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Joe DiMaggio Loved Boxing

By Scoop Malinowski

One of the greatest baseball players of all time Joe DiMaggio, known as “an intensely private man” and “notoriously reclusive” was an avid boxing enthusiast.

In the wonderful book, “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio” by Maury Allen,  it was written that the man who was largely unknown to even some of his closest friends and New York Yankees teammates, attended boxing matches from the 1930s through the 1990s (he passed away in 1999 at age 84).

The Yankee Clipper played 13 seasons for the Bronx pinstripes and was a three-time American League MVP and thirteen-time All Star. Most famously, DiMaggio won nine World Series with the Yankees (second only to Yogi Berra’s ten) and he set the record for hitting in 56 consecutive games.

As popular and famous as Joltin’ Joe was, he also managed to maintain his privacy – teammate Tommy Heinrich said he never went out to dinner with Joe in eleven seasons. Lefty Gomez said on the drive from San Francisco to St. Petersburg FL for Joe’s first spring training, the only thing he remembers Joe saying in the car was when asked to share driving duties, the 21 year old phenom replied he didn’t know how to drive.

Teammate Lefty Gomez said, “I think the first thing we ever did together in New York after he joined us (1936) was to go to a fight. Joe always loved the fights. Billy Petrolle, the lightweight, was living in the same hotel where Joe and I were staying. Petrolle was one of those religious guys, who went to church regularly, really looked like an altar boy. He gives us seats in the front row and we go to the fight and he got his face all smashed up, blood all over him, nose pushed in. He was some sight. We couldn’t believe it was the same guy we were seeing every day in the hotel. After that I think we went to just about every big fight in New York. Joe got really friendly with Toots Shor and Toots had a box at the Garden.”

(Note: Gomez’s account is inaccurate. Petrolle’s last pro fight was in 1934 at age 31. Gomez must have mixed up Petrolle with another fighter, which Allen was not able to correct or identify.)

Edgar Bennett Williams, the well-known Washington attorney: “I went out with Joe to a fight the first night he returned to Yankee Stadium after he retired as a player. It was a great night. It was the Robinson-Basilio fight (Sept 23, 1957), one of the greatest ever (Basilio won by split decision). We had dinner at Shor’s and then we all went up to the fight together – me, Joe, Toots, Averall Harriman, Marie Harriman and Ernest Hemingway… We used to go to a lot of fights together. Joe really loved the big fights.”

 

Bert Sugar, the boxing historian (in a Sports Business Journal tribute to Joe: “For whatever reason I still do not understand, I was able to talk to him and become a friend of his.  Maybe it was a common love for the sport of boxing that enabled me to get close to him. I was originally introduced to him at a fight by a mutual friend, Edward Bennett Williams, who was then his lawyer as well as president of the Washington Redskins. DiMaggio had long been a boxing fan, having been a friend of Joe Louis, having come to New York about the same time as Louis and supplying Louis with uniforms for the Brown Bomber’s youth baseball teams in Harlem. Louis, in turn, supplied Joe with tickets for his championship fights. I remember finding Joe in the back rows of a sparsely attended fight between Gerry Cooney and Eddie Gregg at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in the late ’80s (May 31, 1986) and asking him why he was sitting there when he could move forward, maybe even to the front row. DiMaggio, with his tongue not far from his cheek, only said, ‘As you can see, I like my privacy.'”

“And he did, often staying in a small bed-and-board called The Irish Pub in Atlantic City — far off the beaten track — and the beaten Boardwalk, as well — when we went to fights in Atlantic City. It was there, upstairs in a private room, that we would discuss life in general, and baseball in particular, for hours.”

I had heard rumors about DiMaggio staying at the iconic, throwback old style hotel The Irish Pub in AC but never had the luck to see him at about a dozen of my stays there while covering fights in the 1990s.  It would have been a joy and thrill to ask Joe about who his favorite boxers were, his favorite fights, how he came to love boxing, and various other ringside memories and anecdotes. Sorry, boxing fans, I hope this article makes up for the error.

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