HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (Reuters) - New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio died Monday at 84, sending baseball fans and Americans who had never watched a game into mourning for one of the century's icons.
``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. Hillary and I extend our thoughts and prayers to his family,'' President Clinton said in a statement.
``For several generations of fans, Joe was the personification of grace, class and dignity on the baseball diamond,'' Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said.
``In many respects, as an immigrant's son, he represented the hopes and ideals of our great country,'' he said, referring to DiMaggio's Italian-American heritage.
DiMaggio was renowned as a great center fielder who led the Yankees to 10 World Series during his 13-year career, winning nine. His 56-game hitting streak in 1941, one of the most revered records in all of sport, has never been equaled or approached by another player.
He also was known for his brief marriage to movie star Marilyn Monroe in 1954. Though the marriage collapsed after just nine months, friends said DiMaggio considered her the love of her life. He arranged to have roses placed on her grave three times a week for 20 years after her death in 1962.
Morris Engelberg, DiMaggio's attorney and close friend, said that DiMaggio had died at home shortly after midnight amid friends and family members including his brother Dominick, who also played professional baseball, and grandchildren.
DiMaggio had been recuperating after lung cancer surgery at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, last October. Though the immediate cause of his death was not released, he had battled several infections during the three months he was hospitalized following his operation.
DiMaggio last appeared in public in late September at Yankee Stadium, when the team celebrated ``Joe DiMaggio Day'' by presenting him with replicas of eight World Series rings that had been stolen from him in 1960.
New York Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner said Monday that he was ``deeply saddened'' by DiMaggio's death.
``Like his many fans across America, and indeed, around the world, the Yankees are deeply saddened by the passing of Joe DiMaggio, one of our own and one of the greatest of all time,'' Steinbrenner said in a statement. ``It was the class and dignity with which he led his life that made him part of all of us.''
DiMaggio also was remembered for his charitable work. Between 1992 and up until his death, he raised some $5 million for the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital at Memorial Regional Hospital in the city where he lived.
And he would thrill the young patients, their parents and grandparents by visiting their bedsides once a month or more often. Like much in DiMaggio's life, the ex-slugger chose to keep that aspect of his life from the press.
``It was tremendous to see him work. He never wanted to have the press follow him during those visits. He never wanted us to have pictures or video. He said, 'I just want to come out and I want to see the kids and I want to see the parents,'' Frank Sacco, the hospital's chief executive officer and a friend of DiMaggio's, said.
Sacco said the baseball great was able to walk at his home in the weeks before his death, and had been in good spirits during a recent visit.
At Mickey Mantle's, a Manhattan bar and restaurant frequented by athletes and fans and named after another great Yankee centerfielder, long-time Yankee fan James Murray, said, ''Joe represented a lot of what was good and decent about the sport. You don't see that today. He was a craftsman. It really is too bad. You don't see those ethics anymore. Without Joe DiMaggio perhaps they are dead forever.''
Nicknamed ``Joltin' Joe'' and ``the Yankee Clipper,'' the three-time American League Most Valuable Player was a lifetime .325 hitter. He was voted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.
He played in 10 World Series, posted 2,214 hits, 361 home runs and 1,537 RBI (runs batted in) in 6,821 at-bats during a 13-season career interrupted by a three-year stint in the army during the Second World War.
DiMaggio retired from baseball in 1951. His name was celebrated in literature and song.
In 1952, the Cuban fisherman in Ernest Hemingway's novel, ''The Old Man and the Sea,'' said: ``I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing.''
And Simon and Garfunkel used his name as a symbol of a more heroic era in their 1960s song ``Mrs. Robinson.''
``Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,'' they sang. ``What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson/ Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.''