A la Cal, Joe got jolt from Stengel DiMaggio: Old Yankees recall day center-field great was moved to first.

June 04, 1996|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,SUN STAFF

Tommy Henrich read about it in an Arizona newspaper. Hank Bauer heard about it in Kansas City. Phil Rizzuto -- here for an Italian-Americans dinner -- told a local radio station that Orioles manager Davey Johnson was a "huckleberry" for even thinking about it.

They don't agree with Johnson's proposed move of Cal Ripken from shortstop to third base, in part because they saw what happened 46 years ago to another hero.

As New York Yankees teammates in 1950, Henrich, Bauer and Rizzuto were in the lineup the day Joe DiMaggio -- one of the most graceful center fielders of all time -- played first base.

It was the idea of second-year Yankees manager Casey Stengel, and neither DiMaggio nor some of his teammates liked it. "I don't know what Casey was trying to do," said Henrich, 83. "I didn't think it was a very smart move."

Stengel said he had his reasons. At first base, rookie Joe Collins wasn't hitting, and Henrich, an outfielder who had been moved to first, was injured. Stengel also wanted to play young outfielders such as Bauer, Cliff Mapes, Gene Woodling and Jackie Jensen.

Instead of Stengel's going to DiMaggio directly, Yankees owner Dan Topping broached the idea with DiMaggio first. DiMaggio hadn't played first base since he was a boy growing up on the San Francisco sandlots, but he reluctantly agreed.

"He didn't say anything to me, he didn't say anything to anybody, but he didn't like it," Henrich said. "He said he'd do what the manager asked him to do."

The media jumped on the story. Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich described it as "the nation's most widely heralded experiment since Prohibition."

"Naturally, it hit the headlines -- 'DiMaggio played first base today,' " Henrich said.

On July 3, 1950, DiMaggio arrived at Washington's Griffith Stadium for the Yankees' game against the lowly Senators with a first baseman's glove on his left hand and a horde of photographers following his every move.

"Shoot your head off, boys," DiMaggio told them as he took grounders at first. "I don't know what kind of a first baseman I am yet, but I can put on an act for you."

The experiment was a failure. Accounts of the game said DiMaggio fielded 13 chances without making an error, but his teammates knew better.

"He was embarrassed," said Rizzuto, 79. "It was terrible. As great a ballplayer as he was, it was hard for him to shuffle his feet."

Jerry Coleman, the Yankees' second baseman that day, recalled a failed triple play that ended with Coleman's throw bouncing off the back of Washington's Irv Noren and nearly taking DiMaggio's head off.

"If I had hit him in the face, they probably would've fired me on the spot," said Coleman, 71, a broadcaster for the San Diego Padres.

DiMaggio, 81, did not respond to an interview request for this article, but his teammates said playing first base wounded his immense pride. "After the game, I remember the look on his face," said Bauer, 74. "He was perspiring very freely. He was very nervous."

Bauer, who had sprained his ankle playing the outfield, ended DiMaggio's trauma. With Bauer out of the lineup, DiMaggio was back in center field. "He said I did him a heck of a favor," Bauer said.

The first base experiment was over, but the tension between Stengel and DiMaggio wasn't. Stengel, despite proclaiming that DiMaggio was "the greatest player I ever managed," continued to clash with his star.

Many saw their relationship -- much like the modern media view Johnson's dealings with Ripken -- as a new manager's struggle for the leadership of the team.

"DiMaggio was a spiritual leader," Coleman said. "This was the guy you wanted to impress more than your manager."

Stengel still controlled DiMaggio's spot in the lineup. Just as Johnson moved Ripken to seventh in the batting order and removed him from the eighth inning of a close game, Stengel made similar moves with DiMaggio in 1950.

After the first base experiment failed, Stengel moved DiMaggio from fourth to fifth in the batting order, causing what Coleman described as a permanent breach in their relationship.

"The one thing that got Joe angry was when [Stengel] hit him fifth instead of fourth," Coleman said. "The fourth spot was Joe's. He always hit fourth."

In mid-August, Stengel benched DiMaggio, who was hitting .279 and in a 4-for-38 slump.

DiMaggio responded much as Ripken, who had a career-high three-homer, eight-RBI game Tuesday in Seattle, did during the third base controversy -- with his bat.

DiMaggio hit .400 the next two weeks and .373 in September. He also made a triumphant return Sept. 10 to Washington's Griffith Stadium.

That day, DiMaggio became the first player in major-league history to hit three home runs at the Senators' cavernous ballpark, where the left-field fence was 405 feet from home plate.

The Yankees won a second straight World Series under Stengel in 1950, which was DiMaggio's last great offensive season -- .301, 32 home runs, 122 RBIs -- before he retired after 1951.

"Joe was just about through," Rizzuto said. "I don't think Cal is anywhere near through."

Ripken turns 36 this season, just as DiMaggio did in 1950. Rizzuto said moving Ripken from shortstop to third base would cause a similar uproar.

"If it happened with Cal, the same thing would happen," Rizzuto said.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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