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Federal Judge Balks at Suit Over Naming Park for DiMaggio

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An effort to keep Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio’s name off the San Francisco playground where he honed his legendary baseball skills as a youth got thumbed out at the plate Thursday by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard in Miami rejected a lawsuit by DiMaggio’s estate, saying that she lacks jurisdiction over a dispute involving the West Coast city’s attempt to honor its native son.

In a 25-page ruling that invoked DiMaggio’s role as an American icon, citing everything from his baseball exploits to his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe, Lenard said the case would best be tried in California.

“Unlike the game of baseball,” the judge wrote, “personal jurisdiction in federal court is not a fielder’s choice.”

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Morris Engelberg, attorney for the late ballplayer’s estate, promptly vowed to appeal the ruling to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Failing there, Engelberg said, he would refile the case in a federal court in San Francisco.

But officials in San Francisco said Engelberg should stay in the dugout.

“It’s just hard to fathom what’s motivating this lawsuit,” said Marc Slavin, a city attorney spokesman. “This is such a human gesture by the city. It makes perfect sense for San Francisco to put Joe DiMaggio’s name on the playground where he learned to hit a baseball.”

Engelberg has been wrangling with the city over how to honor the “Yankee Clipper” almost since DiMaggio’s death a year ago at the age of 84.

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After months of consideration, city officials focused on the North Beach playground where DiMaggio spent hours playing pickup baseball games. But the attorney, DiMaggio’s closest confidant in his final years of retirement in Hollywood, Fla., balked.

He insisted that a more appropriate gesture would be to name San Francisco International Airport or the Bay Bridge after the famed ballplayer. Engelberg maintains that the city’s efforts could damage DiMaggio’s estate, which controls intellectual property rights to the ballplayer’s name.

Despite the dispute, the City Council agreed May 5 to name the park after DiMaggio and spend nearly $6 million upgrading the site, a vast expanse of cracked pavement around a swimming pool and boccie ball court.

In the lawsuit, filed May 31, DiMaggio’s estate asked the federal judge in Miami to yank the ballplayer’s name off the park, saying the city had violated federal trademark restrictions and other laws.

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San Francisco lawyers argued at a hearing before Lenard last week that a court in Florida had no jurisdiction over the actions of a city in California.

Lenard agreed, citing a rash of prior legal rulings as well as the burden San Francisco lawyers would face traveling across the country to fight the lawsuit.

And on the merits of the case, the judge concluded that there was potential for damage to the DiMaggio estate, but she said it would not be hurt “to a deleterious degree.”

Now, like battered ballplayers heading into extra innings, neither side is ready to concede.

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“Mr. Engelberg is committed to controlling the process as he has done successfully with Mr. DiMaggio for years,” said Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco supervisor pushing the effort to honor DiMaggio. “Obviously he’s not going to back down at all. And neither are we.”


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