Dodgertown wasn’t a spring training site. It was a shrine. The many times I went to West Palm Beach for the Atlanta Braves’ camp in the 1980s, I always made sure to include a pilgrimage to Vero Beach and a day wallowing in baseball history.
Sometimes, there was the obvious local story. Rick Honeycutt, the long-time major league pitcher (and later Dodger pitching coach), was there some of those years. I could catch him for an interview, and he’d even drag me into the clubhouse and through the players’ buffet to grab lunch.
Dodgertown’s headquarters was like none other in sports. In the same building as the players’ clubhouse was a luxurious lounge, with a piano. One day, the late Bob Welch came in and just started playing random tunes. There were bar tables, and rich, dark wood furnishings. In one corner, a large cubicle was set up for media. Without the burden of Twitter and social media, when one could percolate on a story until deadline, it was a wonderful place to loiter on a lazy Sunday morning before going out to watch a game.
Loitering there one day, with only three or four other sportswriters in the building, I looked up to see Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ general manager approach.
“Men,” he harrumphed, “I have someone who’s agreed to spend a few minutes with you if you’d like to talk with him.”
Next to Al Campanis was Joe DiMaggio.
Joe Freakin’ DiMaggio.
Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. Right out of TV commercials, baseball lore, Simon & Garfunkel music, historic footage, biographies, magazine stories and American culture.
Joe DiMaggio. Who was by-God married to Marilyn Monroe.
She appeared on ten occasions before 100,000 servicemen, and when she returned she said, “It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.”
“Yes, I have,” he said.”Gay Talese, Esquire magazine
Was there ever a greater reminder of how good the good ol’ days were than this observation I made in a long-ago column: In one generation, Joe DiMaggio marries Marilyn Monroe. In another, Dennis Rodman marries Carmen Electra. (I suspect, for this generation, there is a Kardashian who could somehow fill out a similar equation, but I can’t for the life of me keep up with them.)
All this was prompted when I just saw on the ESPN crawl that DiMaggio stretched his hitting streak to 56 games on July 16, 1941. There’s a big pile of records-never-to-be-broken in baseball, and you can no doubt find a sports talk radio debate about them at least once a year. I think the 56-game hitting streak is more vulnerable than a few others –mostly the ancient pitching records established before pitch-counts and the ulnar collateral ligament were discovered — but it’s tough to see anyone surviving the relentless attention that would come with a legit attack at the streak.
Anyway, DiMaggio and Campanis pulled up chairs in the cubicles and we gathered in a circle. I don’t recall the details of the conversation, but I’m sure they gravitated to comparison of current players vs. his peers, the ones that he most admired, etc. etc. etc. All very reverential. DiMaggio was gracious and elegant and friendly. He was not especially gregarious, but he was hardly the aloof figure in Gay Talese’s famous Esquire magazine profile, one of the best pieces of sportswriting ever.
There is a hard-and-fast rule among journalists. You don’t ask for autographs. It’s unethical and unprofessional.
But at conversation’s end, the writer from Los Angeles asked, “Joe, would you mind signing this?” as he handed over his reporter’s notebook.
Well, if it’s good enough for a Los Angeles writer, it was good enough for me.
Joe Freakin’ DiMaggio, signing my notebook.
I think back about that elegant, silver-haired man, an American icon. And I think about Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra and the Kardashians, about the ego aura surrounding ARod and J-Lo, about Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds and Odell Beckham and Bryce Harper.
And I understand exactly what Simon & Garfunkel meant when they sang how we turn our lonely eyes to a man like Joe DiMaggio.