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Tuesday, January 16
'I've played my last game'

Editor's note: is running excerpts from Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life recently published by Simon & Schuster. This is the third of three parts from Chapter 13, when the Yankee Clipper says it's over and Marilyn Monroe catches his fancy.

Next day, another tough customer -- Bob Lemon took the mound for the Indians. The Yankees had their smart junkballer, Eddie Lopat. Those two pitchers battled through the game . . . to a tense and terrible 1-1 tie in the ninth. The Yankees came to the plate with their cleanup man, Berra, scheduled as first batter. But Yogi topped a tame ground ball, for out number one. That brought up DiMaggio. The Stadium crowd was wailing for him. There was no Joe Page in the Yankee bullpen anymore. How long could Lopat go on? . . . DiMaggio stepped in, cocked his bat once, and stood still. Lemon fired the hard stuff that had got him past DiMag all day. But this time, Joe was ready. He turned in the box, his bat a blur, and smashed a shot down the line. It was right at Al Rosen, the Tribe third baseman. He could barely get his glove across to knock the ball down -- it was simply hit too hard to field. Dago had handcuffed the sonofagun -- and Joe was on first base, with the winning run, and the Yankees were up in the dugout, yelling. Woodling stepped in and stroked a single into right. DiMaggio turned it on around second base and slid into third as the ball came back to the infield. Lemon walked Bobby Brown to load the bases, and then little Phil Rizzuto stepped in. As Lemon wound up, DiMaggio streaked for home: a suicide squeeze! Lemon was no dummy. He fired that ball high and tight -- a pitch that was all but impossible to bunt. But Rizzuto was the best bunter in baseball. He yanked the bat up, with the barrel at his cheek, and dropped the ball down the first base line. DiMaggio blew by the catcher, standing up -- with the run that made the difference. And the Yankees stood alone in first place.

That finished Cleveland: they would fade to five games back. But once again, the Yanks would have to clinch against Boston. They'd have their shot, September 28, in a doubleheader at the Stadium. If the Yankees won both, they would be champs again. Game one, Allie Reynolds left nothing to chance. He threw a masterpiece -- a no-hitter -- and the Yanks won 8-0. In game two, Boston got up off the canvas to take an early 3-0 lead. But then the Yankees came on like killers. It was 7-3 by the fifth, with the Red Sox hanging on, trying to stay in the game -- have a chance to slug it out in late innings. But they'd have no chance. Two on and two out, DiMaggio faced the lefty Chuck Stobbs, who was careful -- he worked the count full, three-and-two. Then he had to come in, and DiMaggio put him away: home run over the left field wall. Three runs. End of contest. And the Yankees had their third straight pennant.

In the clubhouse, there was a big celebration -- whooping, hugging, everybody wet with spray. (In the Topping years, champagne had replaced Col. Ruppert's beer.) But DiMaggio sat quietly on his stool. He was holding a ball -- brother Dom had hit it to Gene Woodling for the final out. And Woodling ran in with it, to give it to the Dago. Joe said he'd keep that one. "My tenth pennant . . ." In the history of baseball, only Babe Ruth could ever say those words. But Ruth had won three of his with the Red Sox. For the Yankees, only DiMaggio had ten.
DiMaggio leaned over me and said, 'Don't move. They're bringing a stretcher.' I guess that was about as close as Joe and I had come to a conversation.
Mickey Mantle on tearing up his knee in the outfield while trying to avoid a collision with DiMaggio.

Now the Yanks had to wait, with the rest of the Baseball Nation, while the Giants and Dodgers fought it out for the NL flag. The Giants had staged a comeback for the ages. From thirteen back in the middle of August, they played near-perfect baseball for the next month and a half (won thirty-seven games and only lost seven) to finish in a flat-out tie with Brooklyn. Then, there was a three-game playoff that ended so famously with Bobby Thomson's homer, bottom of the ninth -- The Shot Heard Round the World (and televised, for the first time, across the country). . . . So, for the first time, these Yanks would have to face an opposing team of destiny, a club that knew it couldn't lose. There it was in all the papers, next day, when that World Series began: God must be a Giant fan!

Sure enough, that afternoon, the Giants could do nothing wrong -- not even in Yankee Stadium (where so many NL champs had gone to die). In fact, the Giants made the Yanks look slow and stupid -- from the very first inning, when Monte Irvin stole home. Meanwhile, the Giants' fourth starter, a lefty named Dave Koslo, looked like Cy Young that day -- he went all the way and beat the Yanks 5-1. DiMaggio flied out four straight times.

In the second game, Steady Eddie Lopat hypnotized the Giants with junk. And though the Yanks couldn't do much (DiMaggio took another oh-fer), they squeaked out a 3-1 win that brought the Series even. But still, that game brought more woe upon the Bombers. Disaster struck in inning five, when the Giants' phenom, Willie Mays, lifted a pop fly to short right center. Mantle came racing across from right field -- in full jet-car mode. As Mantle described it to his co-writer Mickey Herskowitz for the memoir All My Octobers:

"I knew there was no way DiMaggio could get to it so I hauled ass. Just as I arrived, I heard Joe say, 'I got it.' I looked over and he was camped under the ball. . . ."

(Mantle would tell friends, he thought -- "Oh, shit! I'm gonna hit DiMaggio. I'll put him in the hospital. They'll never let me play again!")

". . . I put on the brakes and the spikes of my right shoe caught the rubber cover of a sprinkler head. There was a sound like a tire blowing out and my right knee collapsed. I fell to the ground and stayed there, motionless. A bone was sticking out the side of my leg."

It was a terrible price, to learn at last: you watch the Dago -- play offa him . . . and to hear DiMaggio speak to him for the first time.

"DiMaggio leaned over me and said, 'Don't move. They're bringing a stretcher.' I guess that was about as close as Joe and I had come to a conversation. I don't know what impressed me more, the injury or the sight of an aging DiMaggio still able to make a difficult catch look easy."

(It was Mantle on his way to the hospital. But his knee -- them fine young legs -- would never be the same. Mantle would never again have that Bonneville speed. In later years, among friends, the Mick was neither so stoic nor impressed by the Clipper. The way Mantle figured, DiMaggio wouldn't call that ball until he was damn sure he could make it look easy. Joe had to look good . . . but Mickey would never play another game without pain.)

In that Series, the loss of Mantle put the Yanks in real trouble. And their troubles got worse at the Polo Grounds in Game Three. On a play at second base, Eddie Stanky, the bantamweight second baseman, kicked the ball from Rizzuto's glove and ignited the Giants -- they pounded Raschi for a 6-2 win. DiMaggio went hitless for the third straight game. These Yanks had never been behind in a Series. They had never been beaten up by a team as talented and tough. And for Game Four, the Giants had their best, Sal Maglie, ready to shove the Yanks into the hole for good.

But a day of rain intervened. (Maybe God still loved the Yanks a bit.) Joe spent the day with Lefty O'Doul, who'd come to New York for the Series. And O'Doul told Joe to try an even lighter bat -- and swing easy -- Joe was lunging at the ball. Game Four, DiMaggio ended the Yankee first when he took strike three from Maglie. But it was strike one that sent a jolt around the Polo Grounds: the Clipper had crushed a ball down the left field line (out of the park but clearly foul). The game was tied 1-1 in inning three, when DiMaggio stroked a single to left -- his first hit for twelve at bats in the Series. But he died on first, when Maglie got Woodling on a pop to left. By inning five, the Yanks had scratched out another run, and led 2-1 -- when Berra singled to right. Now, the scowling Maglie had to put away DiMaggio, and wasn't going to let him turn on another pitch -- like that line single, or the one hammered foul in the first. So Maglie worked him away, away, away. But DiMaggio wouldn't lunge. The count went to three-and-one. Maglie came in with a low curveball -- and DiMaggio flattened that ball, but good. It shot on a line between third and short, out to left field, and kept rising . . . Monte Irvin, in left, had turned and started racing back -- but he stopped after a couple of steps. The ball was already over his head, still climbing -- as it cleared the wall, and slammed into the left field seats. When Joe trotted home, Berra was bouncing up and down at the plate. He almost jumped into Dago's arms. The Yanks had lost Mantle, but they had the Big Guy back.

That was the game -- and the Series, as it turned out. The next day, Joe had three hits, and McDougald broke the Giants' back with a grand slam, as the Bombers won in steamroller style, 13-1. Day after that, back at the Stadium, it was Koslo again -- but not Cy Young. The Yankees touched him up for four runs. DiMaggio had a double in two at bats. (And the Giants had seen enough -- Koslo walked him twice intentionally.) . . . When Sal Yvars's liner to right disappeared into Bauer's glove, the Giants' last comeback of the year fell short . . . and the Yanks won the Series in six games.

The clubhouse was just like old times: packed with happy hangers-on, wet with spray, and loud with song. (It was a new generation, but still "Roll Out the Barrel.") . . . DiMaggio had never sung along, and he didn't now. He sat on his stool, amid a ring of writers -- answered some questions ("Yup, a thirty-four-ounce bat . . .") and ducked the big one ("I have no announcement on my plans."). Bernie Kamber hovered at the edge of the ring, in case the Big Guy needed anything. And it was Bernie whom Gil McDougald took aside.

"I just wanted to tell him what it was like to play with him -- what it meant to me." What he really wanted was for Kamber to tell Joe. Gil could never tell the Big Guy himself.

Other Yankees did talk to Joe. One by one they came, to say congratulations, and shake his hand. But it was much later -- the crowd was gone, the clubhouse was quiet -- when Spec Shea sat down next to DiMag, and softly brought up the big question: "What about it, Joe? . . ."

Just as quietly, DiMaggio said: "I've played my last game."

Then, all the players came back to him -- they came out of the showers, came over from their lockers. A few brought balls, then some brought bats -- and hats, T-shirts, their own gloves . . . they clustered around him, like boys, and asked for his autograph.

There was still hope -- at least in the papers. Topping said Joe might change his mind if he got a good rest in the off season. Weiss drew up contracts for another hundred G's. Daniel had a piece in the Telegram, totting up the Clipper's World Series records: most Series games, most for one team, most Series at bats . . . and the one Joe valued, the last one -- most times as a World Champ. In the history of the Series, only DiMaggio had won nine times. Then Daniel offered this intriguing coda: "It is believed that DiMaggio will come back in 1952. . . ." (Believed by whom? Did the old coot know something?)

And then, hope faded, when the new Life hit the newsstands one week after the Series. The magazine had obtained the Brooklyn Dodgers' scouting report (prepared when the Dodgers still thought they had the pennant, and a World Series with the Yanks ahead). Andy High, an old and able judge of baseball talent, had written about DiMaggio:

"He can't stop quickly and throw hard. You can take the extra base on him. . . .
"He can't run and won't bunt. . . .
"His reflexes are very slow, and he can't pull a good fastball at all."

It was a brutal assessment, and damn near true. (The only thing High missed was how DiMaggio could still beat you, somehow.) . . . The good part for Joe was, he didn't have to answer. He was on an airplane, bound for Japan with Lefty O'Doul and fifteen other "U.S. All-Stars" -- and a two-month schedule of exhibition games. Their plane made the Tokyo airport at dusk. Magnesium flares lit the skies to signal the arrival of the diamond gods. They were driven in a cavalcade of open cars to the middle of town -- the Ginza -- where pandemonium ensued. A storm of paper scraps fluttered down from windows on all sides. Raking spotlights and a fusillade of flashbulbs lit the startled Americans in stroboscope freeze-frames. College boys and high school girls flung themselves onto the cars. Lefty and Joe were in the lead convertible, which was finally stopped dead by a million screaming fans: Banzai DiMaggio! Banzai O'Doul! . . . Japanese police and U.S. soldiers had to plead with the crowd to let the car move.

Joe played a few games, then left the tour early, to fly home alone. Even the Japanese fans -- the way he figured -- were cheering only for what he had been. (At that point, he couldn't know: that screaming Tokyo crowd was a harbinger of his future, too.)

When he got to the West Coast, he made his arrangements to meet the Yankee owners, Webb and Topping. He'd tell them his decision and announce it in New York. He flew east in early December, and Topping was ready with his last-ditch offers. Joe could have his hundred grand. He could play when he wanted -- fill in, pinch-hit. If he didn't want to travel, he could play only home games. Joe answered: "I'm never putting on that monkey suit again." . . . The Yankees scheduled a press conference the following day, at the club's midtown office.

Of course, the papers knew what was up. A few doubters -- Daniel in the lead -- pointed out that Joe was barely thirty-seven. He could easily play another year or two. True, he'd hit only .263 last year -- but his career figure was still .325 . . . and he was still, in Daniel's phrase, "the equal of any center fielder in the league." But the writers closer to Joe knew, "equal" was only an insult. They limbered up, with elegiac columns on the Jolter's history, his impact, grace, and style. The chief topic was "class" -- that ineffable quality they'd chewed over so many nights at Shor's. Class, they concluded, made DiMag the greatest in the game; class would make him leave it, while the memory of him was bright. Cannon stepped out in front of the choir: "If you saw him play, you'll never forget him."

The story was too big for one press conference. So many writers, radio men with microphones, television cameras, and newsreel crews packed into the club's Fifth Avenue suite that it took four rooms to stage the Clipper's final bow. His writer pals had typed out his statement, and the Yanks' PR man, Red Patterson, handed out carbon copies for the pencil press. In another room, Joe read aloud for the radio and camera crews:

"I told you fellows last spring I thought this would be my last year. I only wish I could have had a better year, but even if I had hit .350, this would have been the last year for me.

"You all know I have had more than my share of physical injuries and setbacks during my career. In recent years these have been much too frequent to laugh off. When baseball is no longer fun, it's no longer a game.

"And so, I've played my last game of ball."

Joe thanked the Yankees, the game, and its fans. He answered questions from the writers for an hour. He posed for pictures till the newsreel spotlights blew a fuse and plunged the Yankees' suite into darkness. When the lights went back on, DiMaggio was gone.

"So he turned his back on the $100,000 and abruptly walked away," Arthur Daley wrote for the next day's column, Sports of the Times. "Only a man with character and an overwhelming pride could take a step like that. The Yankee Clipper has always been a proud man. That's why he was such a great ballplayer. He was never satisfied with anything less than perfection."

Those were the other big topics of the day: perfection, pride -- and money. From within the game, it was mostly money. Frank Crosetti, now a Yankee coach, said DiMaggio had pushed the salary standard higher all over the major leagues. Now that he was gone, every player would suffer. . . . Gene Woodling, the young Yankee outfielder, was already making little enough -- he got by on his annual World Series shares. "Please, Joe, come back next year," Woodling pleaded in print. "I need more money to buy shoes for my three kids." . . . Frank Lane, GM of the White Sox, said DiMaggio's retirement would cost his club some five thousand fans -- twenty-five thousand dollars -- for every game the Yankees played in Chicago. That meant every team in the league would lose, perhaps, a quarter-million dollars. (For some clubs that was the whole team payroll.)

But for fans, the story was Joe's own money. How could a guy turn his back on a hundred grand?

Actually, DiMag and Topping already had an agreement. The club would pay Joe his hundred G's to move into the broadcast booth, to do the interview show after every Yankee game on TV. The announcement of that deal (one day after Joe's retirement) would diminish the mourning in New York -- and put paid (with a satisfying flourish) to all the talk about Joe's money.

Withal, the real story was never announced. And the few men who knew it were not much for talk. (In fact, the man who knew best, Frank Costello, was already in the federal slam for failure to talk when Kefauver came calling. Now, the feds were threatening to strip his citizenship, and throw him out of the country. Costello still wouldn't talk.) . . . So, nobody ever wrote about the money in that Bowery Bank trust account -- money Joe would have in his hands, when he retired from the game. And even in the mob, there were few men who knew how that money had grown. But a handful of i grandi in East Harlem, a couple in the East Bronx, at least one in Brooklyn, weren't at all shocked when Joe hung up his spikes. (Nor would they be surprised, one year later, when Joe would dump that stupid broadcast job.) They knew he didn't need the money -- never would. As they said around their own kitchen tables, Joe DiMaggio didn't walk away from a hundred grand. He was walking into more than a million in cash -- all safe and sound, at the Bowery. With that sort of money, you could have a nice quiet life -- just what Joe always said he was after. . . . And he did leave town, soon after his announcement -- headed home, as he said, "for some peace and quiet."

But he didn't stay around his old San Francisco haunts. No one could find him at Reno Barsocchini's. Nor at the Grotto. Nor at home. He flew two or three times to L.A. The official story was "business meetings" -- that, and Joe Jr. was down there in school. But it soon got around among his San Francisco pals, Joe had some girlfriend down there. Still, no one knew much . . . till one day that spring -- as Dario Lodigiani remembered.

Dario had played golf in a charity tournament at the Merced Country Club. After that, all the guys went out to a bar. Dominic DiMaggio was partners in that bar. And Reno Barsocchini was serving drinks -- just to help out. "Hey, Dario!" Barsocchini called out. "Go down that hall and turn left, the first door you come to. There's a guy down there who wants to see you." "So I walked down there," Lodigiani remembered, "and I turned left, walked in. And there in a chair, there was Joe DiMaggio! And there, on his lap . . .

"I said, 'GOOD NIGHT!' . . . Talk about a beautiful gal! . . . And of course, that was Marilyn Monroe."

Click here for next excerpt.

From JOE DIMAGGIO by Richard Ben Cramer. Copyright ® 2000 by Richard Ben Cramer. Reprinted by persmission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Richard Ben Cramer is the author of the bestselling What It Takes: The Way to the White House, which was acclaimed as one of the finest books ever written on American politics. His journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Time and Newsweek. His dispatches from the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer won the Pultizer Prize for International Reporting in 1979. with his wife and daughter, he lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

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