Joe’s Warmth

smilejoeAugust 29, 2016 – I’m indebted to my brother Larry for posting a memory that has long been a precious item in our family’s reliquary. It’s a picture of Joe DiMaggio taken by our mother, Mary.

If you missed him in Facebook, Larry writes:

My mother took this photo at Cooperstown Doubleday Field before or after the annual Hall of Fame game they used to play there. In those days, circa 1947, fans could go onto the field and mingle with the players. So she stopped Joe DiMaggio and asked for a photo and he obliged. My mother died when Christopher was 6 weeks old, and after her death I inherited this photo. Some time later, after (son) Patrick was born, I sent the photo to George Steinbrenner and explained how I got the photo, and how baseball might be the only way for my boys to connect with their grandmother. I asked him if he might be able to get Joe DiMaggio to sign it. It came back to me signed.

The anecdote raises my opinion of Steinbrenner, and it was also good to see the familiar photo after so many years.

Mom was a devoted baseball fan and Joe was the biggest star in her Yankee firmament. The picture of Joe was carefully preserved in her scrapbook as if it was an icon of a saint, and we would stare at it with worshipful curiosity.

Joe was retired by the time my sibs and I came along (we were in the Mantle generation), but we knew who he was. I am sure the first racy joke I ever heard was about Joe when he married Marilyn Monroe in 1954:

Q: What does Joe DiMaggio do when he hits a home run?
A: He stays home!

I didn’t really get it, and even now if falls short of actual humor. But all we 8 year olds pretended to laugh.

Our family’s approbation of Joe DiMaggio, illustrated so movingly by my brother, also helps me justify an incident that my spouse finds slightly appalling and at least one of my daughters regards as creepy.

In October 1992 I was in Washington, D.C. on church business and went to National Airport for my return flight. I always get to airports as early as possible and on this occasion I sat at an empty gate to read.

The adjacent gate was already full of passengers. As I scanned my book, a young ground agent escorted a gray-haired man with rounded shoulders to a seat directly in front of me. “I’ll come over to get you when it’s time to board,” she told the man, who nodded and smiled slightly, baring slightly irregular teeth.

The man was dressed in a brown varsity jacket and wore a baseball cap with a logo I didn’t recognize. He appeared tired. It took me a second or two to get my bearings, but I quickly realized the man was Joe DiMaggio.

Joe sat down, pulled out some reading material, and bowed his head to peruse it.

I knew very well that Joe was seeking the same thing I was: quiet privacy before a flight. Joe was reported to be unfriendly with pushy strangers so I quickly dismissed the thought of talking to him (although I did try to imagine myself sticking out my hand and asking, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”). Instead I breathed silently through my mouth, staring at the back of Joe’s old gray head.

Within minutes, the gate agent next door announced the boarding of first class passengers and the young woman came over to escort him to the front of the line. Joe may have said thanks, or maybe he just nodded. He moved slowly and disappeared into the crowd.

As soon as he was gone I got up and sat in his seat. In his warmth! It was as close to Joe DiMaggio as I was ever going to get, and I remained in the chair until it was time to go to my gate.

I had sat in Joe DiMaggio’s human warmth! Not a lot of people ever did that, I thought. Marilyn, maybe, and maybe Lou Gehrig if they switched seats in the dugout. But I thought of my experience as highly unusual and slightly intimate. “Maybe you even picked up some of his epithelials,” said a friend when I told her the story today, just before she rolled her eyes.

I’m willing to concede that the experience is a little weird, but I’d like to think I was more respectful of the big guy than if I had interrupted his repose to shake his hand or ask for an autograph or remind him how a nation turned its lonely eyes to him. He never even knew I was there. But I had shared something every personal with him.

I figured out later that Joe DiMaggio was in Washington to participate in an Italian-American observance of the quincentennial of the landing of Columbus in the new world. I don’t know what he did during the event, but he looked as glad as I was to be going home.

The little game of musical chairs I played with Joltin’ Joe was not as significant as the generous gift he gave to my brother and his sons.

But both events were meaningful to my family because they were related, directly and indirectly, to our mother’s brief interaction with him on the green of Doubleday field.

Joe DiMaggio came in contact with millions of fans over his long career, and we were among the multitude.

And in very different but memorable ways, Mom, my brother, my nephews and I, experienced Joe DiMaggio’s special warmth.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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