirited rivalry with Ted Williams, marry (and divorce) movie star Marilyn Monroe, and enter the culture as one of America’s greatest cross-over stars.

Part of the appeal was the man’s humble beginnings. The son of Sicilian immigrants, Joe and his eight siblings — three of whom were also terrific ballplayers — grew up in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco where his father was a crab fisherman.

“I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing,” says Ernest Hemingway’s protagonist in The Old Man and the Sea. “They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand.”

He did grow up poor, this eighth of nine children, and although he didn’t stay that way — DiMaggio became quite rich — his mentality never changed. “A ballplayer has to be kept hungry to become a big leaguer,” DiMaggio once said. “That’s why no boy from a rich family has ever made the big leagues.”

As a factual proposition, that statement wasn’t strictly true even when DiMaggio said it. As a non-literal glimpse into the mind of an athlete driven to perfection, however, it’s a timeless observation. Other players noticed, too, teammates and opponents alike.

Yankees pitcher Red Ruffing, who played with DiMaggio for nine seasons, put it this way: “You saw him standing out there and you knew you had a pretty darn good chance to win the baseball game.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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