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Chasing a Legend Author Richard Ben Cramer says he's simply trying to tell the whole story of Joe DiMaggio, but the ailing superstar wants no part of it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Throw your best stuff, Richard Ben Cramer, you with the Pulitzer Prize and the big book contract. Bring on the face-high fastball, or maybe the wicked curve that always buckles their knees.

This isn't covering the Afghanistan war, you know. This this isn't chasing presidential candidate Bob Dole -- "the Bobster," you tagged him -- through the snows of New Hampshire. This time you have taken on Joe DiMaggio, and the great DiMaggio never loses. You said so yourself.

"It didn't matter what game he was in, he was the best player on the field, and he was going to beat you somehow," Cramer says. "When he's in a business deal, he's going to beat you. When he's honored at an affair, he will beat everybody else."

This is sweet. Cramer, one of journalism's big dogs and a lifelong New York Yankees fan, decides to tell DiMaggio's story. Hall of Fame baseball career, Marilyn Monroe's husband, national icon -- what more could an author want?

The story has never been told, not fully, so Cramer has criss-crossed the country the past three years, chatting with DiMaggio's friends and former teammates, telling them, "If you talk to Joe, tell him I was here."

As for Joe, this is how he handles it: Not only does he refuse to talk, he also nearly dies.

Take that, Mr. Hot-Shot Biographer.

"In this case I think it's particularly difficult," Cramer says about the timing, "because what is brave journalism when he's there to sue becomes a cowardly attack upon the corpse of a fallen American hero when he's recently in his grave, don't you think?"

We'll soon see. The 84-year-old DiMaggio -- the Yankee Clipper -- has been hospitalized since Oct. 12 in Hollywood, Fla., recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his right lung. He has suffered several life-threatening infections. He needs a breathing tube.

"He wouldn't make it more than a few hours without it," says Morris Engelberg, DiMaggio's friend and lawyer. "He struggles to breathe."

Engelberg visited DiMaggio Friday. "Today he's fine," he says. "His infection has gone and he has no fever, but it means nothing, because tomorrow he could be critical."

Earlier last week, when the breathing tube was being adjusted, DiMaggio spoke to his doctors.

"I want to get the hell out of here and go home."

Cramer would volunteer to drive him there.

"DiMaggio has no more fervent prayer for his health than from me," he says. "As a matter of fact, I've just come from lighting several candles."

'Pushing onward'

Cramer finds himself in the awkward position of promising a no-holds-barred account of the life of a beloved figure who's currently fighting for that very life. It took years for historians to suggest that the story of George Washington and his cherry tree was fiction. Who wants to learn that Joe D is human -- especially now?

"We soon get by our surprise of how Joe is," he says. "The story becomes, what happened? It's a very interesting story."

Cramer's book -- he's calling it "The Hero's Life" -- is due to his editor in April, and Simon & Schuster hopes to release it next September. Cramer, who lives in Chestertown, estimates that he's half-finished writing it.

"I'm pushing onward," he says, laughing. "I'm all the way to 1939. Don't stammer. It's not that bad. I've got 60 more years to go, the way I look at it.

"The whole book is laid out like a long freight train in my head. I just have to hop from boxcar to boxcar to get to the end."

You'll crash into a brick wall if you expect revelations now -- he's still writing, after all -- but Cramer displays no inclination to polish the DiMaggio image as a paragon of class, elegance and manly virtue. Expect some sandpaper.

"He's made a business out of being Joe DiMaggio," Cramer says. "To remain Joe DiMaggio, you better not have too much known. He's right. The closer you get, the more explosively bad stuff you find."

Engelberg dismisses Cramer's effort as just another in a series of unauthorized DiMaggio biographies. There have been at least three dozen of them, he says.

"I don't know anything about it," he says of Cramer's book-in-progress. "I'll throw it in the wastebasket. I'll tell you one thing. Joe will not sign any of these books. He won't sign anything unauthorized."

Cramer, for his part, says he has no interest in being known as Joltin' Joe's Kitty Kelley.

"It was a difficult position from the jump," he says. "It's not fit work for an adult just dragging idols off the shelf. It's too easy. So I went around the country, looking and looking for the things that made him like he was."

He went to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, where DiMaggio grew up, the son of Italian immigrants; to Depression-era New York City, where DiMaggio led the Yankees to nine world championships, pausing only to serve three years in the Army during World War II; to postwar Manhattan, where DiMaggio was the toast of Toots Shor's; to Marilyn Monroe's Hollywood, where DiMaggio found, then lost, his female equal; and then to Florida, where DiMaggio spent his retirement, commanding six-figure paydays by signing his name at baseball card shows.

"This was the great hero of our mid-century," Cramer says. "In his life, you find all the iconography of Twentieth Century America. He was literally our Mr. America."

'Not rude, just no help'

DiMaggio has often been described as the most private of public heroes, but Cramer says that ignores the hero's own role in the creation and maintenance of his pristine image.

"Joe had to make it happen," he says. "And he has every step of the way."

One of the ways you do that is by telling writers to get lost. Cramer tried to get close. In 1995, he finagled a field pass in Baltimore when DiMaggio congratulated Cal Ripken on breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak. Twice Cramer traveled to baseball card shows in Atlantic City, hoping to get a word.

"I've tried to explain to him that this is not a celebrity bio where the celebrity's cooperation is required," he says. "This is a piece of American history in which he plays a part, whether he likes it or not."

But DiMaggio, or his lawyers, declined. "He's not rude, he's just no help," Cramer says. Says Engelberg: "He's a private guy. If he was your father, would you want this done to him?"

Cramer, 48, has tackled difficult assignments before. He worked at The Sun from 1973 to 1976, then went to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where his stories from the Middle East captured the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1979. He followed six candidates during the 1988 presidential election and four years later produced the 1,047-page book, "What It Takes." He also writes and narrates documentaries.

But Cramer says covering the Afghanistan war was like "falling off a log" compared to shadowing DiMaggio. Cramer says he can't disclose how big an advance he received -- Entertainment Weekly pegged it at $800,000 -- but he will say that he has "spent the hell out of it. This old guy has run me ragged."

The result, he hopes, will be less of a tell-all than an explain-all. What price does a hero pay?

"I don't think he's had a happy day," Cramer says. "The greatest nation in the history of the world has striven every day for the last 60 years to give him anything that would make him happy."

Cramer's eyes brighten. Hang on, Joe. The high heat's coming.

"So far, he has not had one happy day. Ain't that something? Now that's an American story."

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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