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Writing about Joe DiMaggio’s career on the diamond is a bit like writing about a great work of art: every time you touch on an especially memorable aspect, two or three more present themselves as equally worthy of mention. So where does one start? The 56-game hitting streak? The .325 career batting average? The three MVP awards? The nine World Series titles? The skill with the glove? The patience at the plate (the best homer-to-strikeout ratio for any player with at least 300 home runs)?
Maybe Yogi Berra put it best when he was asked, of all his legendary teammates, who was the greatest. “Joe DiMaggio,” Yogi told LIFE.com, without hesitation. “I played with him for five seasons, and never saw him do anything wrong.”
Here, on his 100th birthday (he was born Nov. 25, 1914, in Martinez, Calif.), LIFE.com remembers Joltin’ Joe with photos made in 1939 by Carl Mydans, when DiMaggio was a 24-year-old phenom. The middle brother of three (the older Vince, the younger Dom) who went on to play pro ball, Joe DiMaggio spent his whole career with the Yankees.
For countless people, he’s a symbol of an era in American sports when baseball, boxing and horse racing — but especially baseball — reigned. He was so good at what he did, and he made even the most difficult aspects of a notoriously difficult game look so effortless, that even fans who hated the Yankees could appreciate how singular a ballplayer he really was.
Long before he married Marilyn; long before he was a pitchman for Mr. Coffee; long before he was so much a part of the cultural landscape that entertainers from Woody Guthrie and Simon & Garfunkel to Madonna and Demi Lovato name-checked him in songs, DiMaggio was turning heads with his skills.
Happy 100th, Yankee Clipper. We won’t see your like again.