Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s
that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away…hey, hey, hey…
“Mrs. Robinson,” by Simon & Garfunkel, 1968
Born in California 100 years ago (November 1914), Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio was the eighth of nine children of Sicilian immigrants, Rosalia and Giuseppe DiMaggio. The father came to America in 1898 from Isola delle Femmine in the province of Palermo and brought his wife several years later. Like so many Californians of Sicilian origin, he worked as a crab fisherman in San Francisco. Both parents were illiterate.
Giuseppe hoped that his five sons would become fishermen. Young Joe recalled that he would do anything to get out of cleaning his father’s boat, as the smell of dead fish nauseated him. Joe had other ideas. His passion for baseball began in 1931 with the San Francisco Seals with whom he remained for four years before going to the New York Yankees, the team he played with for his entire career until his retirement in 1951.
Joe’s many record-setting numbers made him an idol among passionate baseball fans. DiMaggio was a three-time MVP winner and an All-Star in each of his 13 seasons with the Yankees. During that tenure, the Yankees won 10 American league pennants and nine World Series championships. A center fielder, he was nicknamed “Joltin’ Joe” and “the Yankee Clipper” by adoring fans and the media.
But there were dark days in the 1940s when America was at war. Joe’s parents, like many Italian, Japanese, and German immigrants, were declared “enemy aliens” in 1942. Giuseppe could no longer work on Fisherman’s Wharf nor enter his son’s restaurant, which was in a restricted zone. Giuseppe’s specialty, spicy crab cioppino, a fish stew invented in San Francisco, was removed from the menu.
Yet just the year before, Joe DiMaggio had given the nation its summer pastime as they watched “Joltin’ Joe” pop homerun after homerun in a remarkable 56-game hitting streak, a record that still stands today. Then while the government declared his parents “enemy aliens,” Joe left the Yankees to fight in the war, along with 3 of his brothers.
Joe had one son, born to his first wife, the actress Dorothy Arnold. In 1954 he married Marilyn Monroe but the union lasted only 9 months. Legend has it that Joe was furious over the famous scene in “7-Year Itch” (Billy Wilder) where Marilyn’s white skirt rises showing her legs. Yet, Joe and Marilyn remained friends. In 1962 when Marilyn died from mysterious circumstances in Los Angeles, DiMaggio organized the funeral excluding Hollywood types and politicians. During the funeral and before the coffin was closed, he supposedly kissed her three times and said, “I love you.” For almost 20 years he had red roses delivered to her grave site. Then in 1999 as he was dying from lung cancer, supposedly he said on his deathbed, “Finally I will be with Marilyn.”
The month following his death, a bust of Joe was unveiled at Yankee Stadium while Paul Simon sang “Mrs. Robinson.” DiMaggio was always confused by the refrain. But I think it points to a simpler and happier era when we had baseball heroes. Yet there were also the difficult days of the 40s when many immigrants did not have the protection of the Bill of Rights.