By Zach Gewelb
“Yankee Clipper” Joe DiMaggio spent 13 years making baseball history from center field in the Bronx and earning plaudits as an American hero.
He left behind quite a legacy when he died of lung cancer at 84 in 1999. That legacy is brought back to life in “Dinner with DiMaggio,” written by Dr. Rock Positano, a close friend of the Yankee icon during DiMaggio’s later years.
The book, released by Simon & Schuster last week, comes 18 years after DiMaggio’s death, and the timing of the release is not a mistake.
“I think the most important thing is that this memoir has the unique opportunity to introduce a whole new group of people to Joe DiMaggio,” Positano said. “You have a lot of kids and millennials who don’t really know who Joe DiMaggio was. So I wanted to reintroduce to this new generation of people who might not know about him.”
DiMaggio, a notoriously private man, let few inside his personal circle of trust and, as one of the few, Positano offers incredible, rare insight into “Joltin’ Joe’s” life with stories ranging from the dinner table to Yankee Stadium.
Positano, who was 42 years younger than DiMaggio, first met the legendary outfielder in 1990, when an old baseball injury brought the unlikely pair together. A mutual friend recommended Positano, then an up-and-coming foot doctor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, to DiMaggio and the two made a connection that would last the remainder of his years. It wasn’t a perfect friendship — there were some ups and downs, like any other relationship — but one in which both sides respected one another.
DiMaggio’s dominance as a hitter and a fielder on the diamond is unquestioned. He was one of the greatest players of all time and a joined the Hall of Fame in 1955. His temperament off the field and as a human being was even more impressive, Positano said.
“What we hope to capture is how deep he was,” said Positano, who co-wrote the memoir with his brother John. “He had … tremendous depth, soul and integrity. He had an unbelievable intellect. I tried to point out in the book how smart Joe was. He wasn’t just a gifted athlete. The man was able to understand so many other things besides sports. He understood business, movie-making, the arts, pretty much everything. He was sharp as a knife and it was very rare that he missed anything; he was that perceptive and intuitive.”
The stories Positano relates in the memoir illustrate just how sharp the Hall of Famer was. DiMaggio had an answer for everything. He set a high standard on how to act, both privately and socially. DiMaggio, a native of California, always made sure he looked the part when he made public appearances, and made sure everyone he was involved with did the same.
Positano tells the story of how DiMaggio made him leave a dinner date with the slugger’s granddaughters because the doctor showed up without a tie.
“Didn’t anyone ever teach you about how to dress in the company of ladies?” DiMaggio asked Positano. “Women — especially my granddaughters — deserve more respect.”
DiMaggio came up with an intricate plot to have Positano’s beeper go off, giving the doctor a chance to leave the scene only to return later wearing a tie.
The nine-time World Series champion always believed in treating women with respect. DiMaggio also valued having positive relationships with children. “Joe D.” would always go out of his way to make children happy, whether it was signing a baseball or making a surprise appearance at a birthday party.
DiMaggio loved children because they “will never hurt you or betray you — only grown-ups will do that,” Positano writes.
The memoir also dives into DiMaggio’s love life and marriages to Dorothy Arnold and Marilyn Monroe. But the main focus of the book centers around personal experiences Positano shared with DiMaggio and each story further reveals the kind of person DiMaggio really was.
“What makes this book a little different is that it’s not a book about baseball. It’s more about human relationships, about life, about living,” Positano said. “What we wanted to be able to do was show that he was an iconic American who people didn’t really have access to, and show how he was just an everyday person who liked everyday things.”
Reach reporter Zach Gewelb by e-mail at zgewe