Sunday, February 12, 2017, was an important day for me, a very important day. Let me explain.
Back in the early nineteen seventies, when I was a news commentator on WBZ-TV in Boston, I was asked to appear at a fund-raising event at the recently opened New England Aquarium on Boston’s Central Wharf. I was not asked to speak, nor was anyone else. The star attraction was the venue itself, which housed what was then the largest circular fish tank in the world. Patrons sipped Chardonnay and noshed on scallops wrapped in bacon as they gazed up close at sharks, giant sea turtles and the like. My assignment was to circulate among them (the patrons, not the sharks) and talk up the event. My line of patter would go something like this – Hi folks, I’m Dick Flavin from Channel Four. Isn’t this a terrific place? Have you seen the penguins yet? – that sort of thing. Why the patrons would be more interested in hearing some guy from local television flap his gums than in watching a starfish at the bottom of the fish tank was a mystery. But that’s what I did.
I went up to one group of seven or eight people and started into my spiel when a little guy whom I hadn’t noticed popped out of the group, grabbed me by the hand, and said, “I know who you are. My wife and I watch you on the news and we really enjoy your work. My name is Dom DiMaggio.”
I was dumbstruck. The great hero of my boyhood had introduced himself to me. I babbled an incoherent response and spent the rest of the evening wandering around in a daze. When I got home after the event I stayed up half the night composing a three-page letter telling him how much he had meant to my growing up years.
When I was in the third grade in Merrymount School in Quincy, I became the only boy in my class who had to wear glasses. The other kids teased me about it, though not in a mean-spirited way. Still, I was constantly reminded that I was different. This was long before the age of contact lenses and kids with glasses were thought to be nerdy, or even worse, delicate. I searched for a role model and luckily I didn’t have to look far. The centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox was Dom DiMaggio and he wore glasses. In 1946 he was, I believe, the only position player in the American League with glasses and he was good. I mean really good. Back then two-thirds of the American League starting outfield in the annual All-Star game automatically consisted of baseball’s two biggest stars, Ted Williams and Dom’s big brother, Joe. That meant one opening up for grabs among every other outfielder in the league. More often than not the third starting outfielder was Dom DiMaggio. That’s how good he was, not quite on the level of Ted and Joe, but better than everyone else.
I followed him closely and studied his accomplishments. I learned that he was the only outfielder in American League history to record five hundred putouts in a single season before the schedule was expanded from 154 to 162 games (only two others have done it since then). He still holds the major league record for most chances accepted per game over the length of his career. In his rookie year he played in the field in only ninety-four games, that’s only 61% of the games on the schedule, and still led the league in assists by an outfielder. On offense, he had more base hits during the years he played (discounting 1953, when he batted only three times) than any other player in the major leagues. He set a record for runs batted in by a leadoff hitter. And he is the only player in the twentieth century to average more than one hundred runs scored per season and not be elected to the Hall of Fame. Those are only some of the things he did as a player, and they do not even begin to tell the story of what an outstanding man he was.
A few weeks after my aquarium encounter with him, my wife and I were sitting in the lounge of a restaurant waiting for our table when the waitress came over with a round of drinks compliments of “that couple in the corner.” I looked over and there were Dom and Emily DiMaggio, waving at us. That was the beginning of a friendship that I have treasured more than any other in my lifetime. I came to appreciate what a wonderful family man he was; how successful he was in business; and how generous he was to worthy charities, chief among them the Jimmy Fund.
He shared much of his life with me, like the memorable morning I spent at his kitchen table listening to him and his brother Joe talk baseball; they both pored over the box scores every day and knew who was hot and who was not. Another time I stood next to a golf cart in which he and Enos Slaughter wee sitting, kibitzing over the seventh game of the 1946 World Series, the game in which Slaughter made his famous mad dash from first to home to win the game and the series for the Cardinals. Slaughter’s take: he’d have never tried it had not Dom pulled up lame while legging out a game tying double in the top half of the inning. On several occasions I sat with Dom and Ted Williams and was always struck by Ted’s deferential attitude towards him. Ted admired him greatly because of all he had done and the way he lived his life.
People only dream of having that kind of special access. And it was handed to me by my boyhood hero and lifelong role model.
In 2007, I conducted a long interview for Red Sox Productions with Dom in which we discussed all that he had accomplished in his long and productive life. Rather than edit it down, NESN ran it in full as a two-part program. After he passed away in 2009 his son Peter told me that on the night he lay dying, a DVD of those programsplayed in a loop so he could hear it.
Oh, about February 12, 2017. It was important because it was the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. How lucky I was – no, how blessed I was – to have had him as a hero and to have known him.
I loved him then. I love him now. And I always will.
THE LITTLE PROFESSOR
A player must be worthy to be in the Hall of Fame
It must be clear he had the stuff by how he played the game.
Three ways there are to measure him that cannot be ignored;
One is hitting, two is fielding and three is runs he scored.
At each of those one man stood out, that’s why we should bestow
Enshrinement in the Hall of Fame on Dom DiMaggio.
In the years he played he had more hits that any other man.
He had more doubles than them all, except for Ted and Stan.
Look up all the runs he scored because they clearly state
That Dom trailed only Williams in times he crossed the plate.
When he was out in center field, that’s where Dom excelled,
And the proof is in the records that he set and held
His chances and putouts per game over a career –
Records that he holds today - stand up every year.
He set single season records back in nineteen forty-eight
But for expansion they’d still stand. In the outfield he was great.
And if all that were not enough, here’s still another reason:
One hundred runs he averaged, that’s what he scored per season.
The only man to do that who’s not now in the Hall.
Surely he deserves to have his plaque upon the wall.
Dom DiMaggio, great player, credit to the game,
And as a man, we’ll tell you this; he’s in our Hall of Fame.
Reprinted from Red Sox Rhymes: Verses and Curses with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.