Ron Onesti: Baseball memories are the only baseball this year
I am honored to have been recently elected president of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. It is a 45-year-old organization of which I have been greatly involved. The founder and former president, George Randazzo, died unexpectedly. I was chosen to lead the group, charged with fostering his legacy and his dream. Now, one of my dreams.
With nothing but video clips and newspaper recollections giving us our baseball fix these days, I thought I would share an amazing experience I had with one of the greatest athletes in history, Joe DiMaggio.
What I will miss this year, as we would normally be swinging into the All-Star break around this time, are three things that bring me to an out-of-body, "Field Of Dreams" experience: having a couple of smokie-link sandwiches in the left field box seats at Wrigley facing the base Santo built; throwing down a cold one while watching the post-home run fireworks at Comiskey (sorry, it will always be Comiskey); and recalling my day with a man who is spoken of in the same conversation as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig -- Yankee great Joe DiMaggio.
For many years, I volunteered my time to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame on Taylor Street in Chicago. I produced all its fundraising events, was the lead designer for all exhibits in the museum and was editor of its magazine, Red White & Green. Because of this unique position, I was able to befriend some of the biggest names in sports history and become subject to classic "behind the game" stories.
As we were constructing the museum's new home in Chicago, we were able to secure from the city a parcel of land directly across the street for $1. It was a real estate deal that would have brought even Donald Trump to tears.
We designed the Joe DiMaggio Piazza there, complete with a beautiful bronze statue of the legend taking his signature swing, roman columns and Venetian tile. Basically, it looked like the backyard of many of my Italian American cousins.
By way of Morris Engelberg, his attorney, business manager and author of "DiMaggio: Setting The Record Straight," we invited Mr. D to the groundbreaking ceremony. He accepted!
I was selected to coordinate this day. It was definitely one of the most exciting, pinch-me moments of my career.
Our first stop was the Chicago Board of Trade, where Joe was to open the day of trading. We entered the vast trading floor where the electricity was high and the tension was as thick as Sunday lasagna. Then something happened that Board Chairman Pat Arbor said had never occurred there before: business completely stopped and the traders paid homage to the Yankee great with a thunderous applause as he walked the floor to the opening bell platform. All our eyes welled up at this heartwarming tribute.
Being an event producer extraordinaire (at least I thought I was), I believed that every minute was well planned out. What I did not realize was that the ringing of the opening bell was just that, a quick action that equated to a three second endeavor. So at 9 a.m. sharp, "Joe D" aptly clanged the large table-mounted bell (one that looked like the type you would see ending the rounds in a boxing match) with a wooden baseball bat, received World Series-winning cheers from the floor then looked at me and asked, "What's next?"
I had assumed there was to be some ceremony connected with this historic moment. Some pomp and circumstance, some presentations … something! But that was it and all eyes were on me as to what the next move would be. The next thing I had planned was an 11:30 a.m. lunch! Now what do I do with Joe DiMaggio?
I asked Arbor if I could sequester our small group in his office for a while, to which he eagerly complied. Here's the cool thing: For over an hour, a couple of us from the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, including Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball chairman and owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, and NASCAR champion Chip Ganassi listened in awe as DiMaggio and legendary Dodger manager and fellow Cooperstown inductee Tommy Lasorda traded quips and stories about Berra, Gehrig, Mantle and a few other larger-than-life sports figures. The lack of Marilyn Monroe talk was conspicuous by its absence.
Tommy would talk about the camaraderie shared by players then that just doesn't exist today. Many players had jobs during the off season to make ends meet. Joe was a superstar though. He would draw crowds everywhere he went. But if he wasn't eating a bowl of pasta and meatballs, his favorite dinner was three hot dogs and a dab of mustard on a plate!
Joe was very respectful toward Babe Ruth. He said the Babe was a father figure to many of the players of the day. But ironically, Ruth never really spoke about baseball to them. It was more about being good to the fans, especially the kids. Then Babe would disappear with three beautiful girls and be gone all night!
Story after story, told in first person as the recounting of memories … what an amazing experience that was!
It wound up being quite a day (and quite a night), one I could describe in better detail if I had a dozen or so more pages here.
The exquisite Joe DiMaggio Piazza took about a year to complete. Unfortunately, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, the "Yankee Clipper," passed away before the unveiling of the statue and the piazza. His brother, the former Boston Red Sox great known as the Little Professor, Dom DiMaggio, attended and graciously spoke on behalf of his brother.
"How wonderful this tribute to my brother is here in Chicago, a place that he truly loved and where he had many close friends. And how fitting it is that this Joe DiMaggio Piazza is located on Taylor Street in Little Italy. A little known fact about the DiMaggio family: We spent most of our young lives in a home on Taylor Street in San Francisco's Little Italy!"
All 500 of us in attendance simultaneously dropped our jaws. He was born in California, grew up in San Francisco, became a New York legend and died in Florida. But when it came to memorializing this legendary figure, it was the fans from Chicago who stepped up.
To quote the song "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio" by Les Brown and his Band of Renown: "From coast to coast that's all you'll hear, Of Joe the one-man show. He's glorified the horsehide sphere, Joltin' Joe DiMaggio."
Joe only autographed one baseball during his visit. Yes, it was a very cool gift to me from somebody whom I never thought I would meet. To add to the cool factor -- a subsequent visit from another Yankee great, Yogi Berra, resulted in his signature on my famed DiMaggio ball.
But the best part of it all? I was given a truly magical gift. I was able to introduce my hero to his hero. My dad, the proud World War II veteran, escorted DiMaggio that day -- two true America heroes, both of whom were my personal heroes, one of which will remain legendary infinitely in my heart.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.