Joe DiMaggio real: The myth shatters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Joe DiMaggio, The Hero's Life," by Richard Ben Cramer. Simon & Schuster. 560 pages. $28.

In 6,821 at bats in 13 years as a New York Yankee, Joe DiMaggio hit 361 home runs and struck out only 369 times, an awesome achievement recited repeatedly by knowledgeable baseball fans as the ultimate proof of his greatness.

In his 84 years at the game of real life, DiMaggio hit few home runs and struck out countless times, a tragedy covered up for years by the DiMaggio Myth Machine.

That's the core of Richard Ben Cramer's gripping character study, "Joe DiMaggio, The Hero's Life."

For most of the 20th century, Joe D. was revered and celebrated as the epitome of grace and elegance, a champion with class. Cramer's Clipper (Joe got tagged with the nickname in 1939 following the introduction of the famed Pan American airliner, The Yankee Clipper) is anything but that.

If anyone has the credentials to dispel the DiMaggio myth, Cramer does. His impeccable record as an outstanding reporter includes winning a Pulitzer Prize with the Philadelphia Inquirer. His "What it Takes" (1992) still stands as a benchmark of political reporting.

In a writing voice that combines the bluster of the Bronx with the raunchiness of the locker room, Cramer shatters several myths. One of the most intriguing is that Joe's silence throughout his life was a sign of his humility. In fact, he was petrified of making a mistake or embarrassing himself and rarely talked to anyone.

He rode in a car 3,000 miles in 1936 with teammates Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti from San Francisco to spring training in Florida and uttered nary a word, save for "I don't drive" when told it was his turn at the wheel. Fifteen years later, playing off and on most of the season with rookie Mickey Mantle, Joe spoke his first words to Mantle in an October World Series game, when Mantle injured his knee avoiding a collision with DiMaggio in center field: "Don't move. They're bringing a stretcher." As Cramer constantly documents, Joe had teammates, but no mates on the team. Not that they cared. After all, Joe won them nine World Series checks.

His silence was not confined to teammates. Joe rarely offered more than a sentence to anyone, family or friends -- and the people he stayed in touch with changed as frequently as his mood.

Another myth was that Joe was a debonair lady killer. In fact, Joe's life was frequently a steady stream of meaningless one-night stands, as silent and uncommunicative as many of his other relationships.

Most of the myths were created by the main voice of the Myth Machine, the press. The business of most of the writers of that era was to make heroes for the fans because that's what the baseball clubs wanted. And paid for. Most baseball writers were beholden to the owners, who paid for the writers' train fare, hotel rooms, food and drink. And the writers complied, making Joe the greatest hero of them all, celebrating his regalness and engaging in a conspiracy of silence if the news of the day would put Joe or the Yankees in a bad light. But, they put him in his place when he held out at contract time. Truth was nearly always a casualty of such a conspiracy.

Cramer's inspection of "The Hero's Life" contains superior analysis, brilliant reporting, fluid writing and detailed re-creation of Joe's life and era. But his lack of attribution is nettlesome (more on that later). Cramer was fighting against the odds: DiMaggio refused to be interviewed and actively discouraged others from talking to him.

Three themes permeate the pages of "The Hero's Life": Joe was a tightwad motivated by accumulating money; a loner nearly all of his life, discarding friends and family members if he thought they were taking advantage of him or making money off of his name; and a user, perfecting the art of having someone take care of his every need long before it became commonplace among superstars.

As Cramer tells it, Joe was so driven by accumulating money that he ended up with a trust account set up by his mobster friends at the mob-dominated Bowery Bank. Joe had a long history of friendly association with several mobsters, including Abner "Longy" Zwillman and Ritchie "The Boot" Boiardo, who provided Joe with a 4-carat diamond to give his first wife, the actress Dorothy Arnold.

Joe's star was bigger than anyone's, and his presence lent glamour and class to any nightclub he attended. And attend he did --hundreds of appearances each year witnessed by the worshiping throng. It came to be understood among the club owners that they should deposit a couple hundred bucks into the trust account each time Joe graced their establishment. It had to be hush-hush because it could cost him his career if the baseball commissioner ever found out. By the time Joe retired in 1951, the tidy little account had grown to more than $1 million in cash.

Joe was such a skinflint that, although he lent his name -- for tax purposes -- to the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., he donated only $100 to the hospital and refused to autograph any baseballs it might have used for fund-raising purposes.

Cramer's Clipper could be a surly control freak. In his 286-day marriage to an even bigger superstar, Marilyn Monroe, he resented anyone she was with. He tried to control her life and, when he discovered he couldn't, was consumed by jealousy and contempt for anyone from Hollywood.

Cramer writes with admiration when he recounts Joe's baseball feats: the 56-game hitting streak, the 10 American League pennants, the nine World Series championships, all unmatched by any player before or since. No wonder Joe insisted on being introduced at all functions as the "Greatest Living Baseball Player." Little did it matter to the Myth Machine that by the end of the 1960s at least two other players -- Willie Mays and Hank Aaron -- could have made a stronger case for that title.

Cramer is likely to be attacked by some members of the Myth Machine for sullying their hero. And as outstanding as his book is, he leaves himself vulnerable by offering little attribution for his many stunning revelations, especially those dealing with Joe's mob connections. Or accusations against Joe's longtime personal attorney, Morris Engelberg, whom Cramer says lifted Joe's 1936 World Series ring off his finger in the hospital moments after he died. Cramer appends to the book a bulging acknowledgement section; an astute and diligent reader could doubtless decode many of his sources, but an editor should have insisted on more attribution, if only in footnotes.

But of this we can be sure: Truth is not a casualty in this book. It has the ring of authority from a great reporter. For the first time, we now know the real DiMaggio. Cramer's Clipper is a complicated, pathetic and sometimes despicable creature who leaves you feeling tainted, tempting you to discard that cherished baseball autographed by him.

But you won't. And you shouldn't.

We should admire and celebrate DiMaggio's baseball exploits forever. They just shouldn't be confused with his real life.

The Myth Machine did.

Richard Ben Cramer doesn't.

Michael E. Waller is the publisher and CEO of The Baltimore Sun and has been a journalist for 38 years, most of them as an editor. He has closely followed baseball since 1949. In his collection, there is a DiMaggio-autographed ball, along with dozens of bats and other baseball memorabilia.

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