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 us that
the emperor Joe DiMaggio's clothes were less than pristine. But JOE
DIMAGGIO: The Hero's Life, this long-anticipated biography of the
Yankee Clipper, could not, would not have been written 30 years
ago. And 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 RBIs. 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 a pastiche of class and elegance. Life
magazine, in what they must have considered forward thinking at the
time, featured him in an article proclaiming that he didn't smell
of garlic or talk with an accent --- a true American!
Why did DiMaggio inhabit such a place as a 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
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 this country lost its way for a time during the
late '60s, the question was asked "Where have you gone, Joe
DiMaggio?" Where had our heroes disappeared to? 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. None 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
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 twenty-two, 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."
Obsession is a most accurate description of DiMaggio, whether
relating to baseball or 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
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 toss off an old pal for the
slightest 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 rigeur 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 he 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 just adds to the sadness
of their saga.
There is a 27-year gap between Marilyn's death and the "Earthquake
Series" between Oakland and San Francisco, where the tale resumes.
"When Marilyn Monroe died," said Cramer, "he was already sealed
away from us." Her death confirmed Joe's suspicions and revulsion
with what the hero's life meant. This was the emotional peak of the
book, and Cramer felt he didn't want to put the readers through a
quarter century (and a few hundred more pages) of Joe's quiet
For all these less-than-sterling qualities, 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, concessions are
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. In either case JOE DIMAGGIO: The Hero's Life has that
proverbial "something for everyone."
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 22, 2011