Collectibles: A Bid for Greatness

  • Nancy Wong Bryan

At some point after his retirement from baseball, Joe DiMaggio made it a stipulation that he always be introduced at public appearances as the “greatest living ballplayer.” Fans of his Boston Red Sox adversary, Ted Williams, might have disputed the designation. The rivalry between the two legends came to a head in 1947, when the Yankees’ center fielder beat the Red Sox’s left fielder by a single vote to earn the American League’s Most Valuable Player award—despite Williams’ having won the Triple Crown (most home runs, most RBIs, and highest batting average in the league). It was the third time DiMaggio had received the award, and the second time that Williams was his runner-up.

The 1947 trophy became a topic of much debate; Williams was no darling of the sports press, whose members elected the MVP, and some fans accused the writers of letting their bias affect their voting. But the Yankees won the World Series that year (one of nine championships the team won during DiMaggio’s 13-season career), and Joltin’ Joe was credited with spearheading the squad despite a heel injury. “The Yankees won the pennant, the Red Sox ran third, and that was the difference,” wrote Joseph Durso in the 1995 biography DiMaggio: The Last American Knight.

The disputed MVP award plaque, a sterling silver and 10-karat gold piece by Dieges & Clust, is among the more than 1,000 DiMaggio belongings that will be auctioned May 19 and 20 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York’s Times Square. Hosted by Hunt Auctions, an Exton, Pa., company that specializes in sports memorabilia, the event will include both personal items and collectibles from DiMaggio’s career. The 1947 award, which, Hunt representatives estimate, has a value of $150,000 to $250,000, is the only MVP plaque DiMaggio owned; prior to the mid-1940s, the league presented recipients of the annual honor with pocket watches.

DiMaggio’s 1941 MVP timepiece, which also will be auctioned at the event, represents another battle between the Yankee Clipper and his Boston rival. Though Williams batted .406 that season—the last time a Major League player reached the .400 mark—DiMaggio countered with his nearly unfathomable 56-game hitting streak, a record that, 65 years later, only two players have come within a dozen games of matching.

Those items apparently do not include letters from a spouse, as the auction will feature handwritten notes from DiMaggio’s onetime wife, Marilyn Monroe. In addition to the plaque and watch, baseball memorabilia on the block will range from a DiMaggio road jersey ($100,000 to $150,000) to the ball from his record-breaking hit that extended his 1941 streak to 45 games ($50,000 to $75,000).

Regardless of whether he deserved his “greatest living player” billing, DiMaggio was not the originator of the title. Major League Baseball, during its centennial celebration in 1969, bestowed the honor on DiMaggio while naming Babe Ruth the “greatest player ever.” Comparisons between the two were nothing new. “DiMaggio does not hit the ball as hard as the mighty Ruth did, nor as often as Ted Williams does,” Time printed in its October 4, 1948, cover story on DiMaggio. “But as a clutch hitter he is terrific. With men on bases and the chips down, his bat spells bingo.” This May, his estate could spell the same for Hunt.

Memorabilia from Joe DiMaggio’s prolific and, at times, controversial career will be the focus of an auction on May 19 and 20 in New York.

Hunt Auctions,
610.524.0822,
www.huntauctions.com

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