In this space Saturday, Joe Guzzardi discussed the troubled life of his former prep school classmate and friend, Joe DiMaggio Jr. The only son of the Yankee legend never came close to his father’s success, bouncing through life, abusing drugs and alcohol, and dying a miserable death in Antioch, California in 1999. One of my friends was homeless in Antioch off and on for a number of years. It’s a bleak place to bottom out, one of the armpits of the San Francisco Bay Area.
DiMaggio Jr. wasn’t unique. Children of baseball Hall of Famers often struggle to compare to their parents, seemingly forever cursed with the expectation their genetics should make greatness easily attainable. It’s not that the kids are failures or bad people or any more mediocre than countless other individuals who get to fall short in obscurity. Children of top ballplayers have tough standards to live up to. If anything, their struggles reinforce the greatness and rarity of their fathers.
“I think there’s a jinx with sons of famous athletes,” Ty Cobb’s son James told sportswriter Ira Berkow in 1969. “None of them ever topped their fathers. Look at Dick Sisler and Big Ed Walsh’s son. They never did make it real big. And I understand Stan Musial’s son was a very good baseball player. But he gave it up.”
Here are a few more famous examples, good and bad:
Mickey Mantle: Mantle built a Hall of Fame career around drinking and carousing and had four sons, all alcoholics. His namesake Mickey Mantle Jr. had a token run in the minor leagues in the 1970s, with one coach remarking in Jane Leavy’s recent Mantle biography, The Last Boy, “He showed skills. Mostly he showed he didn’t play a lot.” Mantle Jr. died of cancer in 2000, five years after his father passed, and today, two of the sons are alive and, at last report, sober.
Ozzie Smith: The son of the St. Louis Cardinals shortstop famous for turning back flips on field must have inherited his father’s showmanship– Nikko Smith took ninth place in the fourth season of American Idol.
Ted Williams: Williams’ only son, John Henry was controversial with his doting care on his father in the final years of his life and wound up in a legal battle with his sister after having Williams frozen following his death in 2002. John Henry himself passed not long after of leukemia in 2004 at 35. It’s worth noting that like Mantle Jr., John Henry also had a brief, unsuccessful baseball career, playing in the minors and independent circuit in 2002 and 2003.
Pete Rose: Like father, like son. Both Roses played in the Reds organization, the younger Rose mostly as a long-tenured minor league player, and both men had legal problems, Rose for tax evasion and his son for dealing steroids to teammates.
Babe Ruth: Ruth and his first wife Helen adopted a daughter, Dorothy in 1921, who was rumored to be the Babe’s biological child with a mistress. Dorothy married twice, raising Arabian horses and three children, and not long before her death in 1989, she came out with a memoir, My Dad, the Babe.