The baseball fraternity has lost one of its shining stars. Dominic DiMaggio, known as The Little Professor in his playing days, died Friday. He was 92 years old.
Small and bespeckled, Dominic DiMaggio didn’t possess the classic appearance of a star athlete. Frail looking and underweight, he looked more at home polishing professional athlete’s spikes rather than wearing the spikes of a star ballplayer. But a star ballplayer Dominic DiMaggio was. He was one of the finest center fielders of all-time. The California native could hit for average as well as authority, he could play the field with grace and skill, and he could run with the fastest in the league. His complete package was without many rivals. But alas, he has gone unnoticed over the years – denied Hall of Fame residence – for what can only be one simple reason: his last name was DiMaggio.
Dominic DiMaggio played his entire career with the stigma of being Joe DiMaggio’s – the finest player of his time – kid brother. No matter how brilliant Dominic was on the ball diamond, his star never quite shined as bright as the illustrious star owned by The Yankee Clipper. The comparisons were natural. They both had the same last name, so naturally Dominic was expected to be just like his older brother: Joe the legend. It was a comparison that anyone would loathe to have.
But Dominic never wavered. He made it to the highest level of baseball and flourished. He teamed with Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky to give the Red Sox an enviable offensive nucleus in 1942. The team seemed destined to unseat the Yankees as the American League’s top franchise, but then World War II was waged. The Red Sox young nucleus was broken. Williams and Pesky went to the Naval Air Force, while Dominic joined the Navy. But Dominic DiMaggio showed great character and inner strength. Denied by the military because of his poor eyesight, Mr. DiMaggio told this writer that he was forced to fight his way into the service. He said, “I wasn’t about to play the war on the ball field.”
Dominic DiMaggio wrote a letter to military administrators, pleading for his acceptance into the Navy. Admired for his patriotism, the Navy accepted The Little Professor and assigned him to shore patrol in his native California. Already a budding star at the Major League level, DiMaggio was just 26 years old and would miss the next three years keeping our shores safe from enemy invasion. Most players reach their peak at the age of 26, and Dominic was no different, but rather than enjoy his finest seasons on the ball diamond, Dominic played out his greatest years in the Navy.
Dominic DiMaggio returned to the Red Sox in 1946 and promptly led them to an American League pennant. He was 29 years old and missed three years to military service, but his skills remained intact and he gave Boston all he had. The Red Sox lost the World Series to the Cardinals and that would prove to be Dominic’s only Fall Classic appearance. Although the Red Sox never again played on the grandest of all stages, Dominic still produced for the BoSox. He once led the league in triples and stolen bases and was atop the leader board in runs scored twice.
I had the great fortune of speaking with Dominic DiMaggio over a year ago, compiling research for a project. The week prior, I had interviewed former Washington Senator Hillis Layne by telephone – my first ever telephone interview – and was thus filled with anxiety. Having one telephone interview under my belt, the next interview I had lined up was with Dominic DiMaggio. When I dialed his number, my fingers trembled in anticipation. On the other end of the line waited a baseball legend: one of the game’s finest. Greatness tends to get to a person’s head and change their mindset. A tendency to see others as inferior is commonplace, but such wasn’t the case with Mr. DiMaggio. He had just returned home from a game of bridge with friends and we spoke for some minutes about his time in the military: of which he was extremely proud. He told me about his fight to get in the Navy and his work as a shore patrolman in his native California. I was marvelled at the class the man exuded, but even more marvelled at his generosity. Here I was, a writer just embarking on a career, and Dominic DiMaggio, a true baseball legend, offered me his time. Before hanging up, I thanked Mr. DiMaggio for his time and told him my hope that someday he’ll make his way to the Hall of Fame. Even if Dominic DiMaggio never makes the baseball Hall of Fame, he is in my Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame was made with greatness in mind: great ballplayers and great men. Dominic DiMaggio was both.