Everything Joe DiMaggio ever did was open to mythology. He was that rare icon beloved across his nation, that unique hero onto whom an entire populace conveyed meaning, personality and feeling. On the field, Joe was an all-time great, a giant whose final numbers were stifled by war and the gaping Yankee Stadium. But off the field, he was perhaps even more legendary. To a large extent, the great DiMaggio was a construct of fable, a paragon of comportment created by an awestruck media and enriched by an adoring citizenry.
His life was a mosaic of amazing stories, some real, some embellished, some totally imagined. Everybody has their personal favourite, from the phenomenal hitting streak of 1941 to the showcase marriage with Marilyn Monroe in 1954. But one tale is held particularly dear by European baseball fans: the reminiscence about his visit to Italy after retirement, when the vaunted Yankee Clipper faced a fierce local pitcher and produced a hitting display that still echoes in the annals.
Joe ventured to Rome in 1957, six years after retiring from the Yankees. Of course, Italy was the native land of his parents and their forebears, so Joe always tried to maintain a bond with the nation. On this particular excursion, DiMaggio was enjoying lunch when he overheard that a ballgame was scheduled at the little old stadium in Nettuno, a small hamlet nestled forty miles south of Rome on the cusp of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Joe dropped his knife and fork and asked to be driven immediately to the venue, anxious to see the quality of baseball in his motherland.
What happened when he arrived is a little sketchy, but local legend paints an achingly romantic image. It’s said that Joe was accorded a hero’s welcome at the ballgame between the Nettuno Glen Grants and AS Roma, which was played out before local townsfolk at Borghese Field. Aged 42, DiMaggio was still a huge celebrity. Nettuno was delighted to see him.
After much cajoling, Joe agreed to take some swings against Carlo Tagliaboschi, who possessed the best fastball in town, perhaps in all of Italy. At first, the Jolter thought his involvement would be little other than a friendly exhibition, a few circus swings to placate the locals. After all, he hadn’t swung a bat in years. Anything more strenuous would be difficult. Yet once the crowd began to hoot and holler as Tagliaboschi busted two strikes past the great Yankee master, Joe got serious, taking off his jacket and rolling up the sleeves on his crisp shirt. “Throw now,” he barked, peering out at the suddenly human hurler. DiMaggio never did like anybody questioning his pride.
Naturally daunted, Tagliaboschi came in with another heater, and Joe unleashed that sweet, legendary swing once again, stunning this humble seaside town with the force of a mighty blow. The ball soared high into the air, far into the breeze. How far did it travel? Well, depending on who you ask, and how tolerant you are to myth, the ball either flew over trees, cleared entire streets, or, somewhat magically, plopped into the warm surf of the gaping Mediterranean. Joe then proceeded to hit three, four, maybe even five home runs in a row, each solidifying his majesty, each creating another chapter in his fairytale life.
Obviously, this fable is difficult to fully verify. However, in his opus Baseball in Europe, the brilliant Josh Chetwynd writes that DiMaggio was quoted by the Washington Post, which carried the story immediately and that, years later, USA Today mentioned the episode in a biography of Joltin’ Joe. So we can say with some certainty that the event did happen. Joe DiMaggio did travel to Italy and take some swings at a local baseball game. But, naturally, what cannot be confirmed is whether he hit a ball practically out of Nettuno, or whether his hitting display was quite as dramatic as legend insists.
However, that’s the beauty of Joe DiMaggio, like Babe Ruth before him. It doesn’t matter if he actually did or said these wonderful things, because the myth is mightier than the truth, the celebrity superior to the reality. Joltin’ Joe was whoever you wanted him to be, whatever you required in a hero. And if Italy and Europe needed him to hit a ball into a body of water some 600 feet from home plate, so be it.
It’s a perfectly harmless little tale.