How the White Sox played a part in Joe DiMaggio meeting Marilyn Monroe

  • Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe arrive at a theater in June 1955.

    Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe arrive at a theater in June 1955. Associated Press

 
Updated 1/29/2022 7:12 PM

In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," Marilyn Monroe sings "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."

She might have been singing about another kind of diamond, one with four bases and a pitcher's mound.

 

With the 60th anniversary of her passing in August and the recent release of a CNN documentary series, the legendary screen star is again in the spotlight, as viewers revisit such movies as "The Seven Year Itch."

One tangential but compelling aspect of her story is the Chicago baseball connection -- and the link with an important period of her life, her marriage to Yankees great Joe DiMaggio.

Chicago baseball provided the backdrop for her short residence on Catalina Island, the spring training home of the Cubs. At the time, she was Norma Jeane Dougherty and married to Merchant Marine James Dougherty.

By 1949, divorced and recast as Marilyn Monroe, she was steadily climbing toward stardom, registering a strong impression in the Marx Brothers' "Love Happy."

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And on July 9 of that year, she gathered with a group of celebrities at Wrigley Field for the Movie Star World Series, a softball game presented by the Chicago Herald-American newspaper, with proceeds going toward the Motion Picture Relief Fund and the City of Hope.

The event also featured a Prep All-Star Game with 34 outstanding high school players and an Old Timers Diamond Classic with a lineup of former stars, including Ray Schalk, Lefty Gomez, Rogers Hornsby, Red Faber and Gabby Hartnett.

The Movie Star World Series roster boasted such luminaries as William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Monroe posed for a photograph with Sonny Tufts, who later appeared with her in "The Seven Year Itch," while Jane Russell, her co-star in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," also participated.

But that was just the prelude to Monroe's pivotal baseball moment. In March 1951, she posed for a group of publicity photos with a trio of White Sox players -- Joe Dobson, Hank Majeski and Gus Zernial -- at training camp in Pasadena, Calif.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The photos were taken in advance of Monroe's appearance as official hostess for a game to benefit the Kiwanis Crippled Children's Fund at Gilmore Field in Los Angeles, home of the Pacific Coast League's Hollywood Stars.

Zernial, who not only would appear in that benefit game, but club two homers, was snapped walking alongside Monroe, both resting baseball bats against their shoulders.

Another photo depicted Monroe, wearing short shorts and high heels, tagging a sliding Majeski at home plate with a baseball mitt, as Zernial and Dobson called their teammate out.

Zernial, nicknamed "Ozark Ike" after a comic strip character, told author Maury Allen in the 1970s, "She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Not only was she lovely, she was very intelligent. She wasn't a dumb blonde. I talked to her for about two hours that day while they prepared all the cameras."

He said he was tempted to ask her out for dinner, "but my wife was sitting in the stands."

Zernial, who the previous year had set a White Sox record with 29 homers, said, "We posed for pictures for about half an hour. She was squatting and I was told to wrap my arms around her and show her how to hold the bat. That was no problem. I enjoyed my work that day."

As the pictures circulated in the nation's newspapers, they made an impression on DiMaggio, who was no stranger to Hollywood glamour, having previously been married to actress Dorothy Arnold.

Zernial said DiMaggio kidded him, asking, "How come I never get to pose with beautiful girls like that?"

Zernial said he told him "this guy David March had arranged it. I guess he called March after that."

March, a press agent, convinced Monroe to have dinner with DiMaggio and March's date at the Villa Nova restaurant in Hollywood.

Although the evening proved awkward, she drove him back to his hotel, where she declined an invitation to come up to his suite and look at his baseball trophies.

The next day, she told March, "He struck out."

But that turned out to be the beginning of a romance that culminated in the union of baseball and Hollywood royalty in 1954.

Zernial wouldn't be with the Sox much longer after the photo shoot. He was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics in the three-team deal that brought Minnie Minoso to the Sox from Cleveland.

After he became a sportscaster at KFSN-TV in Fresno, Calif., Zernial later told the Fresno Bee, "What made me sick was the way they used her in the movies. She was an intelligent, sensitive person, not a harebrained sexpot. I honestly believe the studio pressures ruined her and led her to suicide."

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