Remembering a Quiet Hero
By Hal Bock
Near the end of his career, at a time when his body often ached from nagging injuries, Joe DiMaggio was asked whether he wasn't occasionally tempted to relax on the field, to coast for a couple of innings.
His answer spoke volumes about the kind of player he was.
"Never,'' he said. "Somebody might be out there, watching me for the first time.''
Joe D. didn't want any fan, new or old, to feel disappointed.
The first time I saw DiMaggio in 1947, I was disappointed so I booed him. Not because he didn't live up to expectations. Quite the opposite.
He rattled a double off the left field wall at New York's Polo Grounds, helping the Yankees beat my team, the New York Giants, in the annual Mayor's Trophy game.
That did not sit well with this 8-year-old, seeing his first major league baseball game.
So I booed perhaps the most graceful, classic player of his time. Booed him good.
Years later, when I knew better, I felt guilty. Joe D. was not to be booed. He was to be admired, not only for his skills, which were plentiful, but for his style, which was special.
For one generation of New York fans, the debate raged over baseball's best center fielder Willie, Mickey or the Duke.
For the generation before that one, there was no argument. It was Joe D.
DiMaggio played baseball with a sense of dignity. He rarely showed emotion. He would never think of standing at home plate, admiring his home runs. That would be showing up the pitcher.
He would never preen and prance the way modern players often do. There were no contrived gestures, no punching the air, no pointing to the sky.
DiMaggio would simply put his head down and trot around the bases, shake hands as he crossed the plate, and head for the dugout. He was the quintessential professional, dignified and gracious, a quiet hero.
He covered center field so effortlessly. He would glide after the ball with long, classic strides, loping across the outfield like a gazelle. Maybe that's why they called him the Yankee Clipper. He was never out of position, never caught napping.
None of this was a particularly big deal with him. He played poker-faced baseball, effortlessly and expressionless.
The only exception was in the 1947 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, when he hit a ball to the deepest part of left field at Yankee Stadium with two men on base. Al Gionfriddo, a journeyman outfielder who had just entered the game, ran it down and made the catch in front of the bullpen, just as DiMaggio was reaching second base. Joe D. kicked the dirt in disgust. It was a rare peek behind the public facade.
Years after his record 56-game hitting streak, DiMaggio revealed the pressure he felt. "I was able to control myself,'' he said. "That doesn't mean I wasn't dying inside.''
He demanded that on Oldtimers' Day at Yankee Stadium, he always be the last to be introduced, as a gesture to his status. In 1968, the year Mickey Mantle retired, the club chose to introduce Mantle last. DiMaggio viewed it as a slight, and it strained his relationship with the front office for years.
DiMaggio was a private man, on the field and off. At one Oldtimers' Day at Yankee Stadium, many of his ex-teammates gathered in a lounge near the clubhouse, telling stories to and about one another. DiMaggio sat alone at a corner table, a solitary figure.
And yet, his closest friend when he played was pitcher Lefty Gomez, the perpetual life of the party. "I wish I could be like Lefty,'' he once confided to restaurateur Toots Shor.
But he couldn't. It just wasn't in him.
If you gained his confidence, he could be a charming storyteller. Once, when I asked him about his 56-game hitting streak, DiMaggio lit up as he told an anecdote, laughing as he recalled the details.
The only subject that was off-limits was his short, stormy marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
Years after Monroe's death, DiMaggio came to the offices of the Associated Press for an interview. When he arrived, he saw a poster-sized picture of Monroe the famous AP photo of her skirts billowing as she stood over a subway grating hanging in the hall. Seething, he made an immediate U-turn and left the building.
For DiMaggio, privacy was always hard to maintain.
In 1996, he was flying from Miami to New York to throw out the first ball at the World Series. Arriving at the gate for his flight, he was ushered across the hall, seated out of the way at an empty gate, where he could remain fairly undisturbed.
DiMaggio was recognizable, everywhere he went. Once, I walked one block with him in Manhattan, heading from his hotel to an appearance at Radio City Music Hall. In the streets, he must have been stopped a half-dozen times by vendors, cabbies, pedestrians, all calling to him, "Hey, Joe D., how you doin'?''
And that was more than 40 years after he played his last game.
DiMaggio responded with a wave and a smile. He enjoyed the acclaim. Nobody deserved it more.
Hal Bock has covered baseball and other sports for the Associated Press for 35 years.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press