Off To A Fabulous Start
If the Rookie of the Year award had existed in 1936, there is no doubt that DiMaggio would have won it in the American League (AL). DiMaggio joined a Yankee team that had not won the league pennant since 1932 and was now led by first baseman Lou Gehrig. The sportswriters, always in search of a colorful angle, dubbed DiMaggio as the next Ruth on the strength of his incredible 1935 PCL season. But when the Yankees season opened, DiMaggio was on the disabled list with an injured foot—in later years, bone chips and botched surgery on his heels would prove to be DiMaggio's physical undoing. He played his first regular season game for the Yankees on May 3, 1936, against the St. Louis Browns (since relocated and renamed the Baltimore Orioles) at Yankee Stadium. DiMaggio went three for six with a triple, an RBI, and three runs scored.
His rookie season pretty much kicked into gear then and he finished the year with 29 home runs, 125 RBIs, and a .323 average—all very good statistics but all far behind Gehrig, who won the AL MVP award that year. Still, DiMaggio was the final component in the powerful Yankee club—he was the first rookie to play in the All-Star Game. The Yankees not only won the league pennant, but defeated their city archrivals, the New York Giants, four games to two in the World Series. DiMaggio hit .346 in his first World Series. Furthermore, he proved, throughout that first season and during the World Series, to be a graceful outfielder. Unfortunately the Gold Glove Award, given to players in each league for defensive prowess, was not instituted until 1957, six years after DiMaggio retired.
There proved to be no sophomore jinx for DiMaggio. As good as he was in his rookie season, he was better in nearly every offensive category in his second year, including leading the AL in home runs in 1937 with 46. He also led the league in runs scored, total bases, and slugging percentage. That season DiMaggio became the fourth player in the history of the game—after Shoeless Joe Jackson, Lloyd Waner, and Johnny Frederick—to record at least 200 base hits in his first two seasons. The feat has since been accomplished by Johnny Pesky, Harvey Kuenn, and Ichiro Suzuki. The Yankees again won the league pennant and the World Series. The team was now in the midst of a tear, winning the World Series four years in a row, 1936-1939.
Prior to the 1938 season DiMaggio held out for more than the $25,000 per season offered by the Yankees. With the nation still staggering through the Great Depression public feeling was not on his side, and DiMaggio eventually signed for the amount offered. In 1939 the Yankees officially became DiMaggio's team. Gehrig, suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS (from which he died two years later), retired prematurely and DiMaggio had to carry a heavier load. He responded by winning the AL batting championship with a .381 average, hitting 30 home runs and driving in 126 runs. DiMaggio was named AL MVP that season, and the Yankees swept the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Perhaps the biggest DiMaggio news of the year occurred on November 19, 1939 when he married actress Dorothy Arnold in the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in San Francisco. Thousands turned out to see the wedding of their hometown hero, or at least glimpse DiMaggio and Arnold as they emerged from the church.
The 1940 season was an "off" year for the Yankees—they fell to third place—but not for DiMaggio, who still put up excellent numbers at the plate; he repeated as the AL batting champion with a .352 average. Although not involved in postseason play, the urbane DiMaggio was by then a regular in the café society that dominated Manhattan night life.