Fourteen years, three months, one week and two days ago, a slender, dark haired kid played in the outfield for the Yankees against the St. Louis Browns and made three hits in six times at bat, including a triple off Elon Hogsett. The Yankees won 14 to 5.
Since that date, May 3, 1936, the Yankees have won nine American League pennants and eight world championships. Since his first game in the major leagues he wasn't able to play during the first two weeks of that season because of his ankle had been burned under a sun lamp in the training room Joe DiMaggio has walked alone, comparably and indisputably the finest baseball player of his time.
Night before last, with the Yankees playing the frowzy Athletics, DiMaggio was benched. Nothing like that ever happened before. Over the years, DiMaggio has missed many Yankee games, because of injuries or illness or military service. This was the first time a manager ever looked down a bench, looked past Joe DiMaggio and said, "Mapes, you play centerfield."
In the seventh inning Cliff Mapes hit a home run with a playmate on base and the score tied at 5-all. DiMaggio's substitute won the game, 7 to 6.
DiMaggio was taken out of the line-up so he could rest. This wasn't the end. He will be back and he will win a great many more games for the Yankees. Nevertheless, it was something that never happened before. Casey Stengel benched him.
The Things a Guy Remembers
The rest of this space could be filled easily, but the statistical record of DiMaggio's contributions to the Yankees‹his 1,552 American League and World Series games, his 2,090 hits, his 344 home runs, his unexampled feat of hitting safely in fifty-six consecutive championship games.
But that would make dull writing and duller reading and it's an old story, anyway. The little things which a fellow remembers furnish a cleaner idea of what he has meant to the Yankees than the record books ever could. A fellow remembers, for instance, a remark Bill Terry made fourteen years ago.
The Yanks had run second three times in a row before DiMaggio joined them, but in 1936 they won the pennant by nineteen and a half games. The rookie hit .323 that season and batted in 125 runs. In the World Series with the Giants he batted .346 and in the sixth and deciding game he made an unbelievable catch, racing back past the Eddie Grant monument in the Polo Grounds to the foot of the clubhouse stairs to grab a fly by Hank Leiber.
It was the last putout of the series. Joe kept on running as he caught the ball mounted a step or so up the clubhouse stairs, then remembered and stood at attention until President Roosevelt left the park. As his car rolled through the centerfield gate, the President lifted a hand in salute to the ball player there on the steps.
A little later in the Giants' clubhouse, when the newspaper men had run out of questions, Terry volunteered a statement.
"I'd like to add one thing," said the manager of the defeated team. "I've heard about how one player made the difference in the Yankees this year, made a championship club out of a loser. I never understood how that could happen until today. Now I know."
It was not, you see, a coincidence that the Yankees, who won for pennants in the eleven years before DiMaggio joined them, won eight in his eleven active seasons with the team.
The Way the Guys Acted
Once a newspaper man did pennance for his great sins by ghost writing a magazine series called "My Greatest Thrill," as told by assorted athletic heroes. He started, naturally, with DiMaggio. "Champ," he asked, "what was your greatest thrill?"
Joe started talking. He told about how, when he was a kid in high school in San Francisco, they had a teacher who would bring a radio to class during a World Series and tune in the game, and how he had sat there listening and dreaming of playing in a World Series and hitting a home run. At that time, Joe explained, he was just a sandlotter, but after a while he got into organized ball and finally he was in the Coast League and, he felt, coming closer to realization of his dream.
As he talked, he kept filling in the background with small details, a better newspaper man than the guy who was interviewing him. He told about coming to the Yankees and getting into a World Series in his first year. He had a great series, but he didn't hit a home run. He waited another year and got into another World Series, and he had to wait until the very last game of that one before he hit the big one.
That was it, he said. "That was my biggest thrill." He paused a moment, and then he said, "hitting in fifty-six straight games, that was no slouch, either. What I remember, when I broke George Sisler's record of forty-one games in Washington, our whole club ran out of the dugout to congratulate me. And when I broke Willie Keeler's National League record of forty-four in a game against Boston, they all came running out again. That's what I remember, the way the guys on the club acted."
Feeling Don't Matter
This was a shy and lonely guy talking. He is still, after all these years, a shy and lonely guy. They have been saying lately that he wasn't taking his decline gracefully. There have been pieces written criticizing him and pieces defending him. He needs no defense and there'll be nothing like that here. Just one last item:
He came downtown the other evening, after a game when he'd got no hits and the Yankees lost, to cut a record for his weekly radio show. The program began with Joe answering questions mailed in by fans and one of the questions concerned the popular practice of switching right-handed and left-handed hitters against left-handed and right-handed pitching. How did the guy who was taken out of the batting order feel about that?
"As far as his feelings are concerned," Joe said without hesitation, "it doesn't matter. His job is to help the club win." Anybody got a better answer?
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