Joe DiMaggio died in early March 1999 at the age of 84 in Hollywood, Fla., not far from what had once been the Yankees’ Spring Training home in Fort Lauderdale. He had first shown up at Yankee Stadium in the spring of 1936 as a kid from San Francisco, and hit in 56 straight games five years after that. He had come along after Babe Ruth, but in time to play a few seasons with Lou Gehrig, and then last long enough to play in the outfield at the Stadium with Mickey Mantle.
As sick as he was in the spring of 1999 from lung cancer, it was reported that there was a sign near his sickbed that read, “April 9, Yankee Stadium or Bust,” because he still held out hope, in his last baseball spring, that he would make it back to the Stadium and throw out one more ceremonial first pitch, and hear one more cheer there.
Ron Swoboda, the former Met, once put it this way to me about DiMaggio:
“Joe DiMaggio is what you get when you build mystique on top of greatness.”
DiMaggio was there for one more Opening Day in 1998, the start of what became as great a Yankees season, all the way through the World Series, as any Yankees team had ever produced, including DiMaggio’s own Yanks. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with him that day, even when he walked down the hall from the Yankees' clubhouse and took a few warmup tosses, a perfectionist until the end.
“You never want to look bad,” DiMaggio said, before finally walking underneath his own quote -- “I Want To Thank the Good Lord for Making Me a Yankee” -- and making his way to the Yankees' dugout and then to the field, where he did hear one more cheer, one that seemed to roll down from all the years since 1936.
I was lucky enough to get to know him in the last years of his life. A few years before, I had gone down to Fort Lauderdale Stadium for a charity baseball game -- one involving retired players to benefit the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital -- and sat with him for several hours. One of his best friends was Bill Gallo, the great New York Daily News cartoonist. There would be times when I’d walk down to Bill’s office and sitting there would be DiMaggio.
The first time Bill introduced me I called him “Mr. DiMaggio.”
DiMaggio smiled. “Call me, Joe.”
“Can’t,” I said, “In our house, you were always Mr. DiMaggio.”
There was a time in San Francisco when my sister, Susan, lived not far from DiMaggio’s house, and she saw him out walking one day, and introduced herself, and after that, the two of them would sometimes go on long walks together. She said he would only talk about himself, tell old baseball stories, if she asked him. In so many ways, impossible as it is to believe in the modern world of social media, where hardly anybody seems to have an unspoken thought, DiMaggio still may be the most private sports superstar we’ve ever had. Which only made the mystique grow, even after he married Marilyn Monroe, briefly, in retirement.
But my favorite memory of Opening Day 1998, his last at the Stadium, was after he’d thrown his first pitch, and was making his way upstairs to the Yankees' offices and owner George Steinbrenner’s suite. I was waiting for him after he came off the field and he said, “Walk with me.” Of course, I did.
And when we got into the elevator, he was surrounded by young women from the United States Olympic hockey team, which had just won a gold medal at the Winter Games at Nagano. When we got out on the office level, one of the players, Katie King, stepped forward and introduced herself, and told DiMaggio that before every game they’d played in Nagano, their coach would gather them in front of him and tell them to have a “Joe DiMaggio Day.”
The old man smiled. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Coach said that one time, late in the season, after the Yankees had already clinched the pennant, somebody wanted to know why you played so hard that day in a game that didn’t really mean anything,” King said. “And you said it was because there might be people in the ballpark who had never seen you before, and you owed them your best.”
Still smiling the old man said, “It was against the St. Louis Browns.”
He would be back in the Stadium in September of that year, when his old teammate Phil Rizzuto presented him with replicas of World Series rings -- DiMaggio played in 10 World Series for the Yankees and won nine, only losing in 1942 -- that had been stolen from his room at the Hotel Lexington in '60. The only one that remained at the time was DiMaggio’s first World Series ring, from '36, the only one he ever wore.
Maybe it was fitting that there was no working microphone that day. After Rizzuto presented the rings, DiMaggio walked off, into final cheer from Stadium, without having to say anything, on what the mayor had officially proclaimed “Joe DiMaggio Day” in New York City.
One more of those, in that city, in that place, for Mr. DiMaggio.