This is part two of a four-part series.
It was exhilarating growing up on Long Island in the late thirties — yes, the 1930s. The Yankee Clipper — Joe DiMaggio, to the uninitiated — was leading the New York Yankees to the American League pennant and World Series championship four years in a row. What could be better!
So when he died, I remembered DiMaggio with fondness, even awe, as many of my contemporaries did. But his passing also reminded me of another Joe from that era — his name was Joe Fasanella. Unlike the six-foot-plus Yankee Clipper, this Joe was not quite five-and-a-half feet tall and certainly not more than 140 pounds, yet his frame was wrapped in pure sinew and muscle.
He, too, was born to Italian immigrant parents. Joe Fasanella’s father wasn’t a fisherman like DiMaggio’s, but a nurseryman, and a diminutive one at that. His face was wizened, his hands gnarled, and his hair thinning, but he had sparkle in his eyes. He had realized the American dream: A big, white colonial house, a gaggle of children and several acres of property that housed his nursery business.
The spring before we graduated from high school, Joe asked me and another friend if we’d like to make a couple of bucks each Saturday working with him in the nursery. How tough could it be? We quickly said yes, and we quickly discovered why Joe was such a bundle of muscle and fiber.
Each Saturday afternoon that spring, we struggled home, young bodies aching, following an exhausting eight-hour day spent weeding and planting, turning over flowerbeds and cleaning flues in the coal furnace that kept the hot houses hot. Joining the U.S. Navy and going to boot camp was a welcome change for me!
Joe’s physical prowess was remarkable. Whenever the spirit moved him, he would challenge his friends to duplicate his strength — a hundred push-ups and a like number of sit-ups, with no breather and little effort. We declined, with thanks. We knew he’d up the ante if we accepted.
Even more remarkable was his love and appreciation of baseball. It exceeded all bounds. When not playing baseball, the rest of us were content to listen, root and exalt in wins or be despondent in losses.
Not Joe. He was a walking encyclopedia, not only with statistics of the Yankees, but all of the major league teams. And he kept records — hundreds and hundreds of them — not on a computer, but with a pencil and a notebook.
We often tested his memory. “What did Joe D. hit in 1938?” Joe would reply almost in a nanosecond. “How many errors was Bill Dickey charged with in 1937?” Again, Joe responded almost quicker than we could blurt out the question.
Joe was an anomaly in that sense. None of us cared that much — or had the interest or energy — to get involved in such intricacies of the game. And it would be surprising to me if there is a single youngster today who has such an intense interest in the statistics of any sport. Today’s kids, like today’s pro athletes, seem to focus more on personal glitter than on team performance. But that’s not where Joe DiMaggio — or Joe Fass — was coming from.
It’s been a long time since I thought of Joe Fasanella, but when DiMaggio passed on, I was reminded once again of my boyhood friend. Unlike DiMaggio, my boyhood pal never got to be an octogenarian. In fact, he never made it to his twenty-fifth birthday. Shortly after he returned from the war, he discovered he had leukemia.
Not surprisingly, he fought it with the same spirit that marked the way he played football, battling for the extra yard even though his opponents were always bigger, sometimes stronger, but never braver. But this was a competition he couldn’t win, and he didn’t.
He loved statistics. He loved life even more, and somehow, when you were with him, it rubbed off. After all these years, I still remember that. Thank you, Joe. And you, too, Joe DiMaggio.
Brian Masterson grew up in Baldwin in the 1930s. He now lives in Melbourne, Fla.