photography, sports, travel

I met Joe DiMaggio, but couldn’t keep my eyes on the ball

Is Throwback Thursday still a thing? Let’s throw it back to 1996. I was a high school junior. My parents took my sister Kendra and me to Florida for Spring Break. We went to Disney World and a bunch of Spring Training baseball games. The Royals still trained in Florida in those days. When we went to their park, I was lucky enough to meet George Brett and he signed a baseball for me. A Hall of Famer, not too shabby. That would have been the highlight of the trip until we went to the Tampa airport to return home.

We always flew Southwest Airines. Dad flew a lot for business and he racked up a ton of free SWA tickets, so it made our vacations less expensive. We were sitting at the gate waiting for our flight home, when my Mom noticed him. He walked past with two other men and settled into a chair a few rows over. Could it be? No way! The Great Joe DiMaggio is flying … Southwest Airlines? And he is even carrying a Yankees-branded duffel bag? And he’s just … sitting there? It was mind-boggling. And it didn’t seem like anyone else in the airport had noticed.

Now of course we had to do something. But I’m not very good at approaching celebrities. Most of the time I prefer to let them be. This man had been world famous for 60 years as a superstar New York Yankee. He was briefly married to Marilyn Monroe. He did commercials for Mr. Coffee. How would he handle it if we went up to him? Is he so conditioned to appeasing fans, that it’s no big deal? Or did he tire of it and become surly decades ago? I’ll admit I didn’t have the guts to do it. I became way too nervous.

Dad stepped up and led Kendra and me over to the Hall of Famer. Mom stayed with our stuff (you da real MVP!). Dad spoke to him first and shook his hand. Dad asked Joe if he would sign an autograph for us. Joe said yes. I handed him the Yankee hat I happened to be wearing. “Sorry, not that,” he said. Hmm OK. We had a program from the Yankee game we had attended a few days before. That worked. “I guess you probably want a photo, too,” he surmised. Yes please! Dad snapped the pic and we left the man in peace.

Except not really. Sadly we had attracted the attention of the masses. So Joe moved to a far corner of the terminal and his two companions assumed guard duty to keep others at bay. Oops, sorry.

The camera that took the photo was, of course, a film camera. This was 1996, after all. When we returned to Oklahoma City and Mom pulled the camera out of the luggage, it had opened during the flight, exposing the film. Tragedy! We sent it for developing and hoped for the best. Sure enough, the double exposure had created some problems, including red vertical lines through the image. And our faces were washed out. But you could still see us and you could still see the man who once hit safely in 56 consecutive games. The only real problem: My eyes are closed in the photo! This is a common problem for me, as my eyes are super sensitive to bright light, including camera flashes. Oh well. Can’t re-shoot this one.

I recently tried my hand at editing and restoring the red-stained image, and the result is posted at the top of this page. Here is the original:

There was a 1991 episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer tells his friends about seeing DiMaggio in Dinky Donuts. Jerry is incredulous that DiMaggio would be in a donut shop or that he would dunk his donuts. But I’m here to tell you, If he flew Southwest and sat among the commoners, he probably dunked his donuts, too.

DiMaggio died three years after we met him. Paul Simon penned a tribute in the New York Times. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? You will forever be the most famous person I ever met.


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