Why you should care

Because sometimes what drives a legend to go beyond the reach of mere mortals isn’t lofty passion, but something far more earthbound. 

Sports heroes are supposed to play for the love of the game. At least at first. Even if the money comes later and fame becomes its own pastime. Rare is the star athlete who just falls into it, who does it for the money or because he doesn’t have anything better to do. Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, born 100 years ago Nov. 25, did not dream of becoming a ballplayer when he was young. But there’s a difference between loving the game and needing it, and on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer adored by millions and the holder of baseball’s most impregnable record, Joe DiMaggio came to need baseball, perhaps even more than it needed him.

Sicilian boys are supposed to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and for the DiMaggio men, that meant fish. For generations, they had fished the waters off Isola della Femmine, a small village near Palermo. In the late 19th century, like many Sicilians, Giuseppe Sr. immigrated to the Bay Area, with its comparable climate and fishing industry. Giuseppe Jr., or Joe, was born on Nov. 25, 1914, the eighth of nine children, and the fourth son to follow his father to Fisherman’s Wharf, a few blocks from their home in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco.

From cards to baseball, DiMaggio played to win — usually money.

Times were tough. In the months before crab season began, entire communities on the wharf relied on credit for food, clothes and other staples. Life could be especially challenging for the DiMaggios, with 11 mouths to feed and a breadwinner whose boat was too small to fish in the rough waters beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, where the real money was. Giuseppe was a hard worker, rising in the middle of the night six days a week to fish the Bay, and anything that did not put food on the table — including baseball — was, for Giuseppe, as DiMaggio biographer Richard Ben Cramer put it, buono per niente — good for nothing.

Young Joe tended to agree. He didn’t see much point in playing for the sake of playing. From cards to baseball, DiMaggio played to win — usually money — and when there was nothing at stake, he generally kept to himself. Even as a boy, as Cramer describes in Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, he would often sit and watch other boys play baseball at a field in North Beach. The others “always wanted to play ball. They were desperate to play ball — even if they could barely play,” writes Cramer. “Joe could play. But you had to get him to play.”

Joe DiMaggio at age 3 at the family home in Martinez, CA in 1917.

Joe DiMaggio, age 3, at the family home in Martinez, Calif., in 1917.

Source Bettmann/Corbis

You also had to get Joe to work at the wharf or go to school. Early on, the lanky DiMaggio, with his pronounced nose and overbite, learned he could escape laboring on the dock by selling newspapers in the afternoons to the streams of businessmen pouring onto the streets of downtown San Francisco. He relished the pocket money — and the anonymity. Painfully shy, he also kept his head down at school, which he found painfully dull. One year into Galileo High School, DiMaggio left and never came back.

It was 1931, and even in California, a 16-year-old dropout had to take any job he could find — loading bed rails onto trucks, stacking wooden crates or working in an orange juice factory. But, as Cramer observes, “There wasn’t anything that he wanted to do, except to have a few bucks in his pocket — and avoid his father’s boat.”

An invitation to join a local club baseball team, the Jolly Knights, was Joe’s ticket off the boat. “He wasn’t that interested in baseball at first,” Jerome Charyn, bestselling author of Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil, tells OZY. “It was a means of making money. He didn’t think of it as anything other than that.”

You’re not supposed to pick up baseball as fast as Joe DiMaggio did.

And when the money was better in another dugout, Joe changed uniforms. On his way to hitting for an astronomical .632 average during the summer of 1932, DiMaggio played for no less than five different teams. “Joe became a hitter for hire,” writes Cramer.

You’re not supposed to pick up baseball as fast as Joe DiMaggio did. Without any formal coaching and having never even played in junior high, in two years Joe moved from the playground to the Pacific Coast League, one step below the major leagues. “He didn’t put in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, [but] he had a natural genius,” says Charyn. “Just like Mozart could invent a melody at the age of 4, this guy knew how to play baseball.”

You’re not supposed to hit in 56 straight games against major league pitching. You’re not supposed to go from sleeping on the floor of a crowded, four-room apartment to sleeping with Marilyn Monroe. But Joe did those too. And even though he never lost his obsession with money — stuffing his home full of giveaways and gifts and cramming his pockets with cookies from airport lounges — the game that had once been a means to an end, an escape from the fishing boat, became his entire life. Excelling at it became his life’s work; being a ballplayer, his sole identity. And he left it to the reporters, fans and songwriters to weave the rest of his story and build his legend.

“He may not have done it for the love of the game,” says Charyn, “but he was an artist. Use that word and you understand him perfectly.”

This OZY encore was originally published Nov. 25, 2014.

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