Rapping with Joe Dimaggio

updated 03/25/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/25/1985 01:00AM

One day I ran into Joe DiMaggio in spring training. Literally ran into him in a concrete chute that led from the Yankees' dressing room in Fort Lauderdale. It was a damp, chilly day in 1967. I was in shirtsleeves, hugging my elbows to my sides, hurrying toward the dressing room head down, checking the roster in my hand for players I wanted to interview. DiMaggio was hurrying out of the locker room away from the newspack, head down to avoid eye contact and thus conversation. He was always a distant man with people he did not know well, at times icy even to teammates. No one was sure whether DiMaggio was imperious or shy, or both. In those days, when people mostly wanted to talk to him about Marilyn Monroe, he was very skittish.

We did not quite collide, his reflexes, at 53, still being superb. But we looked up, and our eyes met. He was frozen, thought of a deer once caught on the highway, paralyzed by the lights of my car. We stood there for what seemed like an inning. Finally I blurted, "Not baseball weather."

It was as if I had snapped off the headlights. He blinked and took a breath. He cocked his head. I thought he was going to move away, but he looked up and said, "That's an outfielder's sky."

An outfielder's sky. No clouds, no sun, a dull, even gray. We just stood and looked at it as if it were the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.

After a while, to prompt him, I said, "An outfielder's sky?" He began to talk, softly, without hesitation. I did not take notes. I was mesmerized by his tone, a lecture tinged with passion. This was one of the greatest outfielders ever, and he was talking about the sky, the ceiling of his stage. He talked about the danger of losing fly balls in the clouds as easily as in the sun. He talked about smog and shadows and smoke, about the line of a ball, rising or looping, about the spin. How many hours of his life had he thought about this? All that time in the outfield, he hadn't been daydreaming or checking the stands for pretty girls; he had been planning what to do when a high fly disappeared momentarily in a patch of sun-dazzled blue. We always imagined DiMaggio drifting under a fly, never hasty, never uncertain. Of course. He had rehearsed every move, under every sky.

Forget about talent. That was just the start. What contempt he must have for those less painstaking, those who were not prepared, pitchers who took a chance, managers who winged it, reporters who asked the obvious.

"You cold?" he asked.

"No," I lied. I was shivering, but I didn't want to break the conversation.

"You're cold," he decided. He looked around. A tall young Yankee was doing wind sprints.

"Rook!" he bellowed. "Get this man a jacket."

DiMaggio kept talking. He talked about wind, about light and dark. The rookie returned with a warm-up jacket and DiMaggio helped me into it.

I wish I could remember more of what he said, though very little of it meant much to me even then. The specifics of surgery or piloting or outfielding are important only to other surgeons or pilots or outfielders. What is important is to know that there are people who know what they are doing, who care about what they are doing.

Soon, a club official hurried over. He acted as if he were rescuing DiMaggio, who seemed reluctant to stop talking, even after the official announced that DiMaggio was late for an appointment. Finally DiMaggio said goodbye, gravely shook my hand and walked away. I imagined the wariness back in the tense angle of his head and neck. I returned the jacket and drove to my hotel. I didn't want to talk to anyone else for a while.

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