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.

10 March 2003

Growing Up Baseball
An Oral History
by Harvey Frommer & Frederick J. Frommer

Harvey Frommer and his son Frederick must have had a fantastic time writing Growing Up Baseball (Taylor Trade Publishing, Hardcover $23.95). Together this tandem collected dozens of stories of major leaguers for this unique piece of literature. From A to Zeile, from Hall-of-Famers like Jim Palmer and Ralph Kiner to relative nobodies like Ed Yarnall and Lazaro Ramon Gonzalo "Cholly" Naranjo, there is something for everybody here.

There are interesting little tidbits of information here, like that Dale Berra's dad never really played catch with him, "That's what you've got brothers for." Even more surprising is that this reality did not turn young Dale off to baseball. Dom DiMaggio used to hide his coke-bottle glasses whenever scouts would come around, so as not to bias their opinions of him. Think how good he could have been if he could see!

What This Book Is: A collection of charming little vignettes about growing up as a baseball fan and/or a baseball player. Some of your favorite baseball personalities relating how they managed to grasp a small slice of the American Dream. Easily read and comprehended pieces of times gone by, and some fairly recent memories, related so comfortably that you can almost see the succession of men in your own living room, taking their turns in your easy chair and telling their own stories.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of this book is that it really isn't written by Harvey and Frederick Frommer as much as it was dictated to them by the individuals featured in the book. Each little (Fred Lynn's is not so little) story is told in the first person as they dictated it to the authors, so you can almost hear Nolan Ryan's Texas drawl or Manny Mota's Dominican accent as you read, and you can tell from his speech that Bobby Brown is quite an educated man, even before he tells you that he was a cardiologist and spent a great deal of time as President of the American League.

What This Book Is Not: Well, it's not really a book that lends itself to being read straight through. There are almost seventy mini-chapters here, and many of them relate similar details: Several of these men were accomplished athletes during their youths, often in sports other than baseball as well. Many of them had to work hard at another occupation, or grew up in relatively meager circumstances before striking it rich in the majors. Almost all of them feel compelled to tell you that whatever they signed for was "a lot of money in those days." And I'm sure it was. But you don't want to have to read that sixteen times.

You're better off taking this slowly, reading a story or two at a time, in your leisure. Savor these stories. Enjoy them, instead of trying to wolf them all down in order to get a timely review written, like I did.

You'll thank me later. When you grow up.

09 March 2003

Wait Till Next Year
A Memoir
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Wait Till Next Year became the mantra for Brooklyn Dodgers fans everywhere, as their favorite team was so often within reach of the ultimate prize, a World Series Championship, without ever actually getting there. Next year turned out to be 1955, when 'Dem Bums finally beat the hated Yankees. The phrase also entitles Doris Kearns Goodwin's memoir of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and '60s.

What This Book Is: Kearns-Goodwin doesn't only focus on baseball (no accounting for taste), but also writes of the relationships she established in her formitive years with neighbors and friends, discusses some of the religious hangups that accompanied her Catholic upbringing, relates her views of the racial issues of the day, and of course, talks about how gut-wrenching it was to follow the Dodgers of the late 1940s and early 1950's. As I mentioned previously, 1955 became 'next year', the season in which those Dodgers finally won it all, and the celebration after this historical win (Brooklyn's only World Championship) marks the climax of the book. But relentless time would not evel allow her to savor that for long, as her mother's death, the departure of Walter O'Malley's Dodgers for Los Angeles, and the changing world around her forced young Doris to grow up much sooner than she would have preferred.

This book made for an interesting reading experience for me. The primary threads seen throughout the tapestry of Kearns-Goodwin's childhood are her cultural heritage (Irish-Catholic), her relationship with her father (a sometimes distant but very affectionate husband and father, who was also a successful businessman) and mother (a loving but often sickly woman), and her love of baseball, particularly the Dodgers. This left me with almost nothing of common value from my own childhood with which to relate to her tale, requiring me to entirely trust her story-telling skills to help me understand what it must have been like to be a female, Irish-Catholic, Dodgers fan growing up in 1950s Rockville Centre with a father who loved her. Thankfully, this male, Baptist, Euro-Trash, Yankee fan, product of divorce got the picture just fine.

What This Book Is Not: The other issue, at least for me personally, was the lack of a plot. This I think, is more my problem than the author's though, as she does state right on the cover that this is a memoir, not a novel. So don't be too disappointed when the 'bad-guys' don't show up right away, or if you don't immediately see the conflict. The bad guys are the Giants and Yankees, and the conflict is the classic struggle of time against humanity.

But you and I can still escape to a simpler time and place by curling up with your favorite blanket, a cup of hot tea, and a copy of Wait Till Next Year.

Don't wait. Go get your own copy soon.