- Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer
Simon and Schuster, 560 pp, £20.00, April 2001, ISBN 0 684 85391 4
In the closing stages of Richard Ben Cramer’s biography of Joe DiMaggio there is an exchange between the baseball legend and a man called Cappy Harada for whom DiMaggio had done a bit of business. The episode is undated in the book, but took place some time before the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, at which time DiMaggio was 74. Cappy showed up at the bank that Joe used as a personal office and where he spent a lot of his time. He had bought Joe a brand new Cadillac and now dropped the keys into Joe’s hand.
‘What is it?
‘It’s your brand new Cadillac! I got it parked for you, right outside.’
Joe looked from the keys to Cappy without sitting up, without a smile, without moving his head an extra inch. Joe said: ‘Did you fill it up with gas?’
If there was a door guarding Joe DiMaggio’s imperfections, Cramer has, by this stage in the book, not only opened it, but smashed it off its hinges and taken it out the back to be carted away. And this is one of the milder examples of DiMaggio’s instinctive cheapness. Cramer’s DiMaggio also has an easy sense of entitlement and a love of money. He is a mean, ungrateful man and a terrible husband and father. But he was also a surpassingly great baseball player for the New York Yankees – a man of peerless grace and, in the American sense, class. Besides, he married Marilyn Monroe. This is a book about a hero, but the hero comes off like a schmuck. Some people who write letters to newspapers or call radio sports shows or post comments on Amazon.com say they are upset at Cramer’s treatment of DiMaggio, but you can’t blame him for what he found.
Cramer isn’t someone you’d want picking through the debris of your life. His last book, What It Takes, about the 1988 Presidential election, challenged the boundaries of bookbinding technology with its massiveness. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his reporting in the Middle East. Five years of research and writing went into this biography and the reader can be confident that Cramer has not made anything up. Not even the most hair-raising stories, like this one.
At the baggage carousel at Miami airport in the mid-1990s, DiMaggio was recognised by a woman who worked for the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue, which sold hundreds of photoportraits of him, carrying his autograph. Unfortunately for her, DiMaggio was furious at Hammacher Schlemmer. Through a series of deals the catalogue was making far more money than Joe thought they should have been.
‘Oh, Mr DiMaggio! You can’t imagine what a thrill it’s been to be working with you! I mean Hammacher works with a lot of very –’
That was just Joe’s opener.
‘Fuckin’ cunt! Gives you the right to come up to me? Get the fuck away from me! You’re too fuckin’ ugly to talk to me in public.’
Cramer tells these stories straight and unsanctimoniously. He does not catalogue DiMaggio’s misdeeds just to run up the score against him.
This isn’t a conventional biography. We are given an almost chronological account from DiMaggio’s birth in 1914 up to 1962, when Monroe died. The book then jumps to 1989 and the San Francisco earthquake. Joe by now is baseball’s official Greatest Living Player and his business is making money by being Joe. (There’s a wonderful extended passage about him retrieving a bin-liner full of cash from his earthquake-damaged home.) All sporting heroes’ lives are divided into the time they played their game and the much longer time they play being themselves, usually much less well. DiMaggio performed supremely well at both.
He holds one of the greatest records in American sport and Cramer triumphantly reminds us what a superb player DiMaggio was over and above the Streak – his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 – with which his name is always connected. ‘Of the five things a ballplayer must do – run, field, throw, hit, and hit for power – DiMaggio was the first man in history who was brilliant at five out of five.’ He struck out very rarely, almost unbelievably rarely for someone who swung hard enough to hit a lot of home runs. He was superb under pressure (a ‘clutch’ player), someone who would produce a hit when the Yankees most needed one. Above all, he was a winner. He played for 13 years and in those years the Yankees won ten pennants and nine World Series. His big rival as a hitter was Boston’s scientific Ted Williams, who hit .406 in DiMaggio’s Streak season, the last person to hit .400 in a season. ‘Sure he can hit,’ Joe said. ‘But he never won a thing.’
The Streak, the marriage to Monroe, the reference in the Simon and Garfunkel song (‘Where have you gone . . .’) and the old geezer waving to the crowd at Yankee Stadium are as much of DiMaggio as most people know – or knew before this book was published. ‘The Hero’s Life’ of Cramer’s subtitle is not to be confused with a heroic life: it designates a life tailored for public acclaim. The terms of the adulation are subject to media co-operation and the canniness of the man.
Reality begins with DiMaggio’s seriousness about baseball. For someone who seldom said a spare word, DiMaggio knew to speak up when he had a contract to sign. After his minor league team in San Francisco, the Seals, sold him to the New York Yankees in 1934, he held out for more money on his first contract, an act of some bravado. Until the 1970s, thanks to a notorious contractual provision called the Reserve Clause, baseball players were owned outright by their team and could be fired or dealt away at will. DiMaggio could risk antagonising his all-powerful bosses because he had absolute confidence in his ability.
The Yankees never paid DiMaggio what he was worth. After his first two seasons, which were unmatched in the history of the game, he asked for $40,000. He was offered $25,000 and he finally took it, minus a pro-rata portion for the games he had missed during the contractual negotiations. In his first games back, he was booed by some of the fans. ‘You would have thought I’d kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, the way some of the letters read,’ he said. Even the papers went for him after he played badly in his first All-Star Game, the mid-season showpiece between the best players in the American and National Leagues. He decided he had to look after himself. He was no fool. Even Joe DiMaggio could be shipped off to another team if the right deal presented itself, and when the time came, in the mid-1940s, the Yankees did indeed try to trade him for somebody else.
As Cramer tells it, DiMaggio made a good deal of extra-curricular money from friends like Ruggiero ‘Richie the Boot’ Boiardo and Abner ‘Longy’ Zwillman (the man who ‘put the “organised” in organised crime’). Richie the Boot, for example, gave Joe a 4½ carat emerald-cut diamond when he married his first wife, Dorothy Arnold, in 1939. He would make well-publicised appearances at certain nightclubs and cash would be put in a trust account at the Bowery Bank, which was where Tammany Hall bosses kept their money, so it must have seemed safe. DiMaggio had a million dollars in the Bowery Bank when he retired in 1951, which made it easier to turn down the paltry $100,000 the Yankees offered him to go on playing.
He always made good copy. Before he came to New York, he had set hitting records in the Pacific Coast League and the press seized on him as the next big thing. Babe Ruth, who was head and shoulders above anyone else in the game, had just retired. Before DiMaggio had played one inning of major league ball, a New York newspaperman had announced him as ‘the replacement for Babe Ruth’. The World-Telegram ran an eight-part autobiography of the new star. (‘My full name is Joseph Peter Di Maggio Jr,’ it began, and thus, Cramer says, ‘Joe attained his first major league record: youngest player ever to get his own name wrong in his autobiography.’ He was Joseph Paul, son of Giuseppe. The space in ‘Di Maggio’ makes another mistake, but never mind.)
Newspapermen wrote and overwrote his exploits on the baseball diamond, and ignored the after-hours stuff as they had done with Babe Ruth. DiMaggio made great radio, too, however routinely monosyllabic his interview answers. After the game, he was the biggest star at places like Toots Shor’s saloon at 51 West 51st Street. He never saw a bill. He liked to eat with sympathetic writers like Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post. Cannon idolised DiMaggio but knew that if DiMaggio felt for one second that Jimmy was taking advantage of him, he’d be gone. Sometimes DiMaggio drove around town after hours with Walter Winchell who, according to his biographer Neal Gabler, was responsible for creating the celebrity industry that helped make DiMaggio a star.
DiMaggio’s wattage increased when he started seeing Marilyn Monroe. They met the year after he retired from baseball (she was two hours late for dinner and not quite sure who Joe was). The biggest names in sport and entertainment were conjoined in a seemingly ridiculous match. ‘They may have been the only two people in the country, at that moment, who could understand each other,’ Cramer explains. On their honeymoon he shared her with about 100,000 GIs in front of whom she appeared in Korea. ‘Joe, you never heard such cheering,’ she said. DiMaggio replied: ‘Yes I have.’
The marriage was immediately a disaster. As soon as they got back from their honeymoon Monroe told a friend, ‘I’m going to marry Arthur Miller,’ and eventually she did. She left DiMaggio when he beat her up after she’d filmed the scene in The Seven-Year Itch where her dress is blown up over her head as she stands on a subway grate. Yet, almost incredibly, DiMaggio does not come off worst in the story of Monroe’s end. ‘I want my wife,’ he said when he went to rescue her from a grisly psychiatric hospital in 1962. According to Cramer, they were set to remarry on 8 August 1962, which turned out to be the day of her funeral.
The rest of the story is mostly about the money. As Cramer puts it, money was how DiMaggio kept score. Late in life, he really lucked out. In 1994 the baseball strike caused the cancellation of the World Series for the first time. Many fans turned away from the game, and players and owners alike were looked on as greedy and money-mad. The already healthy memorabilia business boomed and DiMaggio was the biggest draw. So it was that in 1994, the highest-paid baseball player was not the right-fielder for the New York Mets at $6 million per season, but the 79-year-old DiMaggio, who had been retired since 1951.
DiMaggio’s offence wasn’t that he wanted to acquire the money so badly, but that he wouldn’t part with any of it. ‘Why should they make a buck off my life?’ He didn’t trust anyone and dismissed friends and family members for minuscule infractions. He knew he could always find people who would take care of things for him in return for any association with his name. One such was a lawyer called Morris Engelberg who ‘looked after’ him in his last years. Engelberg offered to do his legal work for nothing. Eventually he became DiMaggio’s shadow and the self-styled ‘son he never had’, a designation that gets more meaningful when one reads about the decline of Joe Jr, the son DiMaggio did have, and rejected.
Cramer is barely able to contain himself when he’s writing about Engelberg, regularly appending the ‘Esq.’ to his name which Engelberg’s lawyerly station entitles him to – you are sure he’d rather see it branded on his forehead. The description of Engelberg’s assumption of control over DiMaggio’s affairs and his contempt for his ‘friend’ make ugly reading. For example, Engelberg offered his daughter $10,000 to name her child Joe, as a means of ingratiating himself with DiMaggio. (She settled for $5000 for the middle name.) When DiMaggio was dying in his house in Florida in early 1999 he got him to scratch some marks on one last batch of baseballs to add to his stash of saleable goodies. After choreographing DiMaggio’s death, he had a nurse pull the 1936 World Series ring off his hand – and wore it at Di Maggio’s funeral.
Joe Jr outlived his father by six months and died of an overdose of heroin mixed with crack. For a short while it had seemed that marriage might rescue him, but at dinner with DiMaggio the new wife had tapped her fingers on the table in time to the music. DiMaggio called his son outside. Joey came back and took his wife away. ‘My father says he doesn’t want anything to do with her,’ he reported. DiMaggio duly looked on as the marriage went awry.
DiMaggio, the object of generations of reminiscing, was not a nostalgic man himself. He visited the Yankees spring training camp for the first time in years after Monroe made him see a therapist and for a while he was less resentful of everything. He talked baseball with the young players without bullshitting about the Good Old Days. He knew the game was a hard-nosed business. DiMaggio, the contract holdout who ate and trained on his own, resembled a modern-day player. In yearning for those simpler times when DiMaggio was the Yankee Clipper, modern fans were, consciously or not, pining for an era when black players were barred from major league baseball and the white players were underpaid peons in thrall to their owners.
Cramer believes DiMaggio was famous in a new way, a new kind of ‘hero’: ‘the first guy we knew like that’. But ‘knowing’ was the problem. Those who make their money from being famous cannot always draw the line people mustn’t cross. What Cramer calls ‘the presumption of intimacy’ in other people must have tortured DiMaggio. A movie actor once asked Joe in the press room of a race track: ‘Hey, whatever happened t’that blonde you had? I gotta blonde, too. She’s the best cocksucker you ever saw – just like that one you had.’ ‘Then he stuck out his hand,’ writes Cramer, ‘like him and Joe were going to chew the fat about Marilyn.’
In the 1960s Gay Talese was trying to write about DiMaggio for Esquire. Talese told Joe he thought he was a great man. ‘I’m not great,’ Joe said, ‘I’m just a man trying to get along.’ One of Cramer’s achievements is that he has managed, despite his subject’s best efforts, to salvage enough for us to treat that statement with some sympathy.