A while back I joined an old Duluth, Minnesota Central High School baseball teammate for lunch. Now a retired entrepreneur, he said that he spends a month each summer traveling around the country watching minor league baseball games in places like Schaumburg, Illinois, New Britain, Connecticut, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Even Brooklyn has a minor league team now," he told me. "It's not Ebbetts Field, but it's great to see baseball in Brooklyn again."
Then he mentioned how much he had enjoyed playing our high school tournaments at Wade Municipal Stadium, home of the Northern League Duluth Dukes, adding, "You know, that old Duluth ballpark is still as nice as any I've seen."
I told him that a long time ago Joe DiMaggio said the same thing
In 1937 after completing his second season as star centerfielder for the New York Yankees, 23-year-old Joe DiMaggio was offered a small cameo role in a Hollywood movie. The money was easy, and he wouldn't have to go to California; the film would be shot on location in the Bronx.
On that same sound stage, a 19-year-old beauty from Duluth, Minnesota was cast in a non-speaking part as a nightclub dancer. The movie was the long-forgotten "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round." But the girl, born Dorothy Arnoldine Olson, now known as Dorothy Arnold, would meet the baseball star on that set and both of their lives would change. Only months earlier, Dorothy had boarded a train for Hollywood, where she hoped her sapphire-blue eyes, striking good looks, and modicum of musical talent would get her noticed by entertainment moguls.
Dorothy appeared in a dozen or so films at Universal Studios over the next two years including, "Secrets of a Nurse," "House of Fear, "Pirates of the Skies," and "Phantom Creeps."
Her career was bit parts and walk-ons, and would never advance much beyond these. She didn't need a press agent until she became linked with the Yankee Clipper and her name and photo appeared in all the gossip columns. In July, 1939, they announced their engagement on the day before the Major League All-Star Game. In addition to her large diamond, Joltin' Joe promised Dorothy a homerun in the game, and in storybook fashion, delivered. DiMaggio went on to record his highest-ever batting average that year--.381--which won him the first of two consecutive American League batting titles. The engagement caused a lot of excitement in Duluth, and it was hoped that the batting champion would visit the city, perhaps after the World Series ended.
Was it possible, locals wondered, for the wedding to be held here? After all, aren't most weddings performed in the bride's home church? What was Dorothy Olson's church anyway?
Could out-of-the-way Duluth host the wedding of Joe DiMaggio? The national press would be attending, and hosts of sports and show business figures. The most ardent of Chamber of Commerce boosters realized our city likely would not be considered for such an occasion, even given that the bride was a favorite daughter. If Dorothy had been from one of the Twin Cities at least the state could bask in the spotlight of celebrity nuptials.
Finally, as everyone expected, the wedding took place the following November in DiMaggio's San Francisco hometown at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. In the largest wedding ever in that city, more than 20,000 people jammed the streets around the church, causing the entire bridal party to be late for the ceremony.
DiMaggio's only visit to Duluth occurred during the week of January 11, 1941. Dorothy's father, E. A. Olson, was a railroad conductor, and the family lived in a working class neighborhood at 2833 West Third Street. The house is a modest two-story wood structure, as are most of the homes in what has become a neighborhood of retirees and younger families in varying degrees of financial stress. DiMaggio himself came from working class stock; his father and brothers were fishermen. And while the Yankee icon was one of baseball's genuine superstars, he wasn't that far removed from his days as a high school dropout on the streets of San Francisco's Little Italy where most immigrant families struggled with daily living expenses as they did in Duluth's west end.
The Olson's lived barely one mile from where my father grew up and Dad must have passed the house hundreds of times on his way to school--West Junior, then Denfeld Senior High. It would never have occurred to him that "the great DiMaggio" (as Santiago called him in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea) would be in any way connected to this rather drab neighborhood.
And he wasn't really, having spent only five days in Duluth during the dead of winter. Local politicians and well-heeled sports aficionados feted him at the downtown Athletic Club. He was taken to the site of the nearly completed brand new Municipal Stadium, home of the Class C Northern League Duluth Dukes. According to a story in the Duluth News Tribune, "Joe DiMaggio trained a pair of critical eyes on the fences at Duluth's new ball park yesterday, dug his heels in a snowdrift at home plate, and glanced at the left field foul pole 340 feet distant. Doffing his homburg, DiMaggio swung at an imaginary pitch and said, `Baby, batting out a homer in this park will be a good job for the best of 'em.'" Then he accompanied Duluth's mayor and ballpark architects on a march around the grounds, making suggestions for improvements that could be in place by the start of the 1941 season.
When a columnist asked DiMaggio how he liked his wife's hometown, he replied diplomatically, "I like Duluth from what I've seen of it."
Fearing crowds, he wouldn't see much. The paper reported that he was recognized only once, when he entered a flower shop to buy roses for his wife. A customer merely asked if he was Joe DiMaggio, and timidly requested an autograph.
Later that day DiMaggio was to try his hand at curling at the Duluth Curling Club rink. Whether or not he hefted a broom and swished it as he shuffled along the ice attempting to guide the curling stone toward its target never made the papers, but his quotes about wanting to see his wife skate did. He did not skate himself, nor did he don skis, telling the News Tribune that being raised in California he never tried winter sports, and if he did so now, he'd expect a wire from the Yankee front office ordering him to stop any activity that could put him at risk of injury.
In all he appeared in a half-dozen News Tribune photos during his stay, mostly grinning with his wife and her family, or posing with Duluth dignitaries around a banquet table. Unlike later stories of his aloof nature, he seemed friendly to local residents who glimpsed him, and he joked easily with the press.
I do not remember DiMaggio's visit to Duluth, but distinctly recall my second birthday the following May. I am sitting on the living room floor upstairs in the Lakeside neighborhood duplex on Regent Street, where my mother, father, and I lived. My father is kneeling several feet from me, holding a baseball bat and ball. I am wearing a regulation-size fielder's glove on my left hand. It is his birthday present to me. Dad lightly taps the ball with the bat and it rolls slowly over the faded mauve carpet, stopping when it bumps my glove. "Atta boy, get the ball," he shouts. He retrieves the ball and bunts maybe three or four more rollers my way before laughing and hoisting me onto his shoulders, telling my aunts and uncles and grandparents that I'd be another Joe DiMaggio one day.
In the decades following this visit, dozens, if not hundreds of Duluthians who lived far from 2833 West Third Street, claimed to have seen DiMaggio wandering about that neighborhood, purchasing a carton of Chesterfield cigarettes in a drug store (while he endorsed Chesterfields the brand he smoked then was Camels), enjoying a chocolate sundae at Bridgeman's, even helping one stranded motorist push his car from a snow bank.
Duluthians were thrilled with DiMaggio's presence here, and wished him well for the 1941 season, in which he would set his fabled 56-game hitting streak, and win the Most Valuable Player award over Ted Williams, who set an equally significant mark that year batting .406, the last time a major leaguer has hit .400.
The city had embraced DiMaggio almost as one of its own ever since his engagement to Dorothy, and residents hoped her film career might blossom from the steady publicity she received with her husband. There was also speculation about the genetic talents their children might inherit.
But this marriage was never stable. Joe was an inattentive husband, though very jealous at the same time. They had a son, Joe Jr. in 1941, but neither Dorothy nor Joe Sr. spent much time parenting the boy. Joe liked to have his wife travel with him, though he often left her in hotels while he spent evenings with cronies.
Dorothy left him in the middle of the 1942 season, and Joe slumped; the Yankees pressed her to return. At season's end however, she filed for a Reno, Nevada divorce. At Joe's pleading, she withdrew her petition. Many thought he wanted to save the marriage to avoid the military draft, but when that hit the papers, he had to enlist to avoid being labeled a coward. A year and a half later while her husband was in uniform, Dorothy split again, calling Joe cruel and indifferent.
At their 1944 divorce hearing, Dorothy claimed that Joe demanded she be subservient to his career and abandon her own. She agreed to this, with unhappy results. Joe, she charged, provided a home, but he was never in it. By the time the divorce was final, DiMaggio's staunchly Roman Catholic mother was looking after Joe Jr., and continued to do so, having in a way, disowned both her son and Dorothy for separating. Though he failed to appear in court for the proceedings, Joe was hurt by the dissolution, and until he met Marilyn Monroe in 1951, never gave up hope of reconciliation.
In fact, he believed he and Dorothy would remarry after the 1946 season, but during spring training, she married a stockbroker named George Schuster. This union didn't last as long as her marriage with Joe, and in 1949, she divorced again. She later married a man named Ralph Peck, and together they owned and operated a Palm Springs nightclub, Charcoal Charley's.
Dorothy Olson began her career as a youngster singing with the Duluth Salvation Army band. She appeared in local childrens' revues, and sang with a dance orchestra during her summer breaks from school.
According to Dorothy's sister, Joyce Hadley, a talent scout saw Dorothy sing in clubs and thought she should go to Hollywood. She would later take two screen tests with Paramount before landing a contract with Universal Studios. Despite the feeling in Duluth following her divorce from DiMaggio, that she had given up a promising film future to be a full-time wife and mother, the truth was that in Hollywood, she was just another pretty face with only modest talent, easily replaced for roles calling for lovelies to sit at restaurant and nightclub tables, stroll by in department stores, or lounge on beaches. A day's work here and there, broken by phoning agents and casting directors, followed by weeks of waiting for return calls.
Her name resurfaced in America's press after Joe and Marilyn became an item, and Marilyn seemed especially close to Joe Jr. Dorothy went to court, seeking an increase in child support (though the boy had lived mostly with Mamma DiMaggio) and also to ask the judge to refrain Joe Sr. and Marilyn from taking the boy to public places "where there's drinking and jive talking."
She lost on both counts, and the judge chided her for divorcing DiMaggio in the first place. From then on, Dorothy was out of the public's eye, having failed to rejuvenate her film career, making only one more appearance in a 1957 flop titled, "Lizzie."
Though her third marriage lasted until her death, it apparently was a rocky relationship, and despite her 1952 plea that her son not be exposed to public drinking, Dorothy herself took to the sauce.
A former entertainer at Charcoal Charley's remembered Dorothy as beautiful to the end of her days. He recalled that often after she'd had a few gin Gibsons, she'd get up and belt out Broadway show tunes for patrons at the club. She was also something of a raconteur, spinning anecdotes about Walter Winchell, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Kilgallen, Elsa Maxwell, Adela Rogers St. John, and Anita Loos.
Dorothy died of pancreatic cancer in 1984 at age 66, after seeking nontraditional treatment for the disease in Mexico. Her son, following a dissipated life that included homelessness and chemical abuse, died of a drug overdose six months after Joe Sr.'s death in 1999. Today Dorothy Arnold is little remembered in Duluth, except among a few octogenarians who recall a pretty young girl singing her heart out in the Denfeld High School auditorium, a girl with a golden future surely, a girl who was reaching for, but never quite grasped the world on a string.
Copyright 2003 by Michael Fedo. All rights reserved.