I spent almost 20 years in the hospitality industry either as a Controller/CFO or General Manager and during that time was fortunate to meet a number of athletes, actors, and actresses that stayed at the resort properties that I managed. But early on in my career I was the Controller for a not-so-great property in Andover, Massachusetts. It wasn't a dive by any means, but it was nothing special and catered to business clients and government types visiting Raytheon and other companies in the area. This was in the early '90's when collecting, buying, and selling baseball cards was at its peak and one of the ways the hotel made a little money was hosting card shows in the ballroom.
These shows came and went, but generally were nothing special. Occasionally I wandered the aisles marveling at the outrageous prices for cards, autographs, and memorabilia. So when our Director of Sales announced another upcoming card show it barely registered - until she announced the special guest that would be signing autographs that day.
I had been a Yankee fan ever since I could remember. Growing up in Connecticut you chose sides early in life - either a Yankee fan or Red Sox fan (nobody rooted for the Mets). Being born in the mid-60's I was too young to see Mantle and Maris play. Instead, my first exposure to the Yankees were the lowly CBS years with players like Mike Kekich, Ron Blomberg, Horace Clarke, Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Roy White.
As I got older the team got better and I learned the history of the Yankee Greats including Ruth, Gherig, Berra, Ford, and Mantle. And of course, Joe Dimaggio. Joltin' Joe. The Yankee Clipper. In the days of my youth he was also known as Mr. Coffee for those commercials he did on TV. And now The Great Joe Dimaggio was coming to my hotel to sign autographs during the card show. Being an Executive Committee member of the hotel I immediately seized the opportunity and assigned myself to be Mr. Dimaggio's personal escort and security for the day. Little did I know that would lead to an unforgettable adventure.
On the morning of the card show we had a staff meeting concerning the arrival of Mr. Dimaggio. He was due to arrive two hours before the start of his autograph session and we coordinated the route we would have his limousine take through the parking lot and then escort him to a private suite to relax before the event. After the meeting I walked the perimeter of the property and noticed a couple of news vans in the parking lot including NBC News. But this was not our local NBC affiliate - this was NBC National News.
Keep in mind that back in those days we didn't have cell phones and text messages for immediate communications. Like most hotels we relied on large walkie talkie type radios to communicate and coordinate within the hotel. While I was walking the property I received a message that Mr. Dimaggio would be arriving in 60 minutes, so I relayed that message to the rest of the staff via radio including a reminder of what entrance Mr. Dimaggio would be using. It was then that I noticed something odd - members of the NBC crew all started moving slowly but surely to that entrance. They were monitoring our radio communications!
This changed everything. I had never met Joe Dimaggio before but I had read a lot about him over the years and the one thing that I knew was that he was a very private person and for the most part he wanted to be left alone. He rarely did autograph signing sessions, so his appearance at our hotel was a BIG DEAL. As the self appointed head of security for Mr. Dimaggio I needed to do something about this and do it fast. I gathered the pertinent staff for a quick briefing and told them what I had observed with the NBC news crew. I designated a new Top Secret entrance for Mr. Dimaggio's arrival and told the staff to ignore anything I said on the radio regarding which entrance Mr. Dimaggio would enter. I then sent six hotel staff to another entrance on the far side of the building to clear a space and guard the door. After that I announced over the radio that the drop off point was changed and Joe D would now arrive at that far side entrance in 30 minutes. Sure enough, the NBC crew slowly made it's way over to that entrance. Gotcha!
The plan was set. I went inside and called Mr. Dimaggio's manager and told him that NBC news was waiting in ambush and told him the plan to dupe the news crew. The key, as I told him, was that the limo had to get to the real drop off point quickly to avoid the press. I headed to the real drop off point and waited by myself while the rest of the staff was "guarding" another entrance and roping off another hallway inside the hotel.
The limo arrived but instead of moving quickly to the designated spot it moved slowly through the parking lot. That turned out to be a big mistake. Suddenly, I heard the NBC producer screaming to his people over the radio channel to get to the other side of the building. What should have been a smooth drop off and escort inside was about to become utter chaos.
As soon as I opened the limo door for Mr. Dimaggio and began to introduce myself the reporter for NBC news pushed me aside and jumped in the back of the car! He was pressing up against Joe D as he shoved a microphone in his face. The cameraman tried to brace himself against the open door and crouch down to get his shot. Crouched down with a heavy camera on his shoulder was definitely not a good idea and my Maintenance Chief slung him to the ground and pinned him away from the vehicle. That was my opening to reach inside the car and grab the NBC reporter (I wish I remembered his name). I leaned back in and reached out my hand to Mr. Dimaggio and I actually said to him, "I'm with the hotel. Take my hand and come with me if you want to be safe!" It was like a Hollywood action movie!
The look on Mr. Dimaggio's face was complete shock. He was wide eyed like he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"What's going on?" he asked nervously.
"Follow me and I'll explain," I replied. The situation was surreal.
We went through the side entrance of the hotel and the door slammed locked behind us. The hallways had already been blocked off and we made it around the corner to his private suite. I got Mr. Dimaggio seated and the shock wore off and then he started to get angry. He didn't raise his voice, but his face reddened and he was mad.
"What do they want with me?"
"Why did they do that?"
I explained to him what I knew based upon the question the reporter had shouted at him in the back of the car during all of the commotion. NBC wanted to interview him because he was charging money for autographs. Players charging for autographs was a new concept, and for back then it wasn't exactly cheap, either. It was $60 for an autographed photo and $100 for an autographed baseball. People paid collectors and dealers for autographs, but not players. This was new and NBC wanted to know why he was doing this.
A minute later Mr. Dimaggio's Manager came in and again explained the situation. I'm just a fly on the wall while all of this is going on. Joe D was livid that the press would want to question him about signing fees. "I need to make money to live!" he exclaimed. His manager told him he would take care of it and left the room. It was quiet. And I was alone in a room with Joe Dimaggio.
After the events of the past 5 minutes I'm feeling both embarrassed and upset. I apologized profusely for what had just happened. He assured me that it was not my fault and then proceeded to have a few choice words about the press. I reintroduced myself, reached out, and shook his hand. It was then that I noticed that the Yankee Clipper was old. Very old. He wasn't the same strapping ballplayer I saw in pictures playing for the Yankees or even silver haired legend in the Mr. Coffee commercials. His hands were bony and frail. His face was a bit gaunt and his skin was wrinkled and it sagged around his cheeks and neck. He stood with a bit of a stoop and did the "old man shuffle" with his feet when he went to sit down. Joe Dimaggio was an old man.
We sat and chit chatted a bit about the weather and this and that, but he was not an easy man to talk to. I knew going in that he was deeply private so I was afraid to ask any questions about his life or career directly so instead I asked about the current Yankee team and about how he still enjoyed Old Timer's Day. But rightfully so, his thoughts were on what happened with the news crew and he went on to explain to me that he didn't make a lot of money as a ballplayer and even at his age he still had to make a living. At that moment I felt kind of sad for Joe Dimaggio.
His manager came back into the suite and told Joe that he had arranged an interview with the NBC crew. Joe D was not happy about that and let his manager know it in no uncertain terms. It took a few minutes of negotiating and finally Joe agreed to do it as long as there were no cameras present. We made our way to a meeting room close to the ballroom for the interview. I stayed outside the door and waited for Mr. Dimaggio. Although I could not hear the conversation, there were a lot of loud, muffled voices emanating from the other side.
Finally, Joe came out and we made our way to the ballroom so he could sign autographs. I spent the next few hours at his side, occasionally fetching him a sandwich or a Coke - Diet Coke to be specific. I only made that mistake once!
Throughout the afternoon adults and children waited in line to get his autograph. Many people came with photos of him and Ted Williams and many of those had already been signed by the Splendid Splinter. Dimaggio adamantly refused to sign those pictures. But at one point he relented and I saw a peak at a kinder - but still stern - Joe Dimaggio. A young buy that looked to be 11 or 12 years old had a picture of Joe and Ted that already had Williams' signature on it. Joe leaned over the table and motioned the kid closer, then gripped the kid's arm pulling him even closer. "I'll sign this for you" he said with just a hint of a smile. But then his eyes narrowed, he gripped the boy's arm a bit tighter and in a stern voice he admonished, "Don't you sell this or give it to one of those card dealers!"
After signing the photo Joe turned to me and said, "These dealers pay kids a few bucks to wait in line to get my autograph and then they go and sell them." Obviously, Mr. Dimaggio was not happy about other people making a buck off of his signature. I can't say that I blame him, especially considering the times he played in. He didn't get to play in the free agency era or mega million dollar endorsement deals. After that I got the feeling he'd much rather be back home in San Francisco than sitting around signing autographs to make a living.
As the session came to an end and the crowd was sent away I finally got the nerve to ask Mr. Dimaggio for his autograph. Immediately his manager jumped between us and demanded money for the signature. "He doesn't sign anything for free!" Thankfully, Joe brushed him aside and gave him a look like, "Are you kidding me?" and signed the photo I had brought along. With that I walked Joe Dimaggio back to his waiting limousine, shook hands, and said goodbye.
It was a long, exciting, and exhausting day spent with one of the greatest New York Yankee players of all time and I day have have never forgotten. I've read many times since then that Joe Dimaggio was a complicated man and I experienced that first hand. He was cordial, but not friendly. He wasn't rude or demanding, but he was definitely surly at times. I spent 20 years in the hotel industry, most at beautiful resort locations where I had the opportunity to meet many wonderful athletes including John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, John Elway, George Blanda, and more. I've also met my fair share of jerk athletes including Johnny Bench and Shannon Sharpe. Joe Dimaggio was far from being warm and fuzzy and he was far from being a jerk.
The best way for me to describe him and that day? Complicated.