Friday, May 8, 2009

Red Sox great Dom DiMaggio, Joe's brother, dies

Dom DiMaggio, who despite having to share an outfield with Ted Williams and a name with his older brother Joe became a diamond standout in his own right, earning All-Star status seven times during 11 seasons with the Red Sox, died at age 92.

DiMaggio died at his home in Marion of complications after a recent bout with pneumonia, the Red Sox said in a statement. (Click on photo to enlarge)

The author David Halberstam described Mr. DiMaggio as “probably the most underrated player of his day.” Playing in the shadow of the era’s two biggest superstars made that inevitable, perhaps. But neither of his great contemporaries failed to appreciate Mr. DiMaggio’s talents. Williams considered him “the best leadoff man in the American League,” and his older brother called him “the best defensive outfielder I’ve ever seen.”

Elected to the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 1995, Mr. DiMaggio spent his major league career in Boston, playing for the Sox from 1940 to 1942, then from 1946 to 1953. He lost three seasons to wartime service in the Navy.

Mr. DiMaggio, who stood 5-feet-9-inches tall and wore eyeglasses, was nicknamed “the Little Professor,” a tribute to his intelligence on the field as well as his scholarly mien and slight stature. Along with canniness, Mr. DiMaggio brought quickness and speed to the Red Sox lineup. He led the American League in stolen bases in 1950, with 15 (the lowest figure ever to lead either major league in that category). He also led the league that year in triples, with 11.

Mr. DiMaggio had a lifetime batting average of .298. He scored more than 100 runs seven times, twice leading the American League in that category. He hit safely in 34 consecutive games, a Red Sox record, in 1949. Two years later, he hit safely in 27 consecutive games.

Mr. DiMaggio’s skill as a hitter inadvertently helped create one of the darkest moments in Red Sox history, their defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh and deciding game of the 1946 World Series. In the top of the eight inning, he doubled home two runs to tie the game at 3-3 — but pulled a hamstring on the way to second base.

Leon Culberson replaced him in center field. In the bottom of the eighth, with two outs, the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter tried to score from first on a single. Culberson was slow to field the ball, then made a mediocre throw to shortstop Johnny Pesky, whose throw home was too little, too late. Slaughter was safe, giving the Cardinals the lead and, half an inning later, the championship.

“If they hadn’t taken DiMaggio out of the game,” Slaughter later said of his daring sprint, “I wouldn’t have tried it.”

Mr. DiMaggio, who had started in baseball as a shortstop, played the outfield like an infielder. He specialized in charging balls hit through the infield and using his powerful throwing arm to cut down advancing runners. (Slaughter had good reason to be leery of Mr. DiMaggio: He threw out three runners in the ’46 Series.) He was also celebrated for his range, using his quickness to get a good jump on the ball and positioning his body to face left field rather than home plate, which he felt saved him a step on balls hit in front of him.

“He was the easiest outfielder I ever played with,” Williams said. “When he yelled ‘Mine!’ you didn’t have to worry about the rest of that play.” Williams was uniquely qualified to comment on Mr. DiMaggio’s fielding ability. It was often said that because of his teammate’s slowness afoot Mr. DiMaggio had responsibility for both his own center-field position and Williams’ in left.

One of Williams’ closest friends, Mr. DiMaggio begrudged the Splendid Splinter neither his interrogations nor his preeminence with the Red Sox. Relations with his brother were more charged. Mr. DiMaggio never suggested he was the superior ballplayer. “I can do two things better than he can,” he would say when asked to compare himself to Joe, “play pinochle and speak Italian.” He did, however, resent those who saw him only in terms of Joltin’ Joe.

The two DiMaggios played the same position (as did an older brother, Vince, who spent 10 seasons playing in the National League). They played for teams that were each other’s fiercest rival. Joe’s most famous achievement was hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. Having hit safely in 34 straight games, Dom found his own streak ended when Joe made the put-out on his final at-bat of what would have been the 35th game.

Without the St. Louis Browns, St. Louis fans would never have seen the likes of Dom and Joe DiMaggio along with the many other stars in baseball.

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