A few days ago, I alluded on here to an interview I did with Dom DiMaggio, calling it a story for another time. As fate would have it, the former Boston Red Sox center fielder and seven-time All Star died early yesterday morning at 92. Thus, I will now tell of the time I sought him out.
As I mentioned before, I did a research paper my junior year of college on the significant number of Italian-American baseball players from the San Francisco Bay Area. After turning my paper in, I spent several months trying to expand it into a magazine piece. Though I never ultimately submitted it for publication, I did a lot of research, making trips to the city and interviewing former major leaguers like Gino Cimoli, who had the first at-bat on the West Coast in 1958. Eventually, my research brought me to a place called Dom’s Dugout.
I had read in The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer, that Joe DiMaggio once had a restaurant on the Embarcadero. On one of my trips to the city, in 2004, I ventured in search of it, near Pier 39, and found that the restaurant no longer existed. The top floor of its building had been converted into a different restaurant, and on the bottom, there now sat a memorabilla store– Dom’s Dugout. I learned it was owned by the former player– a savvy businessman in his own right– and that he occasionally made trips from the East Coast to check on his investment. At some point, I learned he would likely be visiting in September of that year.
Thus, I eventually found myself back in the store on a fall day, with a living legend sitting at a card table in front of me. At first, he was hesitant to give me any time, which made sense. His older brother Joe was famously reclusive, almost suing Simon & Garfunkel after they referenced him in their song “Mrs. Robinson,” and neither DiMaggio agreed to be interviewed for The Hero’s Life. Nevertheless, Dom acquiesced for me and allowed my request for ten minutes.
Somehow ten minutes became two hours of sitting with him while he signed autographs for customers and chatted with them. I’ve interviewed a number of ballplayers and I must say that next to Ozzie Smith, DiMaggio may have been the kindest. He autographed tirelessly, talked with fans about his life experiences and even called one guy’s son up via cell phone, after the man said it would make his day. DiMaggio also was nice to me. Diminutive and bespectacled and still lucid, he graciously answered my questions.
It’s been almost five years now, and I’ve always felt guilty for never writing of my experience, though it’s nice to relate it now.
On a final note, decades before, when the building was the DiMaggio family restaurant, it had a famous patron. Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb helped Joe DiMaggio negotiate one of his early contracts with the New York Yankees, advising him on how to successfully hold out for more money, and as a thank you for this service, Cobb got to eat free for life at the restaurant. For all I know, Dom DiMaggio and I sat in the same spot where Cobb once dined.
(Postscript: For anyone who’d like to read more about Dom DiMaggio, Sports Illustrated published this nice story on him in 2001.)