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He will be 79 years old on Nov. 25. He hasn't played a major league baseball game in 42 years. He grants few interviews and is never seen gabbing with television talk show hosts. He doesn't do color on baseball broadcasts. The tabloids don't link him with Joan Collins or have him communicating with extraterrestrials. President Clinton hasn't nominated him for anything. And yet Joe DiMaggio's fame and reputation are undiminished. He is today what he has been almost from the day he first put on a New York Yankee uniform 57 years ago—a national icon. And in the larger world, DiMaggio, a mere baseball player, remains one of the most famous Americans.
How to explain this phenomenon? How to account for such enduring celebrity? The Yankee Clipper may well have benefited from having the good sense to keep his mouth shut when more voluble celebrities were putting their feet in theirs. And his vaunted passion for privacy has probably spared him some of the embarrassment the less circumspect have endured.
But there is a paradox here. During his heyday as a player DiMaggio was certainly no recluse. In fact, he was something of a man about town, a regular at Toots Shor's popular beanery and at other Gotham watering holes. His first wife was a show girl, his second the most glamorous woman in creation. And whether the Clipper was in his Yankee pinstripes sweetly ripping a single to left or in a pinstripe suit grandly strolling down Broadway, the camera absolutely adored him.
And so the reluctant DiMaggio of today, a man who shares little of his life with the public, has given us instead a wealth of black-and-white images to remember him by. The photographs show us an athlete both dashing and dignified, yet often they reveal an unmistakable vulnerability. Taken together those qualities have made him the irresistible American hero.
DiMaggio's picture-perfect swing, shown here in 1938, was shut down only by wartime Army duty and by his retirement in '51. "He makes big league baseball look simple," Casey Stengel once said. "It ain't so simple."
DiMaggio's first marriage, to Dorothy Arnold in 1939 (top), gave him his only child, Joe Jr., who embraced his dad at the '49 World Series. His marriage to Marilyn Monroe in 1954 ended within a year. "Joe, you've never heard such cheering," she said after entertaining troops in Korea. "Yes, I have," he replied.
The son of an immigrant fisherman, DiMaggio (right, in 1936 in San Francisco with brother Mike on the family boat) became a symbol of class, whether sunning at spring training (in '49) or playing cards with teammates (in '39). Said teammate Tommy Henrich, "He does everything better than anyone else."
His greatest year? Who can say? Was it 1937, when he drove in 167 runs? Or '39, when he hit .381? Or '41, when he hit in 56 straight? What is certain is that he never had a bad season. When asked once why he gave it his all in every game, the Clipper replied, "Because there might be somebody out there who's never seen me play before."