Dinner with DiMaggio

Memories of An American Hero

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About The Book

The real Joe DiMaggio, remembered by one of the few who really knew the man behind the legend—candid and little-known stories about baseball icons from Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, and his Yankees teammates on the field to Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and others off the field. As told by Dr. Rock Positano, DiMaggio’s closest confidante in New York during the final years of his life, Dinner with DiMaggio is an intimate portrait of one of America’s most enduring heroes.

This memoir of a decade-long friendship reveals the very private DiMaggio as he really was—sometimes demanding, sometimes big-hearted, always impeccable, loyal, and a true stand-up guy—while serving up illuminating stories and rare insights about the people in his life, including his teammates, Muhammad Ali, Sandy Koufax, Woody Allen, and more.

In 1990, Dr. Rock Positano, the thirty-two-year-old foot and ankle specialist, was introduced to DiMaggio, the pair brought together by a career-ending heel spur injury. Though Dr. Positano was forty years younger, an unlikely friendship developed after the doctor successfully treated the baseball champ’s heel. At the start, Joe mentored Rock but came to rely on his young friend to show him a good time in New York, the town that made him a legend. In time, the famously reserved DiMaggio opened up to Dr. Positano and talked about his joys, his disappointments, and his sorrows as he reflected on his extraordinary life. The stories and experiences shared with Dr. Positano comprise an intimate portrait of one of the great stars of baseball and icon of the twentieth century.

Excerpt

I decidedtowritethismemoir on what would have been Joe DiMaggio’s hundredth birthday, November 25, 2014. We had become close friends during the last ten years of his life, despite more than forty years’ difference in our ages. I had tried to write my memo- ries of Joe with the help of others. The chemistry was never right, and it didn’t work. On his centennial, I realized that only I could write this book, with my brother John, because it is so personal. Nobody knows the landscape better than the two of us. I intended to write a memoir ofmy friendship with Joe DiMaggio, not another baseball book.
I had invited his family for dinner at Campagnola on the Upper East Side to celebrate the memory of “Big Joe,” as his great-grandkids called him. His granddaughter Paula and her husband Jim Hamra along with their daughters Vanassa, her new husband, and Valerie joined me for the celebration. I felt privileged to sit at the dinner table with the people whom Joe Di loved and cared for the most in the world. I know Big Joe would have been thrilled that we were having a family dinner to celebrate his birthday. Since the dinner table was sacred to Joe, Dinner with DiMaggio seemed the perfect title for this memoir.
As we enjoyed our meal, our conversation was full of the Yankee Clipper, one of the great heroes of the twentieth century. As I re- counted stories he had told me, it became evident that they had never heard many of them. It was a revelation to me that Joe Di didn’t share many of his stories with his family. When it came to his family, it was all about them. He always put them first. When he was with them, they were the focus, not his legend. For Joe DiMaggio, kids always took precedence, no matter who else was in the room.
I had learned that he compartmentalized his life as a means of self-preservation. Joe’s life was a jigsaw puzzle, and only he had all the pieces. He believed that if no one could put it all together, he would
have more freedom. Joe was always in control. His insistence on pri- vacy is critical to understanding Joe as an icon and a man.
“Doc, there’s a difference—a big difference—between secrecy and privacy,” Joe explained to me one day as we drove through the rat maze of Manhattan traffic. “Secrecy is when you hide something, but privacy is when you have information that’s privileged, that belongs to nobody except family. That’s the reason you never tell anyone about your kids, your family life, or your personal life. They will use it against you if they could. You always need to protect your family.”
I have followed his advice to this day.
Joe had a life in Florida, a life in California, and a life in New York. He made sure that no one life ever totally intersected with the others. People in Florida knew certain things that people in New York and California did not, and the same was true of the other places where he spent time. That’s probably one of the reasons there have been so many books and such a variety of opinions about Joe, because no one knew him completely. In the end, only he held all the pieces of the puzzle, and he always kept us guessing.
Joe reminded me of a theory I learned in quantum physics at New York University, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Simply stated, this theory holds that the position and velocity of an object cannot be measured exactly at the same time. For Joe it was the DiMaggio uncer- tainty principle regarding who he was.
Joe was inscrutable to journalists and hearsay biographers, because he was closed mouth about personal information. He knew that the less he said, the more control he had over his image. His personal life was a forbidden zone. To his credit, there was never a double standard, because he would not intrude into the privacy of others. People who did not know him well sometimes judged him to be aloof, remote, even shy, which was far from the truth. He often commented that people who had never even sat down with him for a cup of coffee could not write a book about him.
 

 
 
 
My friendship with Joe DiMaggio began with the heel spur in his right foot that had sidelined him for sixty-five games in 1949, one of the physical ailments that forced him to retire in 1951. It led to our meeting thirty-nine years later in 1990.
At thirty-two, I had a fledgling foot-and-ankle practice in Manhat- tan at the Hospital for Special Surgery. I specialized in nonsurgical treatment of foot and ankle disorders. I credit Joe’s famously botched heel-spur surgery and Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the foot and ankle as my inspirations for developing nonsurgical programs while I was at Yale Medical School and the New York College of Po- diatric Medicine in Harlem. The nonsurgical ethos was considered a unique approach to caring for foot-and-ankle problems.
Bill Gallo, the dean of American sportswriters and a brilliant car- toonist at the NewYorkDailyNews, introduced me to the Yankee Clipper. As Bill told me, while he was having lunch one day with Joe at a restaurant on West Thirty-fourth Street, the Clipper complained about his still painful right heel, which continued to give him trou- ble and affect his quality of life. Bill thought I could help Joe, so he mentioned that he had a good friend who had done a lot of work on heel pain and foot disorders at Yale. That was a plus for me, because Joe’s son had attended Yale, and Joe had great respect for Ivy League education. Bill offered to see if I could help him with his problem. Gallo also mentioned that I was a guy Joe might like to hang out with. According to Bill, Joe looked skeptical and did not appear terribly enthusiastic.
Joe prized the streetwise virtue of complete discretion. His friend- ship with a journalist was a departure from the norm for him. Gallo was the exception to the no-journalist rule, because he kept his mouth shut. Dave Anderson of the NewYorkTimes was another member of this very exclusive club. Charlie Rose, the late Tim Russert, Bob Costas, Al Michaels, and Bryant Gumbel also made the exclusive and coveted DiMaggio safe-zone list. He would have no problem talking in
an elevator in front of these journalists. In his eyes, they were all honor- able and maintained the highest professional standards and discretion. “Doc,” Joe explained to me later, “When you tell Gallo something is
off the record, it is just that. You’ll never see it appear somewhere else. That’s a trick you see with these newspaper fellows. They’ll tell you something is off the record, then trade the information with another one of their buddies. Then it shows up somewhere else. Not Gallo. His word is his word: no tricks, smoke, or mirrors.”
Gallo called me and asked me to do him a favor. He wanted me to see a friend of his, who was coincidentally staying in the same building as my office at Sixty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue.
Whenever he was in town, Joe stayed at the seventh-floor apartment of Atlantic City restaurateur Dick Burke, located on Fifth Avenue. Dick Burke was a Horatio Alger figure, a rags-to-riches former street waif who, as a boy, had sold newspapers to Joe when Joe strolled on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Dick had gone on to be a big success, and eventually opened the Irish Pub on St. James Place in Atlantic City, where Joe was always a welcome guest. Dick Burke and his wife, Cathy, were family to Joe. Since the Burkes spent little time at their Fifth Avenue place, they gave Joe a key, and 860 Fifth Avenue became Joe’s home base in New York. The Burkes were remarkably gracious and generous to Joe, and he returned the favor.
When Bill told me his friend was Joe DiMaggio, all I could say was, “You’re kidding me.”
After assuring me that he wasn’t pulling my leg, Gallo advised me to drop Joe a note.
I was eager to make the connection. I gave the doorman a note, which read, “Hi, I’m Dr. Rock Positano, Bill Gallo’s friend, and he asked me to drop you this note.”
I didn’t expect anything to come of it. At about six forty-five that evening, my assistant, Christine Albano, answered the doorbell, to find two men at the door. One of them was unmistakably Joe DiMaggio,
impeccably dressed in an overcoat, blazer, shirt, and tie. She buzzed me and announced, “You’re not going to believe who’s out here and wants to say hello.”
“Who is it?” I asked, near the end of a long day. “Joe DiMaggio, with his friend, Mr. Burke.”
Her answer nearly knocked me off my feet. I couldn’t believe he actually had come down to say hello to me the same day I sent him the note.
I raced to the reception area with my hand extended and said, “Mr.
DiMaggio, it’s an honor to meet you.”
Joe, always a consummate gentleman, turned to Dick Burke and said, “Dr. Positano, I would like you to meet my dear friend, Mr. Burke.”
“Mr. Burke, it is a pleasure to meet you.” I matched his formality. Then Joe cut in. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Doc, from our friend
Bill Gallo.”
“That’s great, Mr. DiMaggio,” I responded, not knowing how im- portant being a mutual friend was to Joltin’ Joe. An introduction from Bill Gallo was golden and never in question. I was very careful about how I addressed him, as he was a gentleman from the old school. I came to know that nothing irritated the Clipper more than someone he didn’t know calling him Joe. Impeccable manners were extremely important to DiMaggio. He gave you permission to call him Joe.
“Mr. Gallo suggested that I drop you a line,” I explained. I still couldn’t believe it, the most famous heel and sports medicine injury in history—even more renowned than that of Achilles—needed my attention.
Both men went into an examination room and took off their coats. When I looked at Joe’s foot, I saw that the surgery on his heel, per- formed in the ’40s, had been bungled. The famous heel, the Holy Grail of sports injuries known all around the world and repeatedly men- tioned in the Ernest Hemingway classic, TheOldManand the Sea,
mesmerized me. It was a foot doctor’s fantasy and dream. In addition, he had a large arthritic left big toe, which was a consequence of fouling numerous balls off his foot in the batter’s box.
“When they did the heel spur incision, they did a Griffith’s, which is a fish-mouth incision,” I explained. “They not only removed the spur but also the fat pad, so you have been walking on bone with no cush- ion.” I learned later that sharing ill-fitting, hand-me-down shoes from his brothers also contributed to his heel and foot problems. Wearing shoes of the wrong size is a prescription for foot disaster.
I recommended a special orthopedic foot strapping and a prescrip- tion orthotic that would calm down the soft tissue inflammation in the area and reduce the force and tension in the tendons and ligaments of the bottom part of his heel. In two weeks, he showed considerable improvement, but just treating Joe was not enough for him or me. I was determined to heal him and allow him to enjoy walking and playing golf.
When I wanted to take X-rays of his foot, which was standard med- ical procedure, Joe refused to be X-rayed.
He said, “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Doc, but I don’t want this X-ray showing up at one of these memorabilia shows. It could fetch a lot of money.”
Clearly, Joe didn’t trust me, even though I was a professional trying to help him. I was a little insulted, but decided not to get defensive or to take him on. I had to rely on reports he had his Florida doctors send, which wasn’t an ideal way to treat him or to observe the progress he was making. His concern seemed over the top to me, but I didn’t know much about him then. Now, it makes perfect sense.
Joe was accustomed to people wanting to exploit his name and legend to make money, and that made him guarded and suspicious. In his book of life, everyone started in the negative column and had to prove himself trustworthy.
About three months after our first meeting, Joe dropped by my
office unannounced and alone. “Hey, Doc, you want to grab a cup of coffee?” he asked.
As if I’d refuse.
We went around the corner to the Gardenia Café, an upscale Greek diner on Madison Avenue and East 67th Street. That is how our friend- ship outside my office began.
I can’t recall how many people have asked me, “What do you talk about with Joe DiMaggio?”
My answer was, “Everything.”
I became like New York family to him. He was as protective of me as he was of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Over time, he let me into his private zone, but, as I learned, not even family or very close associates and friends knew the whole picture. That was by design.
I experienced his tendency to compartmentalize his life. He was brilliant, even strategic, about it. Napoleon would have been proud of the Clipper. Soon after Joe’s death, I had a call from a guy named Joe Nachio, who identified himself as one of Joe’s oldest friends from Panama. I assumed he was one more fan claiming to be Joe’s supposed best friend. I had never heard of him. Nachio told me that he had known Joe since the 1930s. We got to talking. I was surprised by how much he knew about me. Apparently, Joe Di had told him a lot about his young doctor friend in New York, but had never mentioned Nachio to me. I later learned they were so close that Joe had stayed at his friend’s house in Panama to escape the furor following the breakup of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. As I said, no one knew the whole picture when it came to Joe. I was getting a firsthand lesson from the professor himself. I was initially suspicious of Joe Nachio, because I’ve run into so many people who claimed to have enjoyed a close relationship with Joe and had dined with him often. There were two litmus tests to the truth of these claims: coffee and garlic. Joe’s eating habits were peculiar, es- pecially as to how he liked his coffee. When pretenders would talk
about Joe’s ordering a cappuccino or gulping down a double espresso with Sambuca, I knew they had never had coffee with Joe. Joe always ordered “a half cup of decaffeinated coffee and, on the side, a small pot of hot water.” Joe would mix the little pot of hot water into his decaf like a precision chemist, not one drop over the mark. He never took coffee any other way.
As for the garlic test, though Joe was a true son of Sicily, he avoided garlic. When someone told me he ate at an Italian restaurant with Joe, I’d ask him what Joe had ordered. When the answer was, “He ate riga- toni with garlic, loaded with garlic. He loves garlic,” I knew he had never broken bread with Joe. And rigatoni was not Joe’s favorite pasta. Joe might have liked garlic, but I believe he steered clear of it, be- cause he was concerned about smelling like a “dago.” Ethnic stereo- types were stronger in Joe’s heyday than they are now. Italians and Italian-Americans were judged far more harshly than in these politi-
cally correct times.
During his last decade, I became his New York surrogate son and later a buffer and an expediter, a young friend who could read his mind and take care of things to keep him in his comfort zone. When he played with the Yankees at the height of his fame, he was not able to enjoy New York. He had become a prisoner of his fame. Baseball was America’s game, and the Clipper was front and center. He was mobbed wherever he went. He was as popular as the pope or the president. When I met him in 1990, he was ready to regain the part of his life he had sacrificed to his celebrity.
At the time we were introduced, he lived quietly in Florida, visited his family in California, and spent ten to fifteen days a month in New York City, where he plugged into a circuit of excitement—an abun- dance of people, places, and events. He was known to everyone and was a welcome guest everywhere. He was one of the most recognizable figures in town.
Joe always referred to the boys from Westchester during our initial
courting stage. He met his friends at Alex & Henry’s in Eastchester, New York. They would always fete Joe with bottles of Dom Pérignon. He loved the stuff.
One day, he asked if I would mind their coming down to have dinner with us. He was a gentleman and asked my permission. I was game. We wound up eating at Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue. There was instant chemistry. These fellows acted more like my doting uncles than dinner companions. They treated me with the utmost re- spect and generosity. There was never a check to pay when “the boys” from Westchester were at the dinner table. Joe was happy to marry his two social spheres and appreciated how we all genuinely cared about him and liked one another.
Whenever he came to New York, I escorted Joe around town and became the Manhattan contingent of what I called the “Bat Pack,” his pals from Westchester. I thought the name was appropriate and ironic at the same time. Sinatra had his Rat Pack, and now DiMaggio his Bat Pack. The members of his inner circle included Johnny Arcaro, a retired postal worker in his early seventies, and Nat Recine and Mario Faustini, cousins in their fifties, who owned Alex & Henry’s Roman Gardens and catering hall in Eastchester, New York.
Joe called Johnny Arcaro, “Johnny Power,” because of his lively personality. Johnny loved to dance and kept them laughing. A dapper dresser, Johnny had a full head of silver-gray hair and sported a sig- nature pair of big, black-tinted glasses. Johnny used to carry around one-hundred-dollar bills with Joe’s picture in the middle of the bill instead of Ben Franklin’s. This was his calling card. If Joe had known about it, he would have been furious.
Nat Recine’s father, Henry, and his uncle, Alex, who was Mario Faustini’s grandfather, had opened a sandwich shop on Courtlandt Avenue near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx in 1946. Joe used to fre- quent the place.
In 1975, when the new generation opened an Alex & Henry’s in
Westchester, Joe was loyal to the family. When he went to their place, he always sat at a table in front of a mural of weeping willows. He pre- ferred that the cousins meet him in New York. Manhattan was where he wanted to be.
When I first met him, Joe had been meeting this core group of buddies at various restaurants for a couple of years. The Westchester division never asked anything of Joe, but they did compete for his at- tention. And then I joined the group. I knew people in Manhattan, and Joe was looking for a good time in town, which I knew how to find. Westchester couldn’t compete with Rock Positano’s New York, and Joe knew it. New York was his elixir of youth and his lifeline to fun. I felt lucky to spend time with him whenever he was in town. It was a dovere, an honored duty, to be with Joe.
A newly minted doctor, a couple of hundred-thousand dollars in debt from student loans from Yale School of Medicine, New York Col- lege of Podiatric Medicine, and New York University, I was working fourteen or fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, to build my practice. I had no personal life and barely saw my kids.
The kids did extremely well growing up, no thanks to me, but be- cause they have a fabulous mother and grandmother, who were doting and supportive. They had the benefit of a bilingual environment. Their mother and grandma insisted on discipline and hard work.
I didn’t have the luxury of playtime or the assistance and support of a wealthy family to help me get started. Joe opened up a new world for me, and served as a tremendous source of inspiration. I couldn’t lose with DiMaggio on my team. He was my safety net for the high wire of life.
A street kid from Brooklyn, I grew up in the sixties, long after Joe’s baseball career. Though Mickey Mantle was a hero to my brother John and me, my father and uncles considered Joe DiMaggio the greatest Italian ever, and the greatest ballplayer of all time. His name was a constant at our Sunday dinners at our grandparents’ cold-water flat
in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. To John and me, he was an old man who sold coffee makers. We couldn’t begin to understand why the men in our family, who were not easily impressed, venerated him so much. It wasn’t until Joe and I became friends that I began to grasp the magni- tude of his legend. His success story and his style, dignity, and grace made him a lasting American icon.
I didn’t have a bias, because I never saw him play baseball, hit in fifty-six straight games, or win nine World Series. More important, I knew DiMaggio the man, the guy who loved his family, took my clothes to the laundry, and had coffee with me in the morning, not the baseball legend who was married to Marilyn Monroe.
When we met, Joe was seventy-six, and I was thirty-two, fresh out of professional school at Yale. In the course of our friendship, the great American icon revealed to me the man behind the image he so care- fully crafted and protected. He didn’t put it out there, but he knew I would figure it out. Actions, not words, made me begin to understand his very complex and convoluted personality. My respect for him has only grown since his death eighteen years ago. His influence on me has been immeasurable.
When I started to think about writing a memoir, I reviewed and bal- anced the good times as well as the rocky ones. Looking back today, it didn’t take me long to realize that he was using his experience to smooth the way for me, to make it all easier. I admired Joe despite his short- comings and, like all of us, he had his own baggage. He scrupulously guarded his good name, the same way he meticulously combed his hair, knotted his tie, shined his shoes, and folded his clothes, because he knew he was a role model to so many people. He took his position in life seriously. I came to realize that Joe’s isolation was his heroism.
Whatever he did, Joe DiMaggio gave his all to make sure he never came up short. He wanted to be an example, to show what a hero was like. For Joe, maintaining an immaculate reputation was important for the game he loved and his own legacy. I can imagine my father and
uncles shaking their heads and agreeing. “They don’t make them like him anymore.” When I look at many of today’s sports stars, I have to concur.
 
 
DINNERWITHDIMAGGIO is an account of our friendship as it evolved over almost a decade. At first, I kowtowed to him but, after two or three years, the relationship flipped. He could relax when he was with me, because he knew I would protect him and allow him to lead the type of life he wanted in New York. He began to rely on me. I never asked for anything, treated him with the respect he deserved, and helped him to enjoy the last ten years of his life in the place that meant the most to him. Once he trusted me, he opened up with all sorts of memories and insights that were not widely known. I had an unprecedented view of the inner life of a great American icon. Knowing him changed me forever.
My memories of our times together are full of rare stories that cap- ture Joe’s street smarts, intellectual brilliance, compassion, inflexible code of behavior, and bittersweet recollections. Nothing written here was off limits, as these were conversations Joe shared with his close friends in New York, the Bat Pack, and me.
I feel privileged to have been Joe DiMaggio’s friend. Having a regular seat at the dinner table with Joe qualified you as a confidant. Behind his polished reserve, he was a complex man who experienced unparalleled celebrity in his lifetime. He held firm to his principles and never compromised. Joe valued decency above all, and remained self-effacing in spite of his fame.
He was a natural storyteller and an adept listener, so I hope that gift shines through in Dinner with DiMaggio. I want readers to feel as if they have pulled up a chair at his table at one of his favorite restaurants, ready for a memorable night with one of the last great American heroes. By the time we met, I was already in the habit of taking medical
notes after seeing each patient. After our patient–doctor relationship ended with the eradication of his foot pain, our meetings became social. I made notes every time I saw DiMaggio. Keeping notes on our times together seemed important. To me, he was part of history, like Julius Caesar, George Washington, the Wright Brothers, or Neil Armstrong. I wanted to have a record of our conversations and Joe’s stories. I took on the role of his New York historian. I never expected to use or share these notes with others. I have relied on these notes to reconstruct our many exchanges found in these pages.
In addition, I have handwritten pages from Joe DiMaggio’s dia- ries. Excerpts from the diary pages are reproduced at the start of every chapter. He refers often to people, situations, and concerns that I have chronicled in this book. His own diaries support my memory and my notes of our meetings.
Not until I celebrated his centennial birthday with his family did I appreciate that I had a front row view of a legendary figure that has never been made public. Since so many negative things have been writ- ten about Joe DiMaggio, I want to add my unique point of view to fill out and balance the portrait. I had to write this book to keep Joe DiMaggio’s legacy alive for the youngest generation. I didn’t want the memory of this great man to fade. Ten-year-old boys and girls in Little League today have to be aware that Joe DiMaggio was an important figure in our history.
He was my teacher. I became his protector, and then his teacher. The connection we made was profound. He remains an inspiration to me eighteen years after his death. My goal is to bring Joe DiMaggio to life with this flesh-and-blood portrait. We could all use some heroes to look up to, especially during these crazy and challenging times.
Welcome to the dinner table and your seat next to Joe DiMaggio.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I

decidedtowritethismemoir on what would have been Joe DiMaggio’s hundredth birthday, November 25, 2014. We had become close friends during the last ten years of his life, despite more than forty years’ difference in our ages. I had tried to write my memo- ries of Joe with the help of others. The chemistry was never right, and it didn’t work. On his centennial, I realized that only I could write this book, with my brother John, because it is so personal. Nobody knows the landscape better than the two of us. I intended to write a memoir ofmy friendship with Joe DiMaggio, not another baseball book.
I had invited his family for dinner at Campagnola on the Upper East Side to celebrate the memory of “Big Joe,” as his great-grandkids called him. His granddaughter Paula and her husband Jim Hamra along with their daughters Vanassa, her new husband, and Valerie joined me for the celebration. I felt privileged to sit at the dinner table with the people whom Joe Di loved and cared for the most in the world. I know Big Joe would have been thrilled that we were having a family dinner to celebrate his birthday. Since the dinner table was sacred to Joe, Dinner with DiMaggio seemed the perfect title for this memoir.
As we enjoyed our meal, our conversation was full of the Yankee Clipper, one of the great heroes of the twentieth century. As I re- counted stories he had told me, it became evident that they had never heard many of them. It was a revelation to me that Joe Di didn’t share many of his stories with his family. When it came to his family, it was all about them. He always put them first. When he was with them, they were the focus, not his legend. For Joe DiMaggio, kids always took precedence, no matter who else was in the room.
I had learned that he compartmentalized his life as a means of self-preservation. Joe’s life was a jigsaw puzzle, and only he had all the pieces. He believed that if no one could put it all together, he would
have more freedom. Joe was always in control. His insistence on pri- vacy is critical to understanding Joe as an icon and a man.
“Doc, there’s a difference—a big difference—between secrecy and privacy,” Joe explained to me one day as we drove through the rat maze of Manhattan traffic. “Secrecy is when you hide something, but privacy is when you have information that’s privileged, that belongs to nobody except family. That’s the reason you never tell anyone about your kids, your family life, or your personal life. They will use it against you if they could. You always need to protect your family.”
I have followed his advice to this day.
Joe had a life in Florida, a life in California, and a life in New York. He made sure that no one life ever totally intersected with the others. People in Florida knew certain things that people in New York and California did not, and the same was true of the other places where he spent time. That’s probably one of the reasons there have been so many books and such a variety of opinions about Joe, because no one knew him completely. In the end, only he held all the pieces of the puzzle, and he always kept us guessing.
Joe reminded me of a theory I learned in quantum physics at New York University, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Simply stated, this theory holds that the position and velocity of an object cannot be measured exactly at the same time. For Joe it was the DiMaggio uncer- tainty principle regarding who he was.
Joe was inscrutable to journalists and hearsay biographers, because he was closed mouth about personal information. He knew that the less he said, the more control he had over his image. His personal life was a forbidden zone. To his credit, there was never a double standard, because he would not intrude into the privacy of others. People who did not know him well sometimes judged him to be aloof, remote, even shy, which was far from the truth. He often commented that people who had never even sat down with him for a cup of coffee could not write a book about him.
 

 
 
 
My friendship with Joe DiMaggio began with the heel spur in his right foot that had sidelined him for sixty-five games in 1949, one of the physical ailments that forced him to retire in 1951. It led to our meeting thirty-nine years later in 1990.
At thirty-two, I had a fledgling foot-and-ankle practice in Manhat- tan at the Hospital for Special Surgery. I specialized in nonsurgical treatment of foot and ankle disorders. I credit Joe’s famously botched heel-spur surgery and Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the foot and ankle as my inspirations for developing nonsurgical programs while I was at Yale Medical School and the New York College of Po- diatric Medicine in Harlem. The nonsurgical ethos was considered a unique approach to caring for foot-and-ankle problems.
Bill Gallo, the dean of American sportswriters and a brilliant car- toonist at the NewYorkDailyNews, introduced me to the Yankee Clipper. As Bill told me, while he was having lunch one day with Joe at a restaurant on West Thirty-fourth Street, the Clipper complained about his still painful right heel, which continued to give him trou- ble and affect his quality of life. Bill thought I could help Joe, so he mentioned that he had a good friend who had done a lot of work on heel pain and foot disorders at Yale. That was a plus for me, because Joe’s son had attended Yale, and Joe had great respect for Ivy League education. Bill offered to see if I could help him with his problem. Gallo also mentioned that I was a guy Joe might like to hang out with. According to Bill, Joe looked skeptical and did not appear terribly enthusiastic.
Joe prized the streetwise virtue of complete discretion. His friend- ship with a journalist was a departure from the norm for him. Gallo was the exception to the no-journalist rule, because he kept his mouth shut. Dave Anderson of the NewYorkTimes was another member of this very exclusive club. Charlie Rose, the late Tim Russert, Bob Costas, Al Michaels, and Bryant Gumbel also made the exclusive and coveted DiMaggio safe-zone list. He would have no problem talking in
an elevator in front of these journalists. In his eyes, they were all honor- able and maintained the highest professional standards and discretion. “Doc,” Joe explained to me later, “When you tell Gallo something is
off the record, it is just that. You’ll never see it appear somewhere else. That’s a trick you see with these newspaper fellows. They’ll tell you something is off the record, then trade the information with another one of their buddies. Then it shows up somewhere else. Not Gallo. His word is his word: no tricks, smoke, or mirrors.”
Gallo called me and asked me to do him a favor. He wanted me to see a friend of his, who was coincidentally staying in the same building as my office at Sixty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue.
Whenever he was in town, Joe stayed at the seventh-floor apartment of Atlantic City restaurateur Dick Burke, located on Fifth Avenue. Dick Burke was a Horatio Alger figure, a rags-to-riches former street waif who, as a boy, had sold newspapers to Joe when Joe strolled on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Dick had gone on to be a big success, and eventually opened the Irish Pub on St. James Place in Atlantic City, where Joe was always a welcome guest. Dick Burke and his wife, Cathy, were family to Joe. Since the Burkes spent little time at their Fifth Avenue place, they gave Joe a key, and 860 Fifth Avenue became Joe’s home base in New York. The Burkes were remarkably gracious and generous to Joe, and he returned the favor.
When Bill told me his friend was Joe DiMaggio, all I could say was, “You’re kidding me.”
After assuring me that he wasn’t pulling my leg, Gallo advised me to drop Joe a note.
I was eager to make the connection. I gave the doorman a note, which read, “Hi, I’m Dr. Rock Positano, Bill Gallo’s friend, and he asked me to drop you this note.”
I didn’t expect anything to come of it. At about six forty-five that evening, my assistant, Christine Albano, answered the doorbell, to find two men at the door. One of them was unmistakably Joe DiMaggio,
impeccably dressed in an overcoat, blazer, shirt, and tie. She buzzed me and announced, “You’re not going to believe who’s out here and wants to say hello.”
“Who is it?” I asked, near the end of a long day. “Joe DiMaggio, with his friend, Mr. Burke.”
Her answer nearly knocked me off my feet. I couldn’t believe he actually had come down to say hello to me the same day I sent him the note.
I raced to the reception area with my hand extended and said, “Mr.
DiMaggio, it’s an honor to meet you.”
Joe, always a consummate gentleman, turned to Dick Burke and said, “Dr. Positano, I would like you to meet my dear friend, Mr. Burke.”
“Mr. Burke, it is a pleasure to meet you.” I matched his formality. Then Joe cut in. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Doc, from our friend
Bill Gallo.”
“That’s great, Mr. DiMaggio,” I responded, not knowing how im- portant being a mutual friend was to Joltin’ Joe. An introduction from Bill Gallo was golden and never in question. I was very careful about how I addressed him, as he was a gentleman from the old school. I came to know that nothing irritated the Clipper more than someone he didn’t know calling him Joe. Impeccable manners were extremely important to DiMaggio. He gave you permission to call him Joe.
“Mr. Gallo suggested that I drop you a line,” I explained. I still couldn’t believe it, the most famous heel and sports medicine injury in history—even more renowned than that of Achilles—needed my attention.
Both men went into an examination room and took off their coats. When I looked at Joe’s foot, I saw that the surgery on his heel, per- formed in the ’40s, had been bungled. The famous heel, the Holy Grail of sports injuries known all around the world and repeatedly men- tioned in the Ernest Hemingway classic, TheOldManand the Sea,
mesmerized me. It was a foot doctor’s fantasy and dream. In addition, he had a large arthritic left big toe, which was a consequence of fouling numerous balls off his foot in the batter’s box.
“When they did the heel spur incision, they did a Griffith’s, which is a fish-mouth incision,” I explained. “They not only removed the spur but also the fat pad, so you have been walking on bone with no cush- ion.” I learned later that sharing ill-fitting, hand-me-down shoes from his brothers also contributed to his heel and foot problems. Wearing shoes of the wrong size is a prescription for foot disaster.
I recommended a special orthopedic foot strapping and a prescrip- tion orthotic that would calm down the soft tissue inflammation in the area and reduce the force and tension in the tendons and ligaments of the bottom part of his heel. In two weeks, he showed considerable improvement, but just treating Joe was not enough for him or me. I was determined to heal him and allow him to enjoy walking and playing golf.
When I wanted to take X-rays of his foot, which was standard med- ical procedure, Joe refused to be X-rayed.
He said, “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Doc, but I don’t want this X-ray showing up at one of these memorabilia shows. It could fetch a lot of money.”
Clearly, Joe didn’t trust me, even though I was a professional trying to help him. I was a little insulted, but decided not to get defensive or to take him on. I had to rely on reports he had his Florida doctors send, which wasn’t an ideal way to treat him or to observe the progress he was making. His concern seemed over the top to me, but I didn’t know much about him then. Now, it makes perfect sense.
Joe was accustomed to people wanting to exploit his name and legend to make money, and that made him guarded and suspicious. In his book of life, everyone started in the negative column and had to prove himself trustworthy.
About three months after our first meeting, Joe dropped by my
office unannounced and alone. “Hey, Doc, you want to grab a cup of coffee?” he asked.
As if I’d refuse.
We went around the corner to the Gardenia Café, an upscale Greek diner on Madison Avenue and East 67th Street. That is how our friend- ship outside my office began.
I can’t recall how many people have asked me, “What do you talk about with Joe DiMaggio?”
My answer was, “Everything.”
I became like New York family to him. He was as protective of me as he was of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Over time, he let me into his private zone, but, as I learned, not even family or very close associates and friends knew the whole picture. That was by design.
I experienced his tendency to compartmentalize his life. He was brilliant, even strategic, about it. Napoleon would have been proud of the Clipper. Soon after Joe’s death, I had a call from a guy named Joe Nachio, who identified himself as one of Joe’s oldest friends from Panama. I assumed he was one more fan claiming to be Joe’s supposed best friend. I had never heard of him. Nachio told me that he had known Joe since the 1930s. We got to talking. I was surprised by how much he knew about me. Apparently, Joe Di had told him a lot about his young doctor friend in New York, but had never mentioned Nachio to me. I later learned they were so close that Joe had stayed at his friend’s house in Panama to escape the furor following the breakup of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. As I said, no one knew the whole picture when it came to Joe. I was getting a firsthand lesson from the professor himself. I was initially suspicious of Joe Nachio, because I’ve run into so many people who claimed to have enjoyed a close relationship with Joe and had dined with him often. There were two litmus tests to the truth of these claims: coffee and garlic. Joe’s eating habits were peculiar, es- pecially as to how he liked his coffee. When pretenders would talk
about Joe’s ordering a cappuccino or gulping down a double espresso with Sambuca, I knew they had never had coffee with Joe. Joe always ordered “a half cup of decaffeinated coffee and, on the side, a small pot of hot water.” Joe would mix the little pot of hot water into his decaf like a precision chemist, not one drop over the mark. He never took coffee any other way.
As for the garlic test, though Joe was a true son of Sicily, he avoided garlic. When someone told me he ate at an Italian restaurant with Joe, I’d ask him what Joe had ordered. When the answer was, “He ate riga- toni with garlic, loaded with garlic. He loves garlic,” I knew he had never broken bread with Joe. And rigatoni was not Joe’s favorite pasta. Joe might have liked garlic, but I believe he steered clear of it, be- cause he was concerned about smelling like a “dago.” Ethnic stereo- types were stronger in Joe’s heyday than they are now. Italians and Italian-Americans were judged far more harshly than in these politi-
cally correct times.
During his last decade, I became his New York surrogate son and later a buffer and an expediter, a young friend who could read his mind and take care of things to keep him in his comfort zone. When he played with the Yankees at the height of his fame, he was not able to enjoy New York. He had become a prisoner of his fame. Baseball was America’s game, and the Clipper was front and center. He was mobbed wherever he went. He was as popular as the pope or the president. When I met him in 1990, he was ready to regain the part of his life he had sacrificed to his celebrity.
At the time we were introduced, he lived quietly in Florida, visited his family in California, and spent ten to fifteen days a month in New York City, where he plugged into a circuit of excitement—an abun- dance of people, places, and events. He was known to everyone and was a welcome guest everywhere. He was one of the most recognizable figures in town.
Joe always referred to the boys from Westchester during our initial
courting stage. He met his friends at Alex & Henry’s in Eastchester, New York. They would always fete Joe with bottles of Dom Pérignon. He loved the stuff.
One day, he asked if I would mind their coming down to have dinner with us. He was a gentleman and asked my permission. I was game. We wound up eating at Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue. There was instant chemistry. These fellows acted more like my doting uncles than dinner companions. They treated me with the utmost re- spect and generosity. There was never a check to pay when “the boys” from Westchester were at the dinner table. Joe was happy to marry his two social spheres and appreciated how we all genuinely cared about him and liked one another.
Whenever he came to New York, I escorted Joe around town and became the Manhattan contingent of what I called the “Bat Pack,” his pals from Westchester. I thought the name was appropriate and ironic at the same time. Sinatra had his Rat Pack, and now DiMaggio his Bat Pack. The members of his inner circle included Johnny Arcaro, a retired postal worker in his early seventies, and Nat Recine and Mario Faustini, cousins in their fifties, who owned Alex & Henry’s Roman Gardens and catering hall in Eastchester, New York.
Joe called Johnny Arcaro, “Johnny Power,” because of his lively personality. Johnny loved to dance and kept them laughing. A dapper dresser, Johnny had a full head of silver-gray hair and sported a sig- nature pair of big, black-tinted glasses. Johnny used to carry around one-hundred-dollar bills with Joe’s picture in the middle of the bill instead of Ben Franklin’s. This was his calling card. If Joe had known about it, he would have been furious.
Nat Recine’s father, Henry, and his uncle, Alex, who was Mario Faustini’s grandfather, had opened a sandwich shop on Courtlandt Avenue near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx in 1946. Joe used to fre- quent the place.
In 1975, when the new generation opened an Alex & Henry’s in
Westchester, Joe was loyal to the family. When he went to their place, he always sat at a table in front of a mural of weeping willows. He pre- ferred that the cousins meet him in New York. Manhattan was where he wanted to be.
When I first met him, Joe had been meeting this core group of buddies at various restaurants for a couple of years. The Westchester division never asked anything of Joe, but they did compete for his at- tention. And then I joined the group. I knew people in Manhattan, and Joe was looking for a good time in town, which I knew how to find. Westchester couldn’t compete with Rock Positano’s New York, and Joe knew it. New York was his elixir of youth and his lifeline to fun. I felt lucky to spend time with him whenever he was in town. It was a dovere, an honored duty, to be with Joe.
A newly minted doctor, a couple of hundred-thousand dollars in debt from student loans from Yale School of Medicine, New York Col- lege of Podiatric Medicine, and New York University, I was working fourteen or fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, to build my practice. I had no personal life and barely saw my kids.
The kids did extremely well growing up, no thanks to me, but be- cause they have a fabulous mother and grandmother, who were doting and supportive. They had the benefit of a bilingual environment. Their mother and grandma insisted on discipline and hard work.
I didn’t have the luxury of playtime or the assistance and support of a wealthy family to help me get started. Joe opened up a new world for me, and served as a tremendous source of inspiration. I couldn’t lose with DiMaggio on my team. He was my safety net for the high wire of life.
A street kid from Brooklyn, I grew up in the sixties, long after Joe’s baseball career. Though Mickey Mantle was a hero to my brother John and me, my father and uncles considered Joe DiMaggio the greatest Italian ever, and the greatest ballplayer of all time. His name was a constant at our Sunday dinners at our grandparents’ cold-water flat
in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. To John and me, he was an old man who sold coffee makers. We couldn’t begin to understand why the men in our family, who were not easily impressed, venerated him so much. It wasn’t until Joe and I became friends that I began to grasp the magni- tude of his legend. His success story and his style, dignity, and grace made him a lasting American icon.
I didn’t have a bias, because I never saw him play baseball, hit in fifty-six straight games, or win nine World Series. More important, I knew DiMaggio the man, the guy who loved his family, took my clothes to the laundry, and had coffee with me in the morning, not the baseball legend who was married to Marilyn Monroe.
When we met, Joe was seventy-six, and I was thirty-two, fresh out of professional school at Yale. In the course of our friendship, the great American icon revealed to me the man behind the image he so care- fully crafted and protected. He didn’t put it out there, but he knew I would figure it out. Actions, not words, made me begin to understand his very complex and convoluted personality. My respect for him has only grown since his death eighteen years ago. His influence on me has been immeasurable.
When I started to think about writing a memoir, I reviewed and bal- anced the good times as well as the rocky ones. Looking back today, it didn’t take me long to realize that he was using his experience to smooth the way for me, to make it all easier. I admired Joe despite his short- comings and, like all of us, he had his own baggage. He scrupulously guarded his good name, the same way he meticulously combed his hair, knotted his tie, shined his shoes, and folded his clothes, because he knew he was a role model to so many people. He took his position in life seriously. I came to realize that Joe’s isolation was his heroism.
Whatever he did, Joe DiMaggio gave his all to make sure he never came up short. He wanted to be an example, to show what a hero was like. For Joe, maintaining an immaculate reputation was important for the game he loved and his own legacy. I can imagine my father and
uncles shaking their heads and agreeing. “They don’t make them like him anymore.” When I look at many of today’s sports stars, I have to concur.
 
 
DINNERWITHDIMAGGIO is an account of our friendship as it evolved over almost a decade. At first, I kowtowed to him but, after two or three years, the relationship flipped. He could relax when he was with me, because he knew I would protect him and allow him to lead the type of life he wanted in New York. He began to rely on me. I never asked for anything, treated him with the respect he deserved, and helped him to enjoy the last ten years of his life in the place that meant the most to him. Once he trusted me, he opened up with all sorts of memories and insights that were not widely known. I had an unprecedented view of the inner life of a great American icon. Knowing him changed me forever.
My memories of our times together are full of rare stories that cap- ture Joe’s street smarts, intellectual brilliance, compassion, inflexible code of behavior, and bittersweet recollections. Nothing written here was off limits, as these were conversations Joe shared with his close friends in New York, the Bat Pack, and me.
I feel privileged to have been Joe DiMaggio’s friend. Having a regular seat at the dinner table with Joe qualified you as a confidant. Behind his polished reserve, he was a complex man who experienced unparalleled celebrity in his lifetime. He held firm to his principles and never compromised. Joe valued decency above all, and remained self-effacing in spite of his fame.
He was a natural storyteller and an adept listener, so I hope that gift shines through in Dinner with DiMaggio. I want readers to feel as if they have pulled up a chair at his table at one of his favorite restaurants, ready for a memorable night with one of the last great American heroes. By the time we met, I was already in the habit of taking medical
notes after seeing each patient. After our patient–doctor relationship ended with the eradication of his foot pain, our meetings became social. I made notes every time I saw DiMaggio. Keeping notes on our times together seemed important. To me, he was part of history, like Julius Caesar, George Washington, the Wright Brothers, or Neil Armstrong. I wanted to have a record of our conversations and Joe’s stories. I took on the role of his New York historian. I never expected to use or share these notes with others. I have relied on these notes to reconstruct our many exchanges found in these pages.
In addition, I have handwritten pages from Joe DiMaggio’s dia- ries. Excerpts from the diary pages are reproduced at the start of every chapter. He refers often to people, situations, and concerns that I have chronicled in this book. His own diaries support my memory and my notes of our meetings.
Not until I celebrated his centennial birthday with his family did I appreciate that I had a front row view of a legendary figure that has never been made public. Since so many negative things have been writ- ten about Joe DiMaggio, I want to add my unique point of view to fill out and balance the portrait. I had to write this book to keep Joe DiMaggio’s legacy alive for the youngest generation. I didn’t want the memory of this great man to fade. Ten-year-old boys and girls in Little League today have to be aware that Joe DiMaggio was an important figure in our history.
He was my teacher. I became his protector, and then his teacher. The connection we made was profound. He remains an inspiration to me eighteen years after his death. My goal is to bring Joe DiMaggio to life with this flesh-and-blood portrait. We could all use some heroes to look up to, especially during these crazy and challenging times.
Welcome to the dinner table and your seat next to Joe DiMaggio.

About The Author

Photograph by Brad Hess

Dr. Rock G. Positano is the Director of the Non-Surgical Foot and Ankle Service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, where he has been on staff since 1991. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine, where his thesis on foot health was approved, with Honors and Distinction. He is a clinical assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is internationally known for his non-surgical approach for the treatment of foot disorders. Visit him at HSS.edu/Physicians_Positano-Rock.asp. Dinner with DiMaggio is his first book.

John A. Positano, Esq., is associate producer of The Joe Piscopo Show, which airs daily on AM970, and the weekly Live From Downtown New York City. He graduated from New York Law School. In addition to arguing federal cases, he has written articles on the military, law, and surfing for the LI PulseHuffington Post, and Daily News (New York). He lives near Stony Brook, New York.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 2017)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501156847

Raves and Reviews

"Pries open Joltin’ Joe’s perpetually buttoned-up privacy. . . . A rare, intimate portrait of a man so audacious that he left Marilyn Monroe."

– Sam Roberts, The New York Times

“His baseball accomplishments, impressive and historic as they are, do not alone explain why DiMaggio's name still resonates as it does.  His importance is connected to a particular place and time in the history of the game, and the country.  Hemingway referenced DiMaggio.  So did Paul Simon.  A line from the early 40's song ‘Joltin' Joe DiMaggio’ by the Les Brown Orchestra goes like this:  He lives in baseball's Hall of Fame, he got there blow-by-blow, our kids will tell their kids his name, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.  Turns out that was true.”

– Bob Costas

"Readers do not have to be baseball fans to be captivated by this  memoir, which explores such universal themes as friendship, celebrity, aging, and mortality."

– Library Journal (starred review)

“An unpretentious but nonetheless lyrical, memoiristic paean to a relationship that was gradually built with mutual effort and escalating warmth. . . . This is a book about conviviality . . . but it is also a book with a searching and often melancholic heart that engages fully with love, loss, estrangement, disappointment, decline and the nature of success and legacy. . . . There is much to cherish in this book.”

– Adam Hanft, Medium

“So many special things about Joe DiMaggio are revealed by this book: his love of children, his contempt of pretense, and his iconic place in American history, all brought forth here by his closest friend in New York, Dr. Rock Positano. Joe was quiet, not silent, about the pivotal events of the twentieth century, and he shared them with Dr. Positano: Marilyn, the Kennedys, Frank Sinatra, and so many fascinating anecdotes add flesh to the bare bones of this iconic American. This is an important book because Joe is the hero we need in these times: Joe, as Dr. Positano shows, did not compromise his principles for political correctness, hurt feelings or the favor of the crowd. He was a true American original.”

– Arianna Huffington

“Positano renders a wholly human portrait of an American icon navigating his way through an adoring yet relentlessly demanding public.”

– Booklist (starred review)

"Joe Di Maggio brought a unique excitement to New York City, his adopted home town, which extended beyond baseball.  Joe's great friend Dr. Rock Positano conveys the excitement of DiMaggio's reign beautifully in this book.  It is a thrill to read from cover to cover."

– David N. Dinkins, 106th Mayor, City of New York

“I almost felt I was at the dinner table with Rock and DiMaggio at their New York haunts. . . . Dinner With DiMaggio is a great depiction of a man and legend.  A must read!”

– Congressman Peter King

“Joe DiMaggio and Rock Positano were fortunate to have found each other.  A genuine hero in need of a genuine healer.  Each an expert in his field.  Rock’s professional skills matched by his kindness and generosity of spirit. There will never be another Joe. But we are all fortunate to have the equally singular Rock still exercising his skills as both doctor and friend.”  

– Frank Langella

“Dr. Rock Positano is not only a phenomenally gifted doctor but he is a hugely empathetic companion who understands and treats the whole person, not just the injury. Joe DiMaggio found in the good doctor an Italian-American brother and a confidant. The result is this strikingly intimate portrait of a man who has often seemed as private and remote as he is heroic. Paul Simon famously asked, ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?’  We have the answer now: You can find him right here.”

– Anthony DeCurtis, Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone

"This book summarizes so many of the vibrant principles I espouse . . . the importance of being you . . . the critical need of sharing your 'authentic self' undiluted by worry or criticism.  I am pleased that this very genuine American hero was also a strong believer in being himself . . . Joe DiMaggio . . . without fail . . . and with no worries. . . ."

– Tony Robbins, author of UNSHAKEABLE

“Joe DiMaggio loved and trusted Rock for all the reason so many of us do:  He is a friend who never shies away from your battles, but joins them, instead.  All of us face adversity in life. Having Dr. Positano as a friend is like having a thousand friends. DiMaggio recognized his ability to make people feel secure and safe from the challenges and stress of everyday life.  Those of us, like Joe DiMaggio, who have Rock by our sides walk a little steadier, in more ways than one.”

– Keith Ablow, M.D., Fox News Network

“Baseball fans will savor DiMaggio's views about Ted Williams, Pete Rose, and many other famous players.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“The narrative provides wonderful glimpses of DiMaggio's integrity, kindness, and sensitivity, portraying him as a complicated man who jealously guarded his image.”

– Publishers Weekly

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