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Piercing the Veil of Silence
Book Review by Ron Kaplan

Richard Ben Cramer. Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000, 560 pp., $28.00, cloth.


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 that the emperor Joe DiMaggio's clothes were less than pristine. But The Hero's Life, this long-anticipated biography of the Yankee Clipper, could not, would not have been written thirty 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 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 ten pennant winners during his thirteen years. His batting safely in fifty-six consecutive games is one of baseball's most cherished records (and perhaps the least likely ever to be broken). During his reign as baseball's best, he exuded 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!

Well, he was the American Dream, as Cramer writes:


It was only after the fact that The Streak shone as portent of America's brilliant rise to superpower, and made DiMaggio her poster boy for valor, victory, and God-given grace. Through World War II, and the Cold War that followed, as America bulked up on her mythos and missiles, DiMaggio was said to exemplify the great melting pot, which turned immigrants from a hundred lands into one unbeatable nation. Here was the son of a impoverished fisherman, from a country we fought in war. And yet (by the miracle of our society), Joe was as American as ice cream on the Fourth of July.


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 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 for a coffee machine and a savings bank in his golden years; 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 had lost its way for a time during the late 1960s, the question was asked "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Why 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. 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 move.

The baseball writer's life was a plum one. He 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—not the newspaper business, but the baseball business.


The difference between DiMaggio and Gehrig? ". . . Joe was aware from the first moment, aware at every moment, of the hero game. He was alive to the power of the camera: he made himself available, he could smile, and he knew when to smile. With writers he was always alert, as poised and pent as he was in center field. Positioning was the edge in both games."

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 suggested he could be the greatest ever. He was already a great draw at the gate: "He has attracted a new type of fan to our games. He has made the Italian population baseball conscious." 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."

Obsessive 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 play." (Later in life he demanded the phrase "the greatest living ball-player" be included in any introduction for him.)

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 on 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 any 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 rigueur behavior for males of the day in general, and athletes in particular.

When it actually came to going 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 had (Feller, 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." DiMaggio finally joined up, resenting every penny in salary he lost, pulling relatively easy duty as he played baseball to entertain the troops.

His courtship, marriage, divorce, and reconciliation with Marilyn Monroe is another part of the DiMaggio legend. DiMaggio, an old-fashioned man at heart, 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. Joe and Marilyn 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 only adds to the sadness of their saga.


There is a twenty-seven-year gap between the death of Marilyn 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 life.

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 made.

The Hero's Life is divided into five "books," each dealing with a significant segment of his life. The first, 1930–35, deals with DiMaggio's youth and his "rebellion" against his father, Giuseppe, whose expectations, as a Sicilian, were meager; he was a man who knew his place in Italian society: "[he] kept his head down and stayed small." A job, a house, a family—as long as he did his job, kept his mouth shut, and didn't incur the evil eye—this was as good as he could hope for. His sons would go into business with him, no questions asked. One can only imagine his disappointment when one by one, they turned elsewhere for employment.

The popular myth was that Joe stood up to his father in signing a baseball contract rather than working the boat. But the ballplayer would never have emerged if the money hadn't been there. Especially in the last years of his life, when he had as much as anyone could ever need or want, Joe's philosophy was "Why should anyone be making money off of my name?" Some may pass this off as coming from a product of the Depression, but there are thousands of others who traveled that path without turning so penurious.

Subsequent "books" highlight his major league playing career (1936–51); life after retirement and Marilyn Monroe (1952–1962); the twilight of the legend (1989–1998); and his sad, lonely demise (1998–2000). His reticence to talk about himself, to open up, left him devoid of friends and in the clutches of those who, unbeknownst to him, just wanted to make a buck off his name (as he had always feared).

Cramer has done a marvelous, exhaustive job of research (he spent five years on this tome). But whether this research is worthy of a man who won a Pulitzer in 1979 for international reporting and authored 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, The Hero's Life has baseball stories for the fans, hyperbole for the patriots, and juicy bits for the gossip-minded. In other words, it's the proverbial "something for everyone" book. —EFQ


RON KAPLAN is a freelance writer from Montclair, New Jersey. He hosts the book column at www.purebaseball.com.

© 2001 Ron Kaplan


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