HAWAII always had a special aloha for Joe DiMaggio, who died yesterday at the age of 84. Maybe because he shared the same affection for the islands.
Joltin Joe was a
big hit in Hawaii, too
DiMaggio spent so much time here, he could have been a kamaaina. He was an honorary marshal at the Macfarlane Regatta. He attended the grand opening of the Kahala Hilton in 1963. He loved the golf courses here. He and late Star-Bulletin sportswriter Carl Machado were friends on a first-name basis.
And I'll always remember him as one of the most softspoken and classiest athletes I've ever had the opportunity of interviewing.
"The Yankee Clipper" first captivated local sports fans when he struck the most famous home run ever hit at the old Honolulu Stadium in Moiliili.
Stationed at Hickam Field, DiMaggio played for the 7th Army Air Force baseball team and on a memorable Sunday afternoon in 1944, he blasted a home run clear out of the stadium. The ball sailed over the left-field stands into Dreir Manor, where the St. Louis Alumni Clubhouse is now located.
The more than 20,000 fans in attendance went wild. You must remember, back then, during World War II, there wasn't very much to cheer about. Even in Hawaii, which was under martial law.
DiMaggio lifted the spirits of so many war-weary people locally.
NOT surprisingly, whenever DiMaggio visited the islands, too numerous times to count, he was warmly greeted. More than a thousand showed up at the old John Rodgers Airport in 1949 to greet the New York Yankee star, who came to town to play in two exhibition games with teammate Joe Page.
The number of well-wishers doubled to 2,000 when DiMaggio arrived in March, 1954, with his new bride, Marilyn Monroe. They were en route to Japan with Lefty O'Doul and his wife.
While there, Monroe was asked to entertain the American troops stationed in South Korea, according to Jim Becker, a former Star-Bulletin columnist who worked for the Associated Press back then and covered the famous couple's visit.
"Marilyn didn't want to go," Becker recalled. "Joe told her, 'If the Army wants you, you'd better go.' "
The GIs greeted the glamorous movie queen with the loudest cheers she had ever heard.
"Joe, you never heard such cheering," Marilyn told Joe after returning from Korea.
"Oh, yes, I have," replied DiMaggio.
Of course, he had. Many times over.
MY favorite DiMaggio story occurred during spring training in Arizona.
DiMaggio, still distinguished-looking as ever, had been hired by Oakland A's owner Charles Finley more as a showcase than a coach.
The Hawaii Islanders were playing Oakland's Triple-A farm club and DiMaggio was there. We chatted about the home run that Hawaii never forgot.
Jim Hackleman, who was the Star-Bulletin's sports editor at the time, knew DiMaggio from their New York days and introduced the Hall of Famer to his young son, John.
"Nice to meet you," the young Hack answered politely.
Even before DiMaggio could say another word, the youngster yelled excitedly, "Hey, dad. There's Sal Bando," and ran off to get the latter's autograph.
Sic transit gloria.
Even Honolulu Stadium, where DiMaggio had hit six home runs during his baseball days in Hawaii, is now gone. We are only left with memories of the place.
But in this day and age when we're left wondering where all the sports heroes have gone, the memory of Joltin' Joe will always be with me.
He will always be the great DiMaggio, someone as unequaled as his 56-game hitting streak, baseball's untouchable record.