Tampa: Elvis Presley once said that a man is one thing and an image is another. I didn’t really know what Elvis meant by saying that until I was invited to visit the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital through a personal call from their CEO Chantal Leconte.
Tuesday morning in Fort Lauderdale Florida, after I parked my car, as I approached the hospital I saw this magnificent building with a statue in the front of Joe DiMaggio in his Yankee uniform with his arm around a little boy. It was the most sensitive looking work of art that I have ever seen. When I walked inside the hospital Chantal and her entourage were standing there waiting for me.
Their camera man started flashing pictures of me as if I was some sort of celebrity. I told Chantal, she is treating me like I was a Yankees star and she said, “Today to these kids you are.” We proceeded to take a little tour of this magnificent building and she educated me on what it meant to the community and the poor sick children that are here everyday.
I asked her why it was important to have me there? She said, “I knew that after listening to you speak at another venue weeks before, I knew that you understood what these kids were going through and that you can truly brighten their day.”
Chantal mentioned to me that it was nice to have someone in the hospital who had actually known Joe DiMaggio. I said to her that I had met DiMaggio on many occasions throughout the years but that I did not really know him.
Chantal showed me many rare pictures dating back to 1936 right up until and just before he died, and how he truly loved children. I was truly blown away at the magnitude of the pictures. Evidently throughout the years this was one of Joe DiMaggio’s best and kept secrets.
This was something that Mr. DiMaggio took very-very serious. With each passing picture that I saw, I started to realize certain things that DiMaggio said to different people over the years and one of them being, you must help children before they get polluted by adults.
I now find it so profound that things make more sense. She even had a picture of DiMaggio and an African American boy in deep conversation before the boy had surgery. In my mind all I could hear was Simon and Garfunkel “Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio, Our Nation Turns It’s lonely Eyes To You.”
Now every time that I hear different people saying what a crab Joe DiMaggio was I will turn to them and say, “What have you ever done for the children of this world?” Because today Joe is a hero to me, not for the 56-game hitting streak but for the hundreds of children that he reached out too and tried to help.
In 1984, I was lucky enough to work in a movie called “The Cotton Club” that was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starred Richard Gere. I played a waiter in the club. Richard Gere introduced me to Mr Coppola as George Steinbrenner’s bat boy and from that day on for the next two months, Mr. Coppola treated me not like an extra but like one of the stars.
He was truly a gentleman to me everyday. Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, and Nicholas Cage all used to stare at me in amazement with the preferential treatment Mr. Coppola gave me over all the other extras on the set.
When filming ended at the “Rap Party” Mr. Coppola came over to me, shook my hand and thanked me for my efforts. I asked out of curiosity, I needed to know as to why he had been so nice to me? His response was, “Even though you may think you are just a bat boy, you are still a Yankee and when I was a little boy I was suffering from a very rare paralysis and a significant Yankee came to the hospital to visit me. He didn’t know me from Adam.”
Coppola would say, “I was just one of the sick kids at the hospital and this Yankees visit meant the world to me and for a little while I forgot how sick I really was.”
I asked Mr. Coppola who was that Yankee? He said, “Joe DiMaggio.” Thirty-three years later, It’s incredible that I am standing in a hospital named after a man that most of the world did not realize had this kind of a beautiful heart. Even though I had seen little samples of what this Yankee great was capable of off the field I never put it together until now.
Throughout the years I used to see my incredible boss George Steinbrenner do wonderful things and he would always tell me never to tell anyone and this is pretty much the same way that DiMaggio wanted to be able to do the good that he had done.
Now I understand. As the Boss once told me, if people find out the good I do, that’s their business but that is not the reason for the good that I do. Now I have to believe after my findings that this was part of the reason why the Boss and DiMaggio had such great respect for each other.
Chantal asked me, “Are you now ready to see the kids?” I responded, “Now more than ever.” I went from room-to-room and presented all the kids with replica championship rings and all of the children loved them. She even had me visit the ward that had the children getting ready for surgery. At first I was scared because I did not know how the kids would react but when I handed them their rings it was if they had forgot that they were getting ready to go to surgery.
One little boy held his fist up with the ring showing and he had a smile in his face as he was being wheeled into surgery. I gave him a thumbs up and he gave me a wink.
This was truly one of the most beautiful moments of my life. When the visit was over, Chantal thanked me but it was me that was grateful for the awakening of what the great Joe DiMaggio was all about and how courageous our children of the world really are
The classic line in my animated film “Henry And Me” comes from the mouth of Lou Gehrig, “We’re Yankees. This is what we do.”
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