Sports Cards Magazine/Krause Publications (July 1999): Joe DiMaggio Farewell

Joe DiMaggio Farewell

(July 1999)
By Marty Appel

Since we baseball fans like to live by the numbers, how about this one – Joe DiMaggio attended 47 of the 48 Old Timers Days held by the Yankees after his retirement, missing only in 1987 when he was having a pacemaker installed.

Big deal about the 56 game hitting streak. Let’s see someone break that one!

Think about it – what was so special to him about the annual old timers day? On most weekends, he could pick up a quick $100,000 if he wanted to do a card show instead. No, long after old timers day guests had ceased to be his old teammates like Dickey and Gomez and Ruffing – into a time when the guest list included Jay Johnstone and Brian Doyle – Joe couldn’t live without them. He would travel cross country for the few seconds of an introduction, wave both arms with elbows bent in what became known as the “DiMaggio wave”, and then disappear. All of that for a few seconds of cheers.

“Joe, you never heard such cheering,” said Marilyn Monroe after visiting American troops in South Korea during their honeymoon.

“Yes I have,” he replied.

And it obviously meant a lot to him.

For all of the style and grace that Joe brought to the playing field, he carried it on into his life as Joe the Celebrity, the American icon, which began with his retirement after the 1951 season. He knew when it was time to no longer play the field or swing a bat at an old timers game. He knew when it was time to no longer wear a uniform. How did he know? With the same instinct that he had as a ballplayer. He had impeccable timing.

I was present at a “Cracker Jack Old Timers Game” in Washington in the ‘80s when he was changing into his uniform shirt. Suddenly, a photographer appeared and snapped a picture of the bare-chested Joe, still in fine shape, but no longer the muscular athlete of his youth. Joe angrily demanded that the photographer stop at once – and never again changed into a uniform shirt in the presence of others. Appearance was always important to the Yankee Clipper.

When we saw the replay of Jim Edmonds 1997 brilliant, magical catch for the Angels, over and over, one of the greatest catches of all time, I wondered if Joe would ever have made such an attempt on a ball. It would not be in character to see him sliding in the outfield, dirtying his uniform.

But as Phil Rizzuto pointed out, “of course he wouldn’t. No one had a better instinct for the game than Joe did! He wouldn’t have had to slide!”

Yogi Berra was talking about Joe during the opening of his new museum in New Jersey recently. “He was a loner,” said Yogi. “He would play cards with us on the train, but when we got to where we were going, he would disappear. He wasn’t a guy who had dinner with his teammates.”

The mysterious side of DiMaggio bewildered his followers over the years. No friend could get too close. No one would dare bring up the name Marilyn. He could be cold to his friends, could discharge them even for some small fault.

But there was something so magnetic about him, that people would do almost anything to be able to say, “he knows who I am! Joe DiMaggio knows my name!”

I have my special numbers for Joe. 73, for instance. While everyone knows about the 56 game hitting streak, a lot of people don’t know that after he was stopped that summer night in Cleveland back in ’41, he went on to hit safely in 17 more, making it 73 out of 74. Chew that one over! And the night he was stopped, he had two shots to third that could certainly have been hits if not for great plays by Ken Keltner.

How about 361/ 369. Joe hit 361 home runs in his 13-year career – it doesn’t seem like a lot today, but he gave away three seasons to World War II which would certainly have put him over 400, maybe around 450, and he did this battling the deep dimensions of “Death Valley,” in left-centerfield of Yankee Stadium.

Oh, and the 369? He had 369 career strikeouts to go with his 361 homers. Chew that one over too. He had a long stride and a big swing, and he still averaged 28 strikeouts a season – about one a week. The year he served as batting coach for the Oakland A’s, his protégé, rookie Reggie Jackson, whiffed 171 times. What Joe must have thought!

Joe never really seemed to find a place for himself after his baseball career. It took a long time for the collectors market to take hold, and of course when it did, he was the emperor of it all. But it took more than a quarter of a century for that industry to blossom.

As recently as 1988, at the National in Atlantic City, DiMaggio autographs could be obtained in person for $15. Only in the ‘90s did the price begin to soar, with signed baseball’s today selling at up to $300, and the 1,941 bats he sold on QVC in 1993 moving in the $2500 – $3000 range.

His appearances were laden with rules. He wouldn’t sign original art, books, round objects, bats, uniforms, Marilyn items, advertising pieces, and on and on. For this, he was able to command up to $100,000 for an appearance, which show promoters seemed happy to pay.

His marriage to Marilyn Monroe came after his baseball career, although it lasted only nine months. Still, it propelled him far beyond the sports pages in the consciousness of America. What a person he must have been to have wooed and won America’s most glamorous movie idol!

He tried his hand, awkwardly, at pre-game shows on WPIX in New York, finding little comfort doing so. It lasted a season, before the format switched to an instructional format for children. Also a year.

In the ‘70s, he became a polished commercial pitchman, selling Mr. Coffee machines nationally, and plugging the Bowery Savings Bank in New York. It brought him back to public notice, and introduced him to a new generation of fans.

He shunned offers to do a book, and scorned the unauthorized versions that dared mention Marilyn. When he finally agreed to a book project, it was a 2-volume set of newspaper clippings from his scrapbooks, a product that flopped in the bookstores, lacking as it did, much insight into the man. And, no Marilyn.

He was immortalized in literature by Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea, and in song by Simon & Garfunkel in Mrs. Robinson, but as his fans grew older, the cheers were louder for Mickey Mantle. When Mantle was introduced after DiMaggio at a Yankee old timers day in 1970, Joe said he wouldn’t return again. But of course, he did, year after year.

For the A’s first year in Oakland, 1968, Joe agreed to work for Charlie Finley as a Vice President and batting coach, giving him a job 25 minutes from his home, and moving him into the modern pension plan. He served on the Baltimore Orioles’ Board of Directors from 1982-89 for his friend, Edward Bennett Williams, the team’s owner.

A frequent White House guest, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 by Gerald Ford, and then in 1988, turned the tables and got Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to autograph a baseball for him.

Joe remained a San Francisco resident for most of his life, moving to a golf course home south of Miami at around the time that the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital opened in Hollywood, Fl. His home on Beach Street in San Francisco suffered earthquake damage during the 1989 World Series, hastening his move.

Of all of his honors, he seemed to derive the most pleasure from being voted the games’ Greatest Living Player in a 1969 poll of fans, which marked the centennial of professional baseball. The three words became his entrance cue whenever he made a public appearance.

Although he spent nearly a half-century as a wondering American hero, it was those 13 seasons of baseball that put him into history books, linked in the Yankee parade of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. He was the last survivor. To many who saw him play, there would never be another DiMaggio, one who played the game at such a high level, with such skills in all areas. To the many who encountered the post-baseball Joe, he was an enigma, a man who needed applause, but who needed it from a distance.

In the end, few ever got close enough to see the contradictions. To those, he will always be the ultimate America sports hero. Those who can say they saw him play are in their late 50s and older. Most of the nation simply knows the Yankee Clipper from newsreel footage and legend. And there, he was at his best.

Joe DiMaggio’s post-baseball career

1951 – Tours Japan with Major League All-Star team following ’51 World Series

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

1977 – 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; misses first Yankee Old Timers Day in 36 years

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.