Hey Joe

The Booing of the Great DiMaggio

 Think the path to a long-term, multi-gillion dollar contract for the more-than-deserving Derek Jeter has been tortuous and unnecessarily prolonged? Just consider what things must have been like for the greatest living ballplayer when he was trying to squeeze something less insulting than $25,000 out of the stingy Yankee management.

Think of it this way: You are Joe DiMaggio, one of nine kids in a poor immigrant family. Your fisherman father wants you to join him but you hate the smell of fish. Besides, your passion is for playing ball. Even as a child, you are the best. You become leading hitter in the Pacific Coast League, then get sold to the New York Yankees. Writers call you the greatest, maybe even greater than Babe Ruth. In your first two years you lead the Yankees to consecutive world championships and help draw over a million fans a season. Everyone all over the baseball nation says you are the finest all-around ballplayer they have ever seen.

But then it's time for your third-year contract. And the number being offered is much less than you're worth. Your pride alone demands that you refuse to sign. You hold out. Your club owner, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, has a snide way of putting it: "DiMaggio is an ungrateful young man, and is very unfair to his teammates, to say the least. . . . Why, how many men his age earn that much? As far as I'm concerned $25,000 is all he's worth, and if he doesn't sign, we'll win the pennant without him." At such infuriating words, you wonder why writers don't ask Ruppert how many 21-year-olds can hit 46 home runs and bat .346! And as for winning the pennant without you, haven't you proved otherwise? And where does your manager, Joe McCarthy, get off echoing his master: "The Yankees can get along without DiMaggio. And that $25,000 is final."

"You would have thought I'd kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, the way some of those letters read."

In the end, you are forced to submit. Three days after the season begins, you agree to sign on Ruppert's terms. He even makes you pay all your training expenses and suffer fines for every day you miss playing. He tells the world, "I hope the young man has learned his lesson." Insults piled on insults.

When you rejoin the club on the road, the Yankees are one game out of the cellar. But in your first seven games, you hit an astonishing .600 and bring the club to within a half game of the lead. You are so impressive, in fact, that McCarthy has you batting fourth instead of Lou Gehrig. You haven't sulked at those insults. You speak only with your bat.

Now, finally, you are back in the stadium. In the dugout your teammates—Gehrig, Dickey, Crosetti, Gomez, Ruffing—let you know how much they respect you. Because of intermittent rain, there are only 7000 in the stands. You would have liked 50,000 to greet your return. You love the crowds; they fortify your pride. At last, you lead the team onto the field, a moment you have always loved, for this is what you have been put on earth to do.

Then, like the wrath of a scornful God, loud booing reverberates through the vast stadium. Your heart climbs to your throat. In Yankee Stadium? How can this be? This is the ultimate insult. You are Joe DiMaggio and they are booing you!

In his biography, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, Richard Ben Cramer does not make enough of this incident. Perhaps, if DiMaggio had consented to talk with him, it might have been different. Cramer tried hard enough but he never had a chance. Ironically, readers of his book will see countless examples of why. Writers constantly invaded his privacy, filling their columns with ludicrous comments, most of them false. Athletes have always been wary of writers—so-called "jock-sniffers" in the locker room—who are fascinated by off-the-field gossip and adept at stirring up controversies to make for more exciting copy. They thrive on extremes, like great streaks or miserable slumps. They are slaves of statistics. They don't bother with the marvelous subtleties of the game.

That's why ballplayers used to tell reporters, "If you could hit you wouldn't write." To a ballplayer, a writer is as suspect as a cop to an inner-city kid. DiMaggio, shy to begin with, would want no part of them, and certainly not a biographer.

I was there on the day of that booing—May 4, 1938—an 18-year-old lover of the game and a devoted fan of the great DiMaggio. I had followed the holdout all through the long winter, as suspenseful as the final weeks of a tight pennant race, a fight to the finish between Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Joseph Paul DiMaggio. Until then, I had never given a club owner a moment's thought, but now I had to know more.

I learned that Colonel Ruppert wasn't a colonel at all but was merely given the label by an ex-governor of New York who owed him favors. Nor was he founder of Ruppert Brewery but an heir to the family millions. Using his money, he served as four-time member of the House of Representatives. He lived in a magnificent 12-room apartment on Fifth Avenue with five full-time servants to care for his every need. He was like an aristocrat. As a bachelor, he escorted choice women in New York's high society. His hobbies included collecting fine art and bric-a-brac. He had a passion for raising thoroughbred horses and pedigreed dogs. It would seem that such a man would gravitate to grand opera or elite museums, but in 1916, with a partner, he bought the New York Yankees for $450,000, picked up George Herman Ruth for $125,000, left the Polo Grounds for what became known as the House That Ruth Built, and made millions in the process. In 1936, he bought Joe DiMaggio from the San Francisco Seals and made still more millions. When he traveled to spring training, it was in his own private railroad car.

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