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Let Us Now Praise the Little Professor

In another summer of baseball’s steroid-driven discontent — A-Rod scandals, Manny’s suspension, Clemens’s denials, etc., — it’s worth remembering a different era in the pastime, the virtues of which were embodied by the other DiMaggio: Dom, the Little Professor, kid brother of Joltin’ Joe, the Yankee Clipper.

Dominic Paul DiMaggio died on May 8 at age 92. He’s not in Cooperstown, but the man who patrolled left field in Fenway while Dom DiMaggio was in center — Ted Williams, whom Leon Kass once aptly called “our Achilles” — was so convinced that his teammate belonged with the immortals that he had booklets entitled “Why Dom DiMaggio Belongs in the Hall of Fame” available at the Ted Williams Museum in Florida.

Dom DiMaggio made The Show in 1940. Like Joltin’ Joe and the Splendid Splinter, Williams, he lost years off his career in service to America during World War II. Thus his entire major league life spanned but ten full seasons. He was a career 298 hitter with a lifetime .383 on-base percentage who, as Sports Illustrated pointed out in a memorial essay, was a serious bat: “No one — not Joe, not Ted Williams — had more hits than Dom’s 1,679 from 1940 through 1952” (the missing service years being 1943-45).

Yet it was his fielding that truly set Dom DiMaggio apart. In those ten American League seasons, he had 147 assists from the outfield — meaning that 147 times, someone was dumb enough to test his rifle-like arm. Most outfielders would be happy with one season in which they had double-digits in assists. Dom DiMaggio had nine such campaigns, and in both 1942 and 1947 he threw out an amazing nineteen runners. His reputation was such that it changed the course of baseball history. It was 1946 and the Sawx might have broken the Curse of the Bambino, had they not been forced to take Dom out of the seventh game of the World Series when he turned an ankle after driving in the tying runs in the top of the eighth. Every serious baseball fan knows what happened next: the Cardinal’s Enos Slaughter raced from first to home on Harry “the Hat” Walker’s single to center, winning the game and the Series for St. Louis. But as Slaughter said afterwards, “If they hadn’t taken DiMaggio out of the game, I wouldn’t have tried it.”

Williams insisted that the Little Professor — so-called for his studious appearance and glasses — was the best center fielder he’d ever seen. Yet he didn’t look like a ballplayer (even in that less-muscle-bound era, Dom was on the small side, at 5’9″ and 168 pounds), and he didn’t have the DiMaggio glitz. Dom had the longest hitting streak in the American League between 1949 and 1987, at 34 consecutive games; but Joe had had his epic 56-game run in the summer of ‘41. Dom played amidst the crazies of Red Sox Nation in one of America’s two most beloved ballparks; but Joe played on center stage in the House That Ruth Built. Dom married Emily, and had three children and several grandchildren; Joe married Marilyn Monroe. In a culture become increasingly celebrity-infatuated, Dom DiMaggio was far more steak than sizzle. That may have something to do with his lamented absence from the Hall of Fame.

Yet he embodied the best of baseball in one of baseball’s greatest epochs. As for fame, perhaps Dom DiMaggio never read or saw A Man for All Seasons, but in pondering his death and his life (and the contrast with his brother Joe, to whom fame often meant misery), I remembered Sir Thomas More’s counsel to ambitious Richard Rich, desperate to join the world of high affairs at court. More thought Rich would make a fine teacher, “perhaps even a great one.” “And if I was, who would know it?” Rich complained. To which More answered, “You, your pupils, God. Not a bad public, that.”

Substitute “fans” for “pupils” and you’ve got Dom DiMaggio. Several hundred like him might save baseball in the early 21st century.

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