Dominic DiMaggio

Dominic DiMaggio died today (Friday) at 92.  He was my candidate for best center fielder in Red Sox history, certainly the best fielder and base runner ever, until Fred Lynn. Jacoby Ellersby might match him if he lasts.

Dominic played center for the Sox in the 1940’s with Ted Williams in left. Since Williams was a poor fielder with a weak throwing arm, DiMaggio had to cover everything he could reach in the outfield, more than his share.

Though frequently referred to as “Joe DiMaggio’s kid brother,” Dominic was good enough in his own right to appear in seven All-Star games.  He had a 33 game hitting streak the same year (1941) that Joe hit in a record 56 consecutive games.  (Before that, the longest hitting streak was 44, set by Wee Willie Keeler before 1920, matched by Pete Rose in the “lively ball” era.

Some people might think this is “baseball trivia,” but there’s no such thing, because nothing about baseball is trivial.  Only trivial minds think baseball is trivial.

For example, in late 2001, Dominic and teammates Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky decided to drive 1,500 miles down to Florida to pay one last visit to Ted Williams, who was dying.  They were all over 80, and didn’t want to fly so soon after 9/11. Their wives would not let them drive.  So they recruited David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and baseball writer, to drive them.  In exchange, he would be a fly on the wall at their visits, and write about the trip.  He called the book Teammates.

In the car, the three teammates did what players used to do on long sleeper train rides between cities:  talk baseball, needle each other, and philosophize.    Now teams travel on jet planes, far less conducive to camaraderie and exchanging baseball knowledge.  Many wall themselves off from their teammates with earphones attached to electronic sound.

These four old-timers grew up in the Depression, came east from California, wound up on the same team, and stayed there their whole careers.  They also stayed intimate friends with one another for 70 years.

“It couldn’t happen today,” Halberstam said shortly before he died in 2007.   What’s trivial about any of that?  Or about Halberstam’s description of Pesky’s reaction to seeing the big, robust Williams a shadow of what he once was, or Williams’ look of gratitude to the teammates for visiting so close to the end.

It was not a sad visit, according to Halberstam.  The players had a wonderful time rehashing old times, recalling the great pitchers they faced.  The said Williams held the Major League record for arguments:  55,000 without a single loss.  He was that dominant, respected, loud, and opinionated, not to mention the greatest hitter who ever lived.

The same year Joe DiMaggio got his hitting streak, Williams hit for an average of .406.  It hadn’t been done in 12 years, and has not been done since.  He got a hit slightly more than 4 times out of every 10 chances over a 154 game season.  On the last day of the season, his average was .3999. It would have been rounded up to.400 in the record books.  His manager wanted him to sit out the last day and protect his record.  Williams refused, played both sides of a double-header and got 6 hits, to finish at a decisive .406.

What’s trivial about that, or about Satchel Paige, Williams’s choice for greatest pitcher of all time, who could not sign a Major League contract till he was 42 in 1948 because he was black.

Legendary hitters like Ted Williams and Jimmy Foxx, who faced him in exhibition games, said he was the toughest pitcher they ever faced.  And legendary power pitchers, Bob Feller and Dizzy Dean, say Paige threw faster than they did.  He’d practically lost that speed before his Major League debut, but he won on guile and control – and the heater he could still throw on occasion.

Williams started the ball rolling to have Negro League greats admitted to the Hall of Fame.  At his own induction ceremony in Cooperstown, he spoke of the unfairness of keeping some out of the Hall because they were never allowed to play in the majors.

What’s trivial about any of that?  It’s our national folklore, and it really happened.  I learned it from my Grandpa Isaac because I was too young to see it myself.  It was the basis of my relationship with my grandfather.  What’s trivial about that?

When people ask what I find so fascinating about baseball, I’m tempted to answer, “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

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