The twentieth century produced few American heroes like Joe DiMaggio. He was arguably the best all-around ballplayer who’d ever taken the field, a unique combination of power, speed and grace, a lifetime .325 hitter with a classic swing and an unworldly calm whose fielding was as nearly flawless as it seemed effortless. He was not a fidgeter, adjusting batting gloves a hundred times (there were no batting gloves). Once he squared his bat, said his friend Tony Gomez, “the guy was a statue.” There was no wasted motion on the field–he flowed to the ball–and no hotdogging: The fielders’ mitts were too small for snap-catches. Those of us who saw him play when we were teenagers would caricature the batting styles of other players, but we all wanted to look and move like DiMaggio. He was also the possessor, as any fan knows, of what is the most extraordinary feat in baseball, and perhaps in any sport, a fifty-six-game hitting streak that defies all statistical logic and that most people believe will never be matched again. That in itself is the material of myth.
But there was something else as well. When he first appeared in a New York Yankees uniform in 1936, he seemed to come from nowhere at the very moment when both the Yankees and a depressed nation–and the rising second generation of Italian-Americans–seemed to need him most. Paul Simon’s line “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,” could have been written as anticipatory longing thirty years before it became ironic sentimentality.
Unlike the boisterous beer-swilling Babe Ruth, who’d retired the year before, DiMaggio, the son of an immigrant Sicilian fisherman from San Francisco, became the essence of that elusive thing called class. He rarely spoke; he dressed superbly–another thing he would become known for–and he seemed to conduct himself, both on and off the field, with a royal calm, even an icy distance, that only enhanced the allure. The Yankees, in those days when baseball was the national pastime, had won the World Series just once since their Murderers’ Row rampage of the 1920s. In the four years after he arrived, they would win four times. In his thirteen war-interrupted seasons–the last was 1951–they would win the pennant ten times. He played not only to win–to drive his team to win, often playing through his own pain, the bone spurs in his heels, the aching knees, the trick shoulder–but to play flawlessly. He was the epitome of Yankees royalty.
And somehow, after those thirteen seasons, when the myth might have faded into an endless haze of celebrity golf tournaments and testimonial dinners, it seemed only to thrive–through the 286-day klieg-light royal marriage to Marilyn Monroe, the ensuing divorce and the love that seemed to survive both, through the Mr. Coffee and Bowery Bank commercials and through tawdry rounds of high-priced baseball-card shows and memorabilia signings–little seemed to tarnish the mythic glow. If anything, the forty-eight years after DiMaggio’s retirement–he died in 1999–seemed only to burnish it. Almost from the moment he arrived in New York, people wanted to touch him, do him favors, run his errands, drive him places, give him things. Cops gave him access to places denied anyone else. He rarely paid for his own meals, his own cars or even his own hotel rooms. There would always be guys eager to be his delivery boys, to bring him women–mostly the blond showgirls he preferred–even some who moved out of their homes to be with him, to take care of him. Anything for the Dago. The namewas used with so much affection that it became an honorific.
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But of course there was more–lots of it–and Richard Ben Cramer is there to mine every ugly moment: the money, ultimately more than a million, that came under the table in hundreds and two hundreds from mobsters (who adored him even more than did other American males, and who found him a useful draw to Toots Shor’s, El Morocco or the other clubs and restaurants they controlled in New York); DiMaggio’s compulsive whoring, combined with his possessiveness–unto physical abuse–of his two wives; the estrangement from his own brothers, who were also big-league ballplayers; frosty rejection of his son (except when publicity photos were required), who would die of a drug overdose; the envy directed at other great players; the grudging World War II military career that he spent in safe, warm places playing baseball for the prestige of the brass under whom he served; the obsessive money-grubbing–$150, or $175, for each signed baseball, each signed bat, each photograph, thousands upon thousands of them, deals upon deals.
Cramer contends that DiMaggio not only wanted the money–he was pathological in the thought that others would profit: “Who else would make money off the deal? How much? Why should those guys make a buck off my life?” The fear went back to the beginning of his career, to the days before free agency when ballplayers were chattel: Club owners like Ruppert beer baron Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees and his general manager Ed Barrow owned not just the players but many of the writers and columnists as well. You could try to hold out, but in the end, it was the owners who set the terms; you either played for the team that owned you or you didn’t play at all. Worse, as DiMaggio discovered early in his career, even the attempt was likely to expose you to a torrent of press and fan abuse as an ingrate. The same newspaper hacks who could manufacture heroes could just as easily be turned to embarrassing them or tearing them down. DiMaggio, the idol who was making the owners additional millions in attendance, was lucky to get his $25,000, or his $40,000. In the Depression years, those seemed like princely sums. In a way, you could understand the paranoia about other people making money off you. Lots of them tried.
In the course of telling the story, Cramer seems to have turned over every rock in DiMaggio’s life, but in the end even he seems uncertain how to frame his flawed hero’s life, caught up, on the one hand, in the man’s greatness and lavishing us, on the other, with his rage, his distrust, his shabbiness.
DiMaggio excelled and continued to excel, against the mounting “natural” odds. He exceeded, withal, the cruelest expectations: He was expected to be the best–and he was. He was expected to be the exemplar of dignity, class, grace–expected to look the best…. And he looked perfect.
DiMaggio did for us–for the sake of our good opinion–through every decade, every day. He was, at every turn, one man we could look to who made us feel good. For it was always about how we felt…with Joe. No wonder we strove for sixty years to give him the hero’s life. It was always about us. Alas, it was his destiny to know that, as well.
Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about? But as with a lot of other latter-day muckraking of heroes “who did for us”–Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy–the ground rules have changed. Even the un-kept, independent sports writers of the 1930s and 1940s would never have written the other DiMaggio story, would have respected the man’s privacy, as the White House press respected Kennedy’s. (Through Marilyn Monroe, of course, the two stories were linked: DiMaggio thought maybe the “fucking Kennedys” had killed her.) If we were charmingly naïve then, a nation of hicks who liked simple morality tales, our confessional age now demands full disclosure–we expose our potential heroes before they even have a chance to show their stuff. Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and wrote a fine book about the 1988 presidential campaign, gets himself caught in between–still in love with the performance, the style, the heroism, but probing the private, inner man until little is left. Heroes on pedestals are all fair game. But Cramer gives us little help in squaring the two DiMaggios. How do we hold the one without forgetting the other? In the end, it’s even hard to square what Cramer tells us about DiMaggio’s admiration for–and friendship with–people like Woody Allen with the shallow DiMaggio he mostly gives us.
What makes that even more exasperating is that Cramer gets into his characters’ heads, reports events and quotes conversations with no attribution. The book’s acknowledgments include a huge list of people, from old ballplayers to Henry Kissinger, himself a DiMaggio idolater from the 1930s who would later sit with the Clipper at Yankee Stadium and get enlightenment about the subtleties of big-league pitching and hitting. But there are no footnotes, no lists of sources. In the hours after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Cramer reports, DiMaggio rushed to his sister’s house in the Marina–the house, which he had given to his family many years earlier, was undamaged–and emerged with “his big right hand around the neck of a garbage bag…which held six hundred thousand dollars, cash.” How does he know that–not the part about the bag, but about the contents? And where did the cash come from? (It seems to have belonged to some long-gone mobster who was making certain that he could make a fast exit if necessary, but we are not sure.) There’s also the touching story about Marilyn Monroe’s tour entertaining the troops in Korea in 1954, three years after DiMaggio–who wanted his wives to be homebodies and never approved of their careers–had retired. “Joe,” she said on her return, “you never heard such cheering.” “Yes, I have,” he said. Where did that come from? And when “he was off to himself, on his cot, thinking about (his first wife) Dorothy,” where did that come from?
To compound the exasperation, Cramer likes to affect a wise-guy writing style that’s often more annoying than evocative. The ambient sporting life of 1930s New York is itself a nice story, full of Guys and Dolls characters–prizefighters, jockeys, ballplayers; Broadway showgirls; politicians like La Guardia, columnists like Walter Winchell and Sidney Skolsky; small-time hoods like Jimmy “Peanuts” Ceres, who drove DiMaggio around, and some big-time ones as well, Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo, Joe Adonis, Abner “Longy” Zwillman, “who put the ‘organized’ in organized crime”; Toots Shor himself, who loved the Dago and would later be spurned by him, as would so many other onetime friends. But the Runyonesque rhetoric gets in the way: sentences like “See, Joe had to have a private life,” or “See, Gomez was gone,” or “In the sixth, Joe got ahold of a pitch…”, or “Winchell, Len Lyons, that nosy Kilgallen broad; even the battle-ax, Louella Parsons, used to write up Joe like an old friend” or (even more bizarre) “Joe was digging for second base, when Gionfriddo, in an act of God…and–Cazzo! Figlio di putana!–stole the home run away from DiMaggio.” Now who said (or thought) that?
It’s hard to deny Cramer’s portrait of DiMaggio as an empty and increasingly lonely and embittered man, whose lifelong act as an aging public monument could only have added to the bitterness. “From the start,” Cramer writes early in the book, “he had to have it both ways: he wanted to be well known at what he was known for–and for the rest, he wouldn’t be known at all.” We once allowed our heroes that privilege–but as Cramer’s book demonstrates, we permit it less and less, either to the living or the dead. If DiMaggio had cooperated, he would probably have received more consideration, but DiMaggio being who he was, no such cooperation could have been expected. In the end, our sympathy is restored only by the venality of his lawyer Morris Engelberg, who continues to mine DiMaggio’s memorabilia and exploit his name even more ruthlessly than DiMaggio did. In the penultimate moment in Cramer’s book, a few minutes after DiMaggio’s death, there is Engelberg, in DiMaggio’s room, ordering the nurse to force DiMaggio’s 1936 World Series ring, the only genuine one he had left, from the dead hero’s finger. When the nurse succeeded, “Morris yanked [it] out of his hands, and left the room in a hurry.” He would claim that DiMaggio “gave him that ring, on his deathbed–before Joe died in his arms.”
Thirty years ago, I went to the San Francisco Giants Arizona spring-training camp to do a magazine piece on Willie Mays, another of our imperfect diamond heroes. How much, Mays asked, was he going to get paid for cooperating? At that point, I decided I would simply hang around for a week or two and watch and listen. There was little he could tell me, I decided, that would strengthen the piece. (In the days following, I learned more than I ever expected–about Mays, about the changing culture of baseball and about the game itself.) Sometimes, maybe, the work of athletes, like that of dancers or, for that matter, composers or actors or novelists, deserves to be well known, as DiMaggio seemed to wish, without the unceasing pursuit and exposure of all the rest. In some cases, say in Mozart’s or Wagner’s or J.D. Salinger’s, or maybe even in Bill Clinton’s, if you can’t separate the neuroses or the anti-Semitism or just the ordinariness of a man from the public performance–you may never know greatness at all. But it gets harder every day.