Born in Martinez, California on November 25, 1914, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio was the fourth son and eighth child born to Sicilian immigrants Giuseppe and Rosalie DiMaggio. Joe DiMaggio’s parents immigrated to America in 1898 and left behind their family in Isola delle Femmine outside of Palermo, where the DiMaggios had been fishermen for generations. Joe DiMaggio would discover his roots after retirement and visit Nettuno, the birthplace of baseball in Italy just an hour south of Rome along the Tyrrhenian Sea. Not far from Nettuno is where the historic Battle of Anzio took place, and it was there during World War II that U.S. servicemen taught Italians the game. DiMaggio’s monumental trip is reminisced in City of Baseball.
Closer to home in Chicago’s Little Italy at 1431 West Taylor Street, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio is enshrined at the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and the neighboring Piazza DiMaggio. These must-see cultural landmarks are the pride and joy of the close-knit community that resonate the strong sense of Italian American heritage in Chicago, Illinois. Founded by George Randazzo in 1977, the immaculate National Italian American Sports Hall of Fameincludes the Tommy and Jo Lasorda Exhibit Gallery, the Grand Piazza Ballroom, the Salvatore A. Balsamo Rooftop Terrace and the Frank Sinatra Performing Arts Center. Nearby Piazza DiMaggio was built in 1998 as a gift from the City of Chicago to Little Italy and features fountains, elegant columns and a very much beloved Joe DiMaggio statue.
Although most baseball fans read about the success Joe DiMaggio experienced on the field, rarely do they hear about the price his immigrant parents paid for a better life in America. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war and began targeting those of German, Italian or Japanese descent. The Italians were the largest immigrant group in the U.S. at the time and about 600,000 of the country’s five million Italian immigrants who had not yet naturalized were forced to register as enemy aliens. Required to carry photo ID booklets and surrender flashlights, shortwave radios, guns, binoculars, cameras and other “contraband,” Italian enemy aliens were subject to FBI raids and nightly house arrest with a curfew from 8 PM to 6 AM. Noncitizens could not travel more than five miles from home without a permit. 10,000 Italians in California were evacuated, mostly from coastal areas and sites near power plants, dams and military installations. Ironically, the half-million Italian Americans serving in the U.S. Armed Forces at the time of the crackdown were the largest ethnic group in the military. Of the 257 Italians put in internment camps for up to two years, 90 were from California. Fishing boats were seized, and thousands of fishermen lost their jobs. In San Francisco, 1,500 people–including Joe DiMaggio’s parents–were idled.
Between the Great Depression and America’s entry into World World II, people were feeling desperate and ready for a hero who personified positivity and optimism for a better future. That hero came in the form of a rising star from a poor Italian fisherman’s family. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio became one of the most accomplished, admired and respected ballplayers of all-time as well as a true American icon. Over the course of his legendary 56-game hitting streak, the Yankee Clipper unified the country while symbolizing the potential for greatness we all yearn to see in ourselves. DiMaggio represented the true American Dream and the belief that anyone from anywhere can accomplish anything if they work hard and put their mind to it. Former President Bill Clinton eloquently said, “Joe DiMaggio, the son of Italian immigrants, gave every American something to believe in. He became the very symbol of American grace, power and skill. I have no doubt that when future generations look back at the best of America in the 20th century, they will think of the Yankee Clipper and all that he achieved.”