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Joltin' Joe Has Gone : Yankee Always a Picture of Class

Joe Dimaggio 1914-99 | ROGER KAHN

March 09, 1999|ROGER KAHN | Roger Kahn, a former baseball writer in New York, is the author of "Joe & Marilyn," "The Boys of Summer" and other baseball books

On Nov. 19, 1939, DiMaggio married Dorothy Arnold, an attractive, blond contract actress at Universal Pictures, in a lavish wedding at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in San Francisco. The marriage produced a son, Joe Jr.--from whom DiMaggio became estranged--and ended with a divorce in 1944. Dorothy's complaint: "Joe preferred going out with the boys to staying home with me and the baby."

DiMaggio spent 1943, '44 and '45 in the Army, playing service ball. When he rejoined the Yankees in 1946, he was not the player he had been--nor, except in certain thrilling bursts--would he ever be. But his presence continued to lift the team, and the Yankees won four more pennants before DiMaggio retired after the 1951 season.

As his skills ebbed, his later seasons became unhappy. Milton Gross wrote in the New York Post: "Instead of mellowing in the twilight, Joe has withdrawn into a shell. He sits by himself, or walks silent and unseeing, and talks to virtually no one with the ballclub. His active dislike for Manager Casey Stengel is apparent."

Life obtained a copy of the Dodgers' scouting report on the 1951 Yankees, publishing a withering critique of DiMaggio at 36:

"He can't stop quick and throw hard. . . . He can't run and won't bunt. . . . He can't pull a good fastball at all."

Actually, in the last three games of the 1951 World Series, which the Yankees took from the Giants, DiMaggio cracked out six hits.

Even Life conceded, "DiMaggio was a better player than the scouting report made him out to be."

But there was truth in the report. Its publication humiliated DiMaggio. Two weeks after his 37th birthday, he announced his retirement. He turned down the Yankees' $100,000 offer to play in 1952 and addressed the press in the Yankee offices on Fifth Avenue: "I can no longer produce for my club, my teammates, my fans, the baseball their loyalty deserves."

Joltin' Joe was history. He knew it. He began to cry.

Stengel, privately happy to be rid of an aging star who had turned sullen, said dry-eyed: "I just give away the big guy's glove. It's going straight to the Hall of Fame."

It was time for Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

DiMaggio had some job offers, but after that baseball career--how Mel Allen loved calling him "the Yankee Clipper"--what could he do for an encore?

Implausibly, and opening himself to terrible pain, he set about courting the national blond sex symbol, Norma Jean Baker, who called herself Marilyn Monroe.

"She's a plain kid," he told Jimmy Cannon. "She'd give up show business if I asked her. She'd quit the movies in a minute. Jimmy, this is one marriage that can't miss."

They married in a civil ceremony at San Francisco City Hall on Jan. 14, 1954. She did try a turn at housekeeping in San Francisco. They quickly learned more about one another.

He was neat, stacking up his coins on a dresser every night. She was sloppy, a mix of stockings on the floor.

He was repressed. She was hyperactive.

She wanted to play Grushenka in "The Brothers Karamazov." He had never heard of Dostoevsky.

I think the hardest thing for him was her exhibitionism. But, after all, Marilyn's business, her trade, was flirting with the world. As a small part of the world, I glimpsed that one evening in September 1954, at a party where I was asked to join Joe and Marilyn and a few others. The gathering was set in a suite near Central Park South in a room where every wall was a mirror.

Marilyn arrived in a tight black skirt and a translucent blouse, and the Broadway columnist Earl Wilson, bearing a camera, said, "Lean over, Marilyn, so I can get a picture of your cleavage."

She did and then said, "Oh, Earl. You can see too much."

She pulled up the blouse. But since it was translucent, Marilyn's breasts now showed even more clearly.

DiMaggio never joined the party. He never showed up. By that time he had seen this sort of Marilyn performance more often than he could endure. Fine for Marilyn, but not for Mrs. Joe DiMaggio.

A few days later, Marilyn wriggled through the famous episode in "The Seven Year Itch" where, as she stood on a subway grating, her white skirt blew high. The shots one now sees have been doctored. Her actual lingerie left little to the imagination.

Harsh moments ensued. Marilyn flew back to Hollywood. DiMaggio retreated to Shor's. They divorced on Oct. 27. But DiMaggio could not get over his trophy bride.

Years later, after Marilyn's marriage to playwright Arthur Miller soured, she checked herself into Payne Whitney, a mental hospital in Manhattan, and discovered that she could not easily check out. She called DiMaggio. Somehow he forced the hospital to release her. Then he took her to spring training, where he had agreed to coach young Yankee hitters in the morning. Afternoons he took her to the beach. When tourists approached Marilyn for an autograph, Joe said, in his commanding way, "Leave the lady alone."

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