Up Close, DiMaggio Was Personable
Up Close, DiMaggio Was Personable
Mar. 08, 1999
``Please don't say I'm reclusive or a hermit,'' Joe DiMaggio said on his 80th birthday. ``I'm not. And it bothers me when people say that.''
Those who were close to DiMaggio, who died Monday at age 84, said the image of his being aloof stemmed from his shyness.
``Joe is a private person and very shy,'' attorney Morris Engelberg, DiMaggio's longtime friend and neighbor, said in an interview last month. ``Because of that a lot of people thought he was standoffish, cold, but when he got to know you, he warmed up to you.
``He was great with kids because they didn't know who he was,'' Engelberg said. ``The kids in the hospital wing he raised money for, kids on planes. He'd wave and smile to them on the planes, and they would walk over to where he was sitting and talk to him. They had no idea who he was.''
The real DiMaggio, as Engelberg saw him, was the fawning grandfather and great-grandfather.
``Those two granddaughters and their children are the delights of Joe's life. He just adores them.''
DiMaggio considered himself special because he was part of the New York Yankees' mystique _ it meant you had to act like a Yankee.
Yogi Berra, in his rookie year, once failed to run full speed to first base after popping up.
``You're a Yankee now,'' DiMaggio told him. ``You give 100 percent all the time. You run out every popup.''
When DiMaggio was selected to receive The Sports Legend Award from the American Sportscasters Association last year, he asked Lou Schwartz, the group's president, ``Why me? There are greater legends in sports than me.''
``I had heard he might be tough to deal with, but he was so gracious, so humble, and a real gentleman,'' Schwartz said Monday in recalling the telephone call from DiMaggio.
DiMaggio declined an appearance fee or even travel expenses, Schwartz said.
``He told me the honor of getting the award was worth more than money we could pay him.''
A limousine picked up DiMaggio and two friends at his Manhattan apartment to bring him to the Marriott Marquis hotel, where the black-tie dinner was held.
It was a rainy evening in March and a man wearing a tuxedo and holding an umbrella was trying to flag a cab when the limo stopped for a red light. The window rolled down and the man was startled to see DiMaggio, who asked him, ``You going to the dinner at the Marriott?''
The man, who had never met DiMaggio, indeed was going to the dinner. But he was so flustered at seeing the Hall of Famer that he declined to get in the limo.
To most people of a certain age, especially in New York, DiMaggio was easily recognized, even though his hair had turned gray and he had become stooped with arthritis.
``We had just come from dinner on the west side, near his apartment, and it was late at night. The street was dark and pretty empty,'' Engelberg recalled.
``I saw two menacing looking guys heading toward us, and I said to Joe, ``Get ready to be robbed. These guys look bad.'
``As they got closer, the older one, he had gray hair, stopped in his tracks.
```My Lord, it's Joe DiMaggio!' he said,'' Engelberg recalled. ``The man put out his hand and they shook hands. He told his friend, ``This is the greatest ballplayer who ever lived.'
``Joe got a kick out of that, and kidded me about being worried that we would be robbed.''
DiMaggio's fame was not confined to New York.
``He went to Chicago for an Italian-American dinner. He was proud of his heritage. Tommy LaSorda was there, Tony La Russa and lot of others and Joe got a standing ovation,'' Engelberg said.
``The next day he was invited to ring the bell opening trading on the Chicago Stock Exchange. What happened was that he actually stopped trading for 15 minutes. He created such excitement and got such a big welcome, it held up trading.''
DiMaggio considered himself a New Yorker, although he was born in San Francisco and lived for a long time in Florida.
He said New York had the best restaurants.
``He liked pasta, New York's Chinese restaurants and the Jewish delicatessens,'' Engelberg said. ``He was a hotel guy for most of his life. He felt comfortable living in hotels and eating out.''
Engelberg took a guest last month to a kosher-style deli not far from his office in Hollywood, Fla.
``You're sitting in Mr. DiMaggio's seat,'' the waitress told the guest.
``He always sits in a booth in the back with his back to the door, so people won't recognize him,'' she said. ``He's very shy.''