In the summer of 2017 I was lucky enough to find myself strolling through the concourse of Yankee Stadium, visiting the home of the Bronx Bombers for the first time. It was a beautiful August day but extremely hot – that sweltering level of heat only New Yorkers can seemingly tolerate. I had managed to find some respite from the sun but my shirt was already sticking to my back. I instantly knew the four t-shirts I had packed for the trip would not be enough.
Therefore a new purchase was a must and what better place to be than a ballpark, complete with multiple shops carrying every item of baseball gear you could ever wish for.
I soon stumbled across a store dedicated solely to Yankee greats from the past and my eyes were immediately drawn to that iconic number 5, as I marvelled at an entire wall devoted to the legendary Joseph Paul DiMaggio.
There have been many famous figures throughout baseball history who have dominated it’s landscape (and a lot of them wore pinstripes), but DiMaggio has always stood head and shoulders above the rest in my book.
Perhaps it’s that number, that single digit, registering with me on a personal level thanks to my brother, who would also don the number 5 during his racing days.
Or perhaps it was that swing, the sweetest of motions, the perfect marriage of force and finesse. Pitchers were left helpless when DiMaggio made contact, as he regularly did. The ball would jump off his bat and the effort involved was a thing of beauty. If they had such a thing as StatCast in the middle of the twentieth century, you can bet Joltin’ Joe would be high up the leaderboard.
That swing wasn’t just pretty to look at, it was mightily effective too. DiMaggio recorded a .325 lifetime batting average over the course of his thirteen seasons and 6,821 at-bats. Incredibly, he struck out just 369 times.
Just think about that for a moment in comparison to today’s sluggers. Aaron Judge has more strikeouts in the last three years than DiMaggio had in his entire career. DiMaggio’s unparallelled poise at the plate is almost impossible to fathom in this age of high home runs and high strikeouts.
DiMaggio spent all of his major league career in New York with the Yankees (minus the three years lost to military service), and won an astonishing nine World Series titles, plus three MVP awards. During his prime he lived like a king in the greatest city in the world, and would be doted upon in every restaurant or club he set foot in – it’s no wonder he was voted to the All-Star Game every single year. His name quickly became ingrained in American culture, especially after being immortalised in song by Simon & Garfunkel. DiMaggio would also leave the public forever wondering if he did indeed dunk his donuts thanks to Seinfeld.
If you ask someone on the street who Joe DiMaggio is, they’ll probably know him best as the man who married Marilyn Monroe. But if you ask a baseball fan, they’ll almost certainly think of him as synonymous with a specific number.
The number 56 will be connected to DiMaggio for as long as baseball exists, thanks to his astonishing record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games in 1941. It is widely considered one of baseball’s untouchable records – only Pete Rose has ever come close, with a 44-game streak in 1978 (still shy of the record by almost two weeks’ worth of hitting). People all over the world would tune their radios to discover if the great DiMaggio had picked up another hit to extend the streak, and it proved a welcome distraction in a time of great uncertainty, as the United States prepared themselves for entry into the Second World War. The eyes and ears of the nation focused on DiMaggio and he delivered in style.
DiMaggio batted .408 (91-for-223) during the streak with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs. Want to know what kind of impact a hot streak like that could have for a ballclub? In mid-May the Yankees were 14-14 in the American League, 5½ games behind my beloved Cleveland Indians. By the final day of DiMaggio’s streak, the Yankees were 55-27, with a 6-game lead over the second-placed Tribe. Naturally the Bronx Bombers went on to win the World Series, dispatching their Brooklyn neighbours four games to one.
Talk about carrying a team on your back, and so it was I chose to carry DiMaggio’s name on my back.
I lifted a navy t-shirt off the wall, with number 5 and DIMAGGIO printed on the reverse, and headed to the Yankees’ must-see Monument Park satisfied with my purchase. I took my time among the bronze plaques adorned with the names and faces of the Yankee icons, but obviously special attention was deserved for DiMaggio.
As an Indians fan, it’s not often I’ll wear Yankees gear, and in some places that would be considered outright treason, but my DiMaggio t-shirt is an exception.
I wear it proudly. There was never another choice in my eyes.