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  • Bill Chastain

TOYS AND GAMES: DiMaggio Haunted by Fame

Recently a friend brought up the fact that Nellie Fox struck out just 216 times in 10,351 career plate appearances. An amazing accomplishment for the Hall of Fame second baseman and one that prompted me to mention a statistic the back of Joe DiMaggio’s baseball card.

In 7,673 career plate appearances accrued over 13 major league seasons, Joltin’ Joe struck out just 369 times while hitting 361 home runs.

I know his 56-game hitting streak is a record one that won’t likely be broken anytime soon, but to think, a slugger like him with just eight more strikeouts than home runs in a 13-year career. Wow.

Of course, when asked about DiMaggio, most modern players will marvel: “The man was married to Marilyn Monroe.”

Marilyn_Monroe_Joe_DiMaggio_January_1954 DiMaggio with Marilyn Monroe

Back in the day DiMaggio would come to Tampa for the Italian Open, played annually at Temple Terrace. One year I happened to be a guest of Al Lopez and Tony Cuccinello Jr., which afforded me an opportunity to meet the legend.

Sipping coffee with the pair, a fan approached our table to take Lopez’s picture and show him photos he’d taken during the previous year’s tournament. Then he began talking about DiMaggio and his greatness.

“Yeah, Babe Ruth was good,” the fan said. “But he had that short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium. If DiMaggio had had a fence like that. Whoa boy! Anything might have happened.”

The fan noted he had been banging out a book on DiMaggio and his 56-game hitting streak. Naturally, he pulled out his labor of love and shared several passages.

“So much dignity,” the fan said. “So much class.”

DiMaggio finally arrived, heading straight for our table. The “Yankee Clipper,” who was a living, breathing slice of Americana, looked every bit of 77.

Though immaculately dressed in a pale yellow sweater with a wine-colored shirt and black slacks, he hunched over sightly at the shoulders.

After greetings were exchanged, DiMaggio shook his head as he talked about the autograph seekers who showed up on his doorstep: “Four of them woke me up this morning.”

Lopez chuckled.

“I had a man come to my house, came right inside with his wife,” Lopez said. “Wanted to take a picture of me with his wife in my living room.”

DiMaggio managed a smile.

While DiMaggio ate, two security guards stood nearby waiting to accompany him out on the course.

Though a prisoner of his own fame, the setting of the Italian Open seemed to afford DiMaggio the opportunity to let down his guard. He had been a fixture at the annual tournament and made many friends. Guys he didn’t have to reminisce with in order to have a conversation. They didn’t ask for his autograph at every turn or ask him to recall his streak.

DiMaggio probably had few places where he could go without being haunted by autograph seekers, so it pleased me to see the man with such a burden appear to find some relaxation.

After breakfast, DiMaggio joined Lopez and Cuccinello’s group on the No. 1 tee box. Also in the group were DiMaggio’s brother, Dom, and Robin Roberts. Together they weren’t baseball immortals, just normal men who once played baseball very well. They talked about everyday life. They breathed the same air everyone else did. But all of them, especially DiMaggio, had to endure the worship.

Lopez’s group teed off, then headed up the fairway. DiMaggio’s group was next.

As DiMaggio addressed the ball, the fan from the restaurant was joined by another fan, both of them clicking photographs of the man bigger than life.

Everybody always talked about the dignity of DiMaggio. I wondered silently why this dignity evoked such undignified manners from those who hunted him.

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