Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hard to Figure: The Drab Legacy of Jottin’ Joe

Aki Jones, a security guard, with the DiMaggio
“diaries” at Gallagher’s Steak House Monday.

Published: July 17, 2007

Whitey Ford, who really should be introduced as the incomparable Whitey Ford, wore a somewhat quizzical look yesterday as the books were spread across a table where he sat in a Midtown restaurant.

On second thought, calling them books endows them with an ill-deserved loftiness. They were binders, 29 of them, filled with more than 2,400 pages of jottings by one of the most magnificent players ever to fill a baseball uniform, Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees. Steiner Sports, a Westchester company that trades in sports memorabilia, has bought these jottings and now plans to sell them.

Call them diaries or journals, if you wish. But those words, too, might be lofty.

Page after page, they are DiMaggio’s summaries of his daily activities from 1982 to 1993. Judging from the samples that Steiner Sports made available, there seems little likelihood of anyone’s stumbling upon Proustian insights. These notes lean heavily toward the humdrum: “Monday, December 12, 1983. Up at 7 a.m. Had breakfast in coffee shop at 8 a.m.” At the bottom of many pages, he itemized his expenses for the day — $87 that Dec. 12, most of it for taxis.

DiMaggio began tracking his spending for tax purposes but came over time to use the summaries to “convey his feelings and emotions,” Steiner Sports said. Typically, he wrote on stationery cadged from hotels or airlines. He was notoriously — how to put it kindly? — frugal. The man tossed quarters around as if they were manhole covers.

We’re willing to bet that on Dec. 12, 1983, millions of people woke up at 7 in the morning and had breakfast at 8. But millions of people were not Joe DiMaggio, who died in 1999 at 84. Steiner Sports is betting that enough potential buyers are out there to bring in at least $1.5 million at auction, and maybe $3 million or more.

In this era of celebrity worship — can you imagine what Paris Hilton’s prison uniform might fetch? — anything goes. “People want artifacts,” said Brandon Steiner, the company’s chief executive.

To announce its plans, the company held a news conference yesterday at Gallagher’s Steak House, a DiMaggio haunt. The choice of July 16 was presumably no accident. On July 16, 1941, DiMaggio hit safely in his 56th consecutive game. That streak, which ended the next day, remains baseball’s gold standard for batting consistency.

Whitey Ford, the great Yankee pitcher and no stranger himself to making a buck on his glory years, was asked to join the show. He and DiMaggio were teammates for a short time in 1950, he at the dawn of his major league career, DiMaggio at the twilight of his.

Mr. Ford, looking fit at 78, sat at a table while the stacks of binders were laid out in front of him. He seemed taken aback. “This is all new to me,” he said. “I didn’t know this stuff existed until a couple of days ago.”

And what would DiMaggio have thought about his personal musings being put up for auction?

“He was a very, very private man,” Mr. Ford replied. “I don’t know if Joe would be too tickled about this.”

DiMaggio’s desire to preserve his privacy was legendary. “He did everything right,” Mr. Ford said, “except he just couldn’t open up.”

THAT thought raises an inevitable question about the propriety of turning a profit on the personal writings of a man who, though always interested in cash, kept to himself. Nor is this is an isolated situation. You may remember Sotheby’s 1999 auction of letters written by the hermitic J. D. Salinger.

Steiner Sports bought the DiMaggio papers from Morris Engelberg, who was DiMaggio’s lawyer and did just fine for himself with that association. The purchase price was not disclosed. But on the correctness of the deal, the company’s executives pronounced themselves to be on the side of the angels.

“I think at some point, he knew that these would get out,” Jared Weiss, the company’s president, said of DiMaggio. Mr. Steiner said that Mr. Engelberg took “a lot of direction” from DiMaggio. “At the end of the day,” he said, “if Joe really didn’t want these to come out, Morris would have known it.”

That may be. But few of us standing on the outside looking in are ever likely to know for sure. Whitey Ford, for one, sounded uncertain.

Once more, someone asked him what he thought DiMaggio might have felt about his papers going on the block. “I don’t know,” Mr. Ford said. “He was a tough man to understand.”

E-mail: haberman@nytimes.com