The first sign this was no ordinary day at Legends Field, winter home of the New York Yankees, was the American flag flying at half staff in center field.
Inside the complex, at the front of the palm garden in which stand the pin-striped shields and metal plates holding the Yankees’ retired numbers, an original oil painting by LeRoy Neiman had been freshly placed next to No. 5.
The painting depicted Joe DiMaggio, Yankee Stadium in the background, following through in his classic batting style. A news photographer asked a visiting couple to step inside the ropes to get closer to the exhibit.
“No! No! No!,” commanded a guard. “You have to stand back on the sidewalk!” This is considered sacred ground in a baseball sense even on a normal day. This was special, the day when Joltin’ Joe went away forever.
The Yankee clubhouse, full of players who were born three baseball generations after DiMaggio last wore pinstripes in action, nevertheless was full of questions and musings about Joe D.
“When I was growing up in L.A, and playing baseball at Crenshaw High School, we didn’t know about DiMaggio,” admitted Darryl Strawberry, one of the more veteran Yankees. “It wasn’t until I turned professional and got to the major leagues when I learned about baseball history, about DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and their special accomplishments.
“Can you imagine anyone hitting in 56 straight games like Joe? Pete Rose made that run at it, but couldn’t catch him. Paul Molitor came up short. I can’t see anyone ever breaking that record.”
Joe Torre, the Yanks’ manager, grew up in New York, but he was just 11 years old when DiMaggio played his last game. Torre’s bench coach, Don Zimmer, hit the majors three years after DiMaggio retired, but Zim’s memories of him are cloudy.
“Some people say he was the greatest player of all time,” says Zimmer. “I have to be honest with you. My pick is Willie Mays as the greatest, but I was in the National League. I got to see DiMaggio play baseball only a few times.
“But I can’t dispute what people who saw a lot of him say about him being the greatest.”
Mays was a great player, but he never had Ernest Hemingway, a Nobel Prize winner, using him as a key figure in a memorable novel, as Hemingway did DiMaggio in “The Old Man and the Sea.”
The old Cuban fisherman, who had hooked a marlin so huge he had to strap it to the side of his boat, then spent the night fighting off sharks that were ravaging the fish, kept thinking of “The Great DiMaggio” as he battled his adversaries.
When I was a young kid, baseball excursion trains from Buffalo to Cleveland to see the Indians were popular trips. I was taken on one to see a doubleheader against the Yankees. The great DiMaggio was in center field.
He didn’t have much of a day with the bat but even at my early age it struck me that when he went after a deeply hit ball, he did it with a graceful glide. It was his trademark, making the difficult appear easy.
As one of the more recognizable celebrities in America, even decades after his retirement as a player, DiMaggio was understandably aloof and difficult to approach. As a sports writer, I was in his company a half dozen times.
Once, the morning after a Super Bowl, we were in the same waiting area at the Houston airport. I tried to break the ice by mentioning I had seen his old manager, Joe McCarthy, the month before. It worked.
DiMaggio was fond of Marse Joe and had visited him at his Ellicott Creek home.
When it was time to walk to his gate, I saw why DiMaggio was wary of the public. As soon as he came into general sight, an instant crowd converged upon him. He barely made it to his plane.
In the late ’70s in Puerto Rico, I was covering the American Airlines golf tournament that featured famous baseball and football players.
After playing his round, DiMaggio would seek shelter in the media work room to kibitz with his friend Ron Bergman of the Oakland Tribune. It turned into a two-hour baseball bull session. DiMaggio had something bothering him.
The Sporting News had just done a cover story on Pete Rose as its “Player of the ’60s.” .
“Where did this come from?” asked Joe D. “They never named the player of the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s.” Clearly, he felt that he would have won at least one of those distinctions.
The most vivid memories of DiMaggio at Legends Field belonged to Arthur Richman of the Yankee front office, who has been working in major league baseball for 60 years.
“DiMaggio wasn’t my favorite as a player, because he destroyed my St. Louis Browns,” says Richman. “Later, when I was working with the Mets, I got to know him because one of my jobs was to invite him to our special days and act as his guide.
“Later, I accompanied him on Defense Department tours to Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines, and that’s where we got to be good friends. The GIs asked him everything, about the hitting streak, the toughest pitchers he faced, Marilyn Monroe.”
Questions about Marilyn, his former wife and all-time love? For his entire life DiMaggio went to great lengths to avoid questions about Monroe, Hollywood’s all-time sex symbol.
When he went to a restaurant he would make his friends promise to occupy any empty seat so strangers couldn’t sit down and ask uncomfortable questions. “He did the same thing with me when he visited baseball dugouts,” says Richman.
Answering the GIs, he told them what a wonderful woman she was.
“I went on 10 of those overseas tours for the Defense Department myself,” said Richman. “We’d land at Travis Air Force Base in California when we returned and Joe would always be there to pick me up.
He’d drive me to his home in San Francisco to spend a few days.
“One time he drove into Los Angeles for dinner and at about 2 a.m. he pulled up next to a cemetery. I asked him ‘What in the world are we doing here?’ His voice broke and he answered ‘This is where I have Marilyn.’ “
DiMaggio’s friends tell a story of Monroe returning from her own overseas trip to entertain the troops while they were married.
“It was unbelievable, Joe!” she told him. “There were fifty thousand people cheering for me. You’ve never heard anything like it.”
“Yes I have,” he said, quietly.