“Joltin’” Joe DiMaggio, the eighth of nine children, was born in 1914 to Italian-immigrant parents in Martinez, California. A year later, the DiMaggio family, which claims two other Major League centerfielders (Dom and Vince), moved to San Francisco.
Although he would make his name as one of the greatest New York Yankees of all time, DiMaggio got his start in 1932 playing professional baseball for his hometown San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League (PCL). In 1933, DiMaggio’s first full season with the Seals, a candy company called Zee-Nut released the first DiMaggio trading card.
Zee-Nut printed two DiMaggio cards in 1934, one showing him batting, the other featuring a fielding pose. The company also printed DiMaggio cards in 1935 and 1936 before it stopped publishing cards of PCL players altogether in 1938. The Zee-Nut cards were black and white and are notable for the misspelling DiMaggio’s name on the front as “J. DeMaggio,” which was also true for Zee-Nut cards made for Joe’s brothers.
The Zee-Nut cards were tall (3 ½”) and narrow (1 ¾”). Although the cards were not dated, a perforated coupon on the bottom of each card had expiration date, which is how collectors today can determine a Zee-Nut card’s year.
DiMaggio was extremely successful in the PCL. In his first full season he had a 61-game hitting streak—five games longer than his hitting streak with the Yankees in 1941, which is still the Major League record. He finished the 1933 season batting .340 with 28 homeruns and an astounding 169 runs batted in.
Although his first full season with the Yankees was in 1936, the Goudey Gum Company did not issue a DiMaggio rookie card until 1938. There were actually two DiMaggio cards produced that year. Both feature an oversize, hand-tinted photograph of DiMaggio’s head atop a hand-drawn body of the slugger with a bat in his hands. One card was dominated by this caricature alone, but a second card used the same image surrounded by a series of cartoons about DiMaggio’s life.
The cartoons were intended as jokey commentaries on DiMaggio’s meteoric rise in the big leagues. For example, “$25,000 a year. Pretty fair salary for a young fellow!” reads one ...
In 1940, Play Ball made its DiMaggio card the #1 card in its set. As with the 1938 Goudeys, the Play Ball cards suffered from toning irregularities, so finding this black-and-white DiMaggio card in high-grade is extremely difficult. Eight years later, DiMaggio would again be given the honor of #1 card in a set, this time in Leaf’s 1948-49 series. Unlike the Play Ball cards, these new Leaf cards were bright, colorful, and visually appealing, though not enough, it seems, to prevent the company from folding in 1950. Both the Play Ball and Leaf #1 DiMaggio cards are hard to find in top condition.
A year after Play Ball put DiMaggio at the head of its set, the “Yankee Clipper,” as he was often called, won his second of three American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards. It was during that 1941 season that DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak, a record that has been called one of sports’ hardest achievements to eclipse.
DiMaggio’s MVP award that season was controversial, however, because Ted Williams, an outfielder for the rival Boston Red Sox, had a .406 batting average and led the league with 37 homeruns. No player has hit over .400 since that year. DiMaggio would win his third MVP in 1947, two years after returning to baseball after serving three years in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.
DiMaggio and Williams enjoyed a great rivalry over the years, and consequently collectors have longed for photographs of the two men together, like the famous shot of them in a dugout taken during that 1941 season, or the picture of the pair that graced the July 8, 1950 cover of “TV Guide.” Collectors also covet memorabilia such as game-used bats and balls signed by both players.
While they were arguably the two best players in baseball in the 1940s, the owners of DiMaggio’s and Williams’ teams briefly explored the possibility of trading them for one another. Yankee Stadium played to Williams’ strengths as a left-handed hitter while Fenway Park played to DiMaggio’s strengths as a righty. The deal fell through only after Yankees’ General Manager Larry MacPhail refused to include Yogi Berra in the trade.
DiMaggio retired after the 1951 season, but not before he had the opportunity to share the outfield with another Yankee great: Mickey Mantle. Mantle was a rookie in 1951, so the two only spent a year as teammates, which mean a photograph of the two players together, especially autographed, is extremely desirable to many collectors.
As it turned out, DiMaggio’s retirement did not signal the end of his career as a creator of baseball memorabilia. That’s because in 1954 he eloped with movie star Marilyn Monroe. The marriage lasted less than a year, but that was enough time to create collectors’ items out of photographs of, and correspondence between, DiMaggio and Monroe.
In 2006, DiMaggio’s grandchildren auctioned off many of their grandfather’s collectibles. In total the auction netted more than $4 million and included everything from letters between Monroe and DiMaggio to a silver-plated ice bucket DiMaggio used in the 1940s.
The items that garnered some of the highest bids included a pinstriped flannel game-worn uniform from DiMaggio’s last World Series in 1951, as well as the ball he hit in 1941 to break Wee Willie Keeler’s record of 44 consecutive games. The item that sold for the highest amount, $281,750, was DiMaggio’s 1947 MVP award. Because he was such a popular player in New York, everything from his Hall of Fame ring to his and Monroe’s marriage certificate commanded huge prices.
Other popular DiMaggio collectibles include game-used Louisville Slugger bats, statues, autographed baseballs, and autographed Hall of Fame plaques, which have been produced by various companies and sold by the Hall of Fame since the late 1930s. Only certain players, DiMaggio among them, have autographed plaques available for purchase.
Finally, although autographed DiMaggio artifacts are not especially difficult to come by, bats autographed by DiMaggio are extremely rare because he was one of the first players to control the types of bats he used and the number of them he would sign. That scarcity has made them quite sought-after today.