Day I Met Joe DiMaggio
The sports attendant at the memorabilia show announced: “Let’s have some respect. No photos of Marilyn Monroe.” Years later these words still echo through my mind whenever I stare at my autographed picture of Joe DiMaggio in my apartment and I want to revert to my childhood memories as a way of forgetting my adult responsibilities. I, along with so many other baseball fans, waited in line to get Joe DiMaggio’s autograph, and we were certainly not going to offend or hurt our hero. The attendant’s request sounded more like a command, of course, not within earshot of DiMaggio but we knew what he meant. Joe DiMaggio was briefly married to the Hollywood scarlet in the 1950s and I’m sure many also knew about his infinite love for Marilyn that remained even after they divorced and she sadly died decades before him. If anything I thought retrospectively, people who admire or revere others, have a way of protecting their chosen heroes even if they eventually fall short of our expectations.
Today, the term “hero” is used very loosely and does not compare to the tragic heroes of Ancient Greece. My admiration for Joe DiMaggio mirrored that of an iconic figure, at least as a teenager in search of my own identity. Nonetheless, for an adolescent growing up in the eighties, I never saw Mr. DiMaggio play, but his legendary career with the New York Yankees epitomized for me that of Achilles. As a fifteen year old Italian-American living in Alphabet City (a neighborhood within Manhattan, New York) far from an enclave of Italian American immigrants, there was a desperate need to understand my ethnicity and use this knowledge to know how I fit in to a very complex world. Joe “Joltin Joe” DiMaggio, therefore, filled this void as he did for many Italian-Americans living from the 1940s, up until my generation. In a country that habitually perpetuates Italian-Americans as “Goodfella Goons,” Mr. DiMaggio immediately negated this perception.
While staring at my photo, I thought about that historic day, and the movie-reel in my mind played the images of meeting Joe DiMaggio at a sports memorabilia show in New York City. “Is this really happening, I can’t believe I am going to meet Joe DiMaggio.” I paid for my ticket and bought an eight-and- half by eleven color photo of Joe D. kneeling on one knee in his Yankee uniform. It was the typical baseball player pose but, at least for me, it was like viewing a Caravaggio painting. I held the photo gently for fear of creasing the edges and ruining its pristine look. While I waited, I suddenly realized “so when it’s my turn to meet Mr. DiMaggio, I’m going to give him this photo and he is going to sign it, and that’s it, end of memory?” I felt cheated because most shows have the athlete sign his name without making eye contact or uttering a word to the fan, how impersonal is that? I wanted, no, I needed more.
I thought, “How could I make this moment more magical? “Leap over the table,” I thought “an option but of course not. I know, I will ask him something unique.” As the line grew smaller I was a few autographs away and my heart was palpitating faster and faster while at the same time my little voice inside me was asking, “Do you have the courage to say it? Finally, a man controlling the line next to Mr. DiMaggio called me over; it was my turn. I handed over my photo; he started to sign his name.
“Come on don’t choke, make this a memorable moment— say it, say it,” my little voice inside me screamed repeatedly.
“Ex–Excuse me, Mr. DiMaggio, um–have you ever read The Old Man and the Sea? He looked confused, “I mean I just thought it was very interesting the way Hemingway made reference to you in his book.”
His expression appeared relaxed and he replied, “Yes, Ernest Hemingway had given me a copy of his manuscript.” “Wow”, I declared “you knew Hemingway” he quickly responded, “Of course I knew Hemingway.”
“Oh yeah,” I murmured awkwardly, I did not want to leave but other fans behind me wanted their time with the Yankee Clipper.
“Thank you Sir,” I said politely “for your time” little did he realize the gift he gave a fifteen year old boy was more than an autograph.