The "Yankee Clipper"

Collecting Baseball Cards & Autographs of Joe DiMaggio

By Kevin Glew

New York Yankees collectors can probably give you 56 reasons why you should pursue the Joe DiMaggio Basic and Master sets on the PSA Set Registry.

But the biggest reason is probably the "Yankee Clipper's" 56-game hitting streak in 1941, which is considered one of the most hallowed records in all of sports.

"No. 1, statistically, it's impossible to conceive that he achieved that record; it was superhuman," said Chris Collins, who owns the No. 2 Current Finest Joe DiMaggio Basic set on the PSA Set Registry. "And No. 2, with the [specialty relief] pitchers they have today, I think it's a record for the ages."

The hitting streak began on May 15, 1941, with a single off of Chicago White Sox left-hander Eddie Smith and proceeded to capture the imagination of Americans. It was front page news and radio broadcasts were interrupted for updates. Even non-sports fans were cheering for "Joltin' Joe."

DiMaggioDiMaggioDiMaggio

DiMaggio hit .408 and struck out just five times during the streak, and when it was finally halted on July 17, 1941, by Cleveland Indians hurlers Al Smith and Jim Bagby, the Bronx Bombers star started up a new streak, hitting in 16 more consecutive contests.

By that time, however, hitting streaks were old hat for DiMaggio. The 56-gamer wasn't even the longest of his professional career. In 1933, as an 18-year-old rookie with the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals, the young slugger hit safely in 61 straight contests.

Not bad for a kid whose older brother, Vince, had to convince the Seals to sign him in 1932. Born in Martinez, California, on November 25, 1914, DiMaggio was the eighth of nine children (the fourth of five sons) born to Giuseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio. His parents were Italian immigrants and his father worked as a fisherman, but DiMaggio was more interested in a career on the diamond than on the water.

In 1932, DiMaggio was a wild-throwing, 17-year-old shortstop when he played three games for the Seals, before starring with the club in 1933 as an outfielder. He hit .340 and smashed 28 homers that season and, for an encore, batted .341 in 1934. Most big league teams, however, shied away from him after he hurt his knee that August. Yankees scout Bill Essick, on the other hand, was smitten with the young outfielder, and he convinced the Bombers to buy DiMaggio for $25,000. The deal was contingent on DiMaggio remaining with the Seals in 1935 and proving that his knee had healed. The outfield prospect would hit .398 and belt 34 home runs, leaving little doubt that he was healthy and ready for the big leagues.

DiMaggio
DiMaggio

His major league debut was widely anticipated. Some heralded him as the next Babe Ruth, and DiMaggio didn't disappoint. In his first start, on May 3, 1936, he recorded three hits and three runs and went on to accumulate 48 hits in May to set a new rookie record. He'd finish the season with a .323 batting average, 206 hits - including 29 home runs and 15 triples - and 125 RBI to lead the Yankees to their first World Series title since 1932.

Over the next six seasons, the five-tool outfielder was a force on four more championship teams. During that stretch, he also secured two American League (AL) batting titles (1939, 1940) and two AL MVP Awards (1939, 1941). He also topped the league in home runs (46) in 1937 and RBI (125) in 1941. In the process, he became a hero and a symbol of modesty and class on and off the field.

"Of course, when you talk Yankees, the first name that pops up is Babe Ruth. And while Ruth created the Yankees' dynasty for years to come, he was a notorious lout. According to what has been written about him, his off-the-field antics left something to be desired. Joe DiMaggio was different," explained Tim Pulcifer, a long-time DiMaggio card collector.

"He was quiet, reserved and [seemed to possess] a tremendous feeling of obligation - not only to himself but also to baseball, his family and friends. To me, he exemplifies the true 'American Dream,' of being somewhat of a minority [Italian] at the time and then becoming the best baseball player of his generation. He was very conscious [of the fact] that he was representing not only a proud heritage but also a respect for the game and its fans. He was a role model for young fans and is an American icon. He was a class act all the way."

DiMaggioDiMaggioDiMaggio

Steve DeFreytas, who owned the registry's No. 1 All-Time Finest DiMaggio Master Set until he retired it in 2009, agrees.

"One couldn't help but admire him," he said. "He always struck me as a man of integrity, who took seriously his position as a role model to young people."

In February 1943, DiMaggio enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, where he served in a morale-boosting role. Unfortunately, stomach ulcers hospitalized him for several weeks in 1944, and he received a medical discharge in September 1945.

When he returned to the Yankees the following year, he batted below .300 for the first time, but he rebounded to hit .315 and win another MVP Award in 1947. The following campaign he regained his pre-war form and topped the AL with 39 home runs and 155 RBI.

DiMaggio
DiMaggio

But by the end of that season, DiMaggio was increasingly hobbled by a bone spur on his left heel, and he missed the first 65 games of the 1949 campaign. DiMaggio would play close to a full season in 1950 and hit .301 with 32 homers, but his batting average dropped to .263 in 1951, which proved to be his last big league campaign. Despite tailing production, he was still the centerpiece of four more World Series-winning squads after he returned from military service.

"What really stands out to me is that Joe DiMaggio was a complete ballplayer, and he led by example. He could hit for average and power and was an RBI machine. In 13 big league seasons, Joe had 100 or more RBI nine times, and if not for injuries, he would have had more," noted Pulcifer. "His fielding was, by most accounts, nearly flawless."

But it's DiMaggio's post-season performance and low strikeout totals that most impress Pulcifer.

"He led the Yankees to 10 World Series, and of those 10 Series, the Yankees won nine of them. Babe Ruth didn't do that, [neither did] Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle or Derek Jeter," he said. "Another thing [to note is that] DiMaggio hit 361 home runs in his career, yet had only 369 career strikeouts. Think about that. To me, that is even more incredible than his still unbroken, 56-game hitting streak."

Following his playing career, DiMaggio married model and actress Marilyn Monroe in January 1954. The marriage lasted just nine months, but the two remained friends until her death on August 5, 1962. DiMaggio later served as a coach and vice-president for the Oakland A's in 1968 and 1969, prior to becoming a spokesperson for Mr. Coffee®. 

DiMaggioDiMaggioDiMaggio

In a 1969 poll, DiMaggio was named baseball's "greatest living player," and he was introduced by that title at subsequent public events. DiMaggio was also one of the first ex-athletes to profit handsomely from his autograph (see accompanying sidebar). He became a regular on the card show circuit in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite the adulation he enjoyed, however, DiMaggio is not nearly as popular as Yankees legends like Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth amongst card collectors. Just 18 Basic DiMaggio sets and nine Master sets have been registered on the PSA Set Registry.

Much of this has to do with DiMaggio playing during a period when there were few national card releases. There are just seven cards in his Basic set and 41 in his Master set, and the few cards that were made of him are not as appealing as the Topps and Bowman issues of the 1950s.

"Some of DiMaggio's cards are hideous," said Collins. "They are just not attractive cards."

But even with their mostly primitive designs, DiMaggio's cards can still command big bucks. Here's a rundown of DiMaggio's Basic Set cards and some of his key Master Set cards.

Basic Set Cards

DiMaggioDiMaggio

1938 Goudey #250, #274. These 2-3/8" by 2-7/8" cards present a photo of DiMaggio's head superimposed on a cartoon body. The fronts of the two cards have the same image, but card #274 has cartoons and words in the background. Both cards are hampered by border toning, and although the second DiMaggio (#274) sometimes commands a premium, the "Yankee Clipper's" first single (#250) is actually tougher to track down in PSA NM-MT 8 or better condition.

Of the 255 examples of #250 graded, there have been just two PSA MINT 9s, two PSA NM-MT+ 8.5s and nine PSA 8s. There are three PSA 9s and 24 PSA 8s of #274.

DiMaggio

1939 Play Ball #26. Showcasing a head and shoulders shot of a smiling DiMaggio, this is one of the best black-and-white images of the Bombers legend on a card. Measuring 2-1/2" by 3-1/8", it's one of the easier DiMaggio singles to obtain in top condition. Of the 1,144 submitted, there have been 13 PSA 9s, one PSA 8.5 and 88 PSA 8s.

DiMaggio

1940 Play Ball #1. This card is the same size as the 1939 Play Ball single, but it features a framed, black-and-white action photo and DiMaggio's name at the bottom. This is the first card in the set, which adds to its appeal but also makes it more challenging to find in pristine grade. There have been just two PSA 9s and eight PSA 8s.

DiMaggio

1941 Double Play (with Charley Keller) #63, #64. A headshot of DiMaggio is featured alongside fellow Bombers outfielder Charley Keller on this 2-1/8" by 3-1/8", black-and-white card. These double cards were often cut in half to separate the players. Of the 199 submitted, there have been 11 PSA 8s, with only one PSA 8.5 grading higher.

DiMaggio

1941 Play Ball #71. This card is very similar to DiMaggio's 1940 Play Ball card except that color has been added. Pulcifer says the purple and green colors used in the background help this card stand out.

"Many consider this his best looking card," said Pulcifer.

The veteran collector adds that this card is also coveted because it was released in the year of DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

There has been one PSA GEM-MT 10, five PSA 9s and 28 PSA 8s.

DiMaggio

1948 Leaf #1. This was the first card in the first color baseball set after World War II. Being at the top of collector piles, this card was subjected to additional wear and tear, and it's DiMaggio's most difficult Basic Set single to uncover in PSA 9 or better condition. There's just one PSA 9 (and no PSA 10s).

Key Master Set Cards

DiMaggio

1933-36 Zeenut Pacific Coast League cards. DiMaggio is featured on two elusive, 1-3/4" by 3-1/2" Zeenut cards from his tenure with the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals. On both cards, his last name is misspelled "DeMaggio." One card features DiMaggio in a batting pose, while the other showcases him throwing. Additionally, these cards were originally released with a coupon attached to the bottom that encouraged collectors to cut it off and redeem it for "valuable premiums." Cards with the coupons still intact sell for more.

The batting pose card is tougher to obtain in top condition. Just six examples of the hand cut variety have been submitted, compared to only one with the coupon still intact. The highest grade has been a PSA GOOD 2 (for the hand cut card). Sixteen "throwing" cards have been evaluated, and there have been two, hand cut PSA EX 5s and one PSA EX-MT 6 for the "with coupon" example.

1936 World Wide Gum #51. Goudey's Canadian imprint, World Wide Gum, released a DiMaggio card before their American competitors. Some deem this DiMaggio's true rookie because it's the first to feature him in a Yankees uniform. This card was released in Canada in limited quantities.

"This was probably the toughest one to find, in any condition, while trying to build the set," said DeFreytas.

Of the 27 evaluated, the highest graded example is a PSA NM 7.

DiMaggio

1937 O-Pee-Chee #118. Another tough Canadian issue, this card measures 2-5/8" by 2-15/16" and presents a black-and-white photo of DiMaggio in the follow-through of his swing. There's a perforated design around the top half of DiMaggio's photo, so you could pop out this portion of the photo to make a stand-up card. As a result, these cards are difficult to find in their original condition. The four PSA 8s are the highest graded examples.

• • •

Collecting "Joltin' Joe" Autographs

Joe DiMaggio's signature was as tidy and meticulous as the suits he wore.

"DiMaggio's signature always had sense of authority," said the principal authenticator at PSA/DNA. "From his early days to maybe a few years before he died, his signature almost always showcased every letter. And the early signatures, especially the stuff during his playing days, are the most coveted by collectors."

The authenticator says DiMaggio seems to have been a relatively accommodating signer during his playing career. 

"A tell-tale sign of his prolific signing habits are the various album page and team sheets we see submitted to PSA/DNA," said the expert.  "In general, he was pretty gracious with fans."

DiMaggio
DiMaggio
DiMaggio

The PSA/DNA authenticator warns, however, that clubhouse attendants signed some items for DiMaggio during his playing career.

"DiMaggio had clubhouse signers signing for him throughout his career," the autograph expert noted.  "He did sign a good number of team balls though, usually signing on a side panel of a baseball and occasionally the sweet spot."  

DiMaggio was a less accommodating signer in person after he retired.

"There's no doubt that he was one of the major guys that paved the way for the modern autograph business," said the authenticator. "He did shows and appearances on almost any weekend from the early-to-mid 1980s up until the end of his life. DiMaggio was very active on the circuit, and he was very proactive in getting top dollar for his signature."

DiMaggio

Collectors have to be wary of some of DiMaggio's post-playing career autographs because his sister signed some items for him.

"During the 1970s and 1980s, his sister did sign some fan mail for him, but DiMaggio would also sign from time to time," noted the lead authenticator at PSA/DNA. "It was rare though that he would sign his mail. Another little-known fact about DiMaggio is that his sister would occasionally sign his checks. I have seen a handful of those floating around through the years." 

On top of his sister signing items for him, there are also a lot of outright forgeries circulating. PSA/DNA estimates that over 50% of the DiMaggio autographs in the marketplace are not authentic.


Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of February 2016.