When you say “great seasons” the mind wanders to Babe Ruth in ’27, Jim Brown in ’63, Bob Gibson in ’68, or Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82. But in the realm of magazine writing, no one had a better year than Gay Talese for Esquire in 1966.
Talese had been hired away in the fall of 1965 after nine years with the New York Times. The Esquire of that era was at the height of its cultural relevance, sophisticated and searching, on the leading edge of both journalism and design under the legendary editor Harold Hayes, who had made it perhaps the most respected, most debated magazine of the tumultuous decade. In his first (and only) year under contract for Esquire, Talese wrote three cover stories. The first, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” has been called the most influential magazine story ever, standing as a hallmark of what was called the New Journalism, Talese’s audacious triumph of applying novelistic methods to nonfiction writing. Two months after the Sinatra piece, in the July 1966 issue, Talese profiled Joe DiMaggio in “The Silent Season of a Hero,” generally considered among the finest sports magazine pieces ever.1
For Talese, DiMaggio was a natural. Growing up in Ocean City, N.J., he had taken a trolley car 11 miles up the coast to watch DiMaggio when the Yankees moved their spring training to Atlantic City in 1944, due to wartime gas rationing and travel restrictions. They had met at the 1965 Yankees Old-Timers’ game, when Talese was introduced to DiMaggio by their mutual friend, New York Times photographer Ernie Sisto. After chatting a few minutes, Talese told DiMaggio, “I’d love to come out and see you sometime in your hometown, and maybe write a piece about you,” and DiMaggio responded, “Sure, sure, anytime.” They agreed that Talese could write to him in care of DiMaggio’s restaurant and arrange a time to visit.
Talese was on contract to write six stories for Esquire in 1966, three of his choosing, and three selected by Hayes. After finishing the Sinatra piece (Hayes’ idea), but before it ran in the magazine, he was asked by Hayes to follow up on the writer’s early idea, to revisit DiMaggio, who by then had been retired from the Yankees for 15 years.
Another writer might have phoned from New York to set up the interview, but Talese preferred a more direct approach. He wrote DiMaggio a letter to let him know he was coming, then flew to San Francisco in February 1966. After leaving a few phone messages that went unreturned, Talese returned to his chosen method of approach: The haberdasher’s son would show up at his subject’s front door, polite, persistent, and immaculately dressed, and take his chances. “Just show up,” says Talese. “And you make a good impression, and then you either sell a vacuum cleaner or you don’t sell a vacuum cleaner.”
So Talese just showed up at DiMaggio’s restaurant. And that’s when the trouble started.
The Silent Season of a Hero
Esquire, July 1966
“I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing,” the old man said. “They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand.”
— ERNEST HEMINGWAY, The Old Man and the Sea
It was not quite spring, the silent season before the search for salmon, and the old fishermen of San Francisco were either painting their boats or repairing their nets along the pier or sitting in the sun talking quietly among themselves, watching the tourists come and go, and smiling, now, as a pretty girl paused to take their picture. She was about 25, healthy and blue-eyed and wearing a turtleneck sweater, and she had long, flowing blonde hair that she brushed back a few times before clicking her camera. The fishermen, looking at her, made admiring comments, but she did not understand because they spoke a Sicilian dialect; nor did she notice the tall gray-haired man in a dark suit who stood watching her from behind a big bay window on the second floor of DiMaggio’s Restaurant that overlooks the pier.
He watched until she left, lost in the crowd of newly arrived tourists that had just come down the hill by cable car. Then he sat down again at the table in the restaurant, finishing his tea and lighting another cigarette, his fifth in the last half hour. It was 11:30 in the morning. None of the other tables was occupied, and the only sounds came from the bar, where a liquor salesman was laughing at something the headwaiter had said. But then the salesman, his briefcase under his arm, headed for the door, stopping briefly to peek into the dining room and call out, “See you later, Joe.” Joe DiMaggio turned and waved at the salesman. Then the room was quiet again.
At 51, DiMaggio was a most distinguished-looking man, aging as gracefully as he had played on the ball field, impeccable in his tailoring, his nails manicured, his 6-foot-2 body seeming as lean and capable as when he posed for the portrait that hangs in the restaurant and shows him in Yankee Stadium, swinging from the heels at a pitch thrown 20 years ago. His gray hair was thinning at the crown, but just barely, and his face was lined in the right places, and his expression, once as sad and haunted as a matador’s, was more in repose these days, though, as now, tension had returned and he chain-smoked and occasionally paced the floor and looked out the window at the people below. In the crowd was a man he did not wish to see.2
The man had met DiMaggio in New York. This week he had come to San Francisco and had telephoned several times, but none of the calls had been returned because DiMaggio suspected that the man, who had said he was doing research on some vague sociological project, really wanted to delve into DiMaggio’s private life and that of DiMaggio’s former wife, Marilyn Monroe. DiMaggio would never tolerate this. The memory of her death is still very painful to him, and yet, because he keeps it to himself, some people are not sensitive to it. One night in a supper club, a woman who had been drinking approached his table, and when he did not ask her to join him, she snapped:
“All right, I guess I’m not Marilyn Monroe.”
He ignored her remark, but when she repeated it, he replied, barely controlling his anger, “No – I wish you were, but you’re not.”
The tone of his voice softened her, and she asked, “Am I saying something wrong?”
“You already have,” he said. “Now will you please leave me alone?”
His friends on the wharf, understanding him as they do, are very careful when discussing him with strangers, knowing that should they inadvertently betray a confidence, he will not denounce them but rather will never speak to them again; this comes from a sense of propriety not inconsistent in the man who also, after Marilyn Monroe’s death, directed that fresh flowers be placed on her grave “forever.”
Some of the older fishermen who have known DiMaggio all his life remember him as a small boy who helped clean his father’s boat, and as a young man who sneaked away and used a broken oar as a bat on the sandlots nearby. His father, a small mustachioed man known as Zio Pepe, would become infuriated and call him lagnuso, lazy, meschino, good-for-nothing, but in 1936 Zio Pepe was among those who cheered when Joe DiMaggio returned to San Francisco after his first season with the New York Yankees and was carried along the wharf on the shoulders of the fishermen.
The fishermen also remember how, after his retirement in 1951, DiMaggio brought his second wife, Marilyn, to live near the wharf, and sometimes they would be seen early in the morning fishing off DiMaggio’s boat, the Yankee Clipper, now docked quietly in the marina, and in the evening they would be sitting and talking on the pier. They had arguments, too, the fishermen knew, and one night Marilyn was seen running hysterically, crying, as she ran, along the road away from the pier, with Joe following. But the fishermen pretended they did not see this; it was none of their affair. They knew that Joe wanted her to stay in San Francisco and avoid the sharks in Hollywood, but she was confused and torn then — “She was a child,” they said — and even today DiMaggio loathes Los Angeles and many of the people in it. He no longer speaks to his onetime friend, Frank Sinatra, who had befriended Marilyn in her final years, and he also is cool to Dean Martin and Peter Lawford and Lawford’s former wife, Pat, who once gave a party at which she introduced Marilyn Monroe to Robert Kennedy, and the two of them danced often that night, Joe heard, and he did not take it well. He was possessive of her that year, his close friends say, because Marilyn and he had planned to remarry; but before they could she was dead, and DiMaggio banned the Lawfords and Sinatra and many Hollywood people from her funeral. When Marilyn Monroe’s attorney complained that DiMaggio was keeping her friends away, DiMaggio answered coldly, “If it weren’t for those friends persuading her to stay in Hollywood, she would still be alive.”
Joe DiMaggio now spends most of the year in San Francisco, and each day tourists, noticing the name on the restaurant, ask the men on the wharf if they ever see him. Oh, yes, the men say, they see him nearly every day; they have not seen him yet this morning, they add, but he should be arriving shortly. So the tourists continue to walk along the piers past the crab vendors, under the circling sea gulls, past the fish-‘n’-chip stands, sometimes stopping to watch a large vessel, steaming toward the Golden Gate Bridge, which, to their dismay, is painted red. Then they visit the Wax Museum, where there is a life-size figure of DiMaggio in uniform, and walk across the street and spend a quarter to peer through the silver telescopes focused on the island of Alcatraz, which is no longer a federal prison. Then they return to ask the men if DiMaggio has been seen. Not yet, the men say, although they notice his blue Impala parked in the lot next to the restaurant. Sometimes tourists will walk into the restaurant and have lunch and will see him sitting calmly in a corner signing autographs and being extremely gracious with everyone. At other times, as on this particular morning when the man from New York chose to visit, DiMaggio was tense and suspicious.
When the man entered the restaurant from the side steps leading to the dining room, he saw DiMaggio standing near the window, talking with an elderly maitre d’ named Charles Friscia. Not wanting to walk in and risk intrusion, the man asked one of DiMaggio’s nephews to inform Joe of his presence. When DiMaggio got the message, he quickly turned and left Friscia and disappeared through an exit leading down to the kitchen.
Astonished and confused, the visitor stood in the hall. A moment later Friscia appeared and the man asked, “Did Joe leave?”
“Joe who?” Friscia replied.
“Haven’t seen him,” Friscia said.
“You haven’t seen him! He was standing right next to you a second ago!”
“It wasn’t me,” Friscia said.
“You were standing next to him. I saw you. In the dining room.”
“You must be mistaken,” Friscia said, softly, seriously. “It wasn’t me.”
“You must be kidding,” the man said angrily, turning and leaving the restaurant. Before he could get to his car, however, DiMaggio’s nephew came running after him and said, “Joe wants to see you.”
He returned, expecting to see DiMaggio waiting for him. Instead, he was handed a telephone. The voice was powerful and deep and so tense that the quick sentences ran together: “You are invading my rights. I did not ask you to come. I assume you have a lawyer. You must have a lawyer, get your lawyer!”
“I came as a friend,” the man interrupted.
“That’s beside the point,” DiMaggio said. “I have my privacy; I do not want it violated; you’d better get a lawyer.” Then, pausing, DiMaggio asked, “Is my nephew there?”
He was not.
“Then wait where you are.”
A moment later DiMaggio appeared, tall and red-faced, erect and beautifully dressed in his dark suit and white shirt with the gray silk tie and the gleaming silver cuff links. He moved with his big steps toward the man and handed him an airmail envelope unopened that the man had written from New York.
“Here,” DiMaggio said. “This is yours.”
Then DiMaggio sat down at a small table. He said nothing, just lit a cigarette and waited, legs crossed, his head held high and back so as to reveal the intricate construction of his nose, a fine sharp tip above the big nostrils and tiny bones built out from the bridge, a great nose.
“Look,” DiMaggio said, more calmly, “I do not interfere with other people’s lives. And I do not expect them to interfere with mine. There are things about my life, personal things, that I refuse to talk about. And even if you asked my brothers, they would be unable to tell you about them because they do not know. There are things about me, so many things, that they simply do not know.”
“I don’t want to cause trouble,” the man said. “I think you’re a great man, and …”
“I’m not great,” DiMaggio cut in. “I’m not great,” he repeated softly. “I’m just a man trying to get along.”
Then DiMaggio, as if realizing that he was intruding upon his own privacy, abruptly stood up. He looked at his watch.
“I’m late,” he said, very formal again. “I’m 10 minutes late. You’re making me late.”
The man left the restaurant. He crossed the street and wandered over to the pier, briefly watching the fishermen hauling their nets and talking in the sun, seemingly very calm and contented. Then, after he turned and was headed back toward the parking lot, a blue Impala stopped in front of him and Joe DiMaggio leaned out the window and asked, “Do you have a car?” His voice was very gentle.
“Yes,” the man said.
“Oh,” DiMaggio said. “I would have given you a ride.”3
Joe DiMaggio was not born in San Francisco but in Martinez, a small fishing village 25 miles northeast of the Golden Gate. Zio Pepe had settled there after leaving Isola delle Femmine, an islet off Palermo where the DiMaggios had been fishermen for generations. But in 1915, hearing of the luckier waters off San Francisco’s wharf, Zio Pepe left Martinez, packing his boat with furniture and family, including Joe, who was one year old.
San Francisco was placid and picturesque when the DiMaggios arrived, but there was a competitive undercurrent and struggle for power along the pier. At dawn the boats would sail out to where the bay meets the ocean and the sea is rough, and later the men would race back with their hauls, hoping to beat their fellow fishermen to shore and sell it while they could. Twenty or 30 boats would sometimes be trying to gain the channel shoreward at the same time, and a fisherman had to know every rock in the water, and later know every bargaining trick along the shore, because the dealers and restaurateurs would play one fisherman off against the other, keeping the prices down. Later the fishermen became wiser and organized, predetermining the maximum amount each fisherman would catch, but there were always some men who, like the fish, never learned, and so heads would sometimes be broken, nets slashed, gasoline poured onto their fish, flowers of warning placed outside their doors.
But these days were ending when Zio Pepe arrived, and he expected his five sons to succeed him as fishermen, and the first two, Tom and Michael, did; but a third, Vincent, wanted to sing. He sang with such magnificent power as a young man that he came to the attention of the great banker, A. P. Giannini, and there were plans to send him to Italy for tutoring and the opera. But there was hesitation around the DiMaggio household and Vince never went; instead, he played ball with the San Francisco Seals and sports writers misspelled his name.
It was DiMaggio until Joe, at Vince’s recommendation, joined the team and became a sensation, being followed later by the youngest brother, Dominic, who was also outstanding. All three later played in the big leagues, and some writers like to say that Joe was the best hitter, Dom the best fielder, Vince the best singer, and Casey Stengel once said: “Vince is the only player I ever saw who could strike out three times in one game and not be embarrassed. He’d walk into the clubhouse whistling. Everybody would be feeling sorry for him, but Vince always thought he was doing good.”
After he retired from baseball Vince became a bartender, then a milkman, now a carpenter. He lives 40 miles north of San Francisco in a house he partly built, has been happily married for 34 years, has four grandchildren, has in the closet one of Joe’s tailor-made suits that he has never had altered to fit, and when people ask him if he envies Joe he always says, “No, maybe Joe would like to have what I have.” The brother Vincent most admired was Michael, “a big earthy man, a dreamer, a fisherman who wanted things but didn’t want to take from Joe, or to work in the restaurant. He wanted a bigger boat, but wanted to earn it on his own. He never got it.” In 1953, at the age of 44, Michael fell from his boat and drowned.
Since Zio Pepe’s death at 77 in 1949, Tom at 62, the oldest brother — two of his four sisters are older — has become nominal head of the family and manages the restaurant that was opened in 1937 as Joe DiMaggio’s Grotto. Later Joe sold out his share, and now Tom is the co-owner with Dominic. Of all the brothers, Dominic, who was known as the “Little Professor” when he played with the Boston Red Sox, is the most successful in business. He lives in a fashionable Boston suburb with his wife and three children and is president of a firm that manufactures fiber cushion materials and grossed more than $3.5 million last year.
Joe DiMaggio lives with his widowed sister, Marie, in a tan stone house on a quiet residential street not far from Fisherman’s Wharf. He bought the house almost 30 years ago for his parents, and after their deaths he lived there with Marilyn Monroe. Now it is cared for by Marie, a slim and handsome dark-eyed woman who has an apartment on the second floor, Joe on the third. There are some baseball trophies and plaques in the small room off DiMaggio’s bedroom, and on his dresser are photographs of Marilyn Monroe, and in the living room downstairs is a small painting of her that DiMaggio likes very much; it reveals only her face and shoulders and she is wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat, and there is a soft, sweet smile on her lips, an innocent curiosity about her that is the way he saw her and the way he wanted her to be seen by others — a simple girl, “a warm, big-hearted girl,” he once described her, “that everybody took advantage of.”
The publicity photographs emphasizing her sex appeal often offend him, and a memorable moment for Billy Wilder, who directed her in The Seven-Year Itch, occurred when he spotted DiMaggio in a large crowd of people gathered on Lexington Avenue in New York to watch a scene in which Marilyn, standing over a subway grating to cool herself, had her skirts blown high by a sudden wind blow. “What the hell is going on here?” DiMaggio was overheard to have said in the crowd, and Wilder recalled, “I shall never forget the look of death on Joe’s face.”
He was then 39, she was 27. They had been married in January of that year, 1954, despite disharmony in temperament and time; he was tired of publicity, she was thriving on it; he was intolerant of tardiness, she was always late. During their honeymoon in Tokyo an American general had introduced himself and asked if, as a patriotic gesture, she would visit the troops in Korea. She looked at Joe. “It’s your honeymoon,” he said, shrugging, “go ahead if you want to.”
She appeared on 10 occasions before 100,000 servicemen, and when she returned, she said, “It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.”
“Yes, I have,” he said.4
Across from her portrait in the living room, on a coffee table in front of a sofa, is a sterling-silver humidor that was presented to him by his Yankee teammates at a time when he was the most talked-about man in America, and when Les Brown’s band had recorded a hit that was heard day and night on the radio.
From Coast to Coast, that’s all you hear
Of Joe the One-Man Show
He’s glorified the horsehide sphere,
Jolting Joe DiMaggio …
Joe … Joe … DiMaggio … we
want you on our side.
The year was 1941, and it began for DiMaggio in the middle of May after the Yankees had lost four games in a row, seven of their last nine, and were in fourth place, five and a half games behind the leading Cleveland Indians. On May 15, DiMaggio hit only a first-inning single in a game that New York lost to Chicago 13-1; he was barely hitting .300, and had greatly disappointed the crowds that had seen him finish with a .352 average the year before and .381 in 1939.
He got a hit in the next game, and the next, and the next. On May 24, with the Yankees losing 6-5 to Boston, DiMaggio came up with runners on second and third and singled them home, winning the game, extending his streak to 10 games. But it went largely unnoticed. Even DiMaggio was not conscious of it until it had reached 29 games in mid-June. Then the newspapers began to dramatize it, the public became aroused, they sent him good-luck charms of every description, and DiMaggio kept hitting, and radio announcers would interrupt programs to announce the news, and then the song again: “Joe … Joe … DiMaggio … we want you on our side.”
Sometimes DiMaggio would be hitless his first three times up, the tension would build, it would appear that the game would end without his getting another chance — but he always would, and then he would hit the ball against the left-field wall, or through the pitcher’s legs, or between two leaping infielders. In the forty-first game, the first of a doubleheader in Washington, DiMaggio tied an American League record that George Sisler had set in 1922. But before the second game began, a spectator sneaked onto the field and into the Yankees’ dugout and stole DiMaggio’s favorite bat. In the second game, using another of his bats, DiMaggio lined out twice and flied out. But in the seventh inning, borrowing one of his old bats that a teammate was using, he singled and broke Sisler’s record, and he was only three games away from surpassing the major-league record of 44 set in 1897 by Willie Keeler while playing for Baltimore when it was a National League franchise.
An appeal for the missing bat was made through the newspapers. A man from Newark admitted the crime and returned it with regrets. And on July 2 at Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio hit a home run into the left-field stands. The record was broken.
He also got hits in the next 11 games, but on July 17 … in Cleveland, at a night game attended by 67,468, he failed against two pitchers, Al Smith and Jim Bagby, Jr., although Cleveland’s hero was really its third baseman, Ken Keltner, who in the first inning lunged to his right to make a spectacular backhanded stop of a drive and, from the foul line behind third base, threw DiMaggio out. DiMaggio received a walk in the fourth inning. But in the seventh he again hit a hard shot at Keltner, who again stopped it and threw him out. DiMaggio hit sharply toward the shortstop in the eighth inning, the ball taking a bad hop, but Lou Boudreau speared it off his shoulder and threw to the second baseman to start a double play and DiMaggio’s streak was stopped at 56 games. But the New York Yankees were on their way to winning the pennant by 17 games, and the World Series too, and so in August, in a hotel suite in Washington, the players threw a surprise party for DiMaggio and toasted him with champagne and presented him with his Tiffany silver humidor that is now in San Francisco in his living room.
Marie was in the kitchen making toast and tea when DiMaggio came down for breakfast; his gray hair was uncombed but, since he wears it short, it was not untidy. He said good morning to Marie, sat down, and yawned. He lit a cigarette. He wore a blue wool bathrobe over his pajamas. It was 8:00 A.M. He had many things to do today and he seemed cheerful. He had a conference with the president of Continental Television, Inc., a large retail chain in California of which he is a partner and vice-president; later he had a golf date, and then a big banquet to attend, and, if that did not go on too long and if he were not too tired afterward, he might have a date.
Picking up the morning paper, not rushing to the sports page, DiMaggio read the front-page news, the people problems of 1966; Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in Ghana, students were burning their draft cards (DiMaggio shook his head), the flu epidemic was spreading through the whole state of California. Then he flipped inside through the gossip columns, thankful they did not have him in there today — they had printed an item about his dating “an electrifying airline hostess” not long ago, and they also spotted him at dinner with Dori Lane, “the frantic frugger” in Whisky A Go Go’s glass cage — and then he turned to the sports page and read a story about how the injured Mickey Mantle may never regain his form.
It happened all so quickly, the passing of Mantle, or so it seemed; he had succeeded DiMaggio, who had succeeded Ruth, but now there was no great young power hitter coming up, and the Yankee management, almost desperate, had talked Mantle out of retirement, and on September 18, 1965, they gave him a “day” in New York during which he received several thousand dollars’ worth of gifts — an automobile, two quarter horses, free vacation trips to Rome, Nassau, Puerto Rico — and DiMaggio had flown to New York to make the introduction before 50,000: it had been a dramatic day, an almost holy day for the believers who had jammed the grandstands early to witness the canonization of a new stadium saint. Cardinal Spellman was on the committee, President Johnson sent a telegram, the day was officially proclaimed by the Mayor of New York, an orchestra assembled in the center field in front of the trinity of monuments to Ruth, Gehrig, Huggins; and high in the grandstands, billowing in the breeze of early autumn, were white banners that read: “Don’t Quit, Mick,” “We Love the Mick.”
The banner had been held by hundreds of young boys whose dreams had been fulfilled so often by Mantle, but also seated in the grandstands were older men, paunchy and balding, in whose middle-aged minds DiMaggio was still vivid and invincible, and some of them remembered how one month before, during a pregame exhibition at Old-Timers’ Day in Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio had hit a pitch into the left-field seats, and suddenly thousands of people had jumped wildly to their feet, joyously screaming — the great DiMaggio had returned, they were young again, it was yesterday.
But on this sunny September day at the stadium, the feast day of Mickey Mantle, DiMaggio was not wearing No. 5 on his back or a black cap to cover his graying hair; he was wearing a black suit and white shirt and blue tie, and he stood in one corner of the Yankees’ dugout waiting to be introduced by Red Barber, who was standing near home plate behind a silver microphone. In the outfield Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians were playing soothing, soft music; and moving slowly back and forth over the sprawling green grass between the left-field bullpen and the infield were two carts driven by grounds keepers and containing dozens and dozens of large gifts for Mantle — a 6-foot, 100-pound Hebrew National salami, a Winchester rifle, a mink coat for Mrs. Mantle, a set of Wilson golf clubs, a year’s supply of Chunky Candy. DiMaggio smoked a cigarette, but cupped it in his hands as if not wanting to be caught in the act by teen-aged boys near enough to peek down into the dugout. Then, edging forward a step, DiMaggio poked his head out and looked up. He could see nothing above except the packed, towering green grandstands that seemed a mile high and moving, and he could see no clouds or blue sky, only a sky of faces. Then the announcer called out his name — “Joe DiMaggio!” — and suddenly there was a blast of cheering that grew louder and louder, echoing and reechoing within the big steel canyon, and DiMaggio stomped out his cigarette and climbed up the dugout steps and onto the soft green grass, the noise resounding in his ears, he could almost feel the breeze, the breath of 50,000 lungs upon him, 100,000 eyes watching his every move, and for the briefest instant as he walked he closed his eyes.
Then in his path he saw Mickey Mantle’s mother, a smiling woman wearing an orchid, and he gently reached out for her elbow, holding it as he led her toward the microphone next to the other dignitaries lined up on the infield. Then he stood, very erect and without expression as the cheers softened and the stadium settled down.
Mantle was still in the dugout, in uniform, standing with one leg on the top step, and lined on both sides of him were the other Yankees who, when the ceremony was over, would play the Detroit Tigers. Then into the dugout, smiling, came Senator Robert Kennedy, accompanied by two tall curly-haired assistants with blue eyes, Fordham freckles. Jim Farley was the first on the field to notice the Senator, and Farley muttered, loud enough for others to hear, “Who the hell invited him?”
Toots Shor and some of the other committeemen standing near Farley looked into the dugout, and so did DiMaggio, his glance seeming cold, but he remained silent. Kennedy walked up and down within the dugout, shaking hands with the Yankees, but he did not walk onto the field.
“Senator,” said Yankees’ manager Johnny Keane, “why don’t you sit down?” Kennedy quickly shook his head, smiled. He remained standing, and then one Yankee came over and asked about getting relatives out of Cuba, and Kennedy called over one of his aides to take down the details in a notebook.
On the infield the ceremony went on, Mantle’s gifts continued to pile up — a Mobilette motorbike, a Sooner Schooner wagon barbecue, a year’s supply of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee, a year’s supply of Topps Chewing Gum — and the Yankee players watched, and Maris seemed glum.
“Hey, Rog,” yelled a man with a tape recorder, Murray Olderman, “I want to do a 30-second tape with you.” Maris swore angrily, shook his head.
“Why don’t you ask Richardson? He’s a better talker than me.”
“Yes, but the fact that it comes from you …”
Maris swore again. But finally he went over and said in an interview that Mantle was the finest player of his era, a great competitor, a great hitter.
Fifteen minutes later, standing behind the microphone at home plate, DiMaggio was telling the crowd, “I’m proud to introduce the man who succeeded me in center field in 1951,” and from every corner of the stadium, the cheering, whistling, clapping came down. Mantle stepped forward. He stood with his wife and children, posed for the photographers kneeling in front. Then he thanked the crowd in a short speech, and, turning, shook hands with the dignitaries standing nearby. Among them now was Senator Kennedy, who had been spotted in the dugout five minutes before by Red Barber, and been called out and introduced. Kennedy posed with Mantle for a photographer, then shook hands with the Mantle children, and with Toots Shor and James Farley and others. DiMaggio saw him coming down the line and at the last second he backed away, casually, hardly anybody noticing it, and Kennedy seemed not to notice it either, just swept past, shaking more hands.
Finishing his tea, putting aside the newspaper, DiMaggio went upstairs to dress, and soon he was waving good-bye to Marie and driving toward his business appointment in downtown San Francisco with his partners in the retail television business. DiMaggio, while not a millionaire, has invested wisely and has always had, since his retirement from baseball, executive positions with big companies that have paid him well. He also was among the organizers of the Fisherman’s National Bank of San Francisco last year, and, though it never came about, he demonstrated an acuteness that impressed those businessmen who had thought of him only in terms of baseball. He has had offers to manage big-league baseball teams but always has rejected them, saying, “I have enough trouble taking care of my own problems without taking on the responsibilities of 25 ball players.”
So his only contact with baseball these days, excluding public appearances, is his unsalaried job as a batting coach each spring in Florida with the New York Yankees, a trip he would make once again on the following Sunday, three days away, if he could accomplish what for him is always the dreaded responsibility of packing, a task made no easier by the fact that he lately had fallen into the habit of keeping his clothes in two places — some hang in his closet at home, some hang in the back room of a saloon called Reno’s.
Reno’s is a dimly lit bar in the center of San Francisco. A portrait of DiMaggio swinging a bat hangs on the wall, in addition to portraits of other star athletes, and the clientele consists mainly of the sporting crowd and newspapermen, people who know DiMaggio quite well and around whom he speaks freely on a number of subjects and relaxes as he can in few other places. The owner of the bar is Reno Barsocchini, a broad-shouldered and handsome man of 51 with graying wavy hair who began as a fiddler in Dago Mary’s tavern 35 years ago. He later became a bartender there and elsewhere, including DiMaggio’s Restaurant, and now he is probably DiMaggio’s closest friend. He was the best man at the DiMaggio-Monroe wedding in 1954, and when they separated nine months later in Los Angeles, Reno rushed down to help DiMaggio with the packing and drove him back to San Francisco. Reno will never forget the day.
Hundreds of people were gathered around the Beverly Hills home that DiMaggio and Marilyn had rented, and photographers were perched in the trees watching the windows, and others stood on the lawn and behind the rose bushes waiting to snap pictures of anybody who walked out of the house. The newspapers that day played all the puns — “Joe Fanned on Jealousy”; “Marilyn and Joe — Out at Home” — and the Hollywood columnists, to whom DiMaggio was never an idol, never a gracious host, recounted instances of incompatibility, and Oscar Levant said it all proved that no man could be a success in two national pastimes. When Reno Barsocchini arrived, he had to push his way through the mob, then bang on the door for several minutes before being admitted. Marilyn Monroe was upstairs in bed. Joe DiMaggio was downstairs with his suitcases, tense and pale, his eyes bloodshot.
Reno took the suitcase and golf clubs out to DiMaggio’s car, and then DiMaggio came out of the house, the reporters moving toward him, the lights flashing.
“Where are you going?” they yelled.
“I’m driving to San Francisco,” he said, walking quickly.
“Is that going to be your home?”
“That is my home and always has been.”
“Are you coming back?”
DiMaggio turned for a moment, looking up at the house.
“No,” he said, “I’ll never be back.”
Reno Barsocchini, except for a brief falling-out over something he will not discuss, has been DiMaggio’s trusted companion ever since, joining him whenever he can on the golf course or on the town, otherwise waiting for him in the bar with other middle-aged men. They may wait for hours sometimes, waiting and knowing that when he arrives he may wish to be alone; but it does not seem to matter, they are endlessly awed by him, moved by the mystique, he is a kind of male Garbo. They know that he can be warm and loyal if they are sensitive to his wishes, but they must never be late for an appointment to meet him. One man, unable to find a parking place, arrived a half hour late once, and DiMaggio did not talk to him again for three months. They know, too, when dining at night with DiMaggio, that he generally prefers male companions and occasionally one or two young women, but never wives; wives gossip, wives complain, wives are trouble, and men wishing to remain close to DiMaggio must keep their wives at home.5
When DiMaggio strolls into Reno’s bar, the men wave and call out his name and Reno Barsocchini smiles and announces, “Here’s the Clipper!” — the “Yankee Clipper” being a nickname from his baseball days.
“Hey Clipper, Clipper,” Reno had said two nights before, “where you been, Clipper? … Clipper, how ’bout a belt?”
DiMaggio refused the offer of a drink, ordering instead a pot of tea, which he prefers to all other beverages except before a date, when he will switch to vodka.
“Hey, Joe,” a sports writer asked, a man researching a magazine piece on golf, “why is it that a golfer, when he starts getting older, loses his putting touch first? Like Snead and Hogan, they can still hit a ball well off the tee, but on the greens they lose the strokes.”
“It’s the pressure of age,” DiMaggio said, turning around on his barstool. “With age you get jittery. It’s true of golfers, it’s true of any man when he gets into his 50s. He doesn’t take chances like he used to. The younger golfer, on the greens, he’ll stroke his putts better. The older man, he becomes hesitant. A little uncertain. Shaky. When it comes to taking chances, the younger man, even when driving a car, will take chances that the older man won’t.”
“Speaking of chances,” another man said, one of the group that had gathered around DiMaggio, “did you see that guy on crutches in here last night?”
“Yeah, had his leg in a cast,” a third said. “Skiing.”
“I would never ski,” DiMaggio said. “Men who ski must be doing it to impress a broad. You see these men, some of them 40, 50, getting onto skis. And later you see them all bandaged up, broken legs… ”
“But skiing’s a very sexy sport, Joe. All the clothes, the tight pants, the fireplaces in the ski lodge, the bear rug — Christ nobody goes to ski. They just go out there to get it cold so they can warm it up.”
“Maybe you’re right,” DiMaggio said. “I might be persuaded.”
“Want a belt, Clipper?” Reno asked.
DiMaggio thought for a second, then said, “All right — first belt tonight.”
Now it was noon, a warm sunny day. DiMaggio’s business meeting with the television retailers had gone well; he had made a strong appeal to George Shahood, president of Continental Television, Inc., which has eight retail outlets in Northern California, to put prices on color television sets and increase the sales volume, and Shahood had conceded it was worth a try. Then DiMaggio called Reno’s bar to see if there were any messages, and now he was in Lefty O’Doul’s car being driven along Fisherman’s Wharf toward the Golden Gate Bridge en route to a golf course 30 miles upstate. Lefty O’Doul was one of the great hitters in the National League in the early thirties, and later he managed the San Francisco Seals when DiMaggio was the shining star. Though O’Doul is now 69, 18 years older than DiMaggio, he nevertheless possesses great energy and spirit, is a hard-drinking, boisterous man with a big belly and roving eye; and when DiMaggio, as they drove along the highway toward the golf club, noticed a lovely blonde at the wheel of a car nearby and exclaimed, “Look at that tomato!” O’Doul’s head suddenly spun around, he took his eyes off the road, and yelled, “Where, where?” O’Doul’s golf game is less than what it was — he used to have a two-handicap — but he still shoots in the 80s, as does DiMaggio.
DiMaggio’s drives range between 250 and 280 yards when he doesn’t sky them, and his putting is good, but he is distracted by a bad back that both pains him and hinders the fullness of his swing. On the first hole, waiting to tee off, DiMaggio sat back watching a foursome of college boys ahead swinging with such freedom. “Oh,” he said with a sigh, “to have their backs.”
DiMaggio and O’Doul were accompanied around the golf course by Ernie Nevers, the former football star, and two brothers who are in the hotel and movie-distribution business. They moved quickly up and down the green hills in electric golf carts, and DiMaggio’s game was exceptionally good for the first nine holes. But then he seemed distracted, perhaps tired, perhaps even reacting to a conversation of a few minutes before. One of the movie men was praising the film Boeing, Boeing, starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis, and the man asked DiMaggio if he had seen it.
“No,” DiMaggio said. Then he added, swiftly, “I haven’t seen a film in eight years.”
DiMaggio hooked a few shots, was in the woods.6 He took a No. 9 iron and tried to chip out. But O’Doul interrupted DiMaggio’s concentration to remind him to keep the face of the club closed. DiMaggio hit the ball. It caromed off the side of his club, went skipping like a rabbit through the high grass down toward a pond. DiMaggio rarely displays any emotion on a golf course, but now, without saying a word, he took his No. 9 iron and flung it into the air. The club landed in a tree and stayed up there.
“Well,” O’Doul said casually, “there goes that set of clubs.”
DiMaggio walked to the tree. Fortunately the club had slipped to the lower branch, and DiMaggio could stretch up on the cart and get it back.
“Every time I get advice,” DiMaggio muttered to himself, shaking his head slowly and walking toward the pond, “I shank it.”
Later, showered and dressed, DiMaggio and the others drove to a banquet about 10 miles from the golf course. Somebody had said it was going to be an elegant dinner, but when they arrived they could see it was more like a county fair; farmers were gathered outside a big barn-like building, a candidate for sheriff was distributing leaflets at the front door, and a chorus of homely ladies was inside singing “You Are My Sunshine.”
“How did we get sucked into this?” DiMaggio asked, talking out of the side of his mouth, as they approached the building.
“O’Doul,” one of the men said. “It’s his fault. Damned O’Doul can’t turn anything down.”
“Go to hell,” O’Doul said.
Soon DiMaggio and O’Doul and Ernie Nevers were surrounded by the crowd, and the woman who had been leading the chorus came rushing over and said, “Oh, Mr. DiMaggio, it certainly is a pleasure having you.”
“It’s a pleasure being here, ma’am,” he said, forcing a smile.
“It’s too bad you didn’t arrive a moment sooner. You’d have heard our singing.”
“Oh, I heard it,” he said, “and I enjoyed it very much.”
“Good, good,” she said. “And how are your brothers, Dom and Vic?”
“Fine. Dom lives near Boston. Vince is in Pittsburgh.”
“Why, hello there, Joe,” interrupted a man with wine on his breath, patting DiMaggio on the back, feeling his arm. “Who’s gonna take it this year, Joe?”
“Well, I have no idea,” DiMaggio said.
“What about the Giants?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Well, you can’t count the Dodgers out,” the man said.
“You sure can’t,” DiMaggio said.
“Not with all that pitching.”
“Pitching is certainly important,” DiMaggio said.
Everywhere he goes the question seems the same, as if he has some special vision into the future of new heroes, and everywhere he goes, too, older men grab his hand and feel his arm and predict that he could still go out there and hit one, and the smile on DiMaggio’s face is genuine. He tries hard to remain as he was — he diets, he takes steambaths, he is careful; and flabby men in the locker rooms of golf clubs sometimes steal peeks at him when he steps out of the shower, observing the tight muscles across his chest, the flat stomach, the long sinewy legs. He has a young man’s body, very pale and little hair; his face is dark and lined, however, parched by the sun of several seasons. Still he is always an impressive figure at banquets such as this — an immortal sports writers called him, and that is how they have written about him and others like him, rarely suggesting that such heroes might ever be prone to the ills of mortal men, carousing, drinking, scheming; to suggest this would destroy the myth, would disillusion small boys, would infuriate rich men who own ball clubs and to whom baseball is a business dedicated to profit and in pursuit of which they trade mediocre players’ flesh as casually as boys trade players’ pictures on bubble-gum cards. And so the baseball hero must always act the part, must preserve the myth, and none does it better than DiMaggio, none is more patient when drunken old men grab an arm and ask, “Who’s gonna take it this year, Joe?”
Two hours later, dinner and the speeches over, DiMaggio was slumped in O’Doul’s car headed back to San Francisco. He edged himself up, however, when O’Doul pulled into a gas station in which a pretty red-haired girl sat on a stool, legs crossed, filing her fingernails. She was about 22, wore a tight black skirt and tighter white blouse.
“Look at that,” DiMaggio said.
“Yeah,” O’Doul said.
O’Doul turned away when a young man approached, opened the gas tank, began wiping the windshield. The young man wore a greasy white uniform on the front of which was printed the name “Burt.” DiMaggio kept looking at the girl, but she was not distracted from her fingernails. Then he looked at Burt, who did not recognize him. When the tank was full, O’Doul paid and drove off. Burt returned to his girl; DiMaggio slumped down in the front seat and did not open his eyes again until they arrived in San Francisco.
“Let’s go see Reno,” DiMaggio said.
“No, I gotta go see my old lady,” O’Doul said. So he dropped DiMaggio off in front of the bar, and a moment later Reno’s voice was announcing in the smoky room, “Hey, here’s the Clipper!” The men waved and offered to buy him a drink. DiMaggio ordered a vodka and sat for an hour at the bar talking to a half-dozen men around him. Then a blonde girl who had been with friends at the other end of the bar came over, and somebody introduced her to DiMaggio. He bought her a drink, offered her a cigarette. Then he struck a match and held it. His hand was unsteady.
“Is that me that’s shaking?” he asked.
“It must be,” said the blonde. “I’m calm.”
Two nights later, having collected his clothes out of Reno’s back room, DiMaggio boarded a jet;7 he slept crossways on three seats, then came down the steps as the sun began to rise in Miami. He claimed his luggage and golf clubs, put them into the trunk of a waiting automobile, and less than an hour later he was being driven into Fort Lauderdale, past palm-lined streets, toward the Yankee Clipper Hotel.
“All my life it seems I’ve been on the road traveling,” he said, squinting through the windshield into the sun. “I never get a sense of being in any one place.”
Arriving at the Yankee Clipper Hotel, DiMaggio checked into the largest suite. People rushed through the lobby to shake hands with him, to ask for his autograph, to say, “Joe, you look great.” And early the next morning, and for the next 30 mornings, DiMaggio arrived punctually at the baseball park and wore his uniform with the famous No. 5, and the tourists seated in the sunny grandstands clapped when he first appeared on the field each time, and then they watched with nostalgia as he picked up a bat and played “pepper” with the younger Yankees, some of whom were not even born when, 25 years ago this summer, he hit in 56 straight games and became the most celebrated man in America.
But the younger spectators in the Fort Lauderdale park, and the sports writers, too, were more interested in Mantle and Maris, and nearly every day there were news dispatches reporting how Mantle and Maris felt, what they did, what they said, even though they said and did very little except walk around the field frowning when photographers asked for another picture and when sports writers asked how they felt.
After seven days of this, the big day arrived — Mantle and Maris would swing a bat — and a dozen sports writers were gathered around the big batting cage that was situated beyond the left-field fence; it was completely enclosed in wire, meaning that no baseball could travel more than 30 or 40 feet before being trapped in rope; still Mantle and Maris would be swinging, and this, in spring, makes news.
Mantle stepped in first. He wore black gloves to help prevent blisters. He hit right-handed against the pitching of a coach named Vern Benson, and soon Mantle was swinging hard, smashing line drives against the nets, going ahhh ahhh as he followed through with his mouth open.
Then Mantle, not wanting to overdo it on his first day, dropped his bat in the dirt and walked out of the batting cage. Roger Maris stepped in. He picked up Mantle’s bat.
“This damn thing must be 38 ounces,” Maris said. He threw the bat down into the dirt, left the cage, and walked toward the dugout on the other side of the field to get a lighter bat.
DiMaggio stood among the sports writers behind the cage, then turned when Vern Benson, inside the cage, yelled, “Joe, wanna hit some?”8
“No chance,” DiMaggio said.
“Com’on Joe,” Benson said.
The reporters waited silently. Then DiMaggio walked slowly into the cage and picked up Mantle’s bat. He took his position at the plate but obviously it was not the classic DiMaggio stance; he was holding the bat about two inches from the knob, his feet were not so far apart, and when DiMaggio took a cut at Benson’s first pitch, fouling it, there was none of that ferocious follow-through, the blurred bat did not come whipping all the way around, the No. 5 was not stretched full across his broad back.
DiMaggio fouled Benson’s second pitch, then he connected solidly with the third, the fourth, the fifth. He was just meeting the ball easily, however, not smashing it, and Benson called out, “I didn’t know you were a choke hitter, Joe.”
“I am now,” DiMaggio said, getting ready for another pitch.
He hit three more squarely enough, and then he swung again and there was a hollow sound.
“Ohhh,” DiMaggio yelled, dropping his bat, his fingers stung. “I was waiting for that one.” He left the batting cage, rubbing his hands together. The reporters watched him. Nobody said anything. Then DiMaggio said to one of them, not in anger or in sadness, but merely as a simply stated fact, “There was a time when you couldn’t get me out of there.”
The July issue of Esquire reached newsstands and subscribers in June 1966, with an unforgettable cover conceived by George Lois, the legendary ad director, who did so many iconic Esquire covers (think: Sonny Liston in a Santa hat, Andy Warhol falling into a giant soup can). A longtime DiMaggio fan, Lois tried to reach his hero when he was setting up the cover shoot, to ask him to pose, but he couldn’t track him down. On the late winter day when the cover was photographed, Lois and photographer Carl Fischer traveled to the empty Yankee Stadium. So it is Lois, doing his best DiMaggio impersonation, who is swinging the bat on the cover of the July 1966 issue of Esquire.9
Talese’s friend David Halberstam called the DiMaggio profile the best magazine story he’d ever read. The great W.C. Heinz was impressed not merely by the writing but the degree of difficulty: the intractability of the subject, who had been largely opaque to the press over the years. Of DiMaggio, Heinz said, “I knew how difficult he could be, and how coldly he could treat writers and how he could cut them off if he was displeased. So doing that piece couldn’t have presented a tougher challenge. For a writer it was everything you’ve always been warned against — like a boxer going into Philly and fighting a southpaw from Philly and the referee is from Philly. And Talese did it almost perfectly.”
The myth of DiMaggio’s lingering greatness must have been in the air. Within a year of the story running, Paul Simon was composing “Mrs. Robinson” when he inserted the timeless line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” A close observer of the cultural scene of the mid-’60s might conclude that the story led to the song. But as it turns out, it’s not true. Simon had not read the piece when he sat down to write “Mrs. Robinson,” one of several songs he was writing for the Mike Nichols film The Graduate. “My recollection is it was one of those lines that I thought, when I wrote it, Well, that doesn’t make any sense — but why don’t I leave it in there anyway?,” says Simon. “And even then it was the ’60s and we thought we were allowed to do that. It was one of those things where I had a line and I needed a certain amount of syllables, and I thought, What’s the difference?“10
Talese saw DiMaggio just once after the story ran. It was in 1998, when Time magazine was celebrating its 75th anniversary, and invited every living person who’d ever been on the cover to a black-tie dinner at Radio City Music Hall. Talese and his wife, Nan, attended the dinner, as the guests of then-executive editor Norman Pearlstine and his wife, Nancy Friday. While at the dinner, Talese spied DiMaggio, who was heading up to say hello to the political consultant Ed Rollins, at a nearby table. “At that point,” says Talese, “I saw him walking up right by me. And I said, ‘Hello, Mr. DiMaggio.’ He looked at me, and he recognized me, and he said, ‘Are you still working for that rag?'”
And that would fit the accepted wisdom that great athletes are generally immune to the work of journalism. But DiMaggio was nothing if not a man of contradictions. When George Lois saw DiMaggio later in the 1960s, after the Esquire story, he explained that he had originally hoped DiMaggio would have posed for the cover himself.
“Well, I wouldn’t have posed for it,” said DiMaggio. “But I’ve gotta tell you — when I saw it … it brought tears to my eyes.”
Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation, and the editor of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia.
Previously from Michael MacCambridge:
Director’s Cut: Bringing It All Back Home