I finally met Joe DiMaggio, one of my boyhood sports heroes. He was sitting quietly in the Green Room waiting for his turn to go on to the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City during a gala benefit for retired actors and actresses of the theater called Night of the Stars.
Back in my hometown in Connecticut, baseball was serious stuff for boys in the nineteen forties. You were either a Red Sox fan or a Yankee fan, a Ted Williams fan or a Joe DiMaggio fan. The town was split down the middle by the two factions. Ever since Dodger catcher Mickey Owen dropped a third strike in the 1941 World Series and the Yankees rallied to win the game, I was a fervent fan of the Bronx Bombers.
At 75 years of age Joe DiMaggio appeared in good shape–lean and lithe. A quiet, reserved man with an unbending sense of privacy, he seemed quite willing to talk on that day. My first question-was about his early teammate, the great Yankee first baseman and iron man, Lou Gehrig. Joe spoke highly of Gehrig–“He wasn’t all that agile a fielder,” he said, “but when he got up to the plate– wow, the pitchers feared him, especially in the clutch.”
The Yankee Clipper observed that whenever Gehrig had a bad day–such as going 0 for 4, he would sit in the locker room dragging a cigarette and blaming himself if the team lost.
I asked DiMaggio if he plans to write a book. He replied that he often thinks about it but doesn’t have the kind of detailed memory like Tommy Henrich (another clutch Yankee hitter) who is writing a book.
I urged him to put pen to paper so he could convey the spirit of the game
before it became so hyper’-commercial where owners buy and sell players from One another, instead of relying on farm teams, and players charge kids for autographs. I said the younger generation needs to know and he wondered whether the younger generation cared to know.
Joe did not seem to approve of Yankee owner George Steinbrenner’s approach to winning by buying players at a frantic rate. Coming from teams when players stayed together for years Joe felt that few owners have succeeded in buying winning teams, including, of course, Steinbrenner. “Winning teams need continuity and the familiarity of playing together,” he said,
He sees Mickey Mantle from time to time. Recalling the famous Mantle fall at age 20 that started his string of knee injuries, Joe observed that Mantle, Who fell in a hole in the Yankee outfield during an important game, was on his back crying .from. the pain and his missing the fly ball.
Joe holds one of the most unbreakable records in professional sports–the sensational ’66-game hitting streak. I offered a more unbreakable record–one Sewell who played thirteen years for Cleveland and then the Yankees between 1920 and 1933. Sewell was almost impossible to strike out, as Joe related. And in thirteen years, Sewell used only one bat! He was such a line drive, precision hitter that he never broke the bat he started out with in 1920.
Joe acknowledged that this was a pretty astonishing performance. Howard Cosell came over and started talking to DiMaggio and I knew that my chance interview was over.