The year was 1948, and the teenager born in the imposing shadow of Yankee Stadium was up to his racing heart in heroes.
DiMaggio. Berra. Rizzuto. The New York Yankees. The perennial World Series champion Yankees. Future Hall of Fame Yankees. The Yankees. HisYankees. Flannel-draped sports idols so incredibly legendary they bordered on mythic. Royalty in pinstripes. A diamond of shimmering stars. The Bronx does Hollywood.
And there Tony D’Onofrio was, all of 18, smack in the middle of it. He was a go-fer hired by the Yanks, earning $3 per game when bread cost 14 cents a loaf and gas 16 cents per gallon. He was a Yankees-loving kid running for Joe DiMaggio’s half-cup of coffee before every game, years before the sweet-swinging Yankee Clipper would turn to pitching for Mr. Coffee. He would deliver notes from Yogi Berra to the knockout in the first row behind home plate. He would talk baseball with Phil Rizzuto in the dugout. He would drink it all in, with some of his dream-come-true job dribbling down his chin as he blinked his eyes in near-disbelief and thought, Holy Cow, look where I am!
The mere sight of them, sitting beside them, talking to them, assisting them. Those moments, indelibly etched on his soul, were so impactful they nearly brought the kid to his knees.
But what young D’Onofrio could not have known then is, years later, a vastly different kind of hero would have a similar effect on him.
On the ninth floor of Wesley Enhanced Living, a continuing care retirement community in Doylestown where he’s been a resident since 2014, and on a day delivered from baseball heaven, 86-year-old Tony D’Onofrio discussed his two great loves: His wife of 60 years, Anne, beside him in a wheelchair because of a stroke a few years ago, and the Yankees. He met her at a Fordham University dance. They’ve been dancing ever since.”I don’t know why God gave her to me,” he said, shaking his head as though feeling undeserving of the wonderful woman who owns his heart. “She’s an angel.”
To D’Onofrio, the Yankees were also heaven sent. Wearing a weathered, beige baseball cap with the interlocking NY logo, he put his life on rewind. “Growing up, I loved baseball and the Yankees,” D’Onofrio said. “I played third base and shortstop against teams from other streets in our neighborhood. We all dreamed of playing in Yankee Stadium one day.” One day, D’Onofrio came as close as one could short of being a Yankee. His sister, Jane, five years older and a secretary in the Yankees ticket office, asked if he’d be interested in a job with the Yankees.
“I think it took all of two seconds for me to accept, even before I knew what the job was,” he said. “I did a lot of different jobs, easy jobs. I’d get all the information that would occur that day. What I did before every home game was go to the manager’s office and get the Yankee lineup for that day’s game. The manager (Bucky Harris) would write down the lineup while I waited. “I’d also take our lineup to the other team’s manager, then get their lineup and take them both up to the press box to the Yankees announcer, Mel Allen. Mel would say, ‘What ya got, Tony?’ I’d say, ‘Today’s lineups, Mr. Allen.’ He’d say, ‘Thanks, Tony!’ Here I was, just a kid walking around Yankee Stadium. It was amazing.”
D’Onofrio fixed his weathered Yankees cap, with tufts of gray sprouting out from the sides, and talked about some of the best days of a guy’s life. On the table before him was a framed letter on Yankees letterhead signed by Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who thanked him for his service to the team that year. On a mobile tablet next to the framed letter was a short video from Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who thanked him for being such a loyal fan and for once working for the team. D’Onofrio peered through wire-rimmed glasses and ran his eyes around the room, mentally flipping back the pages of time, as his wife smiled at him, enjoying the view. “I’d go into the clubhouse where ballplayers were dressing and some would yell, ‘Tony, get me this’ or ‘Tony, I need that.’ ” he recalled. “I got them what they needed, and I loved it. When the game began, I’d sit in the dugout. Sometimes players would spend time with me if they weren’t in the lineup and sometimes the guys in the lineup would talk to me between innings.
The Yankees were in the throes of a magnificent run in 1948. From 1936 through 1953, they would win the World Series 12 times. But not in 1948. Not with a Yankees-adoring kid along for the ride. They would finish in third place in the American League that season, with a 94-60 record, 2½ games behind the eventual Series champion Cleveland Indians. No ring, but lots of memories.
The great DiMaggio, as Hemingway described him in “The Old Man and the Sea,” would instruct D’Onofrio to bring him coffee before every game. Not a full cup, just half. “And he’d never drink it in the dugout; he’d stay on the steps that led to the clubhouse and sip it,” D’Onofrio said. “If I was nearby, he’d talk to me. Every once in a while, if he was feeling good, he’d ask me about playing baseball. Joe DiMaggio was talking to me.
“Yogi was a character. We had an episode with him one day. There were three young gals behind the screen in the first row of seats, and Yogi came to me and said, ‘Do me a favor.’ Then he handed me this note and said to give it to the girl in the middle. Now, if I would have read it, he would have kicked my butt. The girl asked if she needed to give Yogi an answer. I told her she needed to give me the answer.”
D’Onofrio raised his eyebrows. “Now, I don’t know if this is true or not,” he began, “but I understand Yogi took her out. Supposedly, her father blew his top because she was a little younger than Yogi (who was 23 then). Again, I was just a kid seeing all this going on with the Yankees.”
D’Onofrio set aside the Yankees and talked about his service to America. He became a pharmacist, was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and was assigned to what was then known as Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. It was there where he saw American servicemen returning from war. Many of them were broken beyond repair. Many with wounds visible; others buried deep beneath the hurt.
D’Onofrio would often leave the pharmacy for a time each day to visit the soldiers in the wards. There was one soldier in particular that, at the prompting of his colonel, he visited more than most.
His name was Bob. The mere sight of him, sitting beside him, talking to him, assisting him were moments indelibly etched on his soul, and so impactful they nearly brought D’Onofrio to his knees. “He had no arms and no legs, lost them in Korea,” he said. “It was the most horrible thing. I’d try to lift his spirits, tell him that he was going home, that he was going to see his parents again, and to thank God he was still alive. And I told him that every night before he went to sleep he should say a prayer.
“And then one day, he said, ‘Tony, is there any way you can kill me?’ He didn’t want to live like that. He wanted to die.”
The Yankees, and coffee for DiMaggio, and running notes for Yogi, and running starting lineups to the press box — all of it took a back seat as D’Onofrio fought back his emotions recalling the paralyzing moment. The warm memories of having rubbed shoulders with his baseball heroes were overridden by a cold front of reality. In his mind, he was back beside that soldier’s hospital bed, where what truly matters in life assumed an entirely different meaning.
The years have been kind to D’Onofrio, who looks and feels 10 years younger than 86. Yes, he admits, he has a pain here, has a pain there. But he also has his Anne, his angel, as they revel in the foliage of the autumn of their years.
He still follows the Yankees.
And he still thinks about that soldier. The one who taught him what winning and losing is really all about.
By Phil Gianficaro, columnist