Two unmatched MLB stars, opposite in many ways
Williams and DiMaggio approached things very differently
Last of three articles adapted from “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams,” by Ben Bradlee Jr., to be published Tuesday by Little, Brown and Company.
On December 11th, 1951, Joe DiMaggio announced his retirement in New York.
The fabled Yankee Clipper, who had just turned 37, said his decision was prompted by advancing years, a spate of physical ailments and the simple realization that as a player, “I no longer have it.”
Addressing a gaggle of reporters, photographers and newsreel cameras at the Yankees’ Manhattan offices in Squibb Tower, Joe said that “when baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game. And so, I’ve played my last game of ball.”
Responding to questions, he said his greatest thrills had been the 56-game hitting streak of 1941, and his smashing return to baseball in Boston during the summer of 1949, when he belted four home runs in three days after missing the first 65 games of the season due to a heel injury. Asked whom he considered the greatest of present-day hitters, Joe replied: “Ted Williams. He is by far the greatest natural hitter I ever saw.”
The heir to Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio had personified a certain graceful nobility, and the Yankee aura of success and invincibility during his relatively short career spanning 1936-1951, with three years out for World War II. In Joe’s 13 seasons of supple-but-sparkling defensive play and prodigious, clutch hitting, the Yankees won an astonishing 10 pennants and nine World Series, a record that served only to put a sheen on his skills and reputation, and define him as a winner.
DiMaggio’s acknowledgment of Williams at his farewell press conference was fitting since the two were by far the dominant players of their era — baseball’s Golden Age — and came to be joined at the hip in fan discourse. During their careers and into their retirements, there were endless debates about who the better player was, or who was most valuable to his team, and both men remained rivals for the rest of their lives. For Ted, the rivalry was friendly. For Joe it was fierce.
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The two were opposites in many respects.
DiMaggio was shy, backward and hardly spoke at all. Traveling in a car across country in 1936 to his first spring training as a Yankee with fellow San Franciscans Tony Lazzeri and Frankie Crosetti, Joe never uttered a word, until he was asked if he would like to share the driving, whereupon he said he didn’t drive.
Williams, on the other hand, was a chatterbox, with a boisterous, voluble personality and a curious mind. Joe, whose teammates called him the Sphinx, was stolid. Where Ted was explosive and colorful, Joe made it a point to conceal his emotions.
Ted came from a troubled home, Joe a strong one.
Joe always dressed immaculately in a tailored suit and usually sported a fresh manicure. As Roy Blount Jr. once wrote, when they saw Joe in the flesh, people would always say to him, “You look good, Joe.” And when the Clipper was out of earshot, the people would say to themselves, “Don’t he look good?”
But the Kid was a rumpled, unmade bed, who almost always wore a casual, open-collared shirt.
“DiMaggio was regal,” wrote Tom Boswell of the Washington Post. “But Williams was real. Joe D met the world like an icy myth of a starched man and liked it that way. Ted wore his rough edges and his opinions on his sleeve.”
When Joe returned to Yankee Stadium after he retired, he would demand an appearance fee and insisted on being introduced last, after Mantle and other stars. Williams never made any such demands, and stayed involved in the game far more than DiMaggio did. Joe didn’t have any modern-day favorites, the way Ted did with Tony Gwynn and Nomar Garciaparra — or any baseball causes, like trying to get Dom DiMaggio and Shoeless Joe Jackson into the Hall of Fame.
Ted often argued with the fans, while Joe did what he could to cultivate their good will. Joe knew how to tip his hat deftly, just enough to acknowledge the crowd, but not enough to annoy the other team. The Kid of course, refused to tip his hat at all.
Both were proud. When photographers wanted a joint picture, they’d have to get both of them to meet in neutral ground behind the backstop. Neither would go to the other’s dugout.
Ted enjoyed being Ted more than Joe enjoyed being Joe, and Williams had a more satisfying post-baseball life.
Ted never demanded sycophants and had a healthy distrust for people who sucked up to him. Joe could cut you off if you didn’t call him Clipper, and insisted that everything be done for him. He was surrounded by coat-holders and fixers, and he expected freebies or for others to pay his tab. Ted always insisted on picking up his own check and paying for others.
Joe smoked incessantly — even in the dugout. Ted never smoked. Joe loved nightclubs, Ted the outdoors.
Ted had a significantly longer career — 17 full years and two partial seasons interrupted by the Korean War, compared to Joe’s 13 years. Since Williams aspired to be the greatest hitter and was a largely indifferent fielder, DiMaggio, who was perhaps peerless in the outfield, was certainly the better all-around player. But Williams was clearly the superior batter, statistically:
Ted was better in average, homers and RBIs, as well as on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Ted won six batting titles to Joe’s two, four home run titles to Joe’s two, four RBI titles to Joe’s two, and six runs-scored titles to Joe’s one. Ted won two Triple Crowns, Joe none. But DiMaggio was harder to strike out. He fanned just five percent of the time compared to Ted’s nine percent.
Ted hit from the left, Joe the right. Joe was still at the plate. Ted was jittery and moved his hips from side to side.
Ever the disciplined hitter, Ted took far more walks than Joe, who was willing to swing at bad pitches to drive in a runner. That was a key difference in their hitting philosophies, and even some of Ted’s teammates gave the edge to DiMaggio on this issue.
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Joe’s record of pennants and World Series won clearly put Ted’s to shame. But the Clipper always had a better supporting cast — better pitching and a deeper bench. Joe probably got more respect from his teammates, and was more of a leader than Ted, who by temperament was more the individualist. Williams, with his hotter personality that made news off the field as well as on, was likely the bigger draw at the gate.
Thanks in part to his good press and strong relationships with the baseball writers, Joe won three MVPs to Ted’s two. Despite Ted’s .406, the 1941 vote in favor of DiMaggio was defensible because of Joe’s streak and because the Yankees won the pennant, but the narrow 1947 tally for DiMaggio, in the face of Williams’ overwhelmingly superior numbers that year, was not.
New York writers were given to fawning, over-the-top depictions of Joe. “He’s an artist in the exact sense of the word, a Cezanne with a finger mitt, a Van Gogh with a Louisville slugger,” gushed Joe Williams of the New York World Telegram in 1948.
“The New York writers both respected him and feared that he would cut them off,” wrote David Halberstam in Summer of ’49. “They generously described his aloofness, born of uncertainty and suspicion, as elegance . . . No such protection was offered Williams.”
In his public comments about DiMaggio, Williams was unfailingly gracious. “It took the big guy to beat me,” Ted said after Joe beat him out as the 1941 MVP. Of the streak, he said: “I believe there isn’t a record in the books that will be harder to break than Joe’s 56 games. It may be the greatest batting achievement of all.”
Joe’s public comments about Ted ranged from gracious: “There’s no question in my mind — I’ve always said he was the greatest hitter in the game”; to damning with faint praise: “Best left-handed hitter I’ve ever seen.”
Privately, when speaking to his friends or sympathetic writers, DiMaggio was contemptuous of Williams. “He throws like a broad and runs like a ruptured duck,” Joe would say.
According to Joe’s agent and lawyer, Morris Engelberg, who in 2003 wrote a book entitled “DiMaggio: Setting the Record Straight,” the Clipper considered Gehrig, Ruth, Hornsby, and Cobb better hitters than Williams, and was dismissive of Ted for never having won a championship. “ ‘Tell him to hold up his hands. Where are the rings?’ ” Engelberg wrote. “He thought Williams was a selfish player because he concentrated on one thing, his hitting, and neglected to improve his base running and fielding.” Joe was also critical of Ted for taking too many walks.
Joe liked to undercut Ted’s .406 achievement, telling pals that he could have achieved the milestone himself in 1939, but for his manager, Joe McCarthy. He’d been over .400 late in the season when he came down with an infection in his left eye. He couldn’t see the ball properly, but McCarthy insisted on playing him, and his final average dipped to .381. After the season, Joe said McCarthy told him he’d left him in the lineup because he did not want DiMaggio to be a “cheese champion.”
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Williams would read about Joe’s private remarks, or friends would tell him about them, but Ted would turn the other cheek — or even be sympathetic to Joe. “Ted would put a positive light to it, like, ‘Well we were competitors, what do you want the guy to say?’ ’’ said Al Cassidy, Ted’s close friend and the executor of his estate.
When both attended events, Ted would be solicitous of Joe and sometimes defer to him. Dan Wheeler, a friend of Williams, recalls the interplay between the two men at a New York fundraising event for major league baseball in the ’90s: “We were in the green room. Joe Garagiola was the emcee. Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford were in the room, and then Joe D came in, and Ted and Joe talked. Garagiola came over to Ted, and said ‘Ted, we’re gonna introduce you last, and Ted said, ‘No, second to last.’ He pointed to Joe and said, ‘Introduce him last, this is his town.’ ”
Jonathan Gallen, a former memorabilia dealer-turned-investment banker, who had business dealings with both Ted and Joe, confirms the differences between what each man said about the other privately:
“Ted was very complimentary of Joe, more than vice versa. Joe D could never hand out a solid compliment. It would be like, ‘Yeah he could hit, but he couldn’t field.’ The general tone of it all was negative. Ted loved people. He never ran them down. He saw the best in people. He loved baseball. He had a giant appetite for life. There was no one whose public perception was more different than the reality than Joe DiMaggio. The reverse was true of Ted. Joe was cheap as hell. Ted could not say no. Ted would give you everything, and Joe would give you nothing. Ted would want you to do well. But Joe — if you were making more than he thought you should off a deal, Joe wouldn’t do the deal. Joe was stingy and unhappy. Ted loved life.”
As he got older, DiMaggio became fixated on making money from the memorabilia market. Williams dabbled in it, mostly as a way of reconnecting with his son John Henry, to whom he would entrust most of his business dealings.
The man who coordinated most deals for both men over a span of about 15 years was Jerry Romolt of Arizona, one of the nation’s leading memorabilia brokers.
“Ted loved Joe, and Joe respected Ted,’’ Romolt said. “Joe was not a giving, gregarious person like Ted was. He was not as open as Ted was to him. Williams was my favorite of all time. He was rough on the exterior. But on a personal level there wasn’t a better human being. He was eminently reachable. There was an exposure to his soul that Joe could never bear.”
Romolt said Joe’s autograph was worth more than Ted’s for three reasons: DiMaggio played in New York and reaped the advantage of its media echo chamber; he’d burnished his iconic status by marrying Marilyn Monroe; and finally: “Ted would give an autograph to a tree. If Joe gave an autograph to his mother, he’d charge her.”
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Sometimes, DiMaggio would agree to do a promotional deal for a certain price, then insist on getting paid more when the event was actually being held.
Once, the Bowery Savings Bank of New York hired DiMaggio to help it reassure Italian customers not to take their money elsewhere. “They called in Joe to reassure people, and to endorse the bank,” said former John Hancock Financial Services CEO David D’Alessandro, who then worked as an executive for an advertising firm retained by the bank. “He agreed to $10,000 a day for two days. Then, after being told they had a full house and were turning people away, he said: ‘You guys are getting too good a deal,’ and raised his fee to $20,000 a day.”
In his dealings with Bowery, DiMaggio was always looking for ways to get extra money or merchandise, D’Alessandro said. For one advertising campaign, the bank wanted the Clipper photographed in his old Yankee uniform with assorted vintage equipment, so D’Alessandro arranged to borrow the precious gear from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
“After the photo shoot, the son of a bitch started packing the stuff up and was going to walk away with it!” D’Alessandro remembered. I said, ‘Mr. DiMaggio, we borrowed this from Cooperstown. We have to return it all.’
“Joe said, ‘What are you talking about? I played with these things.’ Only after I told him that I would lose my job if I didn’t return the stuff, did he give it back. The problem with Joe — he was always nickel and diming. You had to send him two first class air tickets to bring him in from San Francisco. He would use one and cash the other.”
According to Dr. Rock Positano, a leading podiatrist who began treating DiMaggio for his aching heels in the early 1990s and then became a Clipper intimate, Joe always stayed competitive with Williams and remained keenly aware of what Ted was doing.
“There was always this immense rivalry, even 50 years after they played ball,” Positano said. “Joe wouldn’t make a move without Ted doing it first. Like going to the White House. Joe did not want Ted to get all of the publicity.”
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush wanted to honor Joe and Ted on the 50th anniversary of the streak and Williams’ .406 milestone, and then fly them to the All-Star Game in Toronto aboard Air Force One. “Joe had a trepidation about it. He said, ‘Doc, Williams is doing it, so I’ve got to do it.’ ”
When DiMaggio introduced him to Ted at the Marriott Marquis hotel in New York, Positano was enamored with Williams and thought he was “larger than life.” But Joe didn’t want him to get too friendly with Ted. “He said, ‘Listen doc, he’s a little different than I am. He’s not as friendly as I am.’ Joe really did not like Ted, that’s the bottom line.
“Ted was a lot easier on Joe than Joe was on Ted. I told Joe once, ‘Look you have to be easier on this guy. He didn’t have an easy life. He was a war hero.’ Joe would say, ‘Listen doc, you have to understand, I’m still a competitor. Just because we stopped playing ball doesn’t mean we don’t have a competitive drive. I respect him as a hitter, but when it comes down to it, he should respect me more.’ ”
Whenever the Yankees played the Red Sox at Fenway Park, Joe wanted to be sure to perform especially well, because not only was he going up against Ted, but his brother Dominic as well. The Clipper was irritated by a ditty that Boston fans would serenade him with whenever he came to town. Sung to the tune of “O, Tannenbaum,” it went: “He’s better than his brother Joe, Dom-in-ic Di-Mag-gio!” Joe knew that wasn’t true, of course, but he thought Dom never gave him enough respect, and he didn’t like that Ted and Dom were friends.
“Joe felt his brother was too close to Ted,” Positano said. “He felt Ted had his attention. Joe always said that bothered him a little. He never asked Dom to pull away, but he’d say: ‘He may be your teammate, but I’m your brother.’ ”
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Once, two of Ted’s friends were spending the night at his house in the Florida Keys. In the drawer of a bedside table was a small notebook of Williams’, and inside was written: “Ways I’m better than DiMaggio.” The note probably revealed more about Ted’s insecurity than it did about his rivalry with the Clipper, which never reached the level of nastiness DiMaggio seemed to give it. In the end, Williams maintained his grace.
This article was adapted from “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams,” to be published Tuesday by Little, Brown and Company. Ben Bradlee Jr. is a former Globe editor and reporter.