19 March 2003

Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life
by Richard Ben Cramer

Two Christmases ago I bought a copy of Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life for my mom, who is also an avid Yankees fan. Mom did not have the pleasure of having seen Joe D. play, as she was not yet five years old when he retired, but she is well aware of his status and legend among Yankee greats of her time and in history. She really enjoyed it, and I borrowed it to read it myself shortly thereafter, having had no idea what to expect, but being both delighted and dismayed at the results.

This was, without a doubt, one of the best books I have ever read, for content, writing style, entertainment value and character development. Cramer seems to appreciate DiMaggio's abilities as a baseball player, and his significance to New York and the Yankees as a player. He discusses each year of his career in moderate detail, with increased depth for events like the 56-game hitting streak and the weekend he returned from an injury to personally bury the Red Sox pennant hopes. But Cramer also describes DiMaggio's associations with gamblers, his efforts to amass as much tax-free wealth as possible through his celebrity, and his disdain for the box into which the media, the 'hero machine' had placed him. He may have hated it, but he also understood how to manipulate it, making sure that no pictures of him were ever taken with people (or in places) of ill repute, speaking little so as not to make a mistake, perpetuating the 'gracefully aloof' aura that the newspapermen furnished for him.

Cramer goes into excruciating detail as he tells of DiMaggio's life, from growing up near Fisherman's Wharf, to playing for the San Francisco Seals (the Yankees of the 1930s Pacific Coast League), to spring trainings and seasons in New York, to his reclusive existence after baseball. The author details some of Joe's exploits on the field, but even more of his life away from the ballpark, where the accomplished, graceful, heroic son-of-immigrants everyone admired and envied proved to be a greedy, self-absorbed, paranoid, jealous, vindictive son-of-a-bitch.

You could not ask for more development of supporting characters in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. And these were all real people. I learned more about Marilyn Monroe, 'Longy' Zwillman and the pals with whom the Jolter grew up than I probably would have learned reading their autobiographies. Not surprisingly, much of what I learned endeared neither Joe himself nor his choices of associates to me. The author spent five years interviewing old friends, enemies and acquaintences of the Yankee Clipper, generally without DiMaggio's permission, and certainly without DiMaggio's slimy lawyer, Morris Engleberg's, permission. The hard work paid off, providing Cramer with numerous bits of gossip and tales of the baseball icon's failed marriages, disinterested fatherhood, and his use of the spotlight he abhorred to pursue the wealth he hoped would make him happy where his relationships never did. If nothing else, his endless pursuit of money may have somehow numbed the pain he felt from the losses of Marilyn and his son, or compensated for his distrust of...well, basically everyone.

If there is a problem with this book, it is that Cramer perhaps too often presumes to know what his subjects were thinking. It is one thing to observe that DiMaggio did not enter the service during WWII until his wife (Dorothy Arnold) presented a divorce ultimatum. It is quite another to presume that Joe was more concerned with losing his wife for the public spectacle it would cause than because he actually cared about her. But then a book full of observations with no conclusions drawn is a documentary, not a biography.

Cramer's villainizing of DiMaggio's lawyer and supposedly trusted friend, Morris Engleberg, has brought the author quite a lot of controversy, including lawsuits and now a book-to-counter-the-book from the slimeba..err..lawyer himself. Engleberg's exploitation of the Yankee Clipper, his time, money and image, his playing on Joe's paranoia to the point that people like Barry Halper were eternally shunned for requesting an autograph, is detailed thoroughly in The Hero's Life. This last section of the book could have aptly been named "The Hero's Death" as not only does the man himself finally pass on, but any naievete we might have held as fans of the hero met its demise as well. A sad state of affairs, but then heroes' deaths are rarely as glamorous as their lives were.

Joe DiMaggio was a man whose skills at baseball and determination to succeed we should all admire, but he was a man, just the same, as full of malice and selfishness as the beat writers would have had you believe that he was full of grace and professionalism. He was admired by millions, but known by few, loved by even fewer, and even betrayed by a trusted friend. The Hero, the Yankee Clipper, is not lost on Richard Ben Cramer, though some have said that the author misses the point by focusing so much on the man's flaws and glazing over his feats. I would argue that the opposite is true: that a man is defined not merely by what he can do, but by what he can't.

So continue to admire the Jolter's baseball talents and career, aspire to his success at business. There's no shame in admiring excellence. But learn the Hero's lesson: Don't take your eyes off the more important things of life, the things that eluded this media-made Hero: Friendship, Love, Happiness.

You only get one chance at Life.

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