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DiMaggio Farewell as Private as His Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, as private in death as in life, was eulogized Thursday morning before a very small crowd at a very big church in the heart of this city’s Italian district, his boyhood home.

On a sparkling day light-years from spring training, several hundred fans and admirers gathered in front of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church to honor the man long known as America’s greatest living baseball player.

Inside--it was invitation only--about 60 family members and close friends united in sorrow for the Yankee Clipper, who died Monday in Florida. No celebrities. No politicians. No former teammates from the Bronx Bombers. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was asked to attend but respectfully declined; baseball Commissioner Bud Selig was present.

Outside of the imposing facade, a fan had placed a single yellow rose and a handwritten sign: “Grazie, Joe. North Beach, SF.” Across the street in this neighborhood of strong coffee and stronger profiles, gathered a gracious crowd of old Italian men, a clutch of aging sports writers reminiscing, curious tourists armed with maps.

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“Bobbye called me Monday and said ‘Happy birthday and did you know that Joe died? I think we ought to go to the funeral,’ ” said J.D. Reynolds of Mustang, Okla., who celebrated his 58th birthday the day DiMaggio died and whose father, Allie Reynolds (No. 22), had played with DiMaggio all those years ago.

The Bobbye in question was Bobbye Kay Ferguson of San Francisco, sister of J.D. and daughter of Allie. All decked out in Yankee pinstripes, she flashed a diamond ring with a big gold “5" signifying the Yankees’ consecutive World Series wins. Allie was on the mound for all five; Joe was in the outfield for the first three.

“This is my mom’s ring,” she said proudly. “They’re the only team who ever did it.”

DiMaggio’s memory for Reynolds and Ferguson is firmly planted in Yankee Stadium 3,000 miles away. But for North Beach native Harold Biaggi, Joe DiMaggio played baseball “right over there” at the North Beach Playground, with brothers Dominic and Vince.

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“We grew up with them,” said Biaggi, who came this day to pay his respects. “We’d sing these little ditties: Joe, Joe, DiMaggio, we’re glad you’re on our side!

“I get a kick out of these tour buses that go by my apartment building,” he laughed. “They say ‘Joe DiMaggio attended Galileo High.’ Well, he went in the front and out the back. He wasn’t much for going to class.”

Across Washington Square at Cafe Roma, they celebrated the celebrated Italian American by doing what they did best--being Italian. Oggi parlo Italiano for Joe! declared the barrista, pouring steaming coffee. “It’s a celebration of Italian Americans! Why don’t we play some Frank Sinatra?”

But the city where DiMaggio played sandlot baseball and Triple A, where he married his first wife and his second, where he ran a restaurant and ran around, is having a little harder time with the memorial process.

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City Hall’s last three attempts to name something after a dead celebrity--civil rights activist Carlton Goodlett, United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez and former Mayor Joe Alioto--were engulfed by controversy.

“The response has been overwhelming--100% unanimous consent to do something for DiMaggio,” said Supervisor Gavin Newsom, point man for the DiMaggio remembrance effort and the lone politician in Washington Square on this morning. Beyond that, however, there is little agreement.

So what do people here want to name after the homeboy with the career batting average of .325? San Francisco International Airport. City Hall, where he married Marilyn Monroe. The Golden Gate Bridge, no less.

“North Beach Playground, right over our shoulders, is the most likely” to bear the famous name, Newsom said as the crowd gathered in the chilly hours before the funeral. “But we’ll wait for the family’s direction.”

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So far, like their famously silent famous son, the DiMaggio family has kept to itself. Joined Thursday by Joe’s longtime friend, Joe Nacchio, and attorney Morris Engleberg, they drove up promptly at 10 a.m. and disappeared into the twin-spired church.

Bells tolled. Camera shutters whirred. The crowd fell silent. An hour later, the big wooden doors of Peter and Paul swung open again. Two white-robed priests walked out, sprinkling holy water on the ballplayer’s casket.

Six pallbearers--including DiMaggio’s son, Joe Jr., and brother Dominic--struggled down the church steps and gingerly unloaded their precious burden.

Then the long black hearse drove off, and the crowd burst into applause--Joseph Paul DiMaggio’s final standing ovation.

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The Times’ World Wide Web site has newsreel video clips, radio calls and a photo gallery of Joe DiMaggio’s greatest moments: https://www.latimes.com/dimaggio


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