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.
Take Cramer’s story about the $600,000 in cash which DiMaggio carried out of his San Francisco house in a plastic garbage bag the evening of the earthquake of 1989. Some story! Joe rushing home to find his neighborhood devastated, police not letting anybody into their houses but making an exception for Joe of course, and Joe going in, then coming out with garbage bag in hand and lugging it off to the Presidio Club where he spends the night. Where did that money come from? How long had it been there? Did the IRS know about it? Cramer doesn’t tell us, and what is more galling, he gives no clue to how he could have known there was $600,000 in that bag.
We are also asked to trust Cramer’s say-so about gangsters routinely putting money in a DiMaggio account at the Bowery Bank. And what of the story that forty years ago the gangster Abner (“Longy”) Zwillman gave DiMaggio “boxes” of his ill-gotten money for safekeeping and that Joe was still keeping them safe when Longy’s irritated colleagues produced his suicide by hanging Longy from a chandelier? Cramer offers no clue to the provenance of this story, though he leaves us to understand it was Longy’s money that Joe carried off in the garbage bag and that Joe had kept it for the forty years after Longy’s death. Whether out of rev-erence for the dead or ignorance about money laundering, we can only guess.
Cramer’s prose is freewheeling and journalistic, with heavy use of the vernacular and occasional satirical mockery of old-fashioned breezy sports-page diction. (Runs are “plated,” not “scored.” Joe’s testy refusals to pose for photographers are “vehemed,” not “snarled.”) It is a style better suited to fiction than to history. And why not? If the subject is baseball, Elmore Leonard is probably preferable to Arnold Toynbee.
When DiMaggio joined the Yankees at age twenty-one he was coming to publicity heaven: New York City, home office of worldwide ballyhoo. It was a city with a prodigious appetite for stars of all varieties. New York did not put up with ordinary actors, ordinary boxers, ordinary singers, musicians, writers, ballplayers, geniuses, gangsters, saloonkeepers, or sturgeon slicers. Ordinariness was small-town. New York fed on a steady diet of stars, preferably stars of the first magnitude. In a thin season those not of the first magnitude could be made to glow with New York’s inexhaustible supply of glory-enhancing publicity gas.
DiMaggio didn’t need enhancing. He was a press agent’s dream, a man-child so innocent that he didn’t even know what a “quote” was when the sportswriters asked him for one. He thought it might be a soft drink. But he was not just unformed innocence waiting to have a persona shaped for him by the forces of blather and flapdoodle; he was an athlete of surpassing excellence, a natural, a mere kid so good at his work that sportswriters wouldn’t have to overwork their adjectives to sell him to the fans. For Cramer’s “hero machine,” he was a dream come true. The innocence was part of what made him good copy. He seemed uneasy to the point of terror about social encounters. Cramer suggests this reflected his family’s Sicilian background, which taught the wisdom of keeping your head down. Maybe, but DiMaggio had two other brothers, Dominic and Vince, who played professional baseball, and both were readily accessible to the public. Cramer suggests that Vince was even a joyful figure. Perhaps Joe was simply born uneasy. Whatever the case, his restrained, distant, occasionally surly manner made good material for writers.
In 1936, when DiMaggio showed up, the sports pages had a glut of stars acting at being just regular guys. Poor Joe Louis, possibly the best heavyweight ever, had to stand by patiently while racists praised him as “a credit to his race,” thereby suggesting that African-Americans were a low-credit bunch while assuring the crowd that “the Brown Bomber” was just another regular guy, and not a brown menace. DiMaggio created a more interesting possibility for publicity artists. They could write about his aura of mystery and his dignity, and as the years passed these became clichés of DiMaggio literature.
It seems more likely that he came to New York as a shy, scared, insecure country boy might have come to some terrifying metropolis in a Ring Lardner tale about a hick ballplayer afraid he will be humiliated if the world discovers he doesn’t know how to tip a cab driver or sign a bar check. Typically, Joe liked Superman comic books but was afraid to be seen buying one, so had somebody do it for him. Even as a sandlot ballplayer in San Francisco he had had a young man called “Shirts” DeMarco hanging around to do him services and deflect unwanted intrusions. With instant fame in New York, he quickly began attracting more sophisticated men as buffers between himself and the complicated world of New York celebrity. These men existed to do things for him: to accompany him to dinner, order for him, deflect worshipful nuisances, arrange an assignation with a woman who caught his eye, pay the bill, or make sure that the house was aware that bills were not to be rendered to Mister DiMaggio.
With a long procession of these human buffers, always working for the pleasure of being known as Joe’s pals, DiMaggio enjoyed a fully serviced life. Until the day of his death there was scarcely a day when his needs and wants were not seen to by others. Cramer’s tales of men who buffered for DiMaggio depict a kind of boy’s-club life. A lot of it was lived at Toots Shor’s restaurant where the guys gathered after the game—ballplayers, sportswriters, maybe some hoods but no big-timers when Joe was there since Frank Costello, the super capo, was protective of Joe’s image. So was Toots. “Crum-bums,” as Toots called people who annoyed Joe, were shown the door. Wives were welcome as long as a husband didn’t make a regular thing of it. The buffer was expected to be ready to drop everything at Joe’s call and report for duty. Cramer paraphrases the New York Times sportswriter Louis Effrat at length about palship with Joe:
Say, for example, the Clipper was at Shor’s, when some broad would be brought to his table to meet the Great DiMaggio. Joe would modestly shake her hand—that was all…until he called for Lou. When Effrat got to Joe’s corner, DiMaggio would murmur, “See that blond in the black dress? Take her to the late show at El Morocco. Tell the maitre d’ you’re at my table.” Louis would race to a phone and call Brooklyn—eleven P.M. or midnight—he’d wake his wife, Alice: “I’ll be late. I’m going out with the Dago!” She knew he’d have to squire some girl around for DiMaggio. But she didn’t protest. She could hear the fever in his voice. Then, Lou would leave with the girl. (“Joe will be along to meet us, in a while…”) Sure, there might be a columnist—photographers for sure—working the floor at El Morocco. But if anybody asked, it wasn’t Joe had a date with the girl. No, Effrat had the date.
If DiMaggio saw women as consumer goods that were part of the young hero’s entitlement, he took the old-fashioned masculine view of the two he married. To both Dorothy Arnold and Marilyn Monroe his behavior was protective and proprietary. Both wanted careers; DiMaggio wanted housewives. Both bridled at the idea of waiting for Joe to come home from work so they could snuggle down watching television. DiMaggio hated the notion of other men thinking of his wives as he himself thought of other women. Jealousy enraged him when he saw Marilyn Monroe being marketed as sexual goods. She delighted in it. Divorce was inevitable; the marriage lasted only 286 days. DiMaggio grew old hating Hollywood and all its crowd (including its auxiliary Kennedy family), who, as he thought, had exploited, abused, and then destroyed his wife.
Cramer doesn’t dwell long on the Marilyn Monroe story, probably because it has been told and retold and nothing new is left to tell. The comic-opera aspect of their marriage is expressed to perfection in a line he excavates from a book by Marilyn’s half-sister. Abandoning DiMaggio’s protection in San Francisco, Marilyn tells her sister she is going to Los Angeles as the guest of Frank Sinatra, “because I need some total privacy.”
DiMaggio’s obsession with money seems to date from childhood when he sold newspapers at streetcar stops. Each paper cost three cents, of which the newsboy kept a penny, but DiMaggio mastered the art of having so much trouble finding change that buyers who gave him a nickel would tell him to keep the other two cents.
In signing with the Yankees, he was dealing with major-league penny pinchers. They offered $5,625 a year to start. (Today’s offer for such a spectacular talent would probably approach $1 million.) A canny old baseball man who had befriended DiMaggio had a canny old acquaintance “who could squeeze a nickel till the buffalo on it was dead from lack of air.” He was Ty Cobb. Cobb dictated DiMaggio’s refusal to Yankee general manager Ed Barrow, famous for cheap pay, and Barrow countered by offering $6,500. Cobb “dictated to Joe an even more polite and implacable response.” Barrow sent a third contract offering $8,500 and a note saying, “This is the limit. Don’t waste another three-cent stamp. Just sign it. And tell Cobb to stop writing me letters.” (Cramer’s italics)
After his first two sensational seasons the Yankees taught him a profoundly embittering lesson about the market value of heroes. They offered $25,000 and DiMaggio said he wanted $40,000. The Yankees didn’t bother to negotiate. They didn’t have to. In those days players were the wholly owned property of their teams. This resulted from a bizarre court ruling that because baseball was “sport,” not business, a team owner had exclusive rights to negotiate with team members “for the good of the game.” DiMaggio could play for the Yankees’ $25,000, or he could refuse, but he could not sell his services to another team. All he could do was “hold out” by staying at home on the chance that the Yankees might need him enough to sweeten their offer.
The Yankees had ways of making proud men bend. The machine that makes heroes can also unmake them. The word “greed” was spread among the fans. Twenty-five thousand was big money in a country that still thought $5,000 a year was a rich man’s pay. Joe McCarthy, the team manager, turned against him. “The Yankees can get along without DiMaggio,” he said. His surrender was inevitable. The Yankees—why are they so often praised as the epitome of “class”?—couldn’t resist rubbing it in.
Cramer describes the Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert making “a series of triumphal announcements”: DiMaggio’s contract would have “no bonus clauses, nothing extra. And Joe would not get a dime till he got in shape at his own expense: about a hundred fifty a day in lost wages. Meanwhile, if he wanted to travel with the club, he could pay his own train fare, hotel, and meals.” Ruppert said, “I hope the young man has learned his lesson.”
There was still more to learn: the fans began to boo. Cramer quotes him saying, “Pretty soon I got the idea the only reason people come to the game at all is to boo DiMaggio. And the mail! You would have thought I’d kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, the way some of the letters read.”
“Joe had learned lessons,” writes Cramer,
but not the ones Ruppert intended. He’s learned that the fans could turn against him…[that] the writers were all in bed with the club—Joe was convinced of that—they’d turned the fans against him…. Now, Joe understood: they would never pay him what he was worth—not fairly, not willingly… and he couldn’t make them pay. Now Joe knew, he was hired help. No one ever made hired help rich.
This angry, embittered man was only twenty-three years old.
In the old man the youthful rage became a neurotic obsession with money. He developed a “legendary disinclination to pay” for anything. His business was being Joe DiMaggio, and part of it consisted in obtaining necessary goods and services for free.
…His was not a simple cheapness: it wasn’t just paying that drove Joe nuts. It was even when he didn’t pay, when he was getting money, even when he was getting millions. That’s when he took it one step beyond…
Who else would make money in the deal?
Why should those guys make a buck off my life?
Cramer doesn’t say how much money DiMaggio had at his death, though he refers vaguely to millions in earnings, largely from ventures in the booming baseball memorabilia business. This involves selling autographed pictures, cards, balls, and such to people who pay astonishing prices for it. It is eloquent testimony to the cheapness of the baseball owners that the finest players of the DiMaggio era can now earn more as geezers peddling gimcracks than they did when they were golden lads bringing glory to the game.
That DiMaggio brought glory to baseball is indisputable. If he played Joe DiMaggio very badly, he seems to have played baseball majestically. Cramer suggests that he was born gifted with an instinct for baseball. He apparently mastered the game without struggle and played it with a graceful beauty that awed those who saw him. Statistics, by which baseball fans measure quality, suggest he had few equals as a hitter. He was an essential player for a team that played in nine World Series and lost only one.
In 1941 he did something that had never been done before by getting a hit in fifty-six consecutive games. Sportswriters constantly assure us that this is such an amazing feat that no player will ever duplicate it. Maybe not, but don’t bet the house on it. Baseball authorities are constantly redesigning their game to keep up with trends in the tastes of its fans. Recent manipulations have produced so many home-run sluggers that the thrill of the old-fashioned Homeric clout is gone. Money is as vital to the owners today as it was when the Yankees were ready to crush DiMaggio’s spirit rather than offer him another $5,000. If it looks financially profitable to have DiMaggio’s record broken, well—Major League Baseball has ways of making the impossible happen.
In his youth baseball came so easily to DiMaggio that he seemed inhuman—a child, said a publicity artist, who had been created by God to play baseball as Mozart had been created to make music. It was not so easy to feel warmth for such a player as one felt for, say, the joyfully boyish Willie Mays or that lumpen reform-school rascal Babe Ruth. As DiMaggio aged, however, the game ceased being child’s play, and his body began letting him down. For the first time he had to struggle as normal players had always had to struggle to be good at the game. “Joe has suddenly been taken old,” someone wrote, and he became painfully human. The struggling required to be good was not enough of course; being DiMaggio, he had to struggle even harder in order to be better than anyone else.
Cramer is brutal in dismantling the image that the “hero machine” created during the sixty-two years of DiMaggio’s public life. He has only praise, however, for the character of the DiMaggio who played baseball:
He wanted to be, in any year, any town, on any day, any field—in every game, on every play, no matter who else was there—the best player in the park. He wanted to be the man in whose hands the fate of the game would rest. He expected to deliver that game, every game, to his team. He expected to dominate, not by doing something right, but by doing everything right…. He wanted to be perfect, not at something but everything.
Does this reveal DiMaggio as a man eager “to abide…as a god”? Cramer says it does, but one suspects he is groggy from too much immersion in “hero machine” malarkey. The DiMaggio his book portrays was almost always too frail, too pathetic, too human to aspire to divine eminence. He was a lonely, unhappy, empty man who could do one extraordinarily difficult thing better than almost anybody else in the world, and was proud of it, as he was entitled to be.