Tuesday, March 09, 1999

Yankee Clipper has chapter in Cincinnati baseball lore




BY JOHN ERARDI
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Reds fan Irv Bollinger remembered watching New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio in Game 3 of the 1939 World Series at Crosley Field.

        “A ball was hit over Joe's head, and he went back on it and you could see him kind of buckle,” Mr. Bollinger recalled. “But he caught it. I remember thinking, "Not even the great DiMaggio can look graceful on the terrace.'”

        The terrace.

        Mr. Bollinger had seen countless visiting outfielders — including Babe Ruth of the Boston Braves in 1935 — fall on their fannies when their cleats came in contact with the “terrace,” the incline of ground that served as a warning track in left and center field at Crosley.

        The terrace wounded the pride of many an outfielder.

        Even the very good ones.

        But it hadn't gotten Joe DiMaggio.

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        Everybody knows what a great slugger Mr. DiMaggio was.

        The 56-game hitting streak ... the .325 lifetime batting average ... the 361 home runs in only 13 years playing in a Yankee Stadium, which in that era was known as “Death Valley” for right-handed hitters because of the 461-foot depth to left-center field.

        But what put Mr. DiMaggio over the top — besides the fact he was a great base-runner, daring enough to always take the extra base, yet instinctive enough to hardly ever get thrown out — is that he was the greatest center fielder of his era.

        Willie Mays said he idolized the fielding grace of Mr. DiMaggio.

        The best way to describe Mr. DiMaggio to Cincinnati fans is to bring up the name of the great defensive outfielder of the Big Red Machine — Cesar Geronimo.

        Reds general manager Bob Howsam targeted Mr. Geronimo in the 1972 Joe Morgan trade as a player the Reds had to have, or there would be no deal: Mr. Geronimo had a long, loping 9-foot stride that could cover ground quickly, and would shore up the Reds' defense on the new, speedy artificial surface of Riverfront Stadium.

        Mr. Geronimo had good speed and a powerful throwing arm. He could anticipate where a ball was going to end up and get there — hardly ever having to make a diving catch.

        Same with Mr. DiMaggio.

        One of the best things ever uttered about Mr. DiMaggio came from a regular fan at Yankee Stadium: “I've been coming to games here for five years, and he hasn't had a tough (fielding) chance yet!”

        Now, add to the Geronimo image these annual numbers: 130-plus RBI, 35-plus home runs and a batting average that regularly soared above .350.

        Now, you have Joe DiMaggio.

        Oh, and throw in 10 World Series and nine World Championships.

        Here's another way to understand Mr. DiMaggio's specialness.

        On the continuum of all-around baseball superstars whose aura has transcended the game since the lively ball era began in 1920, there are only four. With all due apologies to the late Mickey Mantle, who admitted he didn't get the most out of his abilities, they are:

        Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.

        Those are the Big Four, the players who defined not only their game, but American sport. If the national pastime were to commission its equivalent of Mount Rushmore, those are the four who should be chiseled from the mountain. (Sorry, Ty Cobb). Of course, Mr. Griffey's spot should be saved for last. By the time the other three faces are finished, we'll know whether Junior deserves it.

        But of the first three, there is no doubt.

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        The great Joe DiMaggio came to Cincinnati several times, the most historic of those being 1938 for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and 1939 for Games 3 and 4 of the World Series.

        He was a third-year major-leaguer in 1938, one of eight future Hall of Famers on the American League team that lost that day to the National League, 4-1.

        In 1939, Mr. DiMaggio arrived in Cincinnati — to the Netherland Hotel at Fifth and Race streets where “a crowd had gathered to catch a glimpse of the big, bad Yankees.” Among them was Lou Gehrig, who accompanied the team as a non-playing captain. He had been inactive since the discovery of his disabling disease earlier in the season. He still drew most of the attention from autograph-seekers.

        The Yankees were a powerhouse, and Mr. DiMaggio, only 24 years old and in his fourth major-league season, was the best of them. He won his first of three American League Most Valuable Player awards that year. He led the AL in hitting (.381), with 122 RBI and 30 home runs.

        On Aug. 2 of that season, Mr. DiMaggio made the catch the pundits regard as the best of his career. The Tigers' Hank Greenberg drove the ball high and deep to left-center field at Yankee Stadium. Mr. DiMaggio, standing in right-center because he was playing the left-handed Mr. Greenberg to pull the ball, charged out of his stance toward left-center even before the ball hit the bat.

        The runner on first base also charged from his stance, figuring Mr. DiMaggio had no chance of catching the drive. Mr. Greenberg dug around the bases, thinking he had a chance for an inside-the-park home run or, at the worst, a triple.

        Mr. DiMaggio, who glanced only once at the wall, kept running. Just to the left of the famous Yankees monuments in left-center, behind the flag pole and in front of the “461” sign, Mr. DiMaggio looked up, stretched out his glove and made the catch.

        Mr. Greenberg's description of the play indicates Mr. DiMaggio ran more than 200 feet to make the catch.

        On one occasion, earlier in Mr. DiMaggio's career, there was a Greenberg ball Mr. DiMaggio didn't get to; he had been playing too shallow. Lefty Gomez, the Yankees pitcher, asked Mr. DiMaggio why he had been playing so close to the infield.

        Mr. DiMaggio said, “I'm gonna make 'em forget Tris Speaker.”

        Mr. Gomez responded, “You keep playing there, you're gonna make 'em forget Lefty Gomez.”

        In 1939, the Yankees won 106 games on their 154-game schedule and had taken the AL flag over the Boston Red Sox and rookie Ted Williams by 17 games. Despite such New York power, Reds pitcher Paul Derringer, who was 25-7, locked up in a pitcher's duel with Red Ruffing in Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium.

        Mr. Derringer lost the game in the bottom of the ninth when, with the score 1-1, he gave up a triple to Charlie Keller, an intentional walk to Mr. DiMaggio and a game-winning single to Bill Dickey.

        Reds pitcher Bucky Walters (27-11) didn't fare as well in Game 2, giving up a double and home run to first baseman Babe Dahlgren in a 4-0 loss.

        The Series moved to Cincinnati, which hadn't hosted the Fall Classic since the ill-fated Black Sox games of 1919.

        The Reds were still trying to win their first legitimate World Championship; the Yankees had won the three previous, something no other team had ever done, not even Babe Ruth's Yankees.

        All reserved seats for Games 3 and 4 were sold, and by the early evening of Friday, Oct. 6 — 18 hours before game time — 500 people camped along Western Avenue to buy bleacher tickets.

        Peanut and hot-dog vendors worked the crowd, and dozens of automobiles slowly cruised the streets taking in the pregame atmosphere. The intersection of Western and Findlay resembled the “busy shopping district of a small-country town on a Saturday night.”

        In the third inning of Game 3 on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 7, the baseball writers said “DiMaggio finally got going after practicing batting all day Friday,” a day off between games.

        Off the Reds' Junior Thompson, Mr. DiMaggio hit a two-run homer that reporters described as “a towering smash that soared over the 383-foot mark on the center-field fence.” The Yankees won 7-3.

        Game 4 looked to be the Reds' going into the ninth inning.

        Tired-armed Mr. Derringer, pitching on two days' rest, had the Reds up 4-2 going into the ninth inning. Mr. Walters was on the mound when the Yankees tied the game on an error on a double-play ball by shortstop Billy Myers and an infield single.

        With two men and one out in the top of the 10th of the 4-4 game, Mr. DiMaggio stepped to the plate.

        He singled to right field to drive in the go-ahead run. When right-fielder Ival Goodman muffed the pickup, Charlie Keller charged around third base and blasted into Reds catcher Ernie “Schnozz” Lombardi, knocking him woozy.

        Seeing this, the Yankees third-base coach, Art Fletcher, waved Mr. DiMaggio home.

        “Just before DiMaggio got to home plate, Lombardi regained his composure,” Reds third baseman Billy Werber recalled. “(He) got the ball and made an effort to tag DiMaggio, but DiMaggio eluded him.”

        Mr. DiMaggio had never broken stride in his wild jaunt around the bases. The play came to be known as “Schnozz's Snooze,” and it further solidified Mr. DiMaggio's reputation as a heads-up base-runner.

        The Yankee Clipper also made two fine fielding plays in Game 4: In the second inning, following a Frank McCormick double, Mr. DiMaggio made a one-handed, running grab of Mr. Lombardi's drive to center field; in the third inning, with Mr. Derringer on first base, Mr. DiMaggio ran to the center-field gate to haul in Billy Werber's fly ball and save another run.

        In the bottom of the fifth inning, it appeared Mr. DiMaggio was going to snuff another rally, but his shoestring catch of Willard Hershberger's bloop trickled from his glove. The Reds scored three times in the inning.

        For the Series, Mr. DiMaggio hit .313 (5-for-16) with 1 HR, 3 RBI and 3 runs.

        “Joe was one of those right-handed hitters who hit the ball so hard,” Mr. Werber, the Reds' third baseman, remembered, “I found myself hoping he'd hit it to somebody else.”



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