A friend recently sent a picture of his son getting Mark McGwire’s autograph at spring training to my Blackberry. After sending a reply with the obvious joke, “is that a syringe he’s autographing,” it made me wish I had a picture of my encounter with one of the greatest players of all time, Joe DiMaggio.
The year was 1969, I had just turned 8 years old that summer (yes, I’m that old). It was a Sunday evening in late August. My mother and I were seeing my father off at LaGuardia Airport for another business trip. This was back in the day, before security checks, when you would go to the gate, say goodbye and stay to watch the plane take off. We were walking past one of the airport cocktail lounges when I spotted him in the back. I urgently tugged on my dad’s sport coat to stop him before we got too much further away. “Dad, I just saw a guy who looks like Joe DiMaggio!”
My mother and father stopped and looked at each other. One of them asked me where I saw him, to which I answered that he was in the back of the bar we just passed. They were skeptical. How does an 8 year old even know what Joe DiMaggio looks like, much less be able to pick him out in the back of a smoky, dimly lit airport cocktail lounge? I insisted I knew who Joe DiMaggio was and I was sure he was back there. My mother urged my dad to check it out. Shrugging his shoulders, Dad walked back, looked in the bar, returned to us and with a hint of a smile said, “Yep, that’s him.” To which my mother replied, “well, you have to take Robbie in there and get his autograph!”
She didn’t exactly have to twist my Dad’s arm, he was a big Joe DiMaggio fan. I still have the picture of Joe D he painted back when he was a boy and Joe D was still roaming center field at the old Yankee Stadium; it hangs in my middle son, Matthew’s room. My Dad reached into his sport coat and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen and then led me into the bar on a mission to get Joe DiMaggio’s autograph.
We walked to the back of the bar where Joe was sitting with a group of men all wearing the same green sport jacket that Joe was wearing. He was a coach for the Oakland A’s that summer and they had just finished a weekend series with the New York Yankees. They had lost that day in a close one, 6-5. Joe was smoking a cigarette and had a drink in his hand when we approached. It seemed like Joe was holding court with all the men in green sport coats paying close attention to the greatest living baseball player.
My Dad interrupted, holding out the paper and pen, “excuse me Mr. DiMaggio, I’d appreciate it if you would please sign an autograph for my son.” Joe looked up and without saying a word, he put down his drink, took the pen and paper, signed his autograph and handed the paper and pen back to my Dad. We thanked Joe, but he had already turned his attention back to his friends in the green sport jackets. Our cue to scram and leave them alone.
“So, was it him? Did you get his autograph?” My mother couldn’t wait to find out as we returned to where she was waiting outside the bar. “Yes it was,” my Dad answered. “And we got his autograph too.” He then paused and added, “we probably should have asked Hank Bauer for his autograph too, he was sitting right next to Joe.”
Before this, I’ve never wished for a photograph of that encounter with Joe D; the moment, the setting, everything about that encounter is forever etched in my mind. But seeing the photo of my friend’s son with Mark McGwire in his clean crisp Cardinals uniform at spring training made me think, what fun it would be to compare this seemingly innocent encounter with the notorious poster boy for steroids with my encounter with the heroic Hall of Famer, Joe DiMaggio, smoking and drinking with his baseball buddies in a dimly lit airport cocktail lounge.