Joe DiMaggio
The Hero's Life
Richard Ben Cramer
Simon & Schuster, $28
Review by
Paul Paolicelli
    I approached Richard Ben Cramer's book with  great trepidation. Not because of its length(515 pages)--I figure with DiMaggio you could go 750 pages and still not get everything in. My problem was that I wasn't sure I wanted to shell out thirty bucks for a book by a guy I'd had a run-in with a generation ago. But, in the end, I've always found a magic to anything DiMaggio, no matter the source. I dug out the Visa Card.
     Cramer had been a reporter in Baltimore while I was serving as  Press Secretary to the junior U.S. Senator from Maryland, J. Glenn Beall, Jr. One Sunday, not long before the  1976 election, the Baltimore
Sun ran a huge banner headline; "BEALL ON GULF OIL LIST," and the copy read as a quasi-expose showing Beall's alleged indebtedness to the Oil giant. The story was written by one Richard Ben Cramer.
     There were a few slight problems with Cramer's "investigative" story; first was the fact that the $5,000 contribution to Beall's campaign had been duly and
voluntarily reported to the Secretary of the Senate when Beall had been first elected,  had been reported in the media (including Cramer's own paper), and was a secret to no one but Cramer.  Also, there had been no law on the books at the time of Beall's first election requiring that he report the donation in the first place. The only thing Cramer got right was the amount of the donation and he had spelled the names correctly.
     We protested, the Sun broke precedent and ran a box on its first page the following Sunday "correcting" the story. Not long after, Cramer was gone from the paper and working in Philadelphia where, a few years later, he won a Pulitzer Prize for another investigative piece. Beall was clobbered by Paul Sarbanes, who remains in that seat, and we all got on with our lives.
     Now, an entire generation has shown up on the scene with no living memory of the Vietnam War, Watergate, Woodstock. The slates been wiped clean. I've had a full career in broadcast journalism, become an author by the grace of a good agent and two books; Cramer continued his newspaper career and has, with his second book, morphed into a "biographer."
     But to go after one of the holiest and most difficult of American and Italian-American icons in a second effort takes a lot of guts. Could Cramer's investigative technique, no matter how sophisticated or developed, capture DiMaggio? Would digging into his life and character contain revelation or revision? Mixing metaphors, would it be possible to find dirt or a badly-brewed Mr. Coffee?
     I swallowed the book whole. I read it from both the perspective of my 1976 skepticism and my more recent understandings of writing and research. I was drawn to Cramer's prose, found it well-crafted, if not always convinced of its efficacy. Most of what he uncovered in "Joe DiMaggio" we already knew.
     I never saw Joe DiMaggio play the game of baseball. But I, like every other Italian-American child of any age, had heard about him. I can remember a distant summer day in the Pittsburgh suburbs, when I was eight or nine, as my cousin Donna Jean and I sat on my family's front porch and she taught me a song that went in tune with "The Bible Tells Us So..."

Joe, Joe DiMaggio
     Married pretty Marilyn Monroe
     How do we know?
     The papers tell us so...
     Donna Jean seemed to know all about this man. Her father, my uncle Bob, was a big sports fan,  a betting man, a man who knew the odds. He and Aunt Jean had pictures of themselves taken with DiMaggio at "Toots Shor's" club in New York. Uncle Bob knew athletes and their records and The Yankee Clipper was Uncle Bob's top man.
     DiMaggio had never been a mere athlete or set of statistics. What was communicated  to me and my generation, especially Italian Americans, was that he had symbolized, in many ways, the possibilities--both for America and for Italian-Americans. He personified class. He was "cool" in every sense, well dressed, soft-spoken. He represented respect, dignity, fulfillment of the dream--not only the dream of immigrant Italian fishermen, but of every generation that comes to America, the dream we all have--immigrant or native--for our children: To become somebody. To stand for the best of something.
     Now the investigative reporters are having a whack at him. Cramer says straight out that DiMag wouldn't cooperate with him, "with biography." Tells the reader right away that part of the mystery and--my word--majesty of this man was his "never giving himself entirely to us." Then he leads us to believe that he's going to expose the "real" DiMaggio, and starts with the cranky, stooped old man who showed up at "Joe DiMaggio Day" in Yankee Stadium hyper focused on money and weaving a web of deception and greed.
     But this book never supports the opening scene.
     For one thing, Cramer presumes to tell us what DiMaggio was thinking on "his" day, an interesting technique for even the most ambitious and talented of investigative reporters (and Cramer is ambitious and talented, his writing style is crisp and colloquial), even after admitting that he never talked with the man. Throughout the book, throughout the entire the narrative of the youth and career and last days of DiMaggio, and despite the attempt at "revelation," the author never damages or eliminates the essential factors in the Clipper's character--and those are the factors that far outweigh any dirt the diggers might find. There are elements to DiMaggio, parts of the man that, despite the attempt to show the contrary, continually contradict  small, or demeaning characterizations.
"He had that quiet in the bottom of himself," writes Cramer. A quiet that Cramer spends over five-hundred pages trying to amplify and analyze, without success.
     In the process he reveals, however inadvertently, and in great detail, the invincibility of the man and myth DiMaggio.
Joe and Dominic DiMaggio at the 1941 All Star Game. (AP Photo)
     Take, for example, DiMaggio's "failure" to explain himself to the press. Cramer would have you believe that DiMag craftily and carefully built a legend--his own industry of "being Joe DiMaggio"--and worked only  to further that self interest.
     What emerges from the text, however, is classic DiMaggio. A shy man, not overly given to introspection or analysis, who had what he believed to be a "God-given gift" of grace, power and style on--and many would argue off, as well--the  baseball diamond. He didn't want to talk about hitting, or fielding, or himself. What he had for breakfast would have been sublimely irrelevant to DiMaggio. He gave one word answers and never, never got into anything trivial, mundane or inane. He freely admitted to the greatness of his talent. Perhaps he had the hubris of the Greek tragedians, but he did not have the rampant egotism of today's highly compensated and generally less talented players. As Uncle Bob would have said, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it."
     Throughout his life, and throughout Cramer's book, DiMaggio assiduously, intensely, religiously, incontrovertibly and--to Cramer--maddeningly, avoided any revelation of his personal life. Cramer would have you believe DiMaggio was trying to hide things.
     DiMaggio's actions, however, even interpreted by Cramer, show a man fighting for control of his own life and knowing very clearly where the line between the personal and professional was drawn. He stubbornly and successfully insisted on respecting and maintaining a distance from that line. (
He had that quiet in the bottom of himself).
     So what did Cramer accomplish with this detailed, behind the scenes, fast-paced, well written, colloquial first-person infusion into the DiMaggio's persona?
     For one thing, his own copy is filled with the joy and madness of "The Streak," the 1941 hitting romp by DiMaggio that lasted 56 straight games and put DiMaggio into the Pantheon of the baseball gods for all recorded time. He shows the grit of the man as he faced physical pain and handicap year after year, was butchered by unskilled surgeons, haunted by his own standards of perfection and burdened by the mantle of leadership--it's DiMaggio who carries the Yankees to all those World Series victories. Through it all, DiMaggio swings and hits with power and grace,  lopes across the outfield with ballet-like precision, runs the bases faster and better than anyone else, despite bad ligaments and torn muscle,  throws with great velocity and precision, and keeps that quiet in himself to himself.
     Off the field Cramer treats us to a DiMaggio who insists on his privacy and who maintains friendships only with those who can respect and honor that request. Cramer finds that demand nearly Faustian; an evil corruption of self-interest and ego that will tell reporters, "none of your damn business," while hiding avarice, promiscuity, decadence or malevolence.
     In between, we're treated to the word Dago more times than I've ever seen it written in one place before, but since that was DiMaggio's politically-incorrect nickname from that time, I'll concede the necessity for the appellation. And, of course, there's the inevitable criminal element, always lurking behind the scenes in the sporting world and inevitable with vowel-ending names. While Cramer doesn't say specifically that Joe was "involved" with any sort of criminal activity, he links DiMaggio with several  known criminals and has DiMaggio the beneficiary of a trust account set up for him by "the mob." He never tells us how much money was in this account, only that it was at the Bowery, "the bank of choice for all the Names in town," and that various club managers would pay into this account to compensate DiMag for personal appearances.
     This is the  "mob connection." Payments for personal appearances at clubs to attract customers (which he apparently did well, given that the club owners seemed more than willing to throw money into the scheme).
     Okay, now we have the obligatory mob affiliation out of the way.
     And DiMaggio's nefarious scheme was to allow that account to go untouched until after he retired from baseball. Cramer says it accrued to "millions."  By the time I got through all of the innuendo, I hoped it did.
Sicilian Roots...
     Cramer writes with some ambivalence, if not disdain, about the elder DiMaggio. He says Giuseppe's roots in Sicily demanded a code of silence, but this seems to be based on geography as opposed to sociology--Giuseppie was from the Isola delle Femmine and, in a paragraph where the author manages to insert a completely irrelevant reference to la Mafia, he links the island's isolation with an apparent conclusion that its natives must have been all but mute, "bore its heritage of stillness and isolation" and cut off even from Sicily where, in case you didn't know, la Cosa Nostra was "the island's most famous export."  Cramer seems to think that the elder DiMaggio was somehow incapable of understanding fully, or undeserving of his son's good luck. That he feared the "evil eye" if  he spoke too much, and that his essential silence, based on ignorance and fear, was the main heritage he passed onto young Joe. Besides, according to Cramer who must know the dialect, the elder DiMaggio was also silent out of embarrassment over his bad language skills, nearly incomprehensible manner of speaking, and illiterate station in life.
     I don't think it ever occurred to Cramer that the mark of DiMaggio has always been his character, which completely overwhelms his many statistics, and that character is formed long before a child can swing a baseball bat. If his father had been so ignorant and silent, how did DiMaggio's character form? (I should thank Cramer for writing of the elder DiMaggio in this manner, it helped me form my thinking on the subject that lead to my second book trying to evaluate the culture of DiMaggio's father's generation).
     So now we have a DiMaggio who, in addition to being arrogant, greedy and devious, is also rooted in old world superstition and ignorance.
Love and Marriage...
     Cramer shows DiMaggio's first wife, the actress Dorothy Arnold, as ambitious, social-climbing and controlling. After the birth of Joe, Jr., she pushes DiMag to enlist in the army, though her motives aren't entirely clear. What is clear is that their marriage and relationship is mostly her doing, and the ultimate divorce is also her idea. Cramer has DiMaggio bitterly slinking off to war, playing ball for the troops and pining away in Hawaii, resentful of his time away from home. Obviously Cramer was never in the service; I don't remember anyone being happy with the army, but we were there, and carping about it was our inherent right.
     The middle chapters of Cramer's work are devoted to the DiMaggio-Monroe relationship.
     It is the most interesting part of the book, to me, for it details their relationship in a way that I've not seen before.  Cramer's narrative gives each of them greater depth of spirit and sense of humanity than most readers are used to seeing. The portrait of Marilyn Monroe is sensitive, doesn't dwell on her oft-reported addictions, and keeps the focus on her relationship with DiMaggio. She was, of course, a complete mess. A complicated, tortured, haunted, phobic, conflicted, confused, addicted, abused, abandoned, terrified and utterly fascinating mess. And, one of the most beautiful women, ever, all at the same time. Their relationship was the closest America has ever come to a Zeus and Hera or Paris and Helen.
     DiMaggio, whose first marriage to another blonde show girl ended, in part, because of his objections to her career and who was, by most evidence including Cramer's,  an absent father to Joe Jr.--partly as a result of their often contentious and litigious relationship--seems to grow as both man and as icon in these chapters.
     When DiMaggio is with Monroe, an eloquence occurs on these pages. DiMaggio's unflinching and uncompromising sense of propriety defies the tabloid curiosities of the time, every thing about his treatment of the tortured diva, his obvious and well demonstrated concern, his dedication, loyalty and what must have been his great agony, remain part of the silence in the bottom of himself. He ended things with Toots Shore because the bar owner called the actress a "whore." Cramer implies that this reasoning was superficial and that Shore had done much for DiMaggio and deserved better treatment. Yet, beyond any other subject in this book, and despite Cramer's insistence on revelation of the warts--he claims DiMaggio hit the actress during arguments in New York and Hollywood quotes her saying the same at one point--DiMaggio still comes through these pages as sensitive, understanding, devoted and, ultimately, heartbroken.
     Inexplicably, Cramer jumps from Monroe's funeral in 1963(who can forget that classic photo of DiMaggio in the limosine ignoring the press?) to the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, not a word on the intervening twenty-six years, not a sentence on how DiMaggio learned to live with loss, not a solitary thought on the man who sent roses, twice a week, to Marilyn Monroe's grave.
    Then, again in 1989, he has DiMaggio squabbling over his fees for signing baseballs and his overwhelming greed for making money for personal appearances, autographs, memorabilia and the like. "Why should this guy make a buck off my life?" he has DiMag asking, time and again.
     In the saddest of conclusions for DiMaggio and the readers of this book, Cramer's investigative skills turn towards one Morris Engelberg, Esq., DiMaggio's attorney and business partner for the final years of his life, and the man who managed to have himself named as executor of DiMaggio's estate. It would also seem that it had been Engleberg who made an industry of the DiMaggio name, with the goal of taking over once DiMaggio was dead. According to Cramer, Engelberg tried to prevent Dominic DiMaggio from visiting his dying brother, presided over his lonely and isolated death, and manipulated DiMaggio's money and legacy to his own wealth, claims which Engleberg has written a subsequent book to deny.
A quiet at the bottom of himself...
     I, for one, thank God Joe DiMaggio didn't want to participate in this tell-all Geraldo, Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones age of disclosure--an age of the most mundane public revelations from those who hold no boundaries between the press and the personal. Does anyone really want or need to know what kind of underwear Joe DiMaggio wore, how many women he slept with, the intimate details of his marriages?
     DiMaggio had the class and disciple of mind to know that there was an inner life, a quiet at the  bottom that was not public nor press business. We respected him for that silence. We continue to respect him for that silence. What could or should he have said when he buried Marilyn Monroe? That he was in deep and mystifying grief over her loss, and that he was suspicious of the cause? What would be the point? It was bad enough we were looking in through telephoto lenses. It was bad enough that poor Marilyn would lie alone and violated even in death, and that there was only Joe to try and protect her. We were grateful to him for not behaving like a Hollywood movie star or athlete, but for behaving like the son of an Italian fisherman in grief. We were grateful to him for keeping something private that should have been private.
     And as far as baseball goes,  maybe DiMaggio did think, at times, that Mickey Mantle was a hot dog. Maybe we all did. Maybe he was resentful that the Yankees made too much of  a fuss over Mantle and felt slighted by emphasis. But the fact of the man, the glory of the man is that he never said a thing. He never placed himself on the base level that most of us find in our oft-times petty lives. He never allowed jealousy or anger to dominate his behavior or words. Did he really feel that way? That was his business. DiMaggio made his public statements carefully and eloquently. What did it matter what he thought privately? He was a public personage, and what he did at the public level was, in the end,  all that really mattered.
     Cramer feels cheated.
     I feel liberated.
     And as for DiMaggio's statistics, what great irony I find in the number 56.
     In ancient Rome, if a Gladiator survived three years in the arena, he was given his freedom (if he was a slave or captured enemy of Rome) and exulted as hero for the masses--given  a kind of immortality normally reserved for great leaders. Statues and plaques were made in his honor. Young boys kept figurines or toys made in his likeness.   
     One of the few records we have of such men comes from Pompeii where one Severus survived 56 consecutive duels. 56. There were graffiti on the walls of the city, scratched by women, extolling his manly virtues. Men saw his image in taverns. He had done something few could accomplish and was worshiped by the masses for his prowess. 56 duels and he survived.
     DiMaggio was a modern-day Severus. He performed in the arena, but was also a conscript to that arena. His real life, his private life, lay elsewhere and he knew the difference. He knew the crowd could always turn.  DiMaggio was no less regarded by women in his time than Severus in ancient days, and who could criticize what he did in private. How many pubs bear, even to this day, DiMaggio's image? How many youngsters have his card, know his record?
     We have always needed our heroes, our immortals, our men in the arena willing and able to achieve what we cannot. And if DiMaggio could do it with a hanging curve or lofted fly rather than a broad sword, all the better. It was much less bloody, yet no less sanguine. DiMaggio was essential to us, to all of us. And try as he might to refute that point, in the end, "Joe DiMaggio, The Hero's Life" by Richard Ben Cramer only enhances the saga.
Return to Main Page