- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2002

The way it was

On a pleasant morning in June 1949, New York Yankees icon Joe DiMaggio arose from his bed in Manhattan's Edison Hotel and there was no pain.
Seven months earlier, DiMaggio had undergone surgery to remove a chronically bothersome bone spur from his right heel. That was supposed to cure the problem, but after one day of running in baseball spikes at the start of spring training, he could hardly walk.
Several weeks later, feeling better, DiMaggio played in an exhibition game. The pain returned worse than ever, and he returned to New York on crutches. Doctors blamed the pain on calcium deposits in the heel and said all he could do was wait for it to go away. If it went away.
So DiMaggio waited. He waited for 65 games while the Yankees, picked to finish third in the American League under new manager Casey Stengel, jumped to an early lead over the defending champion Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox. Then the Red Sox, featuring fearsome Ted Williams and a host of other sluggers, made a move. The teams were scheduled to play a four-game series at Fenway Park in late June, with Yankees fans hoping that Stengel's furious platooning could compensate for DiMaggio's absence.
After working out for several days, DiMaggio tested the heel in a charity game against the New York Giants, and it felt all right. "I might be ready for the Boston series," he told Stengel.
Replied the man who would guide the Yankees to 10 pennants in 12 years: "You're the boss."
The next day, still uncertain what to do, DiMaggio lunched with his pal Toots Shor in the latter's Manhattan restaurant. "Who's pitching for the Sox tonight?" Shor inquired.
"[Mickey] McDermott," said DiMaggio, referring to an erratic Boston left-hander. "Tough boy, particularly under the lights."
After several cups of black coffee and countless cigarettes, DiMaggio made up his mind. He took an afternoon flight to Boston, walked into the visitors' clubhouse at Fenway Park and slowly put on his gray road uniform with "NEW YORK" on the front and the big "5" on the back. Then, out of shape and 34 years old, he began one of the most dramatic comebacks in baseball history on the night of June28,1949.
Two persons very close to DiMaggio were eyewitnesses. His brother Dom, the Red Sox's star center fielder, entered the series with a 34-game hitting streak that ended during the weekend. And Boston manager Joe McCarthy had managed the Yankees for 15 years, including Joe's first four pennant-winning seasons.
In the first inning, his sensitive heel encased in a special cushioned shoe, DiMaggio singled off McDermott. In the third, he unloaded a two-run homer that provided the winning runs in the Yankees' 5-2 victory. In the ninth, he made a nice running catch of Williams' drive to deep right-center to help preserve it.
The next afternoon, with the Yankees trailing 7-1, DiMaggio got them back into the game with a three-run homer off Ellis Kinder in the fifth inning and won it with another dinger off Earl Johnson in the eighth for a 9-7 victory.
During batting practice the next day, a plane hovered over Fenway with a banner that read "The Great DiMaggio!" anticipating Ernest Hemingway's tribute a few years later in "The Old Man and the Sea." And once again, DiMaggio delivered with a mammoth blast that hit the light tower atop the Green Monster in left field, some 80 feet above home plate in the seventh inning. The Yankees won this one 6-3.
The Fenway faithful stood and applauded DiMaggio until their hands hurt. The hated New Yorkers had swept the series from their beloved "Sawx," dropping them 8 games out of first place, but what else could you do except cheer for this enemy?
Four home runs, nine RBI, five runs scored and a .455 batting average. How was it possible for any one man to do that much damage in one series after being mostly idle for nine months, even the Great DiMaggio?
Joe was characteristically laconic afterward. "You swing the bat, and you hit the ball," he said with a shrug.
Of course, the Red Sox roared back. They came into Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1 with a one-game lead and two to play. The first of these was "Joe DiMaggio Day," but the Clipper was weak, gaunt and tired after losing 15 pounds during a bout with pneumonia.
The Yankees won that game 5-4, tying for first place, and jumped to a 5-0 lead on the final day. But in the Boston ninth, a triple by Bobby Doerr past the stumbling DiMaggio led to three Red Sox runs.
Now here came DiMaggio, limping in from center field and taking himself out of the game to an immense ovation. A few minutes later, pitcher Vic Raschi got the third out. The Yankees were champions again despite DiMaggio's prolonged early season absence and some injuries. They went on to win the World Series over the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games, the first of five straight Series triumphs in a streak that had never been accomplished before and may never be again. Suddenly, Stengel was on his way to being a genius rather than a clown, as he had been regarded during unsuccessful managerial stints with the Dodgers and Boston Braves.
DiMaggio finished the season with a .346 batting average (his highest since 1941), 14 home runs and 67 RBI in 76 games. He played two more seasons, batting .301 in 1950 and .263 in 1951, before retiring because "I can't play like Joe DiMaggio anymore." Ahead remained nearly a half-century as "baseball's greatest living ex-player" before his death from cancer in 1999.
During his 13-year career, surprisingly brief because of World War II, DiMaggio left behind many indelible memories, primarily of his grace on the ball field and the 56-game hitting streak of 1941. But anybody who saw him destroy the Red Sox in late June 1949 is liable to recall that gladly, sadly or madly as the Yankee Clipper's finest hour.

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