I nearly threw up on Joe DiMaggio.

I was 12 years old. My breakfast of pancakes, two fried eggs, home fries, and grapefruit juice churned in my stomach as I inched closer to the front of the line to meet him at a baseball card show in Manhattan. My father, my best friend Matt “Matty-Ass” Fleming and his kid sister Megan accompanied me.

“Don’t hunch,” my father said. “Remember what we talked about.”

Our talk. Two days before, my father had given me specific instructions on how to behave when I met Joe. I was to show no emotion, because he was used to people “swooning like drunken kites” in his presence, and I was “no damned kite.” Above all else, I was to address him as “Mr. DiMaggio Sir.” Anything less would result in being slapped upside the head so hard I would need to “enlist C. Everett Koop’s assistance.”

The baseball card show took place at a convention center on Sixth Avenue, officially known as Avenue of the Americas. It was a weekend-long show and featured the autograph sessions of Stan “the Man” Musial and Mr. DiMaggio Sir. Admission for the weekend was $25.00 per day, and for ten dollars more, all attendees had the chance to meet Stan the Man on Saturday and Mr. DiMaggio Sir on Sunday. Stan the Man would sign just about any baseball-related item, including color photographs, which were $25.00. Mr. DiMaggio Sir wouldn’t sign anything involving Marilyn Monroe or Mr. Coffee, a brand of automatic-drip coffee machines.

My father scoffed at the rule. “Fuck that. I drink tea anyway—it’s more refined.”

Coupled with some commercials Mr. DiMaggio Sir did for Mr. Coffee as its spokesman, my knowledge of him came from watching Yankees Old-Timers’ Day games on TV as a child with my father and Grandfather Joe. Although I recall little about the games themselves, two details stick with me: first, of all the retired players gathered at Yankee Stadium, Mr. DiMaggio Sir was always the last player introduced in the pre-game ceremonies. Second, I didn’t understand why such was the case.

I learned in time. For my father, Mr. DiMaggio Sir’s baseball career was characterized by his Major League record 56-game hitting streak, his Pacific Coast League record 61-game hitting streak as a member of the San Francisco Seals, and being referenced by Simon and Garfunkel in the song Mrs. Robinson.  “Even hippies respect the guy,” my father said.

I also discovered that the most important aspect of Mr. DiMaggio Sir’s high standing with my family was because he was the son of Italian immigrants, a paesano who went from cleaning dead fish off his father’s boat in San Francisco to patrolling center field in Yankee Stadium. In addition to having won 3 Most Valuable Player awards, 13 All Star selections, and 9 World Series championship rings during his storied baseball career, Joe was also venerated in the Nicoletti household because he lost three years of his career to World War Two, having enlisted in the US Army Air Forces. This made him a brother-in-arms to both of my grandfathers, who also fought in the war: my grandfather Joe for the USA, and my Nonno Giovanni for Italia. Like them, Mr. DiMaggio Sir served his country proudly, despite the fact that his parents were classified as enemy aliens along with thousands of other Americans of Italian and Japanese descent by the US government after Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan. He achieved the rank of Sergeant and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.

While other Italian-American athletes had also achieved worldwide fame and fortune in the 1950s, such as the Heavyweight Champion boxer Rocky Marciano, Mr. DiMaggio Sir was arguably the first to transcend his sport, which for my family was best exemplified by his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. That Marilyn filed for divorce on the grounds of “mental cruelty” 274 days after their wedding didn’t matter. By winning the hand and heart of an actress who was as famous for being a sex symbol as she was for her comedic and dramatic talents, Mr. DiMaggio Sir had demonstrated that there was more to him than the ability to hit a baseball with consistency and to pick it in the field like a boss. The way my father and grandfather saw it, he had a sense of honor. Being the son of blue-collar workers was something to be proud of: in Mr. DiMaggio Sir’s case a fisherman, in my father’s case, a bus driver for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Like wearing the uniform of the US Army, or Yankee pinstripes, America was a good fit for people of Italian descent.

Further, Mr. DiMaggio Sir had “class.” As devastated as he reportedly was by Marilyn’s death in 1962, he handled all the funeral arrangements. He famously forbade all of Hollywood’s elite to attend, choosing to limit attendance to close friends and relatives, and had six red roses sent to her crypt three times a week for two decades. To my parents’ and grandparents’ way of thinking, Mr. DiMaggio Sir’s on and off the field successes legitimized the relevance of Italians in American popular culture as positive influences on young people, particularly men. As Grandfather Joe put it, “Better to have my sons make their mark as a centerfielder for Joe McCarthy than as a hitman for Al Capone.”

So there I was on Sunday, trying not to have a Technicolor yawn. The combination of breakfast, the rigidity of my father’s instructions, and my own excitement had wreaked havoc on my stomach and sanity. I took deep breaths to calm myself down. Alas.

Instead, I focused on Paul Carrack’s blue-eyed, soulful lead vocal on the song “Tempted,” which was booming from a monolithic-sized stereo speaker mounted above the doorway.

I made my way to the center of the table, where Mr. DiMaggio Sir was sitting. A resplendent figure, he looked even more regal in person than he did on TV. Neither the scuffed Maplewood wall panels or the braids of cigarette smoke squirming like faceless snakes around the ceiling fan could remove the shine of his white hair, parted to the left, or the red stripes of his silk tie. His shirt was starched, impeccable, which was complimented by a navy-blue blazer. He smiled as he looked down at me, lips glistening with the elegance of a bona-fide baseball deity, whom my father could not have wanted me to believe in more.

“Hello young man,” he said. “What’s your name?”

My stomach gurgled, as if in response. I coughed, trying to cover it up.

“Stalin. Joseph Stalin,’” Matty-Ass quipped.

Paul Carrack kept giving me his vocal medicine.

“Good after-n-noon, Mr. Duh-Duh-Maggio Sir. My name is Joey. H-how you doin’ today?”

Mr. DiMaggio Sir allowed himself a little laugh. “Why, I’m doing just fine, Joey. Thanks for asking. Would you like me to sign your baseball?”

Goose pimples bloomed on my arms. I didn’t have a baseball with me. In fact, I didn’t have any items that would be appropriate for an occasion like this. I tried to think on my feet.

“W-well, I don’t have a ball—a baseball, that is, b-but I have this.”

I removed and unfolded a creased copy of the show flyer from my pants pocket. My hands trembled as I placed the flyer on the table. It felt like distance between San Francisco and Manhattan.

Mr. DiMaggio Sir furrowed his brow.

“Forgive me for asking, Joey, but where’s your picture?  Didn’t the man give you one?”

“W-Which man?”

My father slapped the back of my head. “Mojo!”

I listened for the music, but there was none. Mr. DiMaggio Sir stared at the flyer.

“Of course you don’t have a picture of me. You’ve been having fun at the show, buying cards and what not. Am I right?”

Then I saw Mr. DiMaggio Sir motion to a bald man in a black suit and steel-gray fedora standing at the right end of the table. He looked like a shorter version of the actor Telly Savalas as Detective Theo Kojak, minus the lollipop or flair for catchphrases.

“Could you please give my friend Joey a picture?”

Kojak’s nostrils flared. “Nope.”

Mr. DiMaggio Sir’s right eyebrow rose. “I beg your pardon?”

“He didn’t pay his fee.”

“Come again?”

“No 25 bucks, no picture. House rules.”

Mr. DiMaggio Sir shook his head, and then held my hand. I felt my lungs photosynthesize.

“How old are you, Joey?”

“I’m t-twelve.”

Mr. DiMaggio Sir turned his head to Kojak. “What twelve-year old has 25 dollars to spend on a photograph of an athlete who they never saw play?”

“Like I said, house—"

“It’s bad enough that you’re making as much money as you are off these fans, especially the youngsters. Please, give Joey a picture. Now,” Mr. DiMaggio Sir said. He nodded at me.

Kojak scowled the eyes out of my sockets. Who hates ya, baby?

“Here you go, Kid. I’m sorry, Mr. DiMaggio.”

“You should be, Kojakass,” Matty-Ass hollered.

I heard a medley of applause and whistles. Kojak took a large swig of his Yoo-Hoo, almost draining the bottle.

“How should I sign this for you, Joey?”

I said the only thought that came to mind. “With a blue-inked pen, please?”

Mr. DiMaggio Sir flashed the radiant smile that sold thousands of coffee machines and won Marilyn Monroe’s gorgeous hand in marriage.

“How about, ‘To Joey, best wishes, Joe DiMaggio?’ ”

“Sure. That works.”

Mr. DiMaggio laughed as he signed my picture. I smiled when the rest of the band members of Squeeze picked up from where Paul had left off.

Then my father took the lead.

“Uh, Joe? Mr. D? How are ya? Would it be okay if you and Mojo posed for a picture or two? I’m his padre, so it’s not child abductor behavior at work here. Would that be okay?”

“Sure, Mr…”

“Nicoletti.  Joe Nicoletti.”

“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Nicoletti. Take as many as you would like.”

“Call me Joe.”

Before I knew it, Kojak had escorted me behind the table, where I stood behind Mr. DiMaggio Sir, looking on as he signed Matty-Ass’s, Megan’s, and other people’s items. Memories of it still keep calling.

After countless poses and camera flashes, Matty–Ass and I handed our autographed pictures to my father. He put them in a manila envelope. Finally, on to the baseball card hunt.

“I hereby release the hounds. See you in two hours,” he said, pointing at the door behind him.

“By the Men’s Room?” Megan asked.

“At the water fountain. In two hours.”


Megan, Matty-Ass and I searched and discovered; we bargained to our heart’s desires, all of my 15 dollars of it, to Megan’s and Matty-Ass’s combined 63 dollars. By the end of the day, Megan and Matty-Ass had scored a 1957 Jackie Robinson card in pristine condition.

I was equally excited, having purchased the rookie card of Ken Singleton, my favorite living ballplayer, for a dollar. I came across some cards of Mr. DiMaggio Sir, but none of them fit my budget.

Matty-Ass and I met in front of the rest room. There was no sign of my father. Megan was already there, drinking from the fountain.

An elevator door slid open behind where Matty-Ass was standing. Mr. DiMaggio Sir and two other men emerged, their blood-shot eyes glued on my father, who was in rare form.

“So the priest says, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That’s not a rooster!’”

Everyone in the group burst out laughing. So did Megan. Matty-Ass and I were flabbergasted.

“Good one, Joe,” Mr. DiMaggio Sir said. His tie was loose.

“You know it—Joe!”

More laughter. My father’s thunderous chuckle could have been heard back home on Teed Street. Mr. DiMaggio Sir slapped my father’s back.

“Mister Nick,” Megan called.

“Oh yeah. It was great talkin’ with ya, Joe. Say hi to Yogi for me.”

“Yogi?” Matty-Ass asked Megan and me. “As in Berra?”

“No, as in Mussolini,” Megan replied.

My father and Mr. DiMaggio Sir shook hands. “Take care. It was a pleasure meeting all of you.”

Mr. DiMaggio Sir and I shared a smile. Then he and the other two men walked back into the elevator. My father swaggered towards Matty-Ass, Megan and me, the ding of the elevator bell resounding through the hallway as the doors closed.

Joey Nicoletti is a graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program. The author of Cannoli Gangster, his work has appeared in Martian Lit, Aethlon, Heron Tree, Sou'wester, and other journals and 'zines. He currently teaches writing at SUNY Buffalo State College.