Chasing the Trail of 80-Year-Old Joltin' Joe Dimaggio

Article excerpt

You watched the World Series on TV, and you saw players doing things Joe DiMaggio could never have dreamed of doing.

Spitting. Scratching. Perspiring. Whining.

Actually, Joe did emote once. When he was robbed of a home run by a great catch in the '47 World Series, DiMaggio kicked the infield dirt in frustration. It was so out of character that people were shocked.

Joe was the most elegant player ever. Photos of the follow-through of his swing look like paintings in which the artist exaggerated to show how graceful a human could look if he weren't so human.

DiMaggio's only athletic klutziness was when he played shortstop as a minor-leaguer, before he was moved to center field. Chalk it up to stoop labor being genetically unsuited to royalty.

Forty-four years ago, DiMaggio helped the Yankees win a World Series, then retired at age 36.

"I've played my last game of ball," he announced.

Then he became the ghost of baseball. No autobiographies, no Barbara Walters interviews, no TV analyst gigs, no guest cameos on sit-coms, no scandals or scuffles, few public appearances. Other than a one-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe and a TV stint as pitchman for Mr. Coffee, DiMaggio seemed to drop off the earth, a recluse, the Howard Hughes of cleated shoes.

No major sports hero emeritus was ever so low-profile. Mantle and Musial opened up restaurants and became professional backslappers. Mays is never far from the clubhouse or batting cage.

DiMaggio? Where is he?

He's still around town, at times, and I set out recently to find traces of Joltin' Joe.

It's an odd task, tracking the ghost of a man who is still alive and well, but Joe DiMaggio is more ghost than real guy. The man who packed and rocked Yankee Stadium for 13 years, who married Marilyn, who was San Francisco's No.1 son and gift to the world, moves about quietly, slipping in and out of old haunts, barely rippling the water.

Let's start in the Marina, not far from where Joe's dad and two of Joe's brothers used to put to sea in his fishing boat.

I have heard that DiMaggio sometimes parks his car overlooking the Bay, plugs a big-band casette into his tape deck and opens his mail or reads the newspaper. He never graduated from high school, but he reads the New York Times, cover to cover.

He drives a Mercedes, a gift from the Yankees a few years ago. It replaced his Toyota Corolla. There's a stunning image, the Yankee Clipper in an economy car, in an age when .210 hitters drive Maseratis.

"I see DiMaggio out walking," says a mailman in the Marina. "He's always very dapper, he always says hi, he's very friendly."

But today he's nowhere in sight. DiMaggio now lives most of the year in Florida because San Francisco's air-conditioning is unkind to his arthritis. But there is a house in the Marina that he bought for his parents in '39, and where his widowed sister lives. The top floor is where Joe lives when he's in town.

The house is in a ritzier neighborhood, but is probably not a whit fancier, inside or out, than the house in which he grew up, a couple of miles away on Taylor Street, with his fisherman father, mother, four brothers and four sisters.

I have heard it said that DiMaggio is very frugal, a condition the Italian fishermen refer to as "having fishhooks in your pockets."

But others tell me of DiMaggio's generosity with his money and time. He has a sense of noblesse oblige and appears at charity functions and luncheons, usually as a favor to friends. A year ago, he served as grand marshal of the Half Moon Bay Halloween parade.

If Joe is careful with his money - and he's got a lot now, no small thanks to the autograph industry - it may be due to lessons learned in baseball. In '37 he hit .346 with 46 homers and 167 RBIs (these are not typos), then held out two weeks into the following season to get a $10,000 raise to $25,000. …

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