Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life

by Richard Ben Cramer

Published by Simon & Schuster

560 pages, 2000


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The Hero's New Clothes

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan

 

Regardless of what Richard Ben Cramer thinks, he has thrown another curve into the realm of hero-worship. Perhaps we have Jim Bouton, Yankee alumnus and author of the classic Ball Four, to thank for this; perhaps someone else would have come along to show the emperor's clothes were less than pristine. But Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life -- the long-anticipated biography of the Yankee Clipper -- could not, would not, have been written 30 years ago. Even now, in this "enlightened" era, many readers might find this book a cruel intrusion into that place set aside for their cherished beliefs.

DiMaggio's talents on the field are never an issue. His career statistics include a batting average of .325, 361 home runs (against 369 strikeouts) and 1,537 RBI. Joltin' Joe was the bridge between the days of Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle. He led the Yankees to championship after championship, appearing on 10 pennant winners during his 13 years. His hitting streak of 56 games is one of the records least likely to be broken. During his reign as baseball's best, he exuded an aura of class and elegance. Life magazine, in what they must have considered forward thinking at the time, featured him in an article which proclaimed that he didn't smell of garlic or talk with an accent: a true American!

Why did DiMaggio inhabit such a place of legend in American history? "His very blandness, his lack of words... allowed us to put upon him what we needed at any one moment. As war was looming, he was the poster boy for victory. Joe was the one guy we could always look to."

When his playing days were over he remained on our minds: The husband of Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the most glamorous movie star of all time; spokesman, in his golden years, for a coffee machine and a savings bank; voted the Greatest Living Ballplayer in 1969 during baseball's centennial celebration. No matter where he went, he was The Yankee Clipper, instantly recognizable, adored and honored. And when the United States lost its way for a time during the late 1960s, the question was asked "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Where had our heroes disappeared? Who could we look up to anymore?

***

Before television and sports-radio stations and million dollar contracts for .250 players were in vogue, before newspapers felt obligated to turn the sports pages into police blotters, athletes, for the most part, were role models. No more so than Joe. Everything about him was perfect, from his feats on the field to the clothes he wore to the women he squired. Much of his persona, especially in the early stages of his career, Cramer claims, came at the hands of the sportswriters who followed his every move.

The baseball writer's life...

... was a plum one. They had status, visibility, more freedom than any reporter, more travel, more good times and more money. They had opportunities to moonlight, ghostwriting for magazines or memoirs; one way or another, they dined out on friendships with the heroes of the age. They never had to sit in an office, they took winters off, had a month (with their families) in Florida for spring training... and every bit of it on the cuff. And the quickest way to lose it all was to run afoul of the fellows in the business.

In time, DiMaggio came to understand that, regardless of how well he did, the team (and by extension the writers, who were quasi-employees of the club) called the shots. When he held out for more dough and returned to the team after spring training, rusty and battling injuries, the fans actually booed him, the writers were no longer complimentary. They "taught him a lesson, or confirmed a lesson he was already prepared to believe: They were fans, they were friends... as long as he was a winner. But that could be over in a day."

After Joe's second stunning season Connie Mack, who managed the Philadelphia Athletics for half a century, suggested he could be the greatest ever. "At 22, with a baseball lifetime ahead of him, Joe was money in the bank. So where was his?"

Joe realized he would never get the money he felt he deserved. "If he was going to get the dough... he would have to take care of business himself, inside of baseball or outside. Outside, no one would have to know a thing."

Obsessive is a most accurate description of DiMaggio, whether relating to baseball, his two ill-fated marriages or his feelings about money. Like Roy Hobbs, the protagonist in Bernard Malamud's The Natural, DiMaggio desperately wanted to be known as the best who ever played the game. In the twilight of his career, Joe was asked why he still played so hard. His answer? "I always think, there might be someone out there in the stands who's never seen me play."

While Cramer's depiction of DiMaggio on the field is the very essence of the term superstar, it is Joltin' Joe's life away from the stadium that makes us shake our heads. The author goes under the surface, perhaps even getting under the reader's skin, as he reports DiMaggio's dark side. The transformation of DiMaggio from a shy, awkward teen to a womanizing, misanthropic selfish hermit is painful to behold. Yet Cramer's ease with the telling makes it like an accident from which you can't avert your eyes.

Off the field, DiMaggio is portrayed as a poor husband, a lacking father, a faithless friend, ready to throw away an old pal for any faux pas regardless of "years of service;" there was little forgiveness in the man. Cramer's tales of visits to brothels make one wonder if this was de rigueur behavior for males of the day in general and athletes in particular.

When it actually came to stepping up to the bat when his country needed him, to go off to war, DiMaggio was anything but a leader. For whatever reason -- fear of death or injury or fear of lost wages -- DiMaggio simply did not want to join up, as many of his contemporary stars did (Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg, just to name two). It would seem the only reason DiMaggio finally did enlist (in 1943, after Joe's local draft board had closed off enlistments) was to placate his wife, with the hopes of boosting their failed marriage. "Dorothy [Arnold, his first wife] wanted him in the Army, she'd made that clear enough; otherwise it would be divorce.... Still, if he gave himself over to the Army, then nothing would be in his control. Who could tell how long this war would go on? Or what they'd do with him? He could get hurt, and that would be the end of baseball for him. He could lose everything."

His courtship, marriage, divorce and reconciliation with Marilyn Monroe is another part of the DiMaggio legend. An old-fashioned man at heart, he didn't want his wife to work, especially not if it meant that she would be the object of millions of male fantasies. And Marilyn, goodness knows, had her own problems. They had "one big thing in common. In fact, they may have been the only two people in the country, at that moment, who could understand each other." They loved each other but couldn't live with each other. Their marriage lasted less than a year but he was still a major part of her life, a source of strength and comfort. That her death came just before they were to be remarried merely adds to the sadness of their saga.

For all of the strikes at DiMaggio, Cramer still claims this is a positive book. He doesn't understand why excerpts and reviews dwell on the "salacious" items. To hear him talk, all of these foibles could and should be forgiven because DiMaggio was the hero we all wanted him to be. For such men, we are led to believe, concessions are made.

Cramer has done a marvelous, exhaustive job of research, spending five years on his tome. But whether this research is worthy of a man who won a Pulitzer in 1979 for international reporting and the author of the acclaimed What It Takes: The Way to the White House or is more suited to the editors of supermarket tabloids is another question. Whatever the case, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life has that proverbial "something for everyone." | December 2000

 

Ron Kaplan, a freelance writer from Montclair, New Jersey, has written about baseball and books for such publications as The Elysian Fields Quarterly, Nine, The Mystery Review and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, among others.