Engelberg Always Remained a Friend
The one-story building where Morris Engelberg has a law office is identified by a large sign as the Yankee Clipper Center.
Among the dozen or so parking spaces in front of the building in Hollywood, Fla., was one reserved for the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio. It was space No. 5, the number he wore.
Engelberg’s spot is right next to it--that’s how close the lawyer had become to the Hall of Fame centerfielder.
He was DiMaggio’s lawyer, his next-door-neighbor, the executor of his will and the buffer between the baseball great and anyone who wanted to get near him--fans, media and businessmen.
“He was very protective of DiMaggio. He kept Joe in a cocoon, which is exactly what DiMaggio wanted,” said Marty Appel, a former Yankees public relations director.
“DiMaggio always had someone like that in his life. Morris Engelberg was the last one. But Joe always made the decisions, especially when it came to the business of memorabilia.”
To Engelberg, however, the relationship went beyond business deals.
When DiMaggio died Monday shortly after midnight, Engelberg was at his bedside. And on Thursday, he was a pallbearer at the funeral.
“An Orthodox Jew a pallbearer at a Catholic funeral. What do you think of that?” Engelberg asked.
It was not the first time their religions had crossed.
DiMaggio held Engelberg’s grandson, Harrison, when the baby had his ritual circumcision, an honor usually reserved for a religious, righteous man.
“The rabbi asked me, ‘He’s not Jewish?’ I said, ‘No, but he is righteous,”’ Engelberg said.
Just how close they were became apparent in December, when DiMaggio was fighting the lung infection that eventually killed him.
“He was in bad shape, in and out of a coma, he was bleeding from the nose, he couldn’t breathe. I figured this was it,” Engelberg said. “That’s when I realized the date, December 11.
“I squeezed his hand and said, ‘Joe, you can’t die the same day as my father.”’
His dad had died three months before Engelberg was born, and some might say DiMaggio was the father he never knew.
“I grew up in Brooklyn where everyone was a Dodgers fan, but I was a Joe DiMaggio fan,” Engelberg said. “I had pictures of him, I memorized his statistics. When I was 10 years old I combed my hair in a pompadour like DiMaggio did.”
Engelberg turned 59 the day before his hero died, and it was the first time in 16 years that DiMaggio was unable to give him an autographed baseball bat as a birthday present. Engelberg’s favorite was the one he got when he turned 56. DiMaggio wrote: “Keep the streak alive.”
Engelberg never lost his adoration of the Yankee Clipper, even as an adult. At 6-foot-5 and with the trim build of an athlete, Engelberg even resembled DiMaggio from behind.
Engelberg prefers dark-colored, well-tailored suits, white shirts and conservative ties, carefully knotted -- just the way Joe D. used to dress.
Engelberg, who played basketball at Brooklyn College, emulated DiMaggio’s batting stance and smooth gait in the outfield when he played sandlot baseball.
“I ran in a couple of New York Marathons, and when I finally completed one, my uncle said, ‘Well, now you’ve accomplished your goal,’ and I told him, ‘All I have to do now is meet Joe DiMaggio.”’
When he got that opportunity, he was stunned.
A client with an interest in a Florida golf resort had hired DiMaggio as a public relations spokesman and asked him to call the lawyer at his home.
“My wife answered the phone, and said it was Joe DiMaggio. I couldn’t speak,” Engelberg said. “I had to compose myself, and told her, ‘Tell him I’ll call him back.”’
The next day, they met at the resort for breakfast.
By now, Engelberg was a successful business lawyer and DiMaggio confided that he was concerned about losing his job as a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank in New York. He appeared in television commercials and newspaper ads.
“He told me he needed the income,” Engelberg said. “He was getting well under six figures a year.”
The two went to New York to negotiate a new contract, and Engelberg said he got a three-year deal that put another digit in front of what DiMaggio had been making.
“I called Joe and told him to meet me at the Stage Deli,” Engelberg said. “I told him what the deal was. He reached into his inside jacket pocket, took out a checkbook and wrote a check for $20,000.
“There was no way I was going to take money from the man I had worshipped. I tore up the check, dropped the pieces on the table and told him his fee was the tab for the corned beef sandwiches.”
But there were also deals that never came off, like the one Simon & Schuster thought it had wrapped up for a DiMaggio book. Engelberg thought so, too, but DiMaggio skimmed the outline and vetoed the idea.
“There were about nine pages dealing with DiMaggio’s marriages to Dorothy Arnold and Marilyn Monroe, and the rest had to do with his baseball career,” Engelberg said.
Engelberg said DiMaggio never forgot his background.
“Joe came from a poor family. He slept in the same bed with his brothers when they were growing up,” he said. “They didn’t have much.”
For much of his adult life DiMaggio lived in hotels. But, finally, he found himself in an elegant resort community in Florida that was not near restaurants where he could get pasta, pizza or kosher-style deli food, and he grew unhappy.
That’s when Engelberg persuaded him to move to a home built right next to his in a gated community. They spent a great deal of time in each other’s den, watching baseball and football, and playing with Engelberg’s grandchildren and DiMaggio’s great-grandchildren.
“The houses are almost duplicates,” Engelberg said. “The only thing different are the keys.”