For my entire life, I have been lucky enough to be a fan of the New York Yankees. There are pictures of me in pinstripes as an infant and I will always love the team. Like so many Yankees fans, rotting for the Yankees goes back multiple generations. My dad is a huge Yankees fan and so was my grandfather, who I can thank for shaping my sports fandom. But for me, rooting for the Yankees is a mostly fun experience. For my grandfather, baseball represented the American Dream and no one could make him feel more American than Joe DiMaggio.
My grandfather was born in tenement housing in Manhattan in 1926 to Italian immigrants. His parents only spoke Italian and named him Tommaso Salvatore. Like many immigrant families, my grandfather searched for ways to become more American. He worked odd jobs and Americanized his name to Thomas Joseph. Another solution for most Italian Americans living in New York was to start watching baseball. My grandfather would have been too young to really appreciate Babe Ruth or a younger Lou Gehrig. But as my grandfather reached his more formative years, he became enamored by Joe DiMaggio.
The Yankee Clipper
Joe DiMaggio was born Giuseppe Paolo to Italian immigrants in 1914. Like my grandfather, his family came from Sicily and Giuseppe looked for ways to embrace the United States. DiMaggio followed his brother’s footsteps and soon found himself as a standout baseball player. Despite an early knee injury, Joe would sign with the Yankees in 1935 and would make his debut the following season. DiMaggio quickly took baseball by storm and would win his first of 9 (!) World Series championships in his rookie season. Not only was DiMaggio great on the diamond but he quickly became an American icon.
By 1936, Italian Americans had already started creating a rough reputation for themselves. Poor economic conditions in Italy saw 4 million Italians come through Ellis Island from 1900 to 1914. While many came hoping to find better options in the New World, they soon found themselves with limited opportunities. Many worked odd jobs where they were underpaid with very limited job security. Feeling that they were out of options, many turned to organized crime. As Al Capone and Lucky Luciano dominated the 1920s and early 1930s headlines, everyday Italian Americans faced severe discrimination.
When the Yankees brought in Joe DiMaggio, it represented the hopes and dreams of all Italian Americans. Instead of being portrayed as villains, DiMaggio quickly became one of the most popular players in the history of the sport. Most Americans saw him as a rockstar but Italian Americans saw him as hope for their future. As DiMaggio’s star continued to grow, so did the status of Italian Americans. Joined by Sinatra and Dean Martin, Italian Americans were no longer feared but instead idolized.
While DiMaggio’s career was off to a fast start, it was nearly derailed in the 1940s as the world descended into war. While DiMaggio’s parents were classified as “enemy aliens,” Joe found himself called into service. DiMaggio did not see any action, but was one of thousands of Italian Americans who fought for the United States army; despite their families facing discrimination. After DiMaggio returned home, his baseball career continued without missing a beat. Despite missing three prime seasons he would still finish with over 2,000 hits and 360 home runs.
DiMaggio continued to see his star rise and by the time he was ready to call it a career he had won 3 MVPs and set the record for most consecutive games with a hit at 56. He would later marry Marilyn Monroe and become the face of Mr. Coffee. While his on-the-field accomplishments will always be impressive, his most important accomplishment was brining baseball to Italian Americans. Eventually, the Bronx would be full of Italian Americans from Berra and Rizzuto to Giambi and Girardi. In 2021, you can go to any Yankees game and find Italian Americans packing the stands or writing blogs on this website. Many of us were born into pinstripes and have previous generations to thank.
But for my grandfather and many other New Yorkers, Joe DiMaggio was so much more than simply a baseball player. He inspired hope that they would be accepted in their new country, and he represented the American Dream.