By Marty Appel
When Joe DiMaggio turned down another $100,000 contract for the 1952 season, feeling he could no longer play the game at a Joe DiMaggio level, he began the phase of his life in which he would be, simply, Joe DiMaggio, American Icon.
While few of us could ever say we lived the life of a baseball hero, fewer still could even imagine the life of this national hero. As the pronunciation of his name went from “Di-MADGE-e-o” to a softer, more sophisticated “Di-MAH-ge-o,” so too did its owner continue to bring about awe from all those he encountered.
His old teammates, who considered him somewhat of a loner in his playing days, were often at arms length from him personally. Yogi Berra said, “oh, he’d play cards with us on the train, but when we got to town, he’d be off by himself.” Tommy Henrich, forever linked to Joe (with Charlie Keller) as part of one of the greatest Yankee outfields, often found him unapproachable. “Oh, you had to be careful what you said to Joe,” Tommy would say. “Verrry careful.”
Only Lefty Gomez, it seemed, could needle him. And when Lefty passed away in 1989, it left the Yankee clubhouse a bid edgy when Joe would visit. Autographs, even for current players, were considered off limits.
But within this quiet dignity that many found discomforting was a yearning to be appreciated, even if he was appreciated as few have ever been.
You can have your 56 game hitting streaks. Another record that should stand forever is one barely mentioned. Joe DiMaggio attended 47 of 48 Yankee Old Timers Days after he retired, missing only in 1988. In many of those years, Joe could easily have made $100,000 attending a card show on that day. On several occasions, the day conflicted with plans he had already made. And yes, on a few occasions, some administrative oversight had him saying that he might not return.
But obviously, he needed the cheers as much as the fans needed his presence, for he was the connection to the distant past, the teammate of Lou Gehrig, the rookie sensation of 1936, still with us. He was the last surviving link of Ruth-Gehrig-DiMaggio-Mantle.
The famous story of Marilyn Monroe returning to Joe from a day’s visit to our troops in Korea, had her saying “oh Joe, you never heard such cheering.” And Joe replied, “yes I have.” He always heard the cheers.
He also knew how his dignity came ahead of all else. He knew when it was time to quit playing, and later, he knew when it was time to stop playing in old timers games, and even when to stop wearing a uniform. The latter came in the mid-‘80s when a photographer angered him in the clubhouse, taking a picture of Joe getting into his uniform shirt. He did not like that his body no longer had the muscles of his youth, even if he remained trim and in good shape. Suddenly, he would never again risk looking, what was to him, foolish.
So his ceremonial appearances at Yankee Stadium had him in his well tailored suits and ties, developing the famous two-handed DiMaggio wave, and then departing before the old timers game itself, to sit in the owner’s box with George Steinbrenner and to root for the current Yankees.
His own post-baseball career began in ceremony, with his uniform retired and sent to the Hall of Fame on opening day of 1952. Then he began his first post-baseball job as a pre and post-game host of Yankee games over WPIX, earning $50,000. It was a role he was not at ease with, and it lasted but a season. He did a children’s instructional program the following year, for which he was better suited. He was also a spokesman for Buitoni pasta, appearing in magazine advertisements and on a few television commercials.
By this time, he had begun dating Marilyn Monroe, leaving his old teammates speechless, with the exception of brash Billy Martin, who often had some comments for Joe about his girlfriend. Billy never rated particularly high on Joe’s Christmas card list after that.
Joe married Marilyn in 1954 and divorced her nine months later. Not only did neither party ever comment on the breakup, but it became a subject totally off bounds. Joe ended more than one conversation if her name came up.
While the marriage did not last, the friendship did. While serving as a Yankee spring training instructor in 1961, Marilyn stayed (in a separate room,) at the aptly named Yankee Clipper Hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. When she passed away a year later, Joe handled the funeral arrangements, and for twenty years, sent daily roses to her grave, finally stopping when he learned they would routinely be stolen as DiMaggio souvenirs. His relationships with Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys ended when he learned of their relationships with Marilyn.
In 1952, Ernest Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea, and used DiMaggio as someone the old man would love to go fishing with. Joe was touched. He and Hemingway became friends; they attended a Sugar Ray Robinson-Carmen Basilio fight together in ’57. Both were big boxing fans.
His friendship with restaurateur Toots Shor continued after his playing days, until Toots said something that ended the friendship. The two of them stood together on Lexington Avenue when Marilyn filmed the famous subway draft scene for The Seven Year Itch, which some said might have hastened the end of the marriage. Joe, it was said, was not interested in a movie star wife; he wanted a quiet stay-at-home wife. This was not Marilyn. The two of them, in fact, lived in Joe’s Beach Street home in San Francisco during the time they were married – with Joe’s sister Marie!
He was never romantically linked with another woman after his divorce, at least not publicly.
Family relations were not easy for Joe. After his mother died in 1951, the annual family reunions ceased. At various times, his ballplaying brothers Vince and Dom had fallings out with Joe. (Vince died in 1986). His relationship with his son, Joe Jr., cover boy with Joe on the first issue of Sport Magazine, was estranged. He got on better his with grandchildren and great grandchildren.
San Francisco was, beginning in 1937, the home of DiMaggio’s Restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf, managed by the non-playing brother, Tom, but frequently finding Joe in attendance until it closed in 1986. Joe continued however, to live with Marie in his Beach Street home – ever after severe earthquake damage during the 1989 World Series, which found Joe waiting on line in a makeshift public assistance center, awaiting word on whether he could move back in.
Move back in he did, but his days in San Francisco were coming to a close. By the time Joe DiMaggio’s Children’s Hospital opened in Hollywood, Florida in 1992, Joe had relocated after a lifetime in the Bay area. (It was at the adjoining Memorial Regional Hospital that Joe would have lung cancer surgery and spend his final days.)
His Florida years found him living on a golf development south of Miami – Deering Bay, where he would awaken at 5 a.m., watch CNN, read the New York Times and drive to meet his tax attorney Morris Engelberg for a 7 o’clock breakfast. Joe was punctual to a fault, and impatient with anyone who was late. He drove a Toyota Corolla. The Yankees gave him a Mercedes a few years ago, but he still preferred the old Corolla for its anonymity. Engelberg’s secretary did Joe’s shopping and housekeeping, for he couldn’t very well walk through the local supermarket, nor would he trust just anyone to enter his home. He was very cautious about such things after all but one of his World Series rings were stolen. They were replaced, fans may recall, on the final day of the 1998 season, when Joe, ill with pneumonia and unable to address the crowd, received replacement rings from George Steinbrenner in his final Yankee Stadium appearance. The baseballs that day were collector’s items, specially marked with Joe’s number five.
But home was just a place to pick up his mail. He was ever traveling. Whether it was a golf tournament, a White House dinner, an old timers gathering or an autograph show, he was on the move. Often, in the New York area, he would find peace at the home of Yankee limited partner Barry Halper, the noted collector. The Halpers and DiMaggio even took a European vacation together, where there were so many American tourists; it was like walking the streets of Manhattan. The sunglasses didn’t help.
In 1955, in his third year of eligibility, Joe was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. What took three years? The Hall of Fame was still catching up with its earlier legends and first-ballot election was very hard under the circumstances. It was not considered controversial. Joe would occasionally go back to Cooperstown for the annual induction ceremony, but was never interested in serving on the Veteran’s Committee and passing judgement on others.
If Joe appreciated Hemingway’s treatment, he was baffled by Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson, recorded in 1968 and later used in the movie The Graduate. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you…..” Joe finally asked composer Paul Simon whether it was meant as a compliment, to which Simon assured him it was. (“It was the syllables, Joe,” Simon said. “I needed a name with five syllables.”)
Joe would have no use for books about him over the years, and the writers could assume the end of a speaking relationship once they were published. His only venture into publishing, despite repeated calls for his autobiography, was a two-volume scrapbook with personally selected news clippings from 1932-1951. It was issued in 1989, and was a publishing failure. No Marilyn.
Aside from his spring training coaching assignments with the Yankees from 1961-67, Joe was never on the Yankee payroll. When he retired, Casey Stengel was a three-time world championship manager and would not be replaced until 1961. Coaching didn’t pay enough. And Joe always knew his worth. The famous holdout who missed all of 1938 spring training over a salary dispute would say, “hello, partner,” when asked what it would cost for George Steinbrenner to afford him “today.”
In 1966, long before the collectibles market took hold, and long before Madison Avenue re-discovered him, writer Gay Talese did a cover story for Esquire which portrayed Joe as elusive, protective of his privacy.
Many were shocked when Joe accepted an offer from Charlie Finley to become an Oakland Vice President and don the green and gold uniform of the A’s as a coach in 1968, their first year in Oakland. The move qualified him for the modern pension plan, and gave him a job 25 minutes from his home. As such, he was hitting coach to a team that was beginning a dynasty, led by Reggie Jackson. Joe looked odd in that uniform, especially when the A’s played in New York, but Finley made him a well paid coach. As for his coaching, well, he was a man who struck out 369 times in his career – about once a week – to go with his 361 homers. How must he have felt watching Reggie whiff 171 times in 154 games. Ouch. In ’69, he dropped his coaching duties, but remained a Vice President.
Following the 1969 season, Joe visited US troops in South Vietnam on a USO tour, but he was never able to develop an ambassadorial-type relationship with the Commissioner’s Office, despite a meeting to discuss just that early in 1970. The offer, he said, was for an embarrassing $15,000 a year. Two years later, Yankee president Michael Burke, assembling a group which would purchase the team from CBS, had a conversation with Joe about joining the group. Weeks later, Joe read about the sale in the newspaper, claiming to have never been invited to a second meeting.
In 1969, the centennial of professional baseball, Joe was voted the game’s “Greatest Living Player.” As there has not been another such poll to this day, the honor remained his and few could dispute it. He always appreciated that title when introduced; it became his “cue” to enter.
Also in 1969, Joe came back to Yankee Stadium for Mickey Mantle Day, to present Mickey with a plaque for the centerfield wall. Mantle turned the tables that day, presenting one to Joe as well, which, as Mick ad-libbed, “ought to hang just a little higher than mine.” (It did, until the plaques were moved to the newly refurbished Monument Park area in 1976). As for a monument, George Steinbrenner told Joe he could have one any time he was ready. Joe wasn’t ready.
What he was ready for though, was the birth of card shows and memorabilia auctions. More than a quarter century after his retirement, the collectibles industry sprung up, as baby boomers discovered that they wanted little more in life than momentos of their youth. Joe went immediately to the head of the class, earning more per appearance and per autograph than anyone. Some found it undignified to see him selling autographed bats on QVC, as he did in 1993, but it was, after all, the way he earned a living and provided for his heirs.
His fame had sprung anew for a new generation through television commercials first, locally, for Bowery Savings Bank beginning in 1972, and then a year later, nationally, for Mr. Coffee. Each of these commercials captured Joe’s now celebrated “style and class.” The Bowery relationship lasted nearly 20 years.
In 1976, President Ford gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He visited the White House often, and in 1988, was present at a dinner for Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, at which he got the last two Cold War leaders to sign a baseball for him – quite a switch!
From 1982-1989, Joe served on the Board of Directors of the Baltimore Orioles at the behest of his friend Edward Bennett Williams, the Washington power lawyer and team owner. That duty ended with Williams’s death, but did not keep Joe estranged from the Yankees, for whom he would now faithfully throw out the first balls on opening day, and, with luck, at the World Series. It was while Joe was on the Orioles Board that Cal Ripken Jr began his great playing streak. On that memorable 1995 night in Baltimore when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record, Joe was on hand to represent Gehrig, his former teammate, in congratulating Cal.
In 1991, baseball celebrated the 50th anniversary of the magical 1941 season, in which Joe hit in 56 straight (and 73 of 74!), and Ted Williams batted .406. The two met at home plate at Fenway Park in a moving ceremony, with Ted giving the somewhat embarrassed Joe a big bear hug. Joe’s hands remained at his sides. He was not given to shows of public emotion.
In his final years, he devoted his attention to the Children’s Hospital, and to his card show appearances. There were strict guidelines for the later; no books by other authors, no Marilyn items, no round items, and so on. Yes, he was growing more fussy. But to the end, as his acquaintances found him more than a little exasperating at times, he was always the epitome of style and class. And for his acquaintances, just being able to say that “Joe DiMaggio knows who I am!” was, seemingly, honor enough.
Those who could truly remember watching him play were now in the late 50s and older. To most of the nation, he existed only in old newsreel highlights, or, as a handsome grey-haired gentleman, waving to admirers.
After all the years as the nomadic celebrity, moving to his next appearance, it was still Joe DiMaggio the ballplayer who will forever be a part of American history. Not only was he the link in the Ruth – Gehrig- DiMaggio- Mantle chain of Yankee brilliance, all gone now, but he defined a manner of play in which elegance could be written on a baseball diamond.
We all saw the replays, hundreds of times, of the Angels’ Jim Edmonds making his spectacular, on-the-belly, back-to-the plate catch in center field a couple of years ago. We asked Yogi Berra if he thought DiMaggio would have made such a play.
“Wouldn’t have to,” said Yogi. “He’d be there waiting for it.”
Joe DiMaggio By the Years
1914 – Born on November 25 in Martinez, Ca.
1931 – Quits Galileo High School in tenth grade
1932 – Signs minor league contract with San Francisco Seals
1933 – Sets Pacific Coast League record with a 61-game hitting streak
1934 – Signs a Yankee contract
1936 – Debuts with Yankees, setting rookie records for homers and RBIs
1939 – Wins first of three MVP awards
1939 – Marries Dorothy Arnold on November 19
1941 – Begins 56-game hitting streak on May 15
1941 – Streak ends on July 17
1941 – Only child, Joe Jr., is born on October 23
1941 – Wins second MVP award
1943 – Enters World War II, misses three seasons
1947 – Wins third MVP award
1949 – Signs first $100,000 contract in American League history
1949 – Joe DiMaggio Day celebrated in Yankee Stadium on October 1
1951 – Tours Japan with Major League All-Star team following ’51 World Series
1951 – Announces retirement on December 11
1952 – Yankees retire his uniform #5, it is sent to Cooperstown
1952 – Does pre and post game shows for Yankees on WPIX-TV, New York
1952 – Attends first Yankee Old Timers Day
1952 – Mentioned in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea”
1953 – Does an instructional program on WPIX-TV
1954 – Marries and divorces Marilyn Monroe
1955 – Elected to Hall of Fame in third year of eligibility
1961 – Joins Yankees as spring training instructor (through 1967)
1962 – Supervises funeral of Marilyn Monroe
1966 – Portrayed as lonely nomad by author Gay Talese in Esquire Magazine
1968 – Named Vice President and batting coach of Oakland A’s
1968 – Simon & Garfunkel immortalize him in “Mrs. Robinson”
1969 – Retires as coach, finishes 2-year contract with A’s as VP
1969 – Visits troops in South Vietnam on USO tour
1969 – Receives outfield plaque in Yankee Stadium on Mickey Mantle Day
1969 – Voted baseball’s Greatest Living Player in centennial poll of fans
1970 – Turns down an offer he calls “embarrassing” to join Commissioner’s staff
1972 – Becomes spokesman for Bowery Saving Bank in New York
1972 – Meets with Yankee president Mike Burke about becoming a partner when CBS
sells the team, but doesn’t have a second meeting.
1973 – Becomes spokesman for Mr. Coffee in national advertising campaign
1976 – Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom from Gerald Ford
1982 – Joins Board of Directors, Baltimore Orioles (through 1989)
1982 – Ends practice of sending roses to Marilyn Monroe grave; they are always stolen
1986 – DiMaggio’s Restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf closes after 50 years
1986 – DiMaggio brothers make final appearance together in Fenway Park in May
1986 – Brother Vince DiMaggio dies in October
1987 – Pacemaker installed
1988 – Misses first and only Yankee old timers day due to schedule conflict
1988 – Gets ball signed by Reagan and Gorbachev during White House dinner
1989 – Home suffers earthquake damage during 1989 World Series
1991 – Celebrates 50th anniversary of 56 game batting streak
1992 – Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital dedicated in Hollywood, Fl.
1993 – Throws out first ball in Florida Marlins inaugural game
1993 – Appears on QVC selling 1,941 signed and numbered bats
1995 – Represents ex-teammate Lou Gehrig the night Cal Ripken breaks record
1998 – Attends 47th Yankee Old Timers Day in 48 years since his retirement
1998 – Special ball with #5 used in final day of season, “Joe DiMaggio Day”, at Yankee Stadium
1998 – Admitted to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fl, Oct. 12; has lung cancer surgery Oct. 14.