In Tom Clavin's revelatory and surprisingly touching new book, "The DiMaggios," there is a quote from a syndicated sports column of the 1940s:
"The old-time baseball writers used to refer affectionately to (19th century reporter and groundbreaking statistician) Henry Chadwick as the Father of Baseball. It would seem fitting to bestow this distinction today upon Mr. (Guiseppe) DiMaggio. ... We know of no other father who has contributed that many sons to the uplift and perpetuity of what is called the great national pastime."
The irony, as readers of "The DiMaggios" will understand, is that the father of major-league players Vince, Joe and Dom DiMaggio for years hated baseball, according to Clavin, "thought it was a silly, unprofitable exercise," discouraged his sons from playing it and in fact "didn't want his sons involved in any sports."
"The DiMaggios" is worth reading on several levels, but with today's Father's Day theme, Guiseppe will be the focus. An important but nonetheless background character in the book, the head of the DiMaggio family emerges as a prime example of proud, loyal, hard-working, demanding, loving, humble, narrow-minded, money-worshipping, vain fatherhood. In other words, human.
Learned fans might think there can't be much new to say about the DiMaggios, especially Hall of Famer Joe, who transcended sports, married Marilyn Monroe, was a reclusive celebrity for nearly 50 years after his baseball career ended and has been the subject of countless biographies. But Clavin manages to cast the family in general and the baseball-playing brothers in particular in a fresh light, not shying away from personality conflicts and various character flaws and estrangements. He ultimately tells a compassionate story that, while unique to the DiMaggios, contains so much basic humanity, so much connectedness, that anyone with complex family relationships (are there any other kind?) can empathize.
Baseball, according to Dom, the youngest of Guiseppe and Rosalie's nine children, "violated Dad's code of life, which emphasized the work ethic."
In Clavin's telling of the DiMaggios' story, Guiseppe first inched toward acceptance of baseball in 1931 when Vince, the first son to rebel against his father's wishes and who forged his father's signature on his first pro contract, dumps his season's earnings, some $1,500 in cash, in front of him.
"Well, that's a different story," Guiseppe says. "Baseball, that's the game!"
By 1937, with Vince and Joe in the major leagues and Dom starring with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, "pictures of the three baseball players now shared wall space which previously had been reserved only for Christian saints in the DiMaggio home."
At the World Series that year, Guiseppe smokes a cigar given to him by former heavyweight boxing champion Jim Braddock and is viewed by the New York newspapers as "something of a wise old sage" (despite speaking little English) and "seemed to enjoy the attention."
By 1940, Guiseppe DiMaggio, an illiterate Sicilian fisherman who emigrated to the Bay Area in 1898 and for decades worked 12-16 hours a day, six days a week, had come around, not particularly liking baseball for its own sake but for what it had done — through Vince, Joe and Dom — for his family. The game had lifted the DiMaggios from poverty, provided the luxury of leisure time, a home in San Francisco's Marina District and the family's restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf, where San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi was a regular customer. All during the Great Depression, no less.