DiMaggio to City: Be Tough in This Crisis

New York Sports Experience Exclusive

When New York City was being hammered by a fiscal crisis in 1978, legendary New York Yankees centerfielder Joe DiMaggio co-scripted and delivered a filmed message that blasted those who “never made a clutch hit in their lives,”  some who “fled the city” and “others who hid behind locked doors.”

Added DiMaggio, then 63, “But this city never gave up, never stopped building… Today we have a choice. We can chose whether New York lives or dies. Choose life… We’re going to be all right.”

The script was for a 90-second commercial for Manhattan-based The Bowery Savings Bank, a business that DiMaggio promoted in several other commercials from 1972 to 1992. Above, New York Sports Experience shows 60 seconds of the spot, the only known place where any portion of the commercial resides online. 

For the spot, DiMaggio was filmed during a 48-hour span in the city, including in Washington Square in Manhattan and the Yankees’ Yankee Stadium home in the Bronx. DiMaggio played his entire 13-season Major League Baseball (MLB) career with the Yankees and still holds the MLB record for recording at least one hit in the most consecutive games (56 straight in 1941).

The commercial was shot during trying times in the city that draw parallels to current fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic. In the mid-1970s, New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy. The city was further hit when United States President Gerald Ford denied the city a federal bailout, a development famously captured in an October 1975 (New York) Daily News cover headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” In August 1978, Ford’s successor Jimmy Carter signed a bill that extended federal loan guarantees to the city.

“The timing was such that New York was just getting the first evidences of federal support in the form of loan guarantees, and perhaps the first realization that businesses were retuning to New York,” The Bowery senior vice president of marketing Pazel Jackson explained in 1979 to freelance journalist and New York City native Mark N. Grant.

Ad copy that echoes the The Bowery commercial appears in the campaign’s below 1978 print component. Jackson said DiMaggio made changes to the script that stayed for the commercial shoot, including a portion that does not appear in the print version.

“The part about what you would do during a slump, how you would approach overcoming it,” shared Jackson. “The words written by the writer were quite different and Joe did not feel it was a realistic expression of what a person temporarily down and out would do. He meant you would step up and keep taking full swings each time until you finally came out of it. Ironically, it was the greatest response we’ve ever had from any commercial, and it produced deposits it was not geared to.”

DiMaggio’s remark in the commercial about “the coming of war” is also not in the print ad. After his first seven seasons with the Yankees, DiMaggio did not see MLB action for three years while he served in the United States military during World War 2.

In 1979, DiMaggio told Grant about work for The Bowery, “I didn’t like the commercials I was approached to do, until The Bowery people contacted me… I felt that you couldn’t go wrong telling people to put money in a bank. Also, I think I owed it to New York.”

The 1978 spot was directed by Independent Artists’ Richard Black, who collaborated with the bank’s Manhattan-based advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. DiMaggio had found comfort with Black, who had directed other DiMaggio commercials for both the bank and Mr. Coffee. The 1978 spot showed “a new, heightened DiMaggio as guardian angel of New York,” Grant surmised.

Bob Spero, a writer on the Ogilvy creative team, is credited with the idea of signing DiMaggio to serve as a television spokesperson for the bank.

“After a decade of war, assassinations and Watergate, people were cynical about famous people of all kinds,” Spero told Grant in 1979. “I think people felt him to be an honest, decent person. I wanted him to talk as a person, not as a banker.”

On DiMaggio’s fiscal crisis message, Spero said, “It wasn’t a transformation. It was just that 90 seconds gave him a chance to flesh out.”