Joe D and the Summer of '49
Editor's Note: Excerpted with permission from "Summer of '49" by David Halberstam. Copyright © 1989 by David Halberstam. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books.
Joe DiMaggio was the most famous athlete in America. In fact, he seemed to stand above all other celebrities. Soon after he retired as a player, he returned with a group of friends to the Stadium to watch a prize fight. He was with Edward Bennett Williams, the famed trial lawyer, Toots Shor, the saloon-keeper, Averell Harriman, the politician-diplomat, and Ernest and Mary Hemingway. Suddenly an immense mob gathered. Hundreds of kids, a giant crowd within a crowd, descended on DiMaggio demanding autographs. One kid took a look at Hemingway, whose distinctive face had graced countless magazine covers. "Hey," the kid said, "you're somebody too, right?" Hemingway said without pause, "Yeah, I'm his doctor." For even Hemingway, then at the height of his fame, could not compete with DiMaggio. Endless magazines sought DiMaggio's cooperation to place his picture on their covers. Already two hit songs celebrated his deeds and fame: a light ditty about "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," commemorating his 1941 hitting streak ("Who started baseball's famous streak/That's got us all aglow?/He's just a man and not a freak/Joltin' Joe DiMaggio ... "); and "Bloody Mary" from the 1949 hit musical South Pacific ("Her skin is tender as DiMaggio's glove ... "). Still to come was a generous mention in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea: Manolin fears the Indians of Cleveland, but Santiago, the older man, reassures him: "Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio."
His deeds remain like a beacon to those who saw him play. More than thirty years after DiMaggio retired, Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, one of the most distinguished anthropologists in the United States, was still fascinated by him. He had first seen him play in 1949, when Gould was seven. Opening Day, he wrote in an essay for the New York Times, is not merely a day of annual renewal, "it evokes the bittersweet passage of our own lives -- as I take my son to the game and remember when I held my father's hand and wondered whether DiMag would hit .350 that year."
ESPN Book Club selections
• May: "Ruffian" by William Nack
• April: "Opening Day: The story of Jackie Robinson's First Season" by Jonathan Eig
• March: "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics" by Jeremy Schaap
• February: "Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich" by Mark Kriegel
• November: "Moving the Chains" by Charles P. Pierce
• October: "The Blind Side" by Michael Lewis
• September: "The Echoing Green" by Joshua Prager
Gould discovered that another Harvard professor, Edward Mills Purcell, a Nobel physicist, was also fascinated by DiMaggio. Purcell had run most of the great baseball records through his computer looking for any statistical truths they might produce. The computer responded that all but one were within the range of mathematical probability: that someone (Babe Ruth) would hit 714 home runs, that someone (Roger Maris) would one day come along and hit 61 home runs in one season, and that even in modern times a player (Ted Williams) might on occasion bat .406. But the one record that defied all of Purcell's and his computer's expectations was DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941. A .400 hitter, after all, could have a bad day and compensate the day after. But to hit in 56 straight games challenged probability, Purcell noted, because of the difficulty of hitting a small round ball traveling at a great speed with a wooden cylinder -- "and where if you are off one eighth of an inch a hit becomes a pop-up."
Purcell's description of the difficulty of batting was strikingly similar to one that DiMaggio himself gave after a game in St. Louis. "You know," he told Red Patterson, the traveling secretary, as they rode to the train station, "they always talk about this being a game of fractions of an inch. Today proved it. I should have had three home runs today. I knew I was going to get fastballs and I got them and I was ready each time. But I didn't get up on the ball -- I hit it down by that much [he held his thumb and index finger about an eighth of an inch apart and then touched them just above the center of the ball]. If I got under them that much [he lowered his fingers just slightly below the middle of the ball], I get three home runs."
DiMaggio had size, power, and speed. McCarthy, his longtime manager, liked to say that DiMaggio might have stolen 60 bases a season if he had given him the green light. Stengel, his new manager, was equally impressed, and when DiMaggio was on base he would point to him as an example of the perfect base runner. "Look at him," Stengel would say as DiMaggio ran out a base hit, "he's always watching the ball. He isn't watching second base. He isn't watching third base. He knows they haven't been moved. He isn't watching the ground, because he knows they haven't built a canal or a swimming pool since he was last there. He's watching the ball and the outfielder, which is the one thing that is different on every play."
Center field was his territory -- right center and left center too -- for most of his career. The other outfielders moved into his domain with caution. As the tail end of the 1948 season Hank Bauer was brought up from the minors and he chased, called for, and caught a ball in deep-right center field. Between innings in the dugout, Bauer noticed DiMaggio eyeing him curiously. "Joe, did I do something wrong?" the nervous rookie asked. "No, you didn't do anything wrong, but you're the first son of a bitch who ever invaded my territory," DiMaggio said. It was not a rebuke, but Bauer deeded over more of right center in the future.
DiMaggio complemented his natural athletic ability with astonishing physical grace. He played the outfield, he ran the bases, and he batted not just effectively but with rare style. He would glide rather than run, it seemed, always smooth, always ending up where he wanted to be just when he wanted to be there. If he appeared to play effortlessly, his teammates knew otherwise. In his first season as a Yankee, Gene Woodling, who played left field, was struck by the sound of DiMaggio chasing a fly ball. He sounded like a giant truck horse on the loose, Woodling thought, his feet thudding down hard on the grass. The great, clear noises in the open space enabled Woodling to measure the distance between them without looking.
ESPN Borders Best-Sellers
1. TALES FROM Q SCHOOL: John Feinstein (Little, Brown and Company)
2. GET IN THE GAME: Cal Ripken Jr. with Donald T. Phillips (Gotham)
3. BIG PAPI: David Ortiz with Tony Massarotti (St. Martin's Press)
4. OPENING DAY: Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster)
5. PISTOL: Mark Kriegel (Free Press)
6. THE HARDCORE DIARIES: Mick Foley (World Wrestling Entertainment, Pocket Books)
7. THE LAST SEASON: Eric Blehm (Harper Perennial)
8. CLEMENTE: David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster)
9. I TOLD YOU I WASN'T PERFECT: Denny McLain with Eli Zaret (Triumph Books)
10. A FIGHTER'S HEART: Sam Sheridan (Atlantic Monthly Press)
He was the perfect Hemingway hero, for Hemingway in his novels romanticized the man who exhibited grace under pressure, who withheld any emotion lest it soil the purer statement of his deeds. DiMaggio was that kind of hero; his grace and skill were always on display, his emotions always concealed. This stoic grace was not achieved without a terrible price: DiMaggio was a man wound tight. He suffered from insomnia and ulcers. When he sat and watched the game he chain-smoked and drank endless cups of coffee. He was ever conscious of his obligation to play well. Late in his career, when his legs were bothering him and the Yankees had a comfortable lead in a pennant race, a friend of his, columnist Jimmy Cannon, asked him why he played so hard -- the games, after all, no longer meant so much. "Because there might be somebody out there who's never seen me play before," he answered.
To DiMaggio, how people perceived him was terribly important. In 1948 during a Boston-New York game, Tex Hughson, who liked to pitch him tight, drilled him with a fastball in the chest. It was obvious to everyone in both dugouts that the pitch really hurt. Even as he was hit, Joe McCarthy, by then the Boston manager, turned to his own players and said, "Watch him, he won't show any pain." Nor did he.
During the 1947 World Series, in a rare outburst of emotion, he kicked the ground near second base after a Brooklyn player named Al Gionfriddo made a spectacular catch, robbing him of a three-run home run. The next day while he was dressing, a photographer who had taken a picture of him kicking the ground asked him to sign a blowup of it. At first DiMaggio demurred and suggested that the photographer get Gionfriddo's signature. "He's the guy who made the play," DiMaggio said. But the photographer persisted, and so reluctantly DiMaggio signed it. Then he turned to a small group of reporters sitting by him. "Don't write this in the paper," he said, "but the truth is, if he had been playing me right, he would have made it look easy."
Ted Williams, himself caught in endless comparisons with DiMaggio, once said that the difference between the two of them was that DiMaggio did everything so elegantly. "DiMaggio even looks good striking out," Williams said. Theirs was a rivalry that existed in the minds of their fans, in the minds of their teammates, and, though never admitted by either of them, in their own minds. Williams was, perhaps, the more generous of the two. Clif Keane, the Boston sportswriter, once went to New York in the late forties to cover a fight. He was staying at the Edison Hotel, which was DiMaggio's residence. Traveling with him was a friend who was a great fan of DiMaggio. Keane called DiMaggio and asked if they could come up. DiMaggio said yes. "Joe," asked Keane's friend almost as soon as they were inside the room, "What do you think of Ted Williams?" "Greatest left-handed hitter I've ever seen," DiMaggio answered. "I know that," said the man, "but what do you think of him as a ballplayer?" "Greatest left-handed hitter I've ever seen," repeated DiMaggio.
Unsure of his social skills and uncomfortable in any conversation that strayed far from baseball, DiMaggio was wary of moving into a situation in which he might feel or reveal his limitations. He did not push against certain New York doors that would have readily opened for him in those years. Some of his close friends thought the reason for his behavior was his sensitivity about being an Italian immigrant's son in an age when ethnic prejudice was far more powerful than it is today. In 1939, Life magazine did a piece on him that its editors thought sympathetic but which said, among other things, "Italians, bad at war, are well suited for milder competition, and the number of top-notch Italian prizefighters, golfers and baseball players is out of all proportion to the population." Life found the young DiMaggio to be better groomed than expected for someone who was not a Wasp: "Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti ... " In fact, he was meticulous about his appearance, and unlike most of his teammates, who dressed casually in sports clothes, he almost always came to the ballpark in a custom-tailored dark-blue suit, with a white shirt and tie. His overcoats were tailored as well, and he even took his army uniforms to be tailored during World War II.
He was spared the normal, crude byplay of the locker room. The other players were aware that he did not like it, and they did not dare risk displeasing him. (About the only person who could tease DiMaggio was Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse man, who seemed to be as much a part of the Yankee scene as the Stadium itself. Once when DiMaggio had been examining a red mark on his butt, he yelled over to Sheehy, "Hey, Pete, take a look at this. Is there a bruise there?" "Sure there is, Joe, it's from all those people kissing your ass," Sheehy answered.)
DiMaggio's sensitivity to being embarrassed never diminished. He carried for no short length of time a grudge against Casey Stengel because Stengel, during the 1950 season, dropped him in the batting order from the cleanup position to the number-five slot, and told him to play first base, a position where he was not comfortable. His teammate Tommy Henrich noticed that when DiMaggio came into the dugout from first base near the end of the game, his uniform was soaked with sweat. Henrich knew immediately that it was not the physical exhaustion that had caused the sweat -- it was caused by tension from the fear of embarrassing himself.
After a game he would always linger in the locker room for two or three hours, in order to avoid the crowd of fans who waited outside the players' entrance. He simply needed to sit in front of his locker, catch his breath, drink a beer, and relax. Once he was sure there were no outsiders around, he would conduct an informal seminar on the game just played. In those moments he was absolutely relaxed and unthreatened. He might turn to Shea. "Spec," he would say to the young pitcher, "you have to stay with the game plan when you go after the hitters. If you say you're going outside, stay outside, don't cross us up. Otherwise we're going to end up with a big gap out there. The other thing you were doing today is you were goosing the ball. Not really throwing it. Pushing it. Just throw it next time." "Phil," he might tell Rizzuto, "you didn't get over quite quickly enough on that grounder in the third inning. I know you made the play, but that isn't what worries me. What worries me is you getting hurt. If you get hurt, this team is in trouble. We can't afford it."
When he was sure that most of the crowd at the players' entrance was gone, he would get ready to leave. The call would come down to the gate people: "Joe's ready to go." A taxi would be called and a group of attendants would form a flying wedge so that he could get out with as little harassment as possible.
Although DiMaggio was largely suspicious of newspapermen and reserved with most of them, his relationships with them were actually rather good. The last line of the last column of the greatest sportswriter of two eras, Red Smith, concluded: "I told myself not to worry: Someday there would be another DiMaggio." The writers were, of course, wired to DiMaggio. They treated him as the White House press corps might treat a wildly popular president. They understood the phenomenon, what caused it and what made it work, and they were delighted to be a part of it, mostly because their readers wanted to know all about DiMaggio. Besides, the writers respected DiMaggio; for many of them he was the best all-around player they had ever seen. He frequently carried the team and he always did it modestly.
If DiMaggio wanted them at a distance, they readily accepted that. For one thing, even if he might not have been the perfect interviewee (when he first came up, he was so unsophisticated, he liked to recall, that when the sportswriters asked him for a quote, he thought they were talking about a soft drink), he was a gent. As he took his own dignity seriously, he generally accorded the writers theirs. On questions about baseball, he was generally candid. He was also aware of the uses of good publicity, and he was, if anything, closer to some of the writers, particularly the columnists, than he was to his teammates. He understood that if he gave too little of himself, the press would rebel. He never upbraided a reporter who transgressed, as Williams did, but he was, in his own way, just as tough. If a reporter displeased him, even slightly, DiMaggio would ruthlessly cut him off.
W. C. Heinz, one of the best writers of that era, thought that his colleagues were different with DiMaggio from the way they were with other athletes. As they entered the Yankee locker room, they were cocky, brash, and filled with self-importance. Then, as they approached DiMaggio's locker, they began to change from men to boys. They became reverential, almost apologetic for even asking questions. You could, Heinz thought, hear the rustle of the paper in their notebooks as they steeled their courage to ask him how he felt.
DiMaggio had good reason for being suspicious of the press. In his first two seasons as a Yankee, he had been nothing less than brilliant, leading New York back to the pennant after a hiatus of three years. In his second season he hit .346 and 46 home runs, and knocked in 167 runs. He had been paid only $8,000 for his first year, and for his second, $15,000 plus, of course, his World Series checks, which Yankee management viewed as part of his salary. For his third year he decided to ask for $40,000. The Yankees offered him $25,000. Ed Barrow, the general manager, told him that $40,000 was more than the great Lou Gehrig made. "Then Mr. Gehrig is a badly underpaid player," DiMaggio answered. The Yankee management turned its full firepower on him. This was the Depression, and, typically, the ownership did not view the question in relation to how much money the Yankees had made, or to how many millions Colonel Ruppert was worth, but rather to DiMaggio's salary as measured against the wages of the average American.
The assault was surprisingly harsh. He was privileged and spoiled. "DiMaggio is an ungrateful young man and is very unfair to his teammates to say the least," Colonel Ruppert said. "As far as I'm concerned that's all he's worth to the ball club, and if he doesn't sign we'll win the pennant without him." Then Ruppert added: "Is it fair for him to remain home while the other boys are training down South? No! Absolutely no!" DiMaggio himself remained adamant, which made Ruppert angrier. As the holdout progressed he added, "I have nothing new on DiMaggio. I've forgotten all about him. Presidents go into eclipse, kings have their thrones moved from under them, business leaders go into retirement, great ballplayers pass on, but still everything moves in its accustomed stride." Why, said the Colonel, if you included World Series checks, DiMaggio had averaged $20,000 a year since he came up.
Soon Joe McCarthy joined in: The Yankees, he said, could win without DiMaggio. No one came to DiMaggio's defense, not even the writers. The beat reporters, who had coveted his goodwill in the past, proved to be toadies to management. They helped turn the fans against him -- he was often booed that year -- and he learned the limits of his bargaining power the hard way. Finally, on April 20, with no leverage of his own, DiMaggio surrendered. He would come back at the salary he had been offered. The Yankees even tightened the screw: DiMaggio would have to get back into condition at his own expense and the Yankees would deduct $167 a day, his per diem salary, from his pay until he did. "I hope the young man has learned his lesson," Colonel Ruppert said.
Gradually the scar from the press's treatment of him during that holdout healed. Something of a pecking order developed in the way he treated writers: The beat reporters respected him, but except for Lou Effrat were not his pals; the grander figures of the time -- such columnists and magazine writers as Jimmy Cannon, Tom Meany, and Milton Gross -- might pal around with him. There was no danger that DiMaggio would cut off Jimmy Cannon. Cannon was at the height of his fame. He was forty years old and a columnist for the New York Post. In the late 1940s he was probably the most influential sports columnist in New York. He and DiMaggio were pals. Unlike the genteel Red Smith, who wrote for the Herald Tribune, an upper-middle-class paper favored by Wall Street executives, Cannon was passionate. It was easy reading him, to know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The Post was blue-collar liberal, and its readers were baseball-obsessed. Cannon was the New York street kid as columnist -- salty, blunt, with a style not unaffected by Hemingway. He loved being a sportswriter, he once told Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune, because "[he] spent most of [his] life at glad events as a sportswriter, amid friendly multitudes gathered for the purpose of pleasure." Sportswriting, he also told Holtzman, could be either the best writing or the worst writing in the paper. How do you know when it's bad? Holtzman asked him. "You feel the clink," he answered.
The son of a minor Tammany politician, Cannon grew up in a cold-water flat alongside the docks on the west side of Greenwich Village. He went to high school for one year, never attended college at all, but was a voracious reader, so much so that his family warned him he would damage his eyes. A wonderful sense of the city, the sharpness and edginess of its life, ran through his writing. He loved Damon Runyon, always dapper, with his wonderful collection of suits, and his three carnations -- one red, one white, one blue -- which were delivered every day. He emulated him, eventually becoming Runyon's hand-picked successor as a chronicler of the raffish side of the city. Indeed, he loved to quote Runyon about a mutual friend: "He's out hustling, doing the best he can. It's a very overcrowded profession now." Runyon had once been a heavy drinker, and he had taught Cannon, the latter said, to drink a bottle of brandy a day. Eventually Runyon stopped drinking and warned his protégé that if he did not stop "you're going to end up a rumpot." For a long time Cannon did not heed that advice. As far as he was concerned he did not have a drinking problem because he did not drink in the morning. That was the dividing line.
By the late forties, though, Cannon did stop, and in his own words, "When I quit I took the title with me." Home, for much of his life, was two rooms in the Edison Hotel. Restless at night, his work done, he often made the rounds with Leonard Lyons, the Post's gossip columnist. Lyons had a proscribed route: Shor's to "21" to Palm Court, and Cannon knew where he would be at all times. It was better than going to bed. Cannon and DiMaggio shared a special palship because they had a lot in common. Both of them were lonely, without family. They were both insomniacs, and they both liked to make the New York scene, Cannon with his regular date, the actress Joan Blondell, DiMaggio with some show girl. Cannon loved the moment they entered a nightclub, when everyone there gawked to get a look at this baseball god.
He wrote often and well about DiMaggio, and in the process he helped create not just the legend of DiMaggio as the great athlete but, even more significant, DiMaggio as the Hemingway hero, as elegant off the field as on it. Cannon was in awe of his friend, and he lovingly passed that on to his readers. The view he provided of DiMaggio was an uncommon blend of genuine intimacy and pseudo intimacy. Only the better qualities were worthy of mention, of course -- those allowed near the star knew what to write and what not to write. Lou Effrat once was invited to spend a week with DiMaggio in Florida during the winter. It was a pleasant interlude, but near the end of his stay Effrat asked DiMaggio a question about his contract for the next year. "What are you doing, turning writer on me?" DiMaggio asked him. That ended the subject of contracts.
DiMaggio was not a man who boasted, but once, late in his career, he talked with a group of younger reporters and mentioned, almost shyly, that when he first came to the Yankees in 1936 the local newspapers were constantly criticizing McCarthy for finishing second. "Then we won three times in a row, and four times out of five," he said. He paused for a moment before adding, "I had something to do with that." It was a rare moment, thought Leonard Koppett, then a young sportswriter. DiMaggio had almost dared to be candid about his own abilities, wary as he always was of appearing to boast.
DiMaggio was aware that he was often a virtual prisoner of his own shyness. Some of his friends thought this was due to his fear of embarrassing himself. But it was also an innate reserve.
Once, early in his career, he was sitting with a few writers at Toots Shor's when his friend Lefty Gomez, the most gregarious Yankee of that era, dropped by. Gomez did not join the table but stood and told a few stories, all of which delighted his listeners. DiMaggio watched him leave and then said, "What I'd give to be like that."
On another occasion at Shor's, he told Lou Effrat to stick around. "I've got a date," he said, "and I need company." DiMaggio's date turned out to be a young actress. After Shor's they went to "21" and then on to a few other places. Around three a.m. Effrat finally got away. The next day he asked DiMaggio why he had insisted that he stay around. "Ah, Lou, you know me," DiMaggio answered, "until midnight with girls I'm speechless."
The stories of DiMaggio's reserve were legendary. When he first joined the Yankees, he drove from California to Florida with Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti, two veterans, neither famous for being talkative. They passed the first two days of the trip without talking at all, and then Lazzeri asked DiMaggio if he wanted to drive. Only then did DiMaggio say he did not know how to drive. It was simply not a subject that had come up before.
The three of them hung out together a fair amount that year, and Jack Mahon, a reporter for the old INS, ran into them while they were sitting in the lobby of the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. The three, according to Mahon, were watching the other guests come and go. "I bought a paper and sat down near them and after a while became aware of the fact that none of them had a word to say to the others. Just for fun I timed them to see how long they would maintain their silence. Believe it or not, they didn't speak for an hour and twenty minutes. At the end of the time DiMaggio cleared his throat. Crosetti looked at him and said: 'What did you say?' And Lazzeri said, 'Shut up. He didn't say nothing.' They lapsed into silence and at the end of ten more minutes I got up and left. I couldn't stand it anymore."
His teammates did not resent DiMaggio's need to be private. Watching him play day after day, often under immensely difficult circumstances, they became the true advocates of his greatness. Some forty years later, Henrich, a proud, unsentimental man, would point out that when fans asked him to compare the Mantle and DiMaggio outfields, he always said that DiMaggio's was better "because we had the better center fielder." Then Henrich would point out an astonishing and revealing statistic about DiMaggio: By and large, such power hitters as DiMaggio have a high strikeout ratio. It is in the nature of the big swing. Reggie Jackson, for example, has almost four and a half strikeouts for each home run. Even Hank Aaron, a marvelous line-drive hitter whose power came from his wrists, struck out twice for every home run. Ted Williams, whose eyesight was as legendary as his concentration, struck out 709 times against 521 home runs. But Joe DiMaggio, Henrich pointed out, hit 361 home runs and struck out 369 times.
His teammates understood that he put extra pressure on himself to live up to the expectations of the media and the fans. They knew that he pushed himself to his limits both physically and emotionally to carry the team. That being the case, they appreciated that he was different, that he worked things out for himself. Once when he was going through a prolonged slump, Bill Dickey, by then the hitting coach, explained to Mel Allen, the broadcaster, what he thought DiMaggio was doing wrong. "How does Joe react to what you've just said?" Allen asked. "Oh, I haven't spoken to Joe yet," Dickey answered. "Why not?" Allen pursued. "A player like Joe, when he's in a slump, you don't go to him. You wait until he comes to you. First he tries to work it out himself. Then if he doesn't he'll let you know he's ready," Dickey answered.
DiMaggio rarely dined with the other players on the road, even Keller and Henrich, with whose names his was inextricably linked in a thousand box scores. He led the league, his teammate Eddie Lopat once shrewdly noted, in room-service. He sought out dark restaurants, where he would sit in the back, in a corner, so that he would not be recognized. If DiMaggio palled around with anyone on the team, it was usually the newer or more vulnerable players who hero-worshiped him and ran favors for him: there was Joe Page, the relief pitcher, whose behavior was erratic enough so that his place on the team was rarely secure; then, for a time, there was Clarence Marshall, the handsome young pitcher; and finally, at the end of his career, DiMaggio palled around with Billy Martin. Martin began his friendship with DiMaggio by violating the most sacred rule of Yankee etiquette: He asked DiMaggio out for dinner. "Hey Joe, let's go to dinner tonight" a statement so startling, a presumption so great, that his teammates long remembered it. DiMaggio was so amused by him that he assented, and the two became friends.
Some DiMaggio hangers-on were known as his Boboes, the phrase then popular for caddies. One who was proud to be known as a DiMaggio Bobo was Lou Effrat, the Times's baseball writer. On occasion, Effrat would come in late to Toots Shor's, the main wateringhole of baseball men and sportswriters, to be told by Shor himself that his presence was requested. "The Daig [for "Dago," DiMaggio's nickname] wants you," Shor would say to Effrat. "What does he want?" Effrat would ask. "He wants to go to a midnight movie." Effrat knew the drill. He would finish his meal, give his wife ten dollars to get home, and join DiMaggio for a late movie. Mrs. Effrat was not invited. Women, particularly wives, never were.
DiMaggio himself squired a series of beautiful showgirls, but he was very discreet about it. He never participated in the endless locker-room discussions about women. He made it very clear to his friends in the press that he wanted nothing written about this part of his life, and so nothing was written.
There was a contradiction to DiMaggio's shyness: He wanted to touch the bright lights of the city, but not be burned by them. When he made the scene, he was often seen with the most unlikely of his buddies -- a man named George Solotaire. Solotaire, for a time, was his roommate and closest friend as well as his gofer. He ran his errands, took care of his clothes, and made sure that if DiMaggio did not want to go out to eat, sandwiches were brought in. Solotaire specialized in knowing where the action and the pretty girls were. He was also one of the city's top Broadway ticket brokers; he liked to boast that he had once supplied J. P. Morgan with a choice ticket for the same show for seven Saturdays in a row because he assumed that Morgan liked one of the showgirls. Solotaire was forty-six years old, short, and stocky, and he spoke in his own Broadway shorthand: If he was out of money, he was in Brokesville; a boring show was Dullsville; a divorce was Splitsville; if he had to leave New York, he would tell friends he had to go camping for a few days; when he returned he would say that it was good to be back in the United States. He at one time wanted to be a songwriter, and wrote two-line jingles for the Hollywood Reporter that were, in effect, reviews of shows. Of a show with Ethel Merman he wrote: "The show is in infirm/but it's still got the Merm." Of Fiddler on the Roof he wrote: "Have no fear about Fiddler/This is a triple-A honest diddler." Writing these couplets, he said, was better than sitting around all day with Freddy or Gladys (tickets for rows F and G).
Solotaire was absolutely awed by his friendship with DiMaggio, and they became the odd couple. Those who thought they knew Solotaire well were often surprised to find out that there was a Mrs. Solotaire, who apparently considered herself happily married and was the mother of their son. Instead, friends remembered Solotaire with DiMaggio, sitting at dinner in the Stage Delicatessen, an unlikely father-son act, the meal passing but no words spoken. Once Solotaire called up a young woman named Ruth Cosgrove and suggested that she be part of a foursome for dinner with the Yankee star. When she arrived at dinner she was pleasantly surprised to find that Solotaire, whose manners were not exactly exquisite, was pulling back a chair for her to sit down. Then she realized that Solotaire was not holding the chair for her, he was holding it for DiMaggio.
Dining with Joe DiMaggio, Ms. Cosgrove felt, gave her a remarkable insight into the male animal. The entire restaurant came to a halt for two hours. The chair of every man was angled so that its occupant could keep an eye on her date. Each one, she noted, seemed to come up with an excuse for passing their table at least once. As for DiMaggio himself, she thought him kind and almost unbearably shy. He asked her out again, and she, who knew nothing about baseball, cemented their friendship by asking early in the evening, "Joe, what's an error?" With that he was finally able to talk.
The possible loss of DiMaggio for the season put a considerable chill on the Yankees as they headed north. They were hardly a one-man team, but it was comforting to know that in big games Joe DiMaggio would hit in the cleanup slot and play center field. Tommy Henrich thought his very presence gave the Yankees a considerable edge.
Years later Charlie Keller could still see DiMaggio batting against the best pitcher in the league, Bob Feller. DiMaggio seemed to summon extra adrenaline for such moments: the best against the best. You could actually see the veins and muscles in DiMaggio's neck stand out, Keller remembered. They were like taut red cords. His whole body was tensed. Bobby Brown recalled that on certain occasions when the Yankees really needed a run, DiMaggio would hit a ball that was not quite going to make the gap between the outfielders. Not much of a chance for a double on that one, Brown would think. Then he would watch DiMaggio go into overdrive, legs extended, going for two bases from the very start. He always made it. There might have been players in the league who were faster going to first base, but there was no player in those days who went from home to second or from first to third or from second to home faster, and no one could better calibrate the odds than DiMaggio. Years later, Frank Crosetti, who coached at third for much of DiMaggio's career, said that DiMaggio had never been thrown out going from first to third.
The team had been built around DiMaggio. The question now was how much it depended upon him. During the early part of spring training, before the seriousness of DiMaggio's ailment had been diagnosed, the Yankees and the Red Sox were considered virtually an even pick, with the Red Sox the slight favorite. By Opening Day a poll of 112 major baseball writers showed that 70 favored the Red Sox, 37 the Indians, 4 the Athletics, and 1 the Yankees. Grantland Rice wrote a column saying that, based on McCarthy's assurance that Hughson, Ferriss, and Harris were pitching well, he was picking the Red Sox. Harold Kaese, the Boston Globe baseball writer, after watching all of spring training, where the Red Sox looked more powerful than ever, predicted that the Red Sox would win an astonishing 124 games while losing only 30. That, he wrote, would tie them for first with the Indians. He saw the Yankees winning only 86 and losing 68, which put them 38 games out of first place.
For the first time in the DiMaggio years, the Yankees were afflicted with self-doubt, except for Stengel. After years of managing second-rate teams stocked with mediocre players, he could hardly believe the talent around him, even without DiMaggio. The backup outfielders -- John Lindell, Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling (Woodling had led the Pacific Coast League in hitting with .385 the previous year), and Cliff Mapes -- were good enough to play for most pennant contenders. The pitching staff was the best he had ever managed. "When I think of those other teams [I managed] I wonder whether I was managing a baseball team or a golf course -- you know, one pro to a club," he told one friend.
The team arrived in New York for a three-game exhibition series with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Usually exhibition games did not mean much. But the Dodgers were not only intracity rivals, they were now of championship calibre -- the Yankees had faced them in the 1947 Series. The Dodgers won all three exhibition games. The Yankees played badly, and the pitching, except in the first game, was ineffective. In the last game, with Allie Reynolds pitching, Jackie Robinson was on third base twice, and he taunted Reynolds with huge leads as if to say he could steal home anytime he wanted. It was Robinson's audacity that Henrich later remembered: He had seemed to toy with a team that, even though it had not won the year before, still thought itself the champions. Stengel was furious when the series was over: "All of you guys, when you get into the locker room I want you to check your lockers. He stole everything out there he wanted today so he might have stolen your jocks as well."
The next day the season was to start against Washington, and Charlie Keller called a team meeting. Keller was one of the quietest Yankees, but an intimidating man physically (given to picking up Phil Rizzuto with one massive arm and stuffing him in an empty locker when Rizzuto dared to call him "King Kong"). He was also a surprisingly gentle man, a farm boy who had gone to the University of Maryland.
After Keller's senior baseball season at Maryland, the scouts had moved in quickly on him. There were other offers, but to Keller there was something special about the Yankees; the mystique because of Ruth and Gehrig was already there. The Yankees gave him a bonus of $2,500, plus $500 so that he could go back to Maryland after the season and get his degree. He was ticketed to play at a lower-level Yankee team in Norfolk, but he hit so well in spring training that the Yankees assigned him to their AAA team in Newark.
At Newark Keller was an immediate star and helped lead the Newark Bears to two pennants in 1937 and 1938. On the occasion of the Bears' winning the International League pennant in 1937, Colonel Ruppert invited the entire Newark team to New York City for a party. Keller turned to Hy Goldberg, a local sportswriter, and said, "You know, Hy, it'll be the first time I'll have been to New York." Goldberg was stunned. "Charlie," he answered, "it's the greatest city in the world and it's only twenty minutes away and you're here a whole season -- how can you not have visited it?"
"Oh, you know," Keller replied, "I'm a farm boy -- I don't have any need for a city like that." Alien the city was, and alien it remained. There were too many people and there was not enough space. He thought it was particularly hard on his children. "Daddy," one of them said, "there isn't enough grass here, and when there is grass, the people won't let you play on it." That summed up the city as far as he was concerned.
His teammates admired Keller's strength of character. In the absence of DiMaggio, he was a senior player, and he had called his teammates together to exhort them: "If we play like we've played the last three games, sloppy and dumb, we're going to be the laughingstock of this league. We're going to be a joke to other teams because we're one team with Joe and another without him." Such words coming from Keller were sobering. Everyone listened. He is telling us, Henrich thought, that we are in danger of being perceived as a one-man team. There was shame in that.