Where Has Joe Gone?

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 …

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