After half a century, a chill is falling over the strange, paradoxical romance between baseball and the man acclaimed its greatest living player.
“I’m going to be cutting down on things like this,” Joe DiMaggio said as he squeezed into his No. 5 Yankee pinstripes last weekend for the New York club’s annual old-timers’ game, at which he was singled out for a special tribute.
“I don’t even think I’ll be returning to the Cracker Jack game,” he said, referring to the reunion of retired diamond greats held annually in Washington.
“I have taken a condominium in Boca Raton (Fla.) and I’ll move my main base from San Francisco. I have so much business in the East it makes commuting so much easier. And there are a lot of golf courses around.”
It takes an occasion such as the Yankee old-timers’ game to accent what has been one of the most flagrant and baffling oversights in the history of sports--the failure of big league baseball, principally the Yankees, to find a worthy niche for one of its imperishable legends.
There has not been a player in the game who has epitomized the all-around skills, grace and dignity of this immigrant Italian fisherman’s son who came from California and filled the void left by the great Babe Ruth.
Fans--young and old, male and female--revere him. Among his peers, he is the star of stars. At old-timers’ games, the field may be cluttered with record-breaking Hall of Famers, each one a star. Yet DiMaggio, now 70, seems to stand alone, towering above the gathering, even though he shyly shuns the spotlight.
“When Joe walks into a locker room--even an all-star locker room--it’s like a senator or a president coming in,” said Phil Rizzuto, his former teammate. “There’s a big hush. The respect for this man is amazing.”
Yet, when he retired in 1951, after 13 years as a Yankee, 10 World Series, 11 All-Star games and a 56-game hitting streak that may never be equaled, DiMaggio found no chair in the Establishment where he could sit.
To the sports world, he was Mr. Yankee, representing the style and class that the game’s most successful club sought to engender. Yet the Yankees made no attempt to reward him for loyalty or to capitalize on his image.
In the early 1960s, the Yankees gave him a menial role in spring training. Later, Charlie O. Finley of the A’s picked him for a token front-office job that later turned into a coaching role.
None of the jobs, in prestige or remuneration, measured up to the man. Joe D., however, was no candidate for the soup kitchens.
Twice married to movie stars, Dorothy Arnold and then briefly to Marilyn Monroe, DiMaggio had his business contacts. He became a manufacturers’ representative with a salary exceeding his baseball high of $100,000.
He served as board chairman of an Italian take-out food restaurant, and he did public relations for the Hughes Sports Network. He became the television spokesman for the New York-based Bowery Savings Bank, and for Mr. Coffee, both lucrative deals.
But none of those ventures quite satisfied DiMaggio’s desire to remain close to the game that had been his life.
“My greatest thrill was pulling on a Yankee uniform every day,” he said when asked to rate his achievements.
Except for a periodic appearance at an All-Star game and his exposure on TV commercials, DiMaggio is largely out of the limelight. His enterprises keep him on the road. He enjoys the pro-am golf circuit.
The man they affectionately call The Yankee Clipper says he is not offended by the cold shoulder he gets from the baseball Establishment, but close friends say that, as a proud man, the continual slight hurts.
“When major league baseball moved West (triggered by the transfer of the Dodgers and Giants), the commissioner (Ford Frick) called me into his office and asked if I would like to be baseball’s Pacific Coast representative,” he recalled with slight amusement.
“I said, sure. It sounded like a good thing. I asked what the salary would be. I was stunned when he named the figure. I walked out. I told him I spend that much on tips.”
The offer reportedly was $10,000.
DiMaggio recalled that when George Steinbrenner and his group bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973, Steinbrenner said he would like to have DiMaggio in the organization.
“He suggested it a couple of times in passing but he never followed up,” DiMaggio said. “I didn’t hear any more.”
In the 1977 World Series, with the Yankees playing the Dodgers, DiMaggio arrived at Yankee Stadium to get his tickets and wound up cooling his heels for a few hours. A newsman rescued him.
Nevertheless, the Yankees pulled out all stops in Saturday’s old-timers’ game, honoring the legendary center fielder who, in a nationwide poll in 1969, was voted baseball’s greatest living player.
Most of DiMaggio’s teammates from great championship teams of the late 1930s and ‘40s were on hand, along with a group of Hall of Famers including Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Willie Mays.
They loaded the Clipper up with an assortment of gifts, among them a white Chrysler convertible.
The day was set aside to commemorate DiMaggio’s phenomenal hitting streak of 56 consecutive games--a streak that ended July 17, 1941, exactly 44 years ago Wednesday. It took two excellent fielding plays by Cleveland third baseman Ken Keltner to end it, then DiMaggio followed it with 16 additional games in which he got hits.
Baseball historians contend it is perhaps the most secure of all records, although DiMaggio modestly scoffs at the suggestion.
“I don’t know why they make such a fuss over it,” he said. “Personally, I never thought about it when I was playing and I don’t think about it now. Somebody will break it. To my mind, a tougher record to break will be Lou Gehrig’s playing 2,130 straight games or Johnny Vander Meer’s two consecutive no-hitters.”
DiMaggio said he has never been one to bask in his achievements. He never read the newspapers during his hitting streak, he said, and never kept a scrapbook. He has no trophy room, and no longer has his World Series rings.
“They were stolen, I guess,” he said. “What I’m proudest of is that I played baseball for 13 years, shared in 10 pennants and 9 World Series championships. Nobody can take that away from me.”