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'Underrated' quiet star DiMaggio dies

Overshadowed by brother Joe, forged his own legacy

Red Sox star Dom DiMaggio stood with brother Joe in July 1949. Dom hit safely in 34 consecutive games, a Red Sox record, that year. Red Sox star Dom DiMaggio stood with brother Joe in July 1949. Dom hit safely in 34 consecutive games, a Red Sox record, that year. (Ray Howard/Associated Press /File)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 9, 2009
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Dom DiMaggio - who, despite having to share an outfield with Ted Williams and a name with his older brother Joe, became a diamond standout in his own right, earning All-Star status seven times in 11 seasons with the Red Sox - died yesterday of complications of pneumonia. He was 92.

The late author David Halberstam once described Mr. DiMaggio as "probably the most underrated player of his day."

Playing in the shadow of the era's two biggest superstars made that inevitable, perhaps. But neither of his great contemporaries failed to appreciate Mr. DiMaggio's talents. Williams considered him "the best leadoff man in the American League," and his older brother called him "the best defensive outfielder I've ever seen."

Mr. DiMaggio died in his Marion home while watching the replay of Thursday night's 13-3 Red Sox victory over the Cleveland Indians. "I was there, and we were watching it together," said his son Dominic Paul DiMaggio Jr. of Atkinson, N.H. "It was peaceful."

Elected to the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 1995, Mr. DiMaggio spent his major league career in Boston, playing for the Sox from 1940-42, then from 1946-53. He lost three seasons to wartime service in the US Navy.

"Dom DiMaggio was a beloved member of the Red Sox organization for almost 70 years," John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, said in a statement. "Even after his playing days, Dom's presence at Fenway Park, together with his teammates Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Johnny Pesky on numerous occasions reminded us all of a glorious Red Sox era of years past."

Pesky said he was in bed when the phone rang with news of Mr. DiMaggio's death.

"I'm very sad; I've been in tears all day," he said. "With Ted and Dom and Bob, we were like family. Dominic and I, we hit one-two in the lineup ahead of the great Ted. Dom and I would be on base for Ted, and Ted used to call us his pals. We had so many good times together."

Mr. DiMaggio, who stood 5-feet-9 and wore eyeglasses, was nicknamed "the Little Professor," a tribute to his intelligence on the field, as well as his scholarly mien and slight stature. Along with canniness, Mr. DiMaggio brought quickness and speed to the Red Sox lineup. He led the American League in stolen bases in 1950, with 15 (the lowest figure ever to lead either major league in that category). He also led the league that year in triples, with 11.

Mr. DiMaggio had a lifetime batting average of .298. He scored more than 100 runs seven times, twice leading the American League in that category. He hit safely in 34 consecutive games, a Red Sox record, in 1949. Two years later, he hit safely in 27 consecutive games.

His skill as a hitter inadvertently helped create one of the darkest moments in Red Sox history, their defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh and deciding game of the 1946 World Series. In the top of the eighth inning, he doubled home two runs to tie the game at 3-3, but pulled a hamstring on the way to second base.

Leon Culberson replaced him in center field. In the bottom of the eighth, with two outs, the Cardinals' Enos Slaughter tried to score from first on a single. Culberson was slow to field the ball, then made a mediocre throw to shortstop Pesky, whose throw home was too late. Slaughter was safe, giving the Cardinals the lead and, half an inning later, the championship.

"If they hadn't taken DiMaggio out of the game," Slaughter later said of his daring sprint, "I wouldn't have tried it."

Mr. DiMaggio, who had started in baseball as a shortstop, played the outfield like an infielder. He specialized in charging balls hit through the infield and using his powerful throwing arm to cut down advancing runners. (Slaughter had good reason to be leery of Mr. DiMaggio: He threw out three runners in the 1946 Series.) He was also celebrated for his range, using his quickness to get a good jump on the ball and positioning his body to face left field rather than home plate, which he felt saved him a step on balls hit in front of him.

"He was the easiest outfielder I ever played with," Williams said. "When he yelled, 'Mine!' you didn't have to worry about the rest of that play."

The slugger was uniquely qualified to comment on Mr. DiMaggio's fielding ability. It was often said that because of his teammate's slowness afoot Mr. DiMaggio had responsibility for both his own center field position and Williams's in left.

According to Halberstam, many of Mr. DiMaggio's teammates felt that batting leadoff for the Sox was "the hardest job in baseball," because that meant that back in the dugout he had to face a barrage of questions from Williams, who batted third: "What was he throwing, Dommy? Was he fast, was he tricky, was he getting the corners? Come on, Dommy, you saw him."

But the highly analytical and driven Williams found his match in the highly analytical and composed Mr. DiMaggio.

One of Williams's closest friends, Mr. DiMaggio begrudged the Splendid Splinter neither his interrogations nor his preeminence with the Red Sox. Relations with his brother were more charged.

Mr. DiMaggio never suggested he was the superior ballplayer. "I can do two things better than he can," he would say when asked to compare himself with Joe, "play pinochle and speak Italian."

He did, however, resent those who saw him only in terms of Joltin' Joe. "Yes, he's my brother - and I'm his brother," Mr. DiMaggio liked to say. "It's been a struggle all my life. . . . It followed me all through my major league career. I was always Joe's kid brother. . . . I never encouraged my two sons to get into baseball. I knew it would be twice as hard on them as it was on me. The Joe DiMaggio legend was just too strong."

The two DiMaggios played the same position (as did an older brother, Vince, who spent 10 seasons playing in the National League). They played for teams that were each other's fiercest rival.

Joe's most famous achievement was hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. Having hit safely in 34 straight games, Dom found his own streak ended when Joe made the put out on his final at-bat of what would have been the 35th game.

"Oh, Joe DiMaggio was a great player, but Dominic's got all the brains in the family," his wife, Emily (Frederick) DiMaggio, said in a 1971 interview.

Born in San Francisco Feb. 12, 1917, Dominic Paul DiMaggio was the son of Giuseppe Paola DiMaggio, a fisherman, and Rosalie (Mercurio) DiMaggio. He was the youngest of nine.

"I think Pop's pride and joy was Dom," Joe DiMaggio once said. "When Dominic was in short pants, Pop wanted him to become a lawyer, because 'he wears glasses.' "

Instead, Mr. DiMaggio wanted to be a chemical engineer. His athletic talents soon made him alter that ambition, though, and he followed in the footsteps of Joe and Vince.

Though Mr. DiMaggio started out as a shortstop, managers feared that a bad hop might break his glasses, so he was switched to the outfield.

Mr. DiMaggio's exploits with the minor league San Francisco Seals drew the attention of major league scouts, and the Red Sox signed him in 1939. Starting out in right field, he demonstrated such prowess with his glove that the team traded its All-Star center fielder, Doc Cramer, to open up that position for him. He finished the season with a .301 batting average.

Mr. DiMaggio enlisted in the Navy in 1942. Gathering no rust while in the service, he batted .316 in his first season back. He did, though, suffer an eye injury in 1943 while stationed on the West Coast that would develop into chorio-retinitis and force his retirement in 1953. The eye trouble led manager Lou Boudreau to bench Mr. DiMaggio. He retired two months into the season.

"I didn't want to hang around if I couldn't play regularly," he said in a 1987 interview about his decision to end his career.

In 1940, Hall of Famer Ty Cobb had said, "Dom's a throwback to the kind of players we used to have."

In many ways, though, Mr. DiMaggio was more a forerunner than throwback: the athlete as business professional. Toward the end of his playing career, he served as American League player representative in negotiations between players and owners. After retiring, he founded two highly successful manufacturing firms. One made carpeting for automobile interiors; the other made foam padding for automobile seats.

An example of Mr. DiMaggio's business success was his membership in the original ownership group of the Boston Patriots. He purchased 10 percent of the team in 1960 for $25,000 and sold it six years later for $300,000. That same year, he made unsuccessful overtures to Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey about buying the team. He also headed a syndicate that tried to purchase the team in 1977, after Yawkey's death.

Emily Colette DiMaggio of Wayland said her father "was such a great teacher of how to live a life and to love and pass it on."

She recalled that growing up in Wellesley, neighborhood children flocked to the DiMaggio house because there was always extra equipment for games. One day when the children couldn't find a ball, she said, they went into Mr. DiMaggio's study and borrowed one covered with signatures, a pennant ball, perhaps.

Upon arriving home in the evening, Mr. DiMaggio spied the ball, now sporting grass stains and smudged names, and asked, "What is this?"

"We told him we used it for the neighborhood ballgame with the kids," his daughter said. "We were waiting for the reaction, and he said, 'So, did you win?' That's who he was, an incredible dad."

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. DiMaggio leaves another son, Peter Joseph of Westford, and six grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Monday in St. Paul Church in Wellesley. Burial will be in Newton Cemetery in Newton.

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this obituary.

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