Backstage with Ron Onesti: My day with 'Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio'
By RON ONESTI - firstname.lastname@example.org
Each year, as we swing into the baseball season, three things bring me to an out-of-body, “Field Of Dreams” experience: having a couple of smokie-link sandwiches in the left field box seats at Wrigley – facing the base that Santo built; throwing down a cold one while watching the post-home run fireworks at Comiskey (sorry, it will always be Comiskey); and recalling my day with a man who is spoken of in the same conversation as Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig – Joe DiMaggio.
For many years, I volunteered my time to The National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame on Taylor Street in Chicago. I produced all its fundraising events, was the lead designer for all the exhibits in the museum and was editor of its magazine, “Red, White and Green.” Because of this unique position, I was able to befriend some of the biggest names in sports history and become subject to classic behind-the-game stories.
As we were constructing the museum’s new home in Chicago, we were able to secure from the city of Chicago the parcel of land directly across the street for $1. It was a real estate deal that would have brought even Donald Trump to tears.
We designed the “Joe DiMaggio Piazza” complete with a beautiful bronze statue of the legend taking his signature swing, roman columns and Venetian tile.
Basically, it looked like the backyards belonging to many of my Italian-American cousins.
By way of Morris Engelberg, his attorney, business manager and author of “DiMaggio: Setting The Record Straight” we invited Mr. D to the groundbreaking ceremony. He accepted!
I was selected to coordinate this day. Definitely one of the most exciting pinch-me moments of my career.
Our first stop was at the Chicago Board of Trade, where Joe was to open the day of trading. We entered the vast trading floor where the electricity was high and the tension was as thick as Sunday lasagna. Then something happened that board Chairman Pat Arbor said had never occurred there before: business completely stopped and the traders paid homage to the Yankee great with a thunderous applause as he walked the floor to the opening bell platform. All our eyes welled up at this heartwarming tribute.
So, me being an event producer extraordinaire (at least I thought I was), I believed that every minute was well planned out. What I did not realize was that the ringing of the opening bell was just that, a quick action that equated to a three second endeavor. “Joe D” aptly clanged the large table-mounted bell (one that looked like the type you would see ending the rounds in a boxing match) with a wooden baseball bat, received World Series-winning cheers from the floor then looked at me and asked, “What’s next?”
I had assumed there was to be some ceremony connected with this historic moment. Some pomp and circumstance, some presentations … something!
But that was it, and all eyes were on me as to what the next move would be. The next thing I had planned was an 11:30 lunch. Now what do I do with Joe DiMaggio?
I asked Chairman Arbor if I could sequester our small group in his office for a while to which he eagerly complied.
Here’s the cool thing: For over an hour, a couple of us from The Italian American Sports Hall of Fame with USA Basketball Director and owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks Jerry Colangelo and NASCAR champion Chip Ganassi listened in awe as legendary Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda and fellow Cooperstown inductee Joe DiMaggio traded quips and stories about Berra, Gherig, Mantle and a few other larger-than-life sports figures.
The lack of Marilyn Monroe talk was conspicuous by its absence. Story after story, told in first person as the recounting of memories …what an amazing experience that was!
It wound up being quite a day (and quite a night), one that I could describe in better detail if I had a dozen or so more pages here.
The exquisite Joe DiMaggio Piazza took about a year to complete.
Unfortunately, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, “The Yankee Clipper” passed away before the unveiling of the statue and the piazza. His brother, former Boston Red Sox great, the “Little Professor” Dom DiMaggio attended and graciously spoke on behalf of his brother:
“How wonderful this tribute to my brother is here in Chicago, a place that he truly loved and where he had many close friends. And how fitting it is that this Joe DiMaggio Piazza is located on Taylor Street in Little Italy. A little known fact about the DiMaggio family – we spent most of our young lives in a home on Taylor Street in San Francisco’s Little Italy."
All 500 of us in attendance simultaneously dropped our jaws. He was born in California, grew up in San Francisco, became a New York legend, and died in Florida. But when it came to memorializing this legendary figure, it was the fans from Chicago that stepped up.
To quote the song “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio”by Les Brown and his Band of Renown, “From coast to coast that’s all you’ll hear; Of Joe the one man show. He’s glorified the horsehide sphere; Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.”
Joe only autographed one baseball during his visit.
Yes, it was a very cool gift to me from somebody whom I never thought I would meet.
To add to the cool factor – a subsequent visit from another Yankee great, Yogi Berra, resulted in his signature on the famed DiMaggio ball.
But the best part of it all? I was given the greatest gift of all. I was able to introduce my hero to his hero. My dad, the proud World War II veteran, escorted him that day. Two true America heroes.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. He provides personal recollections of events and people that he has encountered over the years. Send comments to email@example.com.