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Notes on the National Pastime
Page 20
"I don't want to play golf. When I hit a ball, I want someone else to go chase it." -- Rogers Hornsby
It was 1949, a bright summer morning late in June, and in his room at the Edison Hotel in Manhattan, Joe DiMaggio rolled out of bed. When he gingerly lowered his right foot to the floor, the incessant, stabbing pain [from bone spurs] in his heel that had dogged him for the past couple of years had miraculously vanished in the night ....
An operation had been performed to correct the condition over the winter, and the doctors had told him the problem had been cured. Yet when he tried to practice during spring training, there were days when the heel pained him so badly that his lips flowed blood, he was biting them so hard. While his teammates were getting into shape for the coming season, he would sit for hours on the beach of his bungalow home on the Gulf of Mexico, staring at the horizon and at the lapping waves, wondering if and when the pain would ever go away. Before spring camp broke, he finally agreed to return to John Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore for another operation.
DiMaggio, always a distant person, became morose and especially ill-tempered from the discomfort he was in .... When he moved to New York his whereabouts were kept from the public and the press .... DiMaggio disconnected his phone in the Edison Hotel and tried to hide.
In his hotel room he lay in bed and watched the Yankees on television, the new electronic marvel of the day, and he would umpire the pitches on the screen trying to retain his batting eye. But the angle of the camera was misleading and when DiMaggio saw he was consistently calling the pitches incorrectly, he began to fear that he was losing his batting eye ....
Through the months of April and May and much of June, DiMaggio remained in seclusion, waiting for the pain in his heel to subside as the doctors had promised it would. He really didn't believe them until the sunny morning in June when he arose to find that the pain had finally disappeared.
June 28 was a sunny afternoon in Boston, and though the heat had eased for the past couple of days, still there was no rain to bring relief to the parched Massachusetts Bay city. On street corners newsboys hawking the Herald and the Globe and the Record were announcing that Joe DiMaggio would be playing in the upcoming three-game series beginning here tonight, his initial appearance of the season after having missed the first sixty-five games....
There were bad feelings between the Yankees and the Red Sox, and more than thirty-six thousand people, the largest crowd ever to attend a night game in Fenway Park history, were crunched into the little antiquated Boston bandbox to see the matched skills of the two teams.
Inside the Yankee clubhouse, in the bowels of the park beneath the stands, there was an uncharacteristic revelry. DiMaggio, a man who rarely joined in the pranks or the joking, preferring instead to remain aloof, wrestled with Charlie Keller and clowned with Phil Rizzuto. He displayed an unconcealed joy just to be playing again, and his teammates could feel a lightening of their load by his mere presence. Without DiMaggio they would not have been able to survive over the long, protracted schedule, but with him back, they now had a real chance....
The Yankees jumped out to a quick three-nothing lead in the second inning on a home run. In the third inning Phil Rizzuto singled, and then DiMaggio, standing at the plate with his feet spread wide and parallel, his bat held back and stock still, snapped his wrists at a fast ball and pulled it on a high arc into the screen which tops the six-story high, left-field wall for two more runs. Rizzuto, on first, started jumping up and down as he raced around the bases, shouting, "Holy cow, holy cow," and after DiMaggio rounded third and loped toward the plate, the rest of the Yankees met him and escorted him back to the dugout....
DiMaggio had less dramatically demonstrated his leadership in other ways. Early in the game Johnny Pesky, the combative Red Sox second-baseman, raced from first to second base trying to break up a double play on a ground ball hit to second-baseman Coleman. Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto raced to second to take the pivot, fearlessly firing to first to complete the play. As he did, Pesky slid into him with a hard rolling block, tumbling the little shortstop to the ground, kneeing him in the face, and knocking him unconscious for several minutes. The shaken Rizzuto was able to continue, and by the eighth inning most of the specators had forgotten the incident when DiMaggio led off the inning for the Yankees with a walk. The next batter hit a ground ball to the infield, and Red Sox shortstop Vern Stephens glided over toward second to take the throw. As he did so DiMaggio threw a vicious block at Stephens, hurtling him to the ground and separating him from the ball and most of his senses. The Boston fans booed the play, but DiMaggio was only retaliating, giving notice to Pesky and any of the others that if there was going to be any funny business, they would have to answer to him personally.
Another large crowd arrived for the second contest of the series and there was much whooping and hollering when the Red Sox opened a 7-1 lead after only four innings. DiMaggio, who awoke stiff and swollen legged, was having a more difficult time .... In the fifth inning two men reached base before DiMaggio came to bat, and for the second time in two days he snapped a fast ball for a home run making the score 7-4 and drawing a nice hand from the Boston crowd. The Yankees scratched out three more runs to tie the score at 7-7. There were two outs in the eighth inning when DiMaggio dragged himself to the plate. After taking the first pitch, he pulled a high curve ball and lined [it] a good ten feet above the Fenway Park wall and screen for a third home run and the ball game. [Casey] Stengel bounded up the steps of the dugout at the crack of the bat, and as DiMaggio unemotionally glided around the bases, the Yankee manager raised his arms high and began bowing like a Moslem praising Allah. In the stands the deafening ovation for DiMaggio transcended all partisan lines ....
Afterward in the crowded, sweaty visitors' locker room, the reporters mobbed around DiMaggio's locker. Many of these men had predicted that DiMaggio would never play again, and they were staring at him in unprofessional awe. One asked, "Joe, you only had eight workouts before you came here. You've hit three home runs in two games. What's the secret?"
DiMaggio, exhausted, sitting back in his locker sipping beer, considered the question and somberly answered between sips, "You merely swing the bat and hit the ball."
-- Peter Golenbock
Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964

 Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964, Peter Golenbock
Copyright 1975 by Peter Golenbock
Published by Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1975

available at ABEBOOKS