- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Yankees and Red Sox were involved in a three-way struggle for the American League pennant on the last weekend of the 1948 season when Boston fans at Fenway Park began taunting New York icon Joe DiMaggio with a fraternal refrain.

“He’s better than his brother Joe/Dom-i-nic Di-Mag-gio,” they chanted over and over.

Well, no, not hardly. But little brother Dom, who died of pneumonia at his home in Marion, Mass., on May 8 at 92, was a genuine star in his own right. He surely would be in the Hall of Fame had his 10-year career not been sundered by three years in the Navy during World War II.

People called him “The Little Professor” because he was relatively small (5-foot-9, 168 pounds) and played wearing eyeglasses, rare in that era. Yet he was a super center fielder and a dangerous leadoff hitter who batted .298 lifetime, ran the bases well, had a strong arm and made the All-Star team seven times.

Every serious baseball fan knows Joe holds the major league record for hitting streaks with his 56-game run in 1941. Few also are aware that Dom still has the Red Sox mark of 34 straight, set in 1949. And practically nobody remembers that Joe played a role in ending it.

Dom was 0-for-4 when he reached the plate in the eighth inning of a game at Fenway on Aug. 9. He recalled the moment for author Alan Schwartz in 2006.

“I smacked a line drive up the middle so hard that [Yankees pitcher Vic] Raschi ducked to get out of the way, DiMaggio said. “As soon as I hit it, I said, ‘OK, that’s 35.’ But the ball wouldn’t drop. Joe is standing out there in center field, and he didn’t have to move - he said if he hadn’t caught it, it would have hit him right between the eyes. I just hit the damn ball too hard.”

Dommy, as his teammates called him, never complained about that or any other baseball-related matter. Not only was he overshadowed by his brother, but he also played alongside another superstar of that era, Red Sox slugger of sluggers Ted Williams. By his calculation, Dom would have made Cooperstown if he had collected just 12 more hits and finished with a .300 lifetime batting average.

Williams and brother Joe were big fans of his. Teddy Ballgame called him “the best leadoff man in the American League.” The Yankee Clipper said Dom was “the best defensive outfielder I’ve ever seen,” which would seem the baseball equivalent of Frank Sinatra praising Ella Fitzgerald.

During their years together roaming American League outfields, Joe’s Yankees won seven World Series and Dom’s Red Sox none. Yet the Sawx might have broken through in 1946 if Dom hadn’t been injured.

Enos Slaughter scored the winning run for the St. Louis Cardinals in the eighth inning of Game 7 when he legged it around from first base on what amounted to a long single by Harry Walker. DiMaggio was on the bench at the time after pulling a hamstring in the top half of the inning, and replacement Leon Culberson was slow to reach Walker’s drive.

“If Dom had been in there, I wouldn’t have tried to score,” Slaughter said of what became known as his “Mad Dash.”

As it was, the Red Sox had to wait another 58 years before winning a World Series in 2004, and after doing so, they presented DiMaggio with a championship ring. Ever modest, Dom kept it in a safety deposit box because it was “too heavy to wear.”

After retiring in 1953, he became successful in business and eventually a rich man. Shortly before Williams’ death in 2002, DiMaggio went to see him with former teammates Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr - a visit captured poignantly by the late David Halberstam in his book “The Teammates.”

Dom was one of 11 children born to the struggling DiMaggio family in San Francisco during the early part of the 20th century. Another brother, Vince, also played center field in the major leagues, but with much less success.

“I’m the last [survivor] of the 11,” Dom told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy in 2007. “We all must go, but I have no complaints. I’ve had a truly marvelous life.”

In the final reckoning, Dom might not have been “better than his brother Joe,” but he was close enough to deserve lasting respect and admiration.

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