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Where Has Joe Gone?

1.

Joe DiMaggio played baseball for the New York Yankees for thirteen years, then spent the rest of his life playing Joe DiMaggio. It is doubtful that he enjoyed either career very much, or that he enjoyed anything at all very deeply, although Richard Ben Cramer suggests that he took a miser’s delight in accumulating money. Even this pleasure was often spoiled by suspicions that friends and relatives were raking in money that should have been his. Joylessness seems to have been his natural habitat, distrust his natural instinct, and loneliness his inevitable destiny. He had no enduring friendships, but he had a hundred “pals,” each of whom, like a typical specimen described by Cramer, “had blisters on his lips from kissing the ground Joe walked on.” He was married twice, both times to blond actresses, both of whom divorced him. By the first he had a son to whom he was an indifferent, mostly absent father. The son outlived him by only six months, then died of an overdose of heroin and crack cocaine.

To escape California taxes, DiMaggio in old age moved from his native San Francisco to Hollywood, Florida, where, though now in his eighties, he still took in huge sums of money by selling autographed memorabilia to collectors. When he was eighty-three years old and terribly sick, the yearning for one last big payday took him on a four-day trip to Chicago and New York, where George Steinbrenner laid on a Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium and presented him with replicas of his nine World Series rings. He died five months later, totally dependent on the Florida lawyer who managed his business, his estate, his hospital care, and his manner of departure from this world.

Thus Cramer’s melancholy portrait of a very inferior hero. Why does it seem so sad, even shocking? That a celebrated athlete may also be a mass of human frailties is common knowledge now to all but the most gullible fan. Nowadays we are all onto the inglorious reality of the athlete’s life. The sports pages, which once were filled with mythical gods and enchanted boys of summer at play in the Land of Let’s Pretend, are now given over to humdrum financial and medical news. Greed and pulled hamstrings are the modern sportswriter’s daily subject matter. All but the dimmest fan now know that “sport” is an ironic euphemism for a ruthless multibillion-dollar branch of the entertainment industry and that the game too often played by its CEOs is extortion. (“Either this town pays to build me a new place of business, or I move the team to a town that will.”)

Everybody knows all this, knows too about the greedy insolence and nasty characters of too many athletes, but Joe DiMaggio was different, wasn’t he? Sure he had been a superb ballplayer, but it was his elegant character that made him different from all other ballplayers. It was what made him uniquely fit to be exalted. People constantly said that DiMaggio had “class,” had “dignity,” was a man of “elegance.” As a ballplayer of course DiMaggio was “great,” but baseball had “greats” galore. Ted Williams and Willie Mays were “great.” Ty Cobb, half mad and dangerously violent, was “great.” But DiMaggio was something more majestic than “great.” DiMaggio was special. Men would “display awe at his presence, joy at his godlike glory,” writes Cramer. “…He had been touched…as if the Hand of God had reached down and made this man great—uncommon, unlike them….”

Cramer tells us: Believe that and you’ll believe anything. The burden of his message is that we have been gulled, for the DiMaggio to whom a nation turned its mournful eyes with veneration at his death in 1999 was a hollow construction of the publicity industry. Alas for another failed god. Books like this are among the penalties that celebrities must endure for growing old. Heroes age best by dying young. Would Achilles be admired today if Apollo and Paris had not killed him in his youth? Imagine an eighty-five-year-old Achilles who might have been: a stooped codger waving from a replica Trojan Horse as he enters Agamemnon Stadium for Old-Timers Day. Instead of Homer to lionize him for the ages, he would surely have ended up in the merciless clasp of an Attic myth-busting precursor of Richard Ben Cramer.

Cramer is out to destroy an edifice that took our national engines of ballyhoo, bushwah, and baloney half a century to create. The “hero machine,” as he calls it, is as much Cramer’s subject as DiMaggio’s banal frailties. If there is a villain here it is “the hero machine,” and DiMaggio seems most sympathetic when Cramer casts him as its victim. Trying to explain his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, Cramer does some gaudy theorizing about the terrors ordinary people must feel after being inflated by “the hero machine”:

Joe and Marilyn had one big thing in common…. Both were living inside the vast personages that the hero machine had created for them. And inside those personages—those enormous idols for the nation—these two, Marilyn and Joe, were only small and struggling, fearful to be seen. And alone—always. They were like kids, left in a giant house, and they must not be discovered. Or it would all come crashing down. In their loneliness, they might have been brother and sister.

Joe’s insistence made them husband and wife.

Cramer never offers a description of his “hero machine,” but its basic structure is obvious. There is the natural alliance between team operators and sportswriters to stimulate business for both. A band of heroes will attract more readers and bigger box office than a group of ordinary men in baseball suits. When DiMaggio surfaced in the 1930s, sportswriting was still enjoying a remarkably creative period. It attracted journalism’s finest writers while also producing a great deal of terrible prose by bush-league Hemingways dying to show off in print. Top-drawer or hack, the sportswriter was licensed to let his creative impulse romp free.

One technique was to imbue their sweaty subject matter with legend and myth. As a sportswriter you could turn the most bone-headed bozo into Hercules. Golden Ages sprang out of battered typewriters, huge crowds were constantly “electrified,” and many an earth-bestriding giant filled sports pages like a colossus. What bliss it must have been to write sports then. You could give humanity a miracle, as some typewriter artist did by creating “the miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.” (Translation: Player hits home run at Polo Grounds; Giants win pennant. It was no mere home run, admittedly, but “the shot heard round the world.”) You could turn a pudgy slum kid from Baltimore into “the Sultan of Swat” and endow him with the awesome power to afflict the Boston Red Sox with “the curse of the Bambino.” Grantland Rice could watch a football game and, in the four young men of the Notre Dame backfield, see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death—forming “the crest of the South Bend cyclone.”

The hero’s buildup for DiMaggio differed from the normal by continuing long after he left baseball. His name began to figure in worlds alien to baseball. Oscar Hammerstein, in a lyric for the Broadway hit South Pacific, wrote of a woman whose skin was “tender as DiMaggio’s glove.” Ernest Hemingway, writing The Old Man and the Sea, had his old Cuban fisherman indulge in some suspiciously Hemingwayesque musings about “the great DiMaggio.” Tin Pan Alley produced a tune about “Joltin Joe DiMaggio.” In 1975, a quarter-century after his retirement, a movie version of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely had Philip Marlowe checking the newspapers day after day to see if DiMaggio had hit.

In 1967 Paul Simon’s memorable song to “Mrs. Robinson,” the corrupt adulterous seducer of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, celebrated a new kind of DiMaggio heroism for a new generation without memory of his baseball triumphs. Simon’s lyric, asking “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?,” became a lament for the fancied loss of an innocent America. Simon’s “nation” that turned “its lonely eyes” to DiMaggio seemed to be the postwar baby boomers who were already making life hell for parents—like corrupt middle-age Mrs. Robinson. Making DiMaggio represent an innocent America, more pure than adulterous Mrs. Robinson’s, was silly of course, and not just because of his busy sex life. The most famous line in The Graduate was a single word: “Plastics.” That was where a young man ought to look for success, Dustin Hoffman was advised. Audiences laughed with cynical recognition: “Plastics.” It spoke so trenchantly of an America aspiring to a shabby materialism. But DiMaggio was an absurd hero for antimaterialists. As Cramer illustrates, DiMaggio would have been overjoyed to get in on the ground floor to make a killing in plastics.

Cramer has two other main themes: DiMaggio’s obsession with money and the sadness of beautiful youth outliving its time. The two are intertwined in his opening pages. We first see DiMaggio only a few months from death. He is a tottering, sick old man with a pacemaker and a cancerous lung, appearing at Yankee Stadium on one last moneymaking expedi-tion. DiMaggio “seemed a sad figure,” Cramer writes. “It wasn’t just the effects of age—the way he’d shrunk—that bent old man who took his rings behind home plate and tottered off the field…. More to the point, it was his cloak of myth that had shrunk. The lies around him were growing cheap.”

One lie involved George Steinbrenner’s gift of the replicas of the allegedly stolen rings on that last Joe DiMaggio Day. DiMaggio “didn’t lose those rings to theft,” Cramer asserts. “More likely he traded them for free lodging, food, transportation, services of every kind.” That day was not about rings, but about “money, mostly money, as it mostly was with Joe.”

Here we immediately confront a serious problem with Cramer as a historian. This is a book without a single footnote. With no attribution whatever, stories scandalous, shocking, and delightful are presented as gospel. How does Cramer know those rings weren’t stolen? We are expected to trust him. His credentials are good. He has a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. What It Takes, his book on the men who ran for president in 1988, is one of the best of its sort ever written. Still, some of his juiciest DiMaggio stories rely entirely on Cramer’s say-so with no corroborating witness. Respectable though Cramer is at his trade, this is apt to leave the finicky reader uneasy.

Part of Cramer’s problem is DiMaggio’s astonishing success in keeping his real life—as opposed to his fictional hero life—to himself. All his life he refused to talk to biographers, including Cramer, and any associate or pal who talked was exiled from the DiMaggio aura. With DiMaggio refusing to talk and everybody else afraid to talk, it has never been easy to find people willing to go public with gee-whiz tales about him.

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