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Insightful DiMaggio biography is a jolt


Last week, public television revisited Ernest Hemingway in "Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure." Tonight, another model of American masculinity from the post-war pages of Esquire magazine goes under the PBS microscope as the "American Experience" series brings us "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life."

Unlike Paul Simon, who wanted to know where Joltin' Joe had gone, the first business of this biography is in explaining from whence Joe came. The emphasis on DiMaggio's San Francisco roots -- both his family's poverty and his aversion to school and work -- is the first of many wise choices made by writer-producer Mark Zwonitzer and writer-narrator Richard Ben Cramer.

Cramer, a former Sun reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is writing a much-anticipated biography on DiMaggio, which he hopes to finish by June 1, he said in a telephone conversation last week. The writing in "The Hero's Life" alone would be more than enough to enthusiastically recommend the film.

"Most families in North Beach were only scraping by. And that was before the Depression," Cramer tells viewers in his narration. "But even among those cash-poor fishing folk, the DiMaggios stood out. Giuseppe DiMaggio's boat was too small to operate outside the Golden Gate. That's where the crabs and the money lay, beyond Giuseppe's reach."

DiMaggio quit high school after only a month or so.

"When Joe bombed out of school at 15, no one even noticed," Cramer says. "Joe played hooky, didn't look for a job. What job would he want? All he wanted was to have a few bucks in his pocket and to stay off his father's boat."

A boyhood friend tells how DiMaggio would run and hide when his father tried to get him to work on the boat. "Joe didn't know how to fish," the friend said. "I don't think Joe ever did any work."

Understanding the poverty from which DiMaggio came, as well as his utter lack of a basic education, explains more about the grown man than anything I have seen or read anywhere else, and I've read a lot on DiMaggio. It wasn't that he was some kind of Gary Cooper -- a man who believed in action rather than words -- as he was often portrayed. The truth is DiMaggio didn't have any words to say, because he barely knew how to speak a literate English sentence.

The sister of starlet Dorothy Arnold, his first wife, tells how the young bride bought her husband a self-help book hoping it would improve his ability to speak.

As for his incredible stinginess and money-grubbing ways, that also traces right back to the early days of North Beach.

It was baseball, of course, that saved DiMaggio. Once scouts started noticing him in local amateur leagues, he left the hardscrabble life. But it wasn't just baseball that made DiMaggio into an instant hero. Looking back at the New York media landscape of 1936 when DiMaggio broke in with the New York Yankees, Cramer points out that the press desperately needed a hero.

As Cramer puts it: "Joe DiMaggio, tall and slender, hawk-faced and buck-toothed, slow to smile and wary of strangers, left his home in San Francisco in the winter of 1936 to seek his fame in baseball. He'd never even seen a major league ballpark, but the hero machine was already gearing up for his arrival. The great Babe Ruth was gone, and the Yanks hadn't won a pennant since. Three years out of the money. Attendance was down, and so were newspaper sales. At the Yanks' spring training camp -- St. Petersburg, Florida -- Joe was awaited by a flock of sports reporters, all starved for copy."

As good as the writing is, there is more to the hero's life than the words. There's also great visual imagery, like the black-and-white photograph of a young DiMaggio in the Yankees clubhouse after a big win. His shirt is off, and he's looking over his shoulder, with a joyous smile on his face. The pose and the smile remind you of the boys in Norman Rockwell's early illustrations, but the lean muscles in his chest and arms are those of a man. It is the athlete as manchild.

All the male hero stuff is here, too: the elegant and perfectly styled DiMaggio, the first Broadway Joe hanging with Toots Shor and all those chorus girls, the husband of Marilyn Monroe, as well as the athlete who still holds the record for baseball's longest consecutive game hitting streak.

But that's the stuff we all know thanks to the hero machine. In the end, what really distinguishes this film are the things we didn't know, Cramer's missives from the darker side: the way DiMaggio bitterly complained when he had to interrupt his baseball career to serve in Hawaii during World War II, or how he abused his wives.

Here's Cramer describing DiMaggio at the height of his fame: "In the middle of it all, Joe was wound tighter than ever. He was ulcerated, coffee-jangled, sleepless and lonely. He had millions of fans, thousands of acquaintances, hundreds of pals -- and not one friend in whom he would confide. He was the most famous man in America, a man at every moment watched. And there was so much about his life that he didn't want anyone to see."

Like all great biography, "The Hero's Life" shows us the private man. But this one also doubles back to show us how the public persona was constructed by the radio newsreels and big-city newspapers to meet their needs just as it was tailored to fit our national aspirations.

"Joe was the first one we knew like a friend," Cramer says. "He was in our lives -- his stance, his smile, the woes of his famous and fragile body, the quaver of his voice."

"People used to pile around him like God Almighty," says Spec Shea, a former Yankees pitcher who played with him. "And everybody loved him, and it was DiMaggio and that was it."

'Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life'

When: Tonight 9 to 10: 30.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

In brief: Biography with moments of poetry.

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