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Say It Ain't So

JOE DIMAGGIO The Hero's Life By Richard Ben Cramer; Simon & Schuster: 560 pp., $28

November 05, 2000|PETE HAMILL | Pete Hamill is the author of "A Drinking Life: A Memoir," "Snow in August" and "Why Sinatra Matters."

When Joseph Paul DiMaggio died at 84 in 1999, there were few people left alive who had ever seen him play. His time as a ballplayer (1936-1951) preceded the triumph of television and was witnessed by paying customers in an era when there were no major league teams west of the Mississippi. To be sure, his accomplishments as a New York Yankee glittered on the sports pages of the time, and his form as a batter, glimpsed in movie house newsreels, was powerful and elegant. But in some strange, indefinable way, DiMaggio's athletic skills were not what mattered to all those people who mourned his death. Their laments were about something else: the loss of a special kind of American grace.

The meaning of "grace" is difficult to define, as elusive in its American usage as that other word often applied to DiMaggio: "class." But those who admired DiMaggio insisted that he possessed both qualities. Often, they cited the things that DiMaggio would not do. In an era of endless celebrity slobbering, DiMaggio never sat with Barbara Walters to weep about Marilyn Monroe. He never published a tell-all autobiography, retailing his sexual exploits or demanding pity. During the long years after his retirement as a player, he seemed to wear his fame lightly, insisting on his privacy without becoming a bitter recluse. He was never vulgar. He was never a boor.

In "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life," Richard Ben Cramer grapples valiantly with the mystery of DiMaggio's enduring image, his transformation into a legend and a hero.

"Joe didn't want to help with biography," he writes. "He didn't want to help anybody know his life. It was a smart move by a smart man--canny, anyway. In latter years he cultivated the distance that set him apart from every other person of fame. He was revered for his mystery. We cheered him for never giving himself entirely to us."

Cramer wants us to believe that he has solved the mysteries of his subject, unraveled the riddles within the public enigma. And his thesis is a familiar one in modern biography: The public man was largely a fiction; the bronze god had feet of clay. In Cramer's view, the image of DiMaggio was a fiction, carefully tailored, nurtured and edited by DiMaggio himself.

Cramer's DiMaggio was a cheap, egocentric miser, who used friends as gophers and flunkies and dropped them abruptly when it suited his purposes. He lived as if he expected someone else to pick up the tab: for food, lodging, clothes and personal responsibilities. In 1939, he married his first wife, an aspiring actress named Dorothy Arnold, but continued playing around with many other women. "You wouldn't have thought God made so many eager American women," Cramer writes about DiMaggio in 1941, the year of his great 56-game hitting streak. "But it seemed like every one He made had a friend on the hotel switchboard, or went to school with the bellboy's sister, or got the room number somehow. Sometimes, they'd call from the lobby. 'Yeah, come on up,' Joe would say into the phone. And any other fellows who were visiting would know, Daig was going to be tied up for a while. When she got there, Joe would take her right into the bedroom and, as he said, 'give her a good pump.' "

While reserving the right to cheat, DiMaggio was often jealous of Dorothy. He was frequently irritated by her loudness and the way she spent his money. At the same time he was grappling with the scrutiny that came with immense fame. "He was the most famous man in America," Cramer writes (about a year when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president), "a man at every moment watched. But there was so much about his life that he didn't want anybody to see."

He certainly would not have wanted the public to see or hear what went on with Dorothy after Pearl Harbor, according to Cramer. While other public figures ignored their deferments (Joe was 3-A) and enlisted, DiMaggio, we're told, did everything possible to avoid joining up. By the middle of the 1942 season, DiMaggio was in a slump and being booed. Writes Cramer: "Dorothy was telling him every day (or every day they were talking) that he ought to be signed up, that the boos were never going to stop till he enlisted. Joe said she didn't know a thing about it. If he got a few hits, there'd be nothing but cheers."

He was finally shamed into enlisting in 1943 ("Dorothy wanted him in the Army--she'd made that clear enough; otherwise it would be divorce.") He served his country playing exhibition baseball in California and Hawaii, and Dorothy divorced him anyway. The judge ordered the settlement: $14,000 in a lump sum, $150 a month to care for their son, Little Joe. According to Cramer, this rankled the hero:

"The way DiMaggio saw it, he had to write out a check for fourteen thousand--as much as he'd paid for his family's house--just for the privilege of paying more every month. And that money would come from his own pocket--he'd have no way to earn it back."

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