In Praise of the Heroe: His Earthbound Name was Joe DiMaggio


Richard Cummings

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 125 in December, 2010.

Whenever I read about the steroid scandals in major league baseball, I think of a more innocent time when ballplayers were special, the custodians of America’s game. The one ballplayer I idolized more than any other was Joe DiMaggio, whose fifty six game hitting streak is the one record that no one is likely to ever break. It’s hard to believe but I actually met. DiMaggio, It happened in Gallagher’s Restaurant in Manhattan in March of 1947 when he was still playing for the New York Yankees and I was a young boy, nine years old..

We were rich then, my father’s law practice having grown, thanks to the efforts of his new partner, a nervous, fast-talking little man whose hands shook. Not knowing very much about anything at the time, for example, that my mother was suffering because of my father’s infidelity, I was able to believe that the most important thing in the world was baseball. What I know now is that, in a way, it was.

On Sunday, the family would get all dressed up and go out for lunch at a good restaurant where it pleased my father to be seen with his brood. He was a man of appearances who believed that a gentleman was made by the cut of his clothes, by the car he drove and where he was seen. We had not yet acquired the Cadillac Fleetwood that we bought when his mother died, with part of the proceeds of the estate. In 1947, we had a shiny black Oldsmobile 98, the one considered my many to be every bit as good as a Caddy in the days when cars mattered.

Joe DiMaggio had a modest year for him statistically in 1946, batting just two ninety. Still as Carl Hubbell, the fantastic New York Giants pitcher once said, “Lou Gehrig is great, of course. But somehow you don’t get the same feeling when he’s at the plate as when DiMaggio comes up.” DiMaggio was god. Hemingway was to confirm in his great story, “The Old Man and the Sea,” about the old man and the boy in Cuba. I would think years later that Castro would have welcomed DiMaggio as a hero if he had stepped off a hijacked plane right after the Bay of Pigs.

What I will never live down is that I did not recognize DiMaggio in the restaurant. For one thing, I had never seen him without his uniform. It had never dawned on me that he could wear a business suit just the way my father did. For me, the Yankees, especially the Yankee Clipper, always had on those pinstriped garments of invincibility that failed them only in 1948 on a fluke to the Cleveland Indians. I knew it was not realistic to believe that these god-like people might even sleep in their uniforms, but such was my belied.

We lived in a neighborhood that was known as Brownsville, that my father’s father had developed. He was cathexed to that neighborhood because his father had died young, and in my father’s childhood, he would wander the streets in search of him. My father perpetuated the myth that we lived there for political reasons. His goal in life was to be a New York State Supreme Court judge, just as mine was to be as great as DiMaggio. He had been one of the youngest people ever to be elected to the New York State Assembly but the mob had run a candidate against him in the primary and he lost his seat. The mob boss, Joe Adonis, regretted what he had done and offered to make my father a Supreme Court judge, but he declined the offer.

My father and I were conspirators against the relentless realism of my mother, my brother and my grandmother, who belittled her son for not being a “corporate attorney. But refusing to abandon his dream, we remained in Brownsville, where the buildings now stand as monuments to the oppressed condition of the blacks that inherited them long after the Amboy Dukes had grown to maturity and moved to the suburbs. We, too, left this. It was a neighborhood that produced both the composer, Aaron Copland and the Murder Incorporated gangster, Abe Rellis. My father seemed to have been touched by all elements of this environment., which was equally his.

We drove over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan as if invading enemy territory. We were out of our element in the sophistication of the real heart of New York. Brooklyn was a bedroom. My father’s office was on Court Street where all the Brooklyn politicians practiced law. Manhattan was where he had lunch on Sunday, and that Sunday, because my father had won a bunch of money at gin rummy the night before and because there were rumors that the Brooklyn county leader, a handsome Irishman named Frank Sinnott, was considering his name for the bench, we were going to Gallagher’s.

Gallagher’s was a man’s restaurant. There was sawdust on the floor and pictures of champion bulls on the wall. There were also pictures of great athletes, of race horses that were honored as greatly as the men, such asSea Biscuit, andMan O’War and one color photograph of the Duke of Windsor as the king before his abdication. But the place of honor, over the bar where the big-time bookies drank with even tougher companions, was reserved for poetry in action. Number five was therein the heroic completion of his immortal swing. Naturally, it was DiMaggio.

The waiter told us that the picture had been taken as the third strike flew by. It was during Bob Feller’s great no-hitter, yet even in abject defeat before the greatest pitcher of his time, DiMaggio had been immortalized in triumph. It did not take expertise to know that swing was perfect. Just as it did not take expertise to know that the massive strawberry shortcake sitting on a table not far from the bar was, in its way, just as perfect. I was overwhelmed by the perfection of the surroundings and the rugged, sporty elegance.

One ate steaks at Gallagher’s and never forgot them. I haven’t been back since my childhood but I still remember the meal. Sizzling platters. Spurting juice and tender, thick red succulent meat cut from one of the great bulls. My mother was able to abandon the pained look with which she was inevitably plagued, as thought her corset was too tight, and dug into the sirloin with lusty abandon. My brother forgot for a few moments that he was locked in a deadly duel with me for our parents’ affection and I forgot how much I wanted to be free forever from the total sadness that was Brooklyn. I think my father was able to forget that he hated all of us, something he was to admit years later in a psychiatrist’s office when he knew he would never achieve his goal and somehow believed that we were the impediment. I had sat there in disbelief and kept this grievance in my innermost being until after his death, when it seemed pointless to go on resenting what he had said.

After the steaks came the desert. A waiter wheeled the incredible cake that had been sitting on the table near the bar over to our table. My parents and the waiter made the inevitable jokes about dieting, temptation and other dreary reminders of their mortality before it was decided that we would partake in this additional specialty of the house.

The strawberries were fresh, juicy, red blobs, and the cream a veritable paradise of sweet, white clouds. Beneath it all was the cake, a soft melting substance that had a slightly acidic taste, just enough to offset the sweetness-a perfect harmony of simple pleasure, “the last refuge of the complex,” as Wilde so aptly put it.

I did not know at the time that I was nearing the moment of the great encounter. The waiter, a tall, thin and dark Sicilian in a red coat leaned over the table. “Whose the baseball fan?” he asked in a husky voice. Speaking English, the man gave the impression of semi-literacy. In Italian, I’m sure he could have sounded like a Renaissance prince. Such is the irony of immigration in the land of opportunity.

My father smiled triumphantly.

“This one here, my youngest. The other is a piano player.

The reference was to my brother, who had been a child protégé until he destroyed a pinky trying to strangle me with a steel wire. He had, just then, begun to take an interest in the Yankees too, to embezzle affection from out father, who liked his boys to be masculine. My father himself joked about his abortive violin lessons that had lasted one week until his mother encouraged him to give up the instrument. His strength was in singing, which he did with a startling Neapolitan bel canto lyric baritone. I was confident that in another life he must have been Italian.

The waiter’s aristocratic finger pointed across the room to where three men were sitting having lunch.

“You know that man?” he half teased,

The question was meant to be rhetorical but it was lost on me. I had languished in my ignorance for several seconds until the finger, in a fluid motion, began to change its target, finally aiming at the giant photograph over the bar.

“That’s the man,” the waiter said with respect. “You know him now?”

My heart, which was located at that moment somewhere in the middle of my throat, pounded furiously. Momentarily I thought I would forget the repast from anxiety and shame. My mother stared blankly across the table as if to reaffirm her conviction of the unimportance of baseball players as opposed to doctors. In the dimly lit restaurant, I was liberated for a second from the clawing restrictions of my family. DiMaggio was like Apollo, blazing in a golden chariot across the burning sun. How could I have been unaware of the presence of the deity? My soul was filled with the fright and joy one gets at the mystical understanding that God exists. And now the waiter asked the impossible:

“Do you want to meet him? I know him; he comes here often.”

Did I want to meet DiMaggio? Why not ask if I wanted to die? What could I conceivably say to DiMaggio who had lived more lives on the diamond than I could eve hope to live off? Bur somehow I nodded. My brother stayed behind, as the waiter escorted me over to the table where the great man sat. I was alone with the waiter now, walking silently past the other diners until we reached out hero.

“Mr. DiMaggio,” the waiter half-whispered deferentially, “this young gentleman would like to say hello to you.”

The other men looked rich and relaxed. They knew DiMaggio and took his presence for granted. It was difficult for me to understand such total complacency but perhaps that was their particular tragedy. For what greater tragedy is there than the failure to rejoice in the presence of the divine? DiMaggio smiled graciously and extended his hand. His easy manner was a sign of breeding, of gentlemanliness. He was a considerate person, I thought, to make a young boy feel so comfortable so quickly. From awe-struck, I became assertive.

“I hope your average is higher next season,” I exclaimed.

“So do I,” replied the great center fielder, not at all embarrassed by the reference to his 290 season. The 1947 season would see DiMaggio back in form, batting 315, winning the Most Valuable Player award and leading the Yankees to the World Championship over the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven drama-filled games.

“Would you like an autograph?”

The question was not asked in arrogance at all. I had not thought of the autograph, having been so overwhelmed by the encounter, but was something I certainly desired.

“Yes, please, Mr. DiMaggio,” I nodded.

The waiter handed him a Gallagher’s menu and the magnificent hand wrote gracefully with big, circular letters, underlining the signature with a flourish. The two g’s figures most prominently as if they stood for the dignity of being an Italian-American in the face of the slurs and insults DiMaggio had endured early in his career. “Grease ball,” “wop,” “guinny” they had shouted at him, but he never responded verbally. His answer was how he played with grace and dignity until the insults stopped and the cheering took over. It was the most beautiful signature I had ever seen. DiMaggio handed me the menu and I gave my thanks.

“Good luck,” he said as the waiter started to lead me back to the table where my family was waiting for me like a soldier back from the wars.

“The same to you,” I managed before retreating. I held the menu in my hand as if it were a rare specimen of a rare bit of exotic flora. My family examined it with considerable scrutiny, even by my mother, who was forced to admit that the writing was exquisite. She had, no doubt, anticipated some clumsy scrawl, a justification for her opinion that you didn’t take athletes seriously because that they were stupid and ignorant. If any of them got into college, it was because they were jocks, not scholars, she thought.

We filed out of Gallagher’s amidst respectful bows from the various employees. My father had tipped the waiter handsomely. He wanted to be a rich and successful man. Of course, no one knew that we were about to start on our way back to Brownsville and the two-family house on Saratoga Avenue. As the neighborhood became increasingly worse, there was talk of moving, something my mother thought would never happen. She said she prayed to God that she would not be forced to leave Brownsville in her coffin. When their first child died of pneumonia and my father had spent all their savings and her inheritance from her first husband on an unsuccessful primary fight for a municipal court judgeship against a corrupt judge, she almost left him. But for some reason, she had stayed to raise his daughter from his first wife who had died in childbirth and to have two more sons. She saw him defeated for the Assembly and relegated to the depths of a negligence law practice that brought in only a meager income until after the war, when he met his partner-to-be, a dishonest but adroit hustler of legal business. Now things were on the up.

We drove with him in the deathly silence of Sunday evening, the time of dim introspection and limbo. As usual, I took my place beside my mother in the back and my brother sat in front next to my father. My mother’s seal coat was soft and reassuring and I liked to sit close to it. I didn’t know what this had to do with my feelings for my mother, but she interpreted it as thought had sided with her in her perpetual struggle with her husband, who did not appreciate her and who once called her “odious” to her face. He had forgotten how she had climbed stairs for him during the primary fights and how she had raised his daughter and bore him three sons. Her bitterness was thinly veiled but I was too immature to appreciate how her justified rage and immeasurable sadness were so painfully obvious to my father, a fact that only intensified his ill will towards her. The silent tension produced an ennui that I blamed on the place where we lived, Brooklyn, that might have been like any other place if the home had been a happy one.

Once home, I put the treasured autograph in my desk. I had my own desk because I expected to develop good study habits, something I did in fact do in later years. 
From high school to college and law school, I was always right up there with the highest marks. Until we moved the next year, I would take the menu out of the drawer and look at the signature the way a religious Catholic might examine a relic from a saint, a devote dMuslim, the holy Koran or a devout Jew, the Torah. The very touching of the thing recreated the vivid experience that was still all I needed to be convinced that the event happened and that DiMaggio existed. A special thing had happened to me and, because of it, I was a different person. I was not like other people who had never met DiMaggio and never would.

The following year, we moved to Flatbush. To my mother, it was as if we had left the slums of Calcutta for Kensington, London’s posh neighborhood, so great in her mind was the transformation. Of course, we had been obliged to get permission from my grandmother first, who approved the move the way a reactionary president might sign a health insurance law for the sake of domestic tranquility, though it contradicts his own personal principles of stamping on the poor. I myself had no regrets. I remembered how I had originally been a Dodger fan in the streets of Brownsville by way of avoiding the brutal attacks of the older kids who tolerated no heretics in what mattered most in their grey lives; loyalty to the Bums. In fact, I secretly believed that in the National League, the only team worthy of admiration was the St. Louis Cardinals. My loyalty had been false, and I was anxious to assert my real views with kids in a better neighborhood who, though from Brooklyn, might share the true faith. On with the move, I said.

Tragedy lurked in the background, not to be revealed until the moving van had departed and the last string holding us to the past had been broken; the old phone number had been replaced by the new Buckminster exchange that I found so aristocratic sounding. Now, all you get is a sterile number. There were real WASPS in Flatbush then, a magnificent Congregationalists church was on the corner, and I felt myself part of the true America. Upward mobile was how the sociologists described it. Now, you’re lucky if you’re not downward mobile as the once great American economy continues to fall apart. What I not yet realized was that the autograph had been lost in the move. I had accepted the infallibility of the moving men like a good American who places himself in the hands of experts until he finds out that it is too late to rectify the errors of their mysterious incompetence. Because of this faith, the thing I cherished most in the world was gone. It was a lesson worth remembering and I wish that I had.

I had a room to myself in the new apartment, looking out onto the tree-lined street. In such luxurious quarters I could study my head off until I was one of the Midwood High School superstars who would rack up admission to all the top Ivy League colleges. Princeton, my dream school, would court me and I would accept, changing my life forever.

The desk had been placed against the wall between the windows looking out onto the street. To make the move complete, I decided that I must touch the holy object in celebration of the successful spiritual transplant that I thought the move had been. I had left everything in the drawers as I had been told to; there was no reason to expect any loss. Everything looked in order, except, that the Gallagher’s menu with DiMaggio’s autograph on it was gone. Its disappearance seemed to be a foreboding that things would not go well in the new quarters and that the hostilities would only be more deeply suppressed instead of assuaged. I became hysterical and dumped everything from the desk onto the floor in a rage until my mother entered the room in her usual distress when someone other than herself was in a state of nervous irrationality. She came over to where I was sitting on the floor and placed her hand on my shoulder.

“What has produced such behavior, Richard? This is very unlike you.”

“I have lost the autograph.”

“What autograph?” The question was a burning insult. I had only one autograph and she knew it.

“Joe DiMaggio’s autograph. On the menu. You remember when we went to Gallagher’s. I got his autograph. How could it have gotten lost?”

“I can’t imagine that anyone would want to steal it. It’s not worth anything and nothing else seems to be missing. Are you sure you didn’t misplace it yourself?”

Tears were streaming down my cheeks.

“I know it’s important to you now,” she condescended, “but you’ll laugh about it some day. That is, if you don’t forget about it.”

But I never forgot. Nor did I cease to associate DiMaggio with my father, since we went to a game together to watch my hero play and both of us admired his easy, unpretentious skill. No Barry Bonds-like self-absorption for him, and no steroids either.

“DiMaggio makes it look easy,” my father always used to say. And he did. Belting a homer with two on to clinch the game, robbing Ted Williams of an extra-base hit on one of the few times he didn’t pull the pull, throwing out his own brother, Dom, trying to make to third on a single; it always looked so simple. I would on occasion suggest that some way could be arranged to get another autograph, but somehow the time slipped by and I never had another chance. Maybe baseball will never have another chance, either.

So when I think about DiMaggio, it is only natural that these thoughts should come to mind. I remember as well how my father came to die after finally being made a judge for two months. He was forced to resign because of alleged unethical activities while he was practicing law and was ultimately disbarred for refusing to testify in an ambulance chasing investigation. His former partner fared worse and was sent to jail for stealing a client’s money. Years later, this man died by his own hand. My father had bought the judgeship, the Domestic Relations Court, for twenty thousand dollars with a promise of the Supreme Court as soon as there was a vacancy. This was something that never came out in the investigations but I still carry a deep sense of shame because this was my father. He had a brilliant mind and could have been an outstanding person. Like DiMaggio as a ball player, his skill as a trial lawyer was so great that he made it look easy. But his disgrace is something from which I have never fully recovered. Instead of DiMaggio, he was Shoeless Joe Jackson, he had thrown the game instead of glorifying it.

I was a visiting professor in Ethiopia when my father died, and I did not return for the funeral. I telephoned my mother who thought there was no reason. In those distant moments, it seemed strange to be so far from everything I knew and so far away from the days when I worshipped DiMaggio. In my cynical young adulthood, I dismissed the likes of DiMaggio. I forgot the simplicity of doing something very well but modestly, better than anybody else and, by so doing, inspiring everyone to do his best at what he did. This is the irreplaceable purpose of a hero. A country must honor its heroes if it is to survive its inevitable disgraces.