Everybody knows Joe DiMaggio was the greatest of the three DiMaggio brothers who played Major League Baseball, right?
Well, sure, except that “meanwhile, Dominic had become arguably the best combination in the [American] League in manufacturing runs on offense and preventing them on defense.”
The contention that Dom DiMaggio, playing for the dependably unfortunate, underachieving Red Sox, may have been, for a number of years, more useful to his team than his celebrated brother was to the all-powerful Yankees is one of the delicious nuggets in Tom Clavin’s “The DiMaggios: Three Brothers, Their Passion for Baseball, Their Pursuit of the American Dream.” But the most fascinating revelations about Joe, Dominic, and Vince DiMaggio pertain to the extraordinary ways in which they differed from each other not as ballplayers, but as people.
For a long time the toast of New York, Joe DiMaggio eventually came to seem to almost everyone who knew him a sad and lonely man incapable of intimacy or trust. Even during his days as the hero of the Yankees, according to Clavin, Joe struck his teammates as “chilly, even intimidating.” His older, more personable brother, Vince, had a fine if peripatetic Major League career that included two All-Star Game appearances for the National League, but unlike Joe and Dominic, he could not walk away from the game, essentially because he couldn’t find anything to walk toward. He played for a succession of lower and lower minor league teams into his late 30s, and found managing “frustrating” when he eventually tried that for a Class D team in Pittsburg, Calif.
But Dom, the youngest of the DiMaggios to play in the Bigs, not only made friends easily and patiently taught younger teammates all he know about the game, he sustained those friendships throughout his life, became an exceptionally successful and generous businessman, and built a family life that must have been the envy of those who knew him within and beyond the DiMaggio family. As Clavin puts it, “unlike Joe’s marriages, Dominic and Emily’s would endure for 61 years.” In “The DiMaggios,’’ Dominic’s daughter speaks of him with great affection and admiration. Joe was essentially estranged from his only son, whom he referred to as a bum. Beyond all that, unlike Vince, Dominic never seemed to resent the celebrity brother Joe attained and eventually took for granted. (Joe insisted that at every event he attended, he must be introduced as “the greatest living ballplayer.”)
Because Clavin explores the dynamics of the family itself, “The DiMaggios” becomes much more than the story of three ballplaying brothers. Initially dubious about Vince figuring he could make a living by playing a game, Papa Giuseppe, a fisherman by trade, became a fan of all three sons and followed their careers via box scores each day. He and his wife, Rosalie, traveled by train from California to New York to witness the World Series, where Giuseppe himself was interviewed and celebrated as Joe starred on what Clavin calls “the world’s biggest stage,” Yankee Stadium.
But Clavin finds a quieter moment just as worthy of his attention. At the end of the 1949 season, before a game against the Red Sox that would decide the pennant, the Yankees staged Joe DiMaggio Day. Joe had been ill with “something like the flu,” and was weak enough during his obligatory pregame appearance that, according to Dominic, “he made his whole speech leaning on me.” But he rallied at game time, and the Yankees won. Giuseppe DiMaggio had died earlier in the year. Rosalie had made the trip east with the oldest of the DiMaggio brothers, Tom, who escorted her to the ballpark. After the game, Yankees officials led Rosalie to the Yankee clubhouse. As Clavin reports, “When it appeared there would be a wait to see Joe, Frank Scott, then the Yankees’ traveling secretary, offered to bring her to a room upstairs. With a sad smile she said, ‘No, take me to Dominic, he lose today.’”
With the perspective provided by the passage of time and the deaths of Vince, Joe, and Dominic DiMaggio, the unmistakable conclusion is that even that loss, heartbreaking at the time, is as nothing to the full and joyful life Dominic DiMaggio built for himself and his family. The contrast to Joe’s haughty isolation is dramatic, and Tom Clavin’s admiration for Dominic DiMaggio as a ballplayer and, more significantly, as a man, is palpable.
Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game” from WBUR in Boston and teaches at Curry College.
He can be reached at blittlef@