A few years ago, an assistant in the New York Yankees public relations department hung up the phone and blurted out: ”I just talked to Joe DiMaggio! But when I couldn’t help him out, he called me a f—ing ass—- .”
Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life produces much the same effect, an almost simultaneous mixture of rapture and disillusionment. Man, what a player! Man, what a sonofabitch! This book is not for the millions who want their image of Joltin’ Joe to remain koo-koo-ka-choo pure. But it is for anyone who wants a meticulously researched, gracefully written exploration into the heart and mind of a hero — and the nation that loved him. At times, the book resembles the center fielder himself, ranging effortlessly over a wide territory: Joe was the son of a poor San Francisco fisherman from Sicily, but he didn’t much like to fish. He didn’t much like to do anything, in fact, except hang out and play ball. But that he could do extremely well, and although Cramer (What It Takes: The Way to the White House) vividly describes his crowd and the scene at the North Beach playground, he also leaves the reader breathless at Joe’s rapid ascent from sandlot shortstop to outfielder in Yankee Stadium: ”He’d jumped from newsboy to national star without apprenticeship, no stops in between — from the commonest kid to king — and his feet had barely touched ground.”
The biography is also a devastating look at the machinery that made idols out of mere mortals. Wherever he went, DiMaggio kept picking up remoras: agents, baseball executives, journalists, celebrities, showgirls, saloonkeepers, mobsters. They needed him to put fans in the seats or sell papers or make them feel important, and he used them to satisfy his appetites for fame — he also wanted privacy — and sex and money. Ah, money. Like Superman, his favorite comic-book character, the Yankee Clipper had a weakness for something green. Late in life, he was presented with a new Cadillac and asked, without irony, ”Did you fill it up with gas?”
DiMaggio was a superhero on the field, almost singlehandedly winning World Series after World Series for the Yankees. Cramer’s recounting of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 shows us the true measure of his greatness. Over the years, we’ve come to think of The Streak as a simple testament to DiMaggio’s skill, but Cramer shows us just how incredible the two-month battle was, and how much the Yankee teammates who knew him actually loved him.
In a way, center field was the perfect position for DiMaggio because he could display his greatness and still keep a distance. His personal life was profoundly unhappy. His first marriage to actress Dorothy Arnold was doomed from the start — they weren’t talking on their honeymoon — and his relationship with their son, Joe Jr., was a study in dysfunction. He held grudges against his center-fielder brothers, Vince (Boston Bees) and Dom (Boston Red Sox).
But his most public personal failure, his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, actually ennobled DiMaggio. As Cramer makes clear, they were two of a kind: ”They may have been the only two people in the country, at that moment, who could understand each other.” When Monroe was cruelly hospitalized in the Paine Whitney psychiatric ward in New York City in February 1961, she turned to DiMaggio. He immediately flew up from Florida, went to the reception desk, and demanded, ”I want my wife.” Even though Joe and Marilyn had been divorced for six years, the doctors released her, and Joe saw to it that she received better care.
There are those who will think Cramer is doing the memory of DiMaggio a great disservice. But what he really does is bring a statue to life. In a way, he’s like the ice sculptor at Joe’s wedding to Dorothy Arnold. As Ciccio LaRocca, Joe’s groomsman, recalled, ”I couldn’t believe what I was seeing — ball players sculptured in ice! — and you could see them getting smaller and smaller as the night goes. They just melted away, you know? It was beautiful.” A