- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

Here's a pretty good bit of baseball trivia for your consideration: Did Joe DiMaggio ever play any position other than center field for the New York Yankees?
The answer is yes. Fifty-one years ago tomorrow, on July 3, 1950, the Yankee Clipper played first base for one game against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium.
The experience was not a raving success. Although DiMaggio handled 13 putouts without an error, he looked extremely awkward on one play something terribly embarrassing to a man known for his amazing grace in the outfield and at bat.
It happened on a swinging bunt down the first-base line. DiMaggio raced in, but pitcher Tom Ferrick got to the ball first and yelled, "I got it." Trying to scramble back to the bag, DiMaggio fell and nearly was stepped on by the runner. Cameras clicked, and papers the next day carried a picture of the great DiMag crawling around on his hands and knees.
"He was furious to look so clumsy," Ferrick said many years later. "He was enraged."
Said Tommy Henrich, who alternated between the outfield and first base, before the game: "He's afraid of making a dumb play. It would have killed him to make a stupid play."
Nowadays, of course, such a play would be shown endlessly on TV. But veteran sportswriters of the day, who generally idolized DiMaggio, covered for him. In the New York Times, John Drebinger wrote, "It may be reported without fear of contradiction that the Clipper acquitted himself exceptionally well." In the Washington Post, Shirley Povich told readers, "DiMaggio didn't botch anything around first base."
At the time, DiMaggio was 35 years old and had patrolled center field masterfully since 1936. The switch came about because the Yankees were overloaded with outfielders while their three first basemen the ailing Henrich, Johnny Mize and Joe Collins all had significant weaknesses. Also, the team had lost nine of 12 games and stood four games behind Detroit after winning the World Series the previous year in Casey Stengel's first season as manager.
Relations between Stengel and DiMaggio were frosty at best. The player regarded himself as an icon and Stengel as an interloper. In the spring of 1949, DiMaggio asked a writer what he thought of Casey, who had failed during previous managerial stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves. The writer replied, "I never saw such a bewildered guy in my life," and Joe nodded. "That's what I think, too," he said.
Obviously, Stengel could have shifted one of his other outfielders to first base. Perhaps he was using the occasion to assert his authority, to show DiMaggio that not even he was bigger than the team. Of such devious gestures, Casey was eminently capable. Or perhaps, as he was quoted at the time, Stengel was simply trying to extend the career of a valuable player. Regardless of his motivation, he went about making the change in an unusual fashion.
Rather than approaching DiMaggio about playing first base, Casey asked co-owner Dan Topping to relay the message because he knew DiMaggio couldn't refuse Topping. DiMaggio was livid. The two barely spoke again before DiMaggio retired following the 1951 season.
In public, however, DiMaggio protected his image as a consummate team man. Before the game, he told reporters, "If somebody will just show me where first base is, I'm ready." But when he stepped onto the field for infield practice and found photographers clustered near the bag, he snapped, "No pictures."
Povich told it differently in the Post he had DiMaggio saying, "Shoot your heads off, boys. I don't know what kind of a first baseman I am yet, but I can put on an act for you."
Opposing players cut DiMaggio no slack. When he worked out at first base the previous day in Boston, Red Sox catcher Birdie Tebbetts chirped, "Hey, DiMag, better get some shinguards." It is not recorded whether DiMaggio smiled, but it seems unlikely.
It is interesting to speculate how long, or if, the experiment might have continued, but DiMaggio caught a break from the horsehide gods. In the Washington game won by the Senators 7-2 Yankees outfielder Hank Bauer sustained a sprained ankle that would sideline him indefinitely. That relieved the outfield glut, and the next day DiMaggio was back in center field for good.
A subsequent visit teams made four trips to each city in those days of eight-team leagues proved much happier for DiMaggio. On Sept. 10, he slammed three home runs into the left field bleachers at Griffith Stadium, where it was 405 feet down the line, the only time in his 13-year career he had done so. Batting a mere .260 at midseason, DiMaggio surged in the second half to finish at .301, with 32 homers and 122 RBI, as the Yankees won the second of their 10 pennants in 12 seasons under Stengel.
That was Joe's last big season. In 1951, he slumped to .263 with 12 homers and 71 RBI. After Life magazine published a scouting report on the Yankees that indicated how far the great man had slipped, he quit "because I can't play like Joe DiMaggio anymore."
Ahead for DiMaggio was a brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe in 1954 and more than four decades of retirement as a baseball immortal before his death from cancer in March 1999. Certainly, DiMaggio had many moments of greatness on the field more than almost any other player. But the day he trotted out to first base in Washington was not one of them.

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