The Joe DiMaggio Standard

I remember a time when Shaquille O’Neal was the most-feared player in the NBA, a 325-pound locomotive, good for about 30 points, 20 rebounds and a wrecked backboard on a standard night.  The only way to stop him was to foul him and hope his shooting from the line was off as usual.  I grew up in Sacramento as a Kings fan and Shaq used to ruin my team’s shit every year.  When Game Seven of the 2002 Western Conference Finals got to overtime, I knew my Kings would lose.  One did not beat Shaq and Kobe in overtime.  And my Kings didn’t.

These days, though, 37-year-old Shaq looks less the Diesel and more the Edsel.  His decline has been several years coming, ever since the Lakers traded him to the Miami Heat following the 2004 season.  He averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Suns last season, decent numbers, but nothing close to his prime.  Legends do not get traded but the Phoenix Suns gave Shaq and his $21 million contract away to the Cleveland Cavaliers this past week for spare parts.

My feeling has been that Shaq has mostly stuck around these past few years to collect his hefty paycheck.  Watching him stumble around, I can’t help but think, conversely, of Joe DiMaggio and how he retired following the 1951 season.  DiMaggio was also 37 at the time of his retirement and probably could have gone a few more years for the New York Yankees if he’d wanted to.  Still, he stopped playing because he couldn’t be Joe DiMaggio anymore.  After his decision, he told the Sporting News, “I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates. I had a poor year, but even if I had hit .350, this would have been my last year. I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game.”

DiMaggio wasn’t the only player like this.  Jackie Robinson followed suit five years later when the Brooklyn Dodgers star, also 37 at the time, chose to retire over accepting a trade to the New York Giants.  Mickey Mantle quit after having a dream that he was wearing a uniform for the expansion Seattle Pilots.  Mantle’s age at the time he announced his retirement?  You guessed it, 37.

To be sure, there have been many athletes who have stuck around entirely too long.  Willie Mays comes to mind as do Pete Rose and Steve Carlton.  Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice and Joe Namath all played a few too many NFL seasons.  Patrick Ewing and Gary Payton should have quit basketball sooner than they did.  And Wayne Gretzky really wasn’t “The Great One” by the end of his hockey career.

Shaq’s hardly the first of his kind.  I suppose they just don’t make them like Joe DiMaggio anymore.

My interview with Dom DiMaggio

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.)

Joe DiMaggio's boyhood home

I found an old notebook this weekend that reminded me of a cool story I haven’t written about before: About five years ago, I got to go inside Joe DiMaggio’s boyhood home. It happened like this:

Starting in middle school, I often wrote about baseball for term papers. First, in eighth grade, I decried Pete Rose’s banishment from the game and got an A-plus. For my high school senior project, I copiously researched the Sacramento Solons, a former Pacific Coast League team from my hometown. Then in my junior year of college, I wrote about the inordinately large number of Italian-American major leaguers who grew up in San Francisco. These players included New York Yankees stars Tony Lazzeri, Lefty Gomez and, most famously, Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio.

I received another A on the last paper, and afterward, I got this idea that I could expand it into a magazine story. It never went anywhere, though over the course of several months, I did a lot of research and interviewed a number of former major leaguers, including Joe’s brother Dom DiMaggio, a great player in his own right (that’s a story for another time.) I also made several trips to San Francisco, hoofing it around the Italian quarter, North Beach, and other parts of the city. Among the places I visited were a bar where I learned the staff kept Pabst Blue Ribbon on-hand for when Joe would visit– the bar didn’t sell it, though apparently it was the Yankee Clipper’s favorite beer. I also visited the DiMaggio family home on Taylor Street.

I had learned of the house from Richard Ben Cramer’s biography Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, which showed a picture of DiMaggio as a toddler outside the dwelling, but didn’t provide its exact address. Instead, I went to the street on one of my trips to the city and had an elderly man point the house out to me. When I knocked on the door, I found three 24-year-old girls living inside. They let me in and were very friendly, with one of the girls, Katie, telling me the house had been in her family for three generations. There wasn’t any kind of marker or plaque outside, and Katie said her dad had told her of DiMaggio’s past residence when she moved in. It had been remodeled since DiMaggio’s time, with linoleum now on the floor, a marble counter and fluorescent lights. There were two tiny rooms and one big room, though I heard that one of the bedrooms had extended out to where the kitchen presently was. According to this article, nine DiMaggio children somehow lived inside.

Apparently, the city of San Francisco had never approached the owners about making the building a landmark, though I suggested the girls hold some kind of party to commemorate the Yankee great. To this, one of their neighbors who was visiting at the time remarked, “Oh dude, we’re having a Joe DiMaggio party.”

I just hope they had plenty of Pabst Blue Ribbon on-hand.