This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.
I would have enjoyed seeing Game 6 of the 1947 World Series. It was yet another Dodgers/Yankees affair, when both the event and the outcome seemed inevitable. It had been a hell of a Series, including a stunner in Game 4: the Yanks’ Bill Bevens pitched a ten-walk no-hitter into the ninth when, with two outs and two runners on in a 2-1 game, Cookie Lavagetto smacked a game-winning double to right — the last hit of his career! — that Tommy Henrich could not reach. Game to the Dodgers.
By Game 6 the Yanks were up 3 games to 2 with Allie Reynolds, in his first year in the Bronx, on the mound. He had nothing, and was done in the third. Relief ace Joe Page also got lit, though the Yankees slowly crept back. Down 8-5 in the 6th, Joe DiMaggio came up to bat with 2 on and 2 out. He crushed Joe Hatten’s pitch to left center. Left fielder Al Gionfriddo raced toward the visitors’ bullpen, over 400 feet from home plate, and managed to jjuusstt make the catch. DiMaggio, sure he’d just lost at least a double, did something extremely rare: he showed emotion, and kicked a patch of dirt between first and second. Inning over. The Yankees would go on to lose 8-6.
This catch has been on my mind after a recent bit of baseball reading. What stands out after looking at three works — Roger Kahn’s The Era 1947-1957; David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49; and Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, — is how differently they portray this one catch, DiMaggio’s reaction, and the man himself.
I have mixed feelings about Kahn. I’m the father of a special needs son, and reading his description in The Boys of Summer of Carl Erskine raising a “Mongoloid” is a nice reminder that, despite Kahn’s desire, the glory days of the past have no place in my present. But, goddammit, the man can tell a story. He describes the catch over several pages, focusing on Gionfriddo’s reaction, including (according to Gionfriddo) comments made by DiMaggio about the man who stole his hit: “…[he] never gave up and he made the greatest catch that anybody ever made in the whole history of baseball.”
It’s not hard to imagine DiMaggio, even then aware of his aura, describe the catch this way. Only the greatest catch of all time denies the Yankee Clipper his glory. DiMaggio would return to this topic years later: asked to evaluate Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz in the ‘54 Series (a catch, one scribe noted, that would “have left any other park than the Polo Grounds, including Yellowstone”), DiMaggio invoked his past, telling Kahn “…Mays had plenty of room. Running back, all he had to worry about was the ball. On my drive, Gionfriddo had to worry about the ball and those iron gates. He had to worry about running out of room, about getting hurt. With all that, I say he made the greater catch.”
DiMaggio, as Kahn portrays him, is aware of his image, proud of it, and ceaselessly builds on it. Not so in Cramer, who describes the catch as follows:
As DiMaggio rounded first, he could see the outfielder Al Gionfriddo dancing a spirited tarantella — unsure where to run, which way to turn, how to get under the ball. Joe was digging for second base when Gionfriddo, in an act of God, stumbled under the ball, stuck his glove over the wire fence and — Cazzo! Figlio di putana! — stole the home run away from DiMaggio.
This . . . well, this is different. It’s not a good catch. It’s a lucky grab by a fool who stumbled to just the right place to become a part of history. The tone here is also different. Cramer’s DiMaggio is a miserable figure, aloof and alone, proud only of his legacy, and a prisoner of it. After the game, in the locker room, came the following:
“The Catch” might not have burned Joe up, if Gionfriddo hadn’t been out of position, clueless in that outfield, and a busher in the first place . . . after the game, he didn’t answer questions, and told the photographers: no pictures. The next day, when one cameraman asked Joe to autograph a picture of that home run theft, DiMaggio snarled him away: “Whyn’cha get the other guy? He made the catch.”
Two takes, two tones. There’s overlap, sure, but Cramer’s DiMaggio comes across again and again as just a colossal son of a bitch. This version of DiMaggio will not compliment the bush-league Gionfriddo on his catch. It’s unlikely he saw it as superior to Mays’.
And then there’s Halberstam, who has a pretty significant deviation:
During the 1947 World Series, in a rare burst of emotion, he kicked the ground near second base after a Brooklyn player named Al Gionfriddo made a spectacular catch, robbing him of a three-run home run. The net day while he was dressing, a photographer who had taken a picture of him kicking the ground asked him to sign a blowup of it. At first DiMaggio demurred and suggested that the photographer get Gionfriddo’s signature. “He’s the guy who made the play,” DiMaggio said. But the photographer persisted, and so reluctantly DiMaggio signed it. Then he turned to a small group of reporters sitting by him. “Don’t write this in the paper,” he said. “but the truth is, if he had been playing me right, he would have made it look easy.”
Again a different take. This is a bad catch once again – DiMaggio would have effortlessly made it – but this time, you’ll note, he signs the photo. This DiMaggio is graceful. Halberstam is writing about a man in his early thirties, but it’s hard not to see the silver-haired, immaculately dressed gentleman of DiMaggio’s later years leaning over to reporters with a conspiratorial wink and telling them how he really felt about that catch. The legend is strong here.
Does any of this matter? I don’t know. We have one catch, three stories, and three somewhat different men featured in each. I am reminded, however, of what is so fascinating and frustrating about history: at the end of the day, I have no idea what DiMaggio thought about that catch. I know what our authors thought of it, and of the man himself. Cramer gives us a DiMaggio fierce in his misanthropy, alone with nothing except the memory of his greatness. I’m not sure Kahn or Halberstam get us closer to the truth. Kahn, like all old men, wants us to remember an era better than our own, when giants walked the land. So, too does Halberstam, though he understands baseball – as Bill James reminds us – perhaps the least of these three authors. In the end we’re left with three sources describing a catch made under an October sky, a man so shrouded by a legacy that his thoughts are lost, the mentalités of three historians imposed upon the past, and the recession of an event from history to myth.
The Author of @OldHossRadbourn is the individual behind the @OldHossRadbourn Twitter account.
This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.