Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams? Really?

The blockbuster trade was discussed in 1949

July 27th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget

There may not be two more legendary players to wear a Yankee or Red Sox uniform.

Joe DiMaggio played 13 years in pinstripes. He was an All-Star in every season, won three MVPs and nine (NINE!) World Series rings. He put up perhaps the greatest, most unbreakable individual feat wearing the interlocking "NY." He was the Yankee Clipper.

Ted Williams starred for 19 seasons in Boston. He won six batting titles, two MVPs and went to 17 All-Star Games. He also, perhaps, pulled off the most unmatchable individual feat as a Red Sox. Some call him the greatest hitter that ever lived.

But what if they were traded for each other?

What if Williams wore a Yankees uniform and DiMaggio a Boston B? Imagine the outrage from fans, the flabbergasted newspaper columnists, the stain on baseball's history books.

Well, in the late 1940s, it was close to happening -- sort of.

The story that's been passed down for 70 or so years is that in 1947 (or '48, or maybe '49), Sox owner Tom Yawkey and Yanks owner Dan Topping met for dinner at Toots Shor's Restaurant in midtown Manhattan. It was a place many ballplayers and celebrities frequented, including Joe D and his movie star wife, Marilyn Monroe.

DiMaggio wasn't there that night, and, well, it's probably better off that way.

Nobody's sure how or why the subject of the trade came up including the two superstars, but the New York Times' Dave Anderson had a hunch.

"I’m sure there was a lot of scotch involved," he said.

Maybe it was the pure shock value? Perhaps Yawkey thought the right-handed DiMaggio would hit even more at the friendly confines of Fenway Park, banging doubles off the Green Monster. Topping could've figured that the left-handed Williams would deposit homer after homer over Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch. Either way, by the end of the evening, many accounts claim there was a verbal agreement to make the swap.

And then, by the light of day, Yawkey seemed to regret his decision. Some say he called Topping and wanted a young then-outfielder Yogi Berra thrown into the deal. That's when the transaction was reportedly called off.

So, how true is it all?

"I don't think it was ever really serious because it was stupid on its face," MLB official historian John Thorn told me over a recent phone call.

Thorn is mostly right. He believes talk of the trade probably happened before the '49 season, the year after DiMaggio's superb '48 campaign. But heel injuries were beginning to slow the center fielder down and, entering his age-34 season, his best days seemed behind him. He would have surgery in the winter of '48 and retire from baseball after '51.

Williams was four years younger and likely had a much longer and more productive career ahead of him. He'd indeed play 12 more seasons starting with '49 and hit 299 additional homers.

"Evidently it was discussed, in only an off-hand way," Thorn said. "DiMaggio was very clearly shot. For the first part of 1949, I believe he didn't even play because of the heel. And then he had the comeback in the second half, but he was at the end of the trail already. He was already weakened in center field."

And what about the ask by Yawkey for Berra?

"We're into who said what, when," Thorn told me. "This is not documented and people can speculate. Speculation can be rampant, but fact can be abused."

Thorn does go on to say that the trade MAY have made sense 10 years earlier, when both stars were at the outsets of their careers. Maybe more so for New York. He wrote about it in his 1985 book, "The Hidden Game of Baseball."

Using Park Factor, DiMaggio could've had even more homers and a higher average playing half his games at Fenway.

Could a lineup of Joe and his brother Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doer have brought home a championship sooner for Boston's long-suffering fans? Would a Yankee team led by Williams -- and later, Williams and Berra -- have resulted in the same number of Fall Classic wins?

Yeah probably.

But yes, even if not totally serious, the talk of this legendary trade does seem to have transpired at some juncture before the '49 season. Two megastars, faces of their rival franchises then and, in some ways, still now, were discussed in a one-for-one exchange. It's fun to dream and wonder about, even if it was never actually going to take place.

"It's entered into the lore of the game," Thorn said. "It's worth commenting on and it's worth writing about."