Yankee memories spring to life when DiMaggio comes to town

John Steadman

October 12, 1992|By John Steadman

What Joe DiMaggio, a symphony to behold, contributed on the baseball field was for the public to savor and enjoy. His record book deeds may prevail for perpetuity, stamped with a degree of achievement that gives him a special identification. He is described as a stoic man who prefers to travel alone, to partake only of his own counsel, and to work diligently protecting a personal life that has known both glittering ecstasy and profound sorrow.

That, of course, is his prerogative, an inalienable right that deserves to be respected. Invading the privacy of DiMaggio is an unwelcome intrusion. Don't try. He has been the captain and crew of his own ship of state. Never an extrovert or given to controversy but an attentive witness to what is going on around him.

Now at age 77, he continues to charm the multitudes by his quiet presence, much the way he intimidated pitchers during a 13-year American League career that saw him lead his team to 10 World Series appearances. He was the grand marshal of the Columbus Day Parade yesterday in Baltimore, which was most appropriate since he may be the most notable Italian-American since another son of Italy wrote history with a historic voyage under sail exactly 500 years ago.

DiMaggio is remaining here until tomorrow to help a friend, Ralph DeChiaro, celebrate a birthday. A chance to again interview DiMaggio (the first time was 1949 when he was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital) made for a momentous trip into the golden past. There are numerous individual achievements, such as a three-time winner of the Most Valuable Player award, 56 successive games batting safely and a .325 lifetime average.

But, without boast or brag, the one thing that may be most significant to him is in all those New York Yankees years he never went to the plate more than 13 consecutive times without getting a hit. So DiMaggio was never stigmatized by slumps, the kind other players had to endure. His ability insulated him from the ignominy of all of that.

From a spread-out stance, he hit line drives to left field that accelerated and fielded his position with the personification of athletic grace. DiMaggio was eager to talk about such teammates and contemporary rivals as Vernon "Lefty" Gomez, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and his special hero, the greatest of them all, Babe Ruth.

"I was there the afternoon Foxx hit a pitch off Gomez that carried to the third deck of Yankee Stadium," he recalled. "A couple feet to the right and it would have been the only ball hit completely out of there. Gomez was my roommate and I missed seeing him after the game.

"When I saw Lefty, I asked where he had been. He told me, 'I wanted to actually see where that ball landed so I walked up there. It took me only four seconds to throw the pitch but 15 minutes to reach the spot.' Gomez was non-stop fun. He wouldn't dare take himself seriously."

And then there was the time Gomez, on a batted ball, didn't bother to throw to Frank Crosetti for a force at second or to Gehrig at first. So what did he do? He looked at Tony Lazzeri, the second baseman, who was between first and second, and suddenly threw him the ball. Lazzeri wanted to know how he could do such a thing.

"Well, I read a newspaper story," replied Gomez, "that said you were the smartest player in the major leagues. I wanted to find out, since you were so smart, what you'd do with it."

Another time, Lefty told friend Tony, "Look, you're in charge of second base and spaghetti. Me? I'm in charge of pitching and looking at airplanes when they fly over the park."

More from DiMaggio, this time about Greenberg. He was remembering when the Detroit Tigers switched Greenberg from first base to the outfield and Hank came to him. "He wanted to know if I had some hints he could use. I told him what I thought would be helpful and to his credit he made himself a creditable outfielder. And what a tremendous power hitter."

The mention of Greenberg kindled an anecdote. The Yanks were playing the Tigers in Detroit, where the bullpens were then in center field. Relief pitcher Johnny Murphy had come in the day before and thrown a home run ball to Greenberg. Next afternoon, Murphy got the call again.

As he walked past Joe on his way to the mound, DiMaggio looked at Murphy and said, "Hank isn't going to be looking for what you threw him yesterday. So give him the same thing. It'll surprise him."

DiMaggio says Murphy shook off catcher Bill Dickey and went with the DiMaggio suggestion. Boom. A top deck home run. The Yankees lose again, same way. Now back in the locker room, the team was disconsolate over another ninth-inning loss.

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