Saturday, June 08, 2013

Brothers, Stars, Rivals

When Joe DiMaggio announced his retirement in December 1951, a standing-room-only news conference featured the Yankees co-owner Dan Topping, who wept and tried to persuade him to continue playing. When DiMaggio’s youngest brother, Dom, retired from the Boston Red Sox on May 12, 1953, he told a handful of reporters , “I believe I could have played one more year of good baseball.”
Dom accepted playing in Joe’s shadow and never expressed resentment that his accomplishments were overlooked. Joe had power and grace and earned nine World Series rings; Dom was a contact hitter with great speed who won one American League pennant.
More than 350 sets of brothers have played in the major leagues, but the only set of three brothers to have been All-Stars are the DiMaggios. Vince, two years older than Joe, was a two-time All-Star who played in the National League, mostly for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
After Vince defied their fisherman father, Giuseppe, and ran off to play professionally, Joe followed him onto the roster of the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League. Dom, the youngest of the nine DiMaggio children, took over as the Seals’ center fielder when Joe headed to New York and embarked on a Hall of Fame career in 1936.
Dom, who broke in with the rival Red Sox in 1940, established Hall of Fame-worthy credentials, too, although he spent three of his peak years in the Navy during World War II. During his 10 full seasons, he totaled 1,679 base hits, more than any other major leaguer in that time. The next four players — Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Pee Wee Reese — are all in the Hall of Fame.
Dom, a seven-time All-Star, was second in runs in those 10 seasons, behind Williams, and he was third in doubles, behind Williams and Musial. More than a few Hall of Famers have career batting averages below Dom’s .298.
By the end of the 1940s, he had surpassed Joe as the best defensive center fielder in the league. Dom was one of only five outfielders in baseball history to record 500 putouts or more in a season.
His integrity was unquestioned, and he volunteered as the A.L. representative working on the players’ behalf before their union was formed. Dom was ahead of his time when he declared himself a free agent after his military service. The panicked Boston front office persuaded him to sign a contract before the 1946 season by giving him a percentage of the gate at Fenway Park, the same arrangement it had secretly made with Williams.
But Dom, who died in 2009, did not measure up in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters, or later with the veterans committee. When the committee voted the less-accomplished center fielder Richie Ashburn into the Hall of Fame in 1995, Williams, who was on the panel, said that Dom had been a better ballplayer statistically and that “if the game was on the line and you needed a clean hit or a hard-hit ball, he was as good as anybody.”
In the 1940s, many Yankees-Red Sox contests hinged on whether Williams and Bobby Doerr could drive in Dom and Johnny Pesky more times than Joe and Tommy Henrich could drive in Phil Rizzuto and Snuffy Stirnweiss. Joe was known for fierce competitiveness, and that was never more true than when opposing Dom, who never backed down when facing his brother.
After the war, “Joe and I picked up right where we left off in our brotherly competition,” Dom wrote in “Real Grass, Real Heroes,” his 1990 book with Bill Gilbert. During a game at Yankee Stadium in May 1946, Dom hit a ball to deep center field. Joe raced after it and climbed the wall to make the catch. When the inning ended and the brothers crossed paths behind second base, Joe called out, “It’s 32-21,” referring to the number of times one of them had taken a hit away from the other. Only they knew that Dom was leading the competition.
The Yankees and the Red Sox battled to the wire for the pennant in 1948. Dom and his fiancée, Emily, had set their wedding for Oct. 7, but that would not work if Boston made it to the World Series. Joe told his mother, Rosalie, “I will personally see to it that Dom is free to get married on the 7th.”
The Red Sox missed the pennant by one game. The Yankees finished two and a half games out.
On Aug. 9, 1949, Dom took a 34-game hitting streak into a game at Yankee Stadium, where it had begun July 4. Down to his last at-bat, he sent a screaming line drive to the outfield that Joe caught, preventing Dom from coming any closer to Joe’s record 56-game streak.
That October, the Red Sox arrived in New York in first place by a game with two games to play. Joe was in a hospital with pneumonia, but he left his bed in time for the first game. It was Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium, and Dom emerged from the Boston dugout to help him stay upright during the pregame ceremony.
Joe’s presence helped lift the Yankees to the two-game sweep, and they won the pennant by one game. He had gotten the better of Dom one more time.
After he retired, Dom became a successful textile manufacturer who gave a lot of time to raise millions of dollars for charities in the Boston area. Although smaller than Joe in stature and in the baseball record books, Dom cast quite a long shadow himself.
Tom Clavin is the author of “The DiMaggios: Three Brothers, Their Passion for Baseball, Their Pursuit of the American Dream,” to be published this month by Ecco/Harper Collins.

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