Monday, May 11, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Dom DiMaggio

I only met him once, but when I heard the news of his death on Friday night, it felt as if a friend had died. That might stand as one measure of the man. Though he was small for a major league ballplayer, especially compared to his more famous brother, Joe, he was large in that indefinable something called “class” in its noblest sense. In Italian he would’ve been called un’ galantuomo—a man of integrity.

Dominic Paul DiMaggio was born February 12, 1917 in San Francisco, the ninth child of a North Beach fisherman. Though at first his father had contempt for baseball as a frivolous sport for boys, the elder DiMaggio fathered not one nor two but three major league centerfielders: Vince, the oldest, who played for the Boston Braves and several other teams; Joe, the “Yankee Clipper,” and perhaps the greatest of all time; and Dom, who played 10 seasons in center field for the Boston Red Sox. Playing in the shadow of that great Yankee icon might have discouraged most younger brothers. It didn’t hinder Dom, but rather drove him to work harder to compensate for his short stature (he was 5’9” and weighed 140 when he started) and his nearsightedness (he was one of the rare major leaguers of his time to wear eyeglasses). One of the ways the “little professor” did it was by playing “smart.” His knowledge of the game, and of all the little details of batting and especially fielding, were legendary. He studied hitters and where they hit and always seemed to be one step ahead of the ball, always knowing where to throw to cut off a run or an extra base. Oddly, the most famous play in this regard was one he couldn’t take part in—the throw to second base in the 7th game of the 1946 World Series by his replacement for the ninth inning, Leon Culberson. The throw, which allowed the St. Louis Cardinal’s Enos Slaughter to score from first and defeat the Red Sox in the series, happened because DiMaggio had injured his hamstring in trying to stretch a hit the inning before, and had to be replaced. Enos Slaughter himself said that if Dom had been playing centerfield, he would never have scored (“Baseball’s Little Professor, Dom DiMaggio, Dies,” by Tom Fitzgerald, SF Chronicle, May 9, 2009). Ted Williams, Dom’s teammate and close friend, rated Dom at the very top: “He was as good a centerfielder as I ever saw,” said Williams, this from a man who not only saw Dom’s brother Joe, but Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays as well. “Dom saved more runs as a centerfielder than anybody else. He should be in the Hall of Fame.” (quoted in “Dom Dimaggio” by Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated, July 2, 2001.)

Sadly, and despite Ted Williams’ constant efforts to promote him, Dom DiMaggio died without being nominated to the Hall. This is reportedly the result of his short career (10 seasons with the Red Sox), and his batting average remaining just below .300 (.298 lifetime). But as the Ted Williams Museum advertises with its Dom DiMaggio display, he scored 1,046 runs in 10 seasons, second only to Williams himself, and had more hits, 1,679 than anyone else. He also holds the American League record of 2.99 chances per game by an outfielder, and the Boston Red Sox record for his 34-game hitting streak—a streak which, ironically, was ended by a diving catch of a sure base hit by his older brother, Joe. Of course, a key reason for the shortness of his career is that he volunteered to serve for three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, a time when he could have been most productive. Also left out is the fact that when he was benched for the first time in his life in 1953, he retired, deciding that rather than hang on as a pinch hitter or fielder, or be traded as his physical stamina and reputation waned (as most stars do), he would rather walk away on his own terms to pursue other options. Thus began the “little professor’s” second career, as a textile manufacturer. Though his Delaware Valley Corporation, in Lawrence, MA has no connection to baseball, DiMaggio’s intelligence and business acumen made it thrive, and made him very comfortable indeed. In his later years, he spent much of his time either watching the Red Sox or investing in the stock market, which became another passion of his.

It was in these later years that I met him. Having idolized his older brother, and having grown up as a Yankee fan hating “our” arch-rivals, the Red Sox, I remembered Dom all too vividly. He played for the Red Sox teams of the 40s and early 50s that boasted a “murderer’s row” of hitters, with Dom as the leadoff batter who always seemed to be on base, to be driven home by probably the greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams. What I never knew about him was his persona, expecting him to be, perhaps, aloof and distant like his brother Joe. Instead, what I encountered was a warm, engaging man who knew who he was and felt no need to advertise it. Our first meeting was by phone: I had been asked to call him to see if I could persuade him to come to Washington in October of 1999 to testify on behalf of the legislation we had introduced—the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act. It was a bill that had grown out of the exhibit I directed, Una Storia Segreta, detailing the little-known story of the internment and evacuation of Italian enemy aliens during World War II. Dom’s father, as a San Francisco fisherman, had been one of the so-called enemy aliens severely restricted during the war, and we had a photo of him on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco just before he was banned from fishing. Dom’s presence would not only add specificity to that story, but would no doubt impress both the press and the members of the Judiciary Committee holding the hearings.

When I called, he was at first wary, saying he was quite busy. But as I reminded him of those wartime days, he warmed up, and began reminiscing a little about the prejudice he grew up with, and which, he admitted, sometimes dogged him even as an adult: he had applied for membership to an exclusive club, the Everglades, near his summer home in Palm Beach, he said, and been rejected. He wasn’t sure what the reason was, but opined it could have been his Italian name. His response, he told me, was to say “the hell with them; I’ve got more to offer them than they have for me.” Telling me that story seemed to loosen something, and with a few more questions and a few more laughs, he agreed to come and testify if I thought it would help.

A man in his 80s by then, Dominic DiMaggio appeared at the hearings smartly dressed, with an easy grin, a surprisingly firm handshake, and a mind as crackling as one of his signature line-drives. Despite his major league fame—and everyone, from the other witnesses, to Congressmen Engel and Lazio testifying for the bill they’d sponsored, to the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde, wanted to talk to him about his career—he was as down-to-earth as, well, as a fisherman’s son. He chatted easily, he signed booklets and baseballs, he talked knowledgably about the stock market, and charmed everyone, including Doris Pinza, the rather reserved wife of the late opera-and-Broadway star Ezio Pinza (an enemy alien who had been arrested on suspicion during the war) who was testifying before the committee as well. And while DiMaggio’s testimony presented no new revelations, it was evident that his very presence added an extra measure of dignity and weight to the proceedings. When it was over, and we had lunched in the Congressional dining room, everyone sensed that something significant had happened. And it had. Within weeks, Henry Hyde had presented the legislation to the House, had it passed by voice vote, and sent it on to the Senate. The bill would take another few months to be reconciled, but on November 7, 2001, it was signed into Public Law #106-451.

Not long after that, I read David Halberstam’s masterful portrait of a quartet of Boston Red Sox friends from a bygone era—Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams—and the deep affection they still retained for each other. Titled The Teammates, the book turns on the trip two of them, DiMaggio and Pesky, took to see the ailing Ted William (a sportswriter named Dick Flavin filled out the trio driving from Boston to Florida, Bobby Doerr being unable to make the trip due to his wife’s illness), and the loving way they tried to buoy the spirits of their dying friend. Along the way, it fills in the biographies of all four players, as well as some of the highlights of their Red Sox careers, including that devastating score by Enos Slaughter to defeat the Red Sox in the 1946 Series. It recounts how they had always stayed in touch, how Doerr had always been the only one who could criticize or calm Williams in any way, and how DiMaggio eased into that role in later years. One of the elements that remains with me, especially now, is the nickname Williams—always known as a tempestuous, critical, near-misanthrope of a player—applied to DiMaggio: he called him “Dommy.” The name seems so unlikely, and yet so sweetly affectionate, especially coming from a man like Williams who knows he is dying, that it almost brings tears to one’s eyes. So does Halberstam’s account of the great slugger’s last days, when he is finally joined by DiMaggio, Pesky and Flavin, and at which visit Dominic sang him an Italian song he called “I Love Her, But I Don’t Know How to Tell Her,” and finished with the classic “Me and My Shadow.” When he was done, Williams was overjoyed, enthusing, “Dommy, Dommy, you did really well.”

Williams lasted through the winter and spring after that, at which point DiMaggio “called him every morning with the latest Red Sox scores and an update of how they were playing. If he called a little late, Ted’s attendants would tell him that Ted had been asking about him and whether he had called in yet.” In July came the final call, when there was mostly silence at the other end, and DiMaggio was told that his friend had fallen asleep. “Well please tell him I called,” Dominic said; the next day Ted Williams died. (Halberstam, pp 197-98).

I have not been able to determine if Dominic DiMaggio had his own crew of friends tending to him when he died. It would not have included his brother Joe, who died in 1999, and for whom Dom gave the eulogy at St. Peter and Paul’s church in San Francisco’s North Beach. But it surely would have included his wife of 61 years, Emily, and their three children, Paul, Emily and Peter. It would also have included the prayers and good will of anyone who knew him, who felt his loyalty and affection and heart, and who will miss him. For though he never married America’s movie icon, or appeared in an iconic song (the title of this piece is a play on a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”), perhaps he should have, for he was not just a great baseball player; he was a true galantuomo.

Lawrence DiStasi

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