Joe was a staff sergeant who had been assigned to Hawaii to play baseball for the Seventh Air Force team. He was being honored at the banquet. Someone had suggested that each person in attendance at the dinner sign a dollar bill and all of them would be clipped together and the string presented to Joe.
DiMaggio wanted to get in on the act, but didn't have a dollar bill in change. He turned to me, seated next to him.
"Hey, Walt, lend me a buck," he said. "I'll get you later."
I autographed the bill and handed it to him to add to the chain. He never paid me back and I am glad. I have been glorying in the memory that the great Joe DiMaggio asked for my autograph and was indebted to me financially.
I never got his autograph.
My association with Joe was on a newspaperman-sports hero basis. I was associate editor of The Midpacifican, the Army Newspaper in Hawaii.
Back in those World War II days there was an active baseball league in Hawaii in which many of the service teams were represented. The Navy brought in Walt Masterson, a fireball pitcher of the old Washington Senators, and he proceeded to strike out from 15 to 20 batters a game as Navy began to dominate the league.
This was too much for Col. William Flood of the Seventh Air Force. He had a wave of top-flight major league ballplayers in the service transferred to Hawaii to play ball. DiMaggio headed the list.
When Joe arrived I wanted a photo of him that was different from the everyday baseball action pictures. And I wondered how to go about it.
I had heard and read that DiMaggio was a "loner," very moody and extremely curt, especially with newspaper people. But I figured I would try anyway.
I went to Hickam Field where he was stationed. I introduced myself and asked if he were willing to pose for a picture for our photographer, "maybe playing a baseball pinball machine."
He was gracious in saying, "Yes, where do want to go?" Most of the answers in our conversation were "yesses" and "nos" which could easily have been misinterpreted by some as curt. But there was a warmness in his replies. He opened up more when I told him I had found a baseball pinball machine at the Hickam Field Officers' Club.
"Does it have to be an officers' club?" he at first objected, then said, "Well, I guess that it's okay."
The photographer and I picked him up that evening and took the picture of him and a buddy, Walt Judnich, formerly of the St. Louis Browns and Cleveland Indians.
The conversation that evening became much more two-sided. He confided to me that he had not enlisted in the service to play baseball. He said it was decreed by the higher-ups and he had no veto powers. "If I wanted to play baseball I would have stayed with the Yankees at $75,000," he said.
Joe told me he was suffering severely from painful spurs in his heels and was having problems with a stomach ulcer. In spite of the ailments, he continued to put forth top efforts on the field.
I was so entranced by some of the less-publicized ordeals he had to go through that I asked him if he would consider writing an article for the Midpacifican (later the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes). "I guess I could," was his reply.
My phone rang the next morning. "Walt, this is Joe. Why don't you write the article and quote whatever you want."
This I did, but before publication I took it Hickam Field to let Joe read it. "This is fine," he said. "I couldn't have said it better myself."
Several days after the article ran, Joe called again. "Don Watson of the Star Bulletin and Red McQueen of the Advertiser wants me to do one for them. You don't suppose you could do them for me? I am willing to compensate."
I considered it a command performance. No charge.
A month after the pinball machine picture appeared, I received a letter from the machine's manufacturer in the States. They offered $500 for a print of the photo to be used for advertising purposes.
I figured that the decision was DiMaggio's. Back to Hickam Field again, I gave the letter to Joe. His replay was, "Do whatever you want with it."
I did. I kept it, and expressed mine and his regrets to the company. It has been a precious part of my war memorabilia since.
In spite of his painful ailments, Joe gave 100-percent effort in his play with the Seventh Air Force team. in his first appearance in Honolulu Stadium, then located near downtown Honolulu, he faced a real challenge.
The great Babe Ruth had played there in an exhibition game years before and had hit a ball out of the park and more than eighty feet onto the yard of a private club adjacent to the stadium. Club members had marked the spot as a shrine.
On his third appearance at the plate of his first game there, DiMaggio hoisted one out of the stadium, outdistancing Ruth's marker. He won the hearts of Hawaiians. To them it was a historic event. To Joe, it was just another feat in his long string of baseball successes.
My further associations with the Yankee Clipper were just smiles or waves at baseball games and brief chats on his occasional visits to the sports department of the Honolulu Advertiser which was in the same building as our Army paper.
After the war I watched him many times when he played in Cleveland, but I never invaded his privacy.
I had a small print of the pinball machine picture which I mailed in a "get-well" card to him when he first was in the hospital. Whether or not he received it, I will never know.
The Joe DiMaggio I dealt with was not the curt "loner" that sportswriters painted him to be. Although he often gave the impression that he had something else on his mind besides the Army or baseball, he was warm, kind and always a gentleman.
We know where you have gone, Joe DiMaggio -- to the ultimate Hall of Fame in the sky.