Good morning, it’s Monday, March 8, 2021. Two U.S. presidents and Joe DiMaggio passed away on this date in American history. Guess which one we remember more? Okay, that’s not really fair. Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft went to the great Oval Office in the sky in 1874 and 1930, respectively, which is to say before television. Not so with Joltin’ Joe, who died in 1999. We knew his face, just as we knew his exploits as the New York Yankees centerfielder, husband of Marilyn Monroe, and vigilant defender of his legacy as “greatest living ballplayer” -- an unofficial title Joe clung to years after it ceased being the consensus.
But that is not to say that we knew the man. The Yankee Clipper was a famously private person, right up until the end. His funeral in the glorious Catholic church overlooking San Francisco’s iconic Washington Square was attended by just 30 souls -- family only. The eulogy was delivered by Dominic DiMaggio, the last surviving sibling among the nine DiMaggio kids -- three of whom played centerfield in the major leagues.
Dom DiMaggio patrolled centerfield in Fenway Park from 1940 to 1952, missing three seasons while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He batted leadoff and in the outfield gracefully covered up for leftfielder Ted Williams’ slow-footedness and indifference to fielding.
Williams appreciated it. “When he yelled, ‘Mine!’ you didn’t have to worry about the rest of that play,” Williams said. Both Sox players were keenly aware that Williams’ main rival in the sport was Dom’s older brother Joe. But Dom and Ted didn’t mesh well despite that rivalry -- or because of it. They did so because Dom got along with almost everyone.
The youngest DiMaggio brother was a living refutation of the notion that athletic excellence necessitates being a jerk. Dom made the American League All-Star team in seven of his 10 full seasons, and despite being considered mainly a defensive star, hit .300 four times and led the league at least once in triples, stolen bases, and runs scored. Nicknamed “the Little Professor” because of the eyeglasses he wore and his relatively diminutive stature, Dom DiMaggio was described by author David Halberstam as “probably the most underrated player of his day.”
He was just as good a person off the field. As a family man, he certainly wasn’t underrated: In that realm, he was better than Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams combined. When he died, his daughter Emily recalled what it was like having Dom for a father growing up. Neighborhood kids gravitated toward their Wellesley home, knowing for one thing that there was always extra baseball equipment available for use in pickup games.
Once, when they were having trouble finding a baseball, they simply used one they found in Dom’s study, a ball covered with signatures. I can’t tell you who signed it -- Ted Williams, almost certainly, and perhaps Sox stars Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr from the 1946 pennant-winning Boston team -- for the simple reason that Dom never made a big deal of it.
Arriving home that evening, he spotted the soiled ball, with the names smudged, and asked what had happened. Belatedly realizing what they’d done, the kids told him the truth -- and braced themselves. “We were waiting for the reaction,” Emily recalled. After a brief pause, Dom DiMaggio merely said, “So, did you win?”
“That’s who he was,” his daughter said. “An incredible dad.”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.