Joe DiMaggio didn't look heroic on the ball field. Crossing the plate after hitting a home run, he tended to tilt his head diffidently to one side as though to say, Don't pay too much attention to me. For a man who treasured acclaim (the roar of the fans cheering him at Old-Timers' Games meant the world to him), DiMaggio tried to appear above it when he was young. It would have been unseemly to play to the crowd. England's Leonard Woolf wrote, "There develops in nearly all arts, and indeed in games like cricket, at various periods after an archaic vague or inchoate beginning, a classical style which combines great power and freedom and beauty with a kind of self-imposed austerity and restraint." Woolf could have been writing about DiMaggio.
Unlike so many of baseball's stars, DiMaggio wasn't flamboyant, bad-tempered, colorful, talkative or explosive. He was quiet and efficient and marvelously skillful in all aspects of the game: hitting, fielding, throwing, running the bases. Ted Williams was a better hitter, but that was the only thing the Boston Red Sox outfielder did superlatively. DiMaggio did everything superlatively, without fuss. At the plate he locked himself into his wide-legged stance, cocked his bat and waited without moving, watching the pitcher, waiting for him to throw. When DiMaggio swung, strength surged from his big thighs and muscular back into his arms and wrists and bat. It was a beautiful swing, rich with power, yet controlled. You almost never saw him strike out. When he hit the ball a long way, as he so often did, he didn't pause to watch it but rather took off running hard for first, looking for an edge that would give him an extra base or two if the ball didn't reach the seats. No wonder he hit so many triples. (He averaged 10 a year.) Although the Clipper didn't look particularly fast, Joe McCarthy, his manager from 1936 to '46, liked to say DiMaggio "just knew how to run bases better than anybody." He stole only 10 bases in his 13 seasons, but McCarthy believed DiMaggio could have stolen 50 or 60 bases a year if he had allowed him. And few, if any, players were better at going from first to third, or second to home, than DiMaggio.
In the outfield that deceptive speed, combined with an exceptional ability to position himself according to the batter and the upcoming pitch, made fielding look easy for DiMaggio. He had tremendous range, yet the admiring clich� was, No one ever saw DiMaggio make a hard catch. In all he times that I saw DiMaggio play throughout his career, I cannot recall ever seeing him dive for a ball or crash against the outfield fence. Yet he seemed always to be there when the ball got there, catching it effortlessly.
DiMaggio's austere style was defined in a game I saw in the late 1940s between the Yankees and the St. Louis Browns at Yankee Stadium. The Browns, losing by two runs, filled the bases in the ninth inning with one out. The next batter hit a little looping fly ball into right center, too far out for the second baseman to reach and too far in for the outfielders. It seemed a certain base hit, and the St. Louis base runners took off, the tying runs racing toward home from third and second, the winning run heading around second toward third. DiMaggio came loping across from centerfield, and you wondered if, with his powerful arm, he could get the ball on the bounce and throw to the plate in time to cut down the tying run.
However, I was astonished, as were the Browns, when without breaking stride, DiMaggio leaned forward, stuck out that long arm of his and caught the ball no more than a foot off the ground. It was a startling catch, but what he did next was prototypically DiMaggio. Still in full stride, he straightened up, threw the ball to the first baseman for the game-ending double play and, without stopping, without saying anything, without showing any emotion, continued across the rightfield foul line, into the Yankees' dugout and out of sight, as though it were routine, just the end of another day's work.