Years ago, when I was in graduate school and deconstruction was the critical fashion du jour, I couldn’t help noticing that few of its practitioners were as impressive as the authors they so ravenously picked apart. They seemed to constitute an army of tiny razor-toothed birds gnawing en masse at some helpless Prometheus’ liver. And as a group, they lacked the genius of their dinner.
Of course, one of the curses of the postmodern age is that our compulsive scratching at the surfaces of received wisdom—the Canon in all its manifestations—robs us of the joys of blind adulation. Having been ripped off so many times by cultural and political scam artists, we cannot feel truly secure until we have pulled back the curtain on every Oz and exposed the pitiful huckster behind it. It’s a good thing to be savvy, but you pay a price.
It’s the desire of cultural rubberneckers across the land to gawk at yet another icon splintered on the shoals of public humiliation that makes inevitable a book like Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. If the pleasure we feel at a hero’s deconstruction is proportionate to the transcendent esteem in which we held him, then the nation will surely quake with orgasm at this detailed exposé of the worst things about baseball’s most brilliant player.
Joe DiMaggio was not a nice man. That he was a distant, contemptuous, money-grubbing, philandering, disloyal, abusive jerk is fairly well known. What impact a decent education might have had on this fisherman’s son from San Francisco we’ll never know, because he dropped out of high school early on and never went back. He cheated frenetically on his first wife, an actress wannabe named Dorothy Arnold; neglected his only son, Joe Jr., who ended up dying of a crank overdose six months after his father, in 1999; and, with the possible exception of his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, seemed to care about nothing except his image as the Greatest Living Ballplayer—and the money he could make off his name in autographs, endorsements, and merchandise.
Here, according to Cramer, is DiMaggio’s response to a Hammacher Schlemmer employee who approached him in the Miami airport one day (Hammacher Schlemmer had sold a number of signed photographs of the Yankee Clipper in its catalogue): “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.”
No, not a nice man at all. I’m not sure I’d even buy a Mr. Coffee machine from a guy like that.
But, in case you’d forgotten, DiMaggio is also the guy who compiled a .325 batting average over his 13-year career and, despite a series of debilitating injuries and a stint in the armed forces during what could have been his best years (1943-1945), hit 361 home runs and struck out only 369 times. Compare Ted Williams, considered the best hitter of that era, who hit only 19 points higher, or Mickey Mantle, whose lifetime batting average was below .300 and who struck out 1,710 times.
And then, of course, in 1941 DiMaggio hit safely in an amazing 56 straight games. And he appeared in 10 World Series for the New York Yankees from 1936, his first year, to 1951, his last. And with DiMaggio in center field, the Yankees won nine of them. Et cetera, et cetera. This was Joltin’ Joe the baseball player, the only version of the man anyone could possibly be interested in. The rest of his life holds as much fascination, really, as a steaming pile of roadkill. Which, if you believe Cramer, is about what it was.
People who saw him play were inevitably struck by DiMaggio’s incredible grace, as both a center fielder and a batter. Even his detractors concede that on the field he was a single-minded competitor, a player who could hurt the opposing team just by showing up. He was, as Cramer reminds us, brilliant at all five of the things a ballplayer must do: run, field, throw, hit, and hit for power. And he was just plain beautiful to watch.
In other words, on the field DiMaggio was truly a hero. He came through in the clutch, hitting game-winning doubles and home runs in World Series as though they were routine. He didn’t crack under the pressure of the 1941 streak. He didn’t whine when it ended. He comported himself with dignity and elegance, only once going so far as to kick the dirt—when he was robbed of a home run in a crucial World Series game in 1947.
But this was DiMaggio the baseball player. And were we to limit ourselves to his on-field exploits, we could rest easy in the serene and happy glow of hero-worship, for in this arena he was everything we could want. But only 13 years of his life were spent on the diamond, and even during those years the man had to leave the ballpark sometime. And once the fans started pouring through the exits, the carriage turned back into a pumpkin, and DiMaggio was just a scared, none-too-bright, uneducated, full-of-himself prick, who had come to believe the sportswriters’ paeans and Yankee press releases and the oozing sycophants he surrounded himself with.
Do we really need to know all this in any more detail than we already do? Is there any good reason for us to gape for 500-plus pages at the ugly realities of Joe DiMaggio’s extramural life? Richard Ben Cramer thinks so.
Cramer divides his book into four parts, each covering a period in DiMaggio’s life: 1930 to 1935, 1936 to 1951, 1952 to 1962, and 1989 to 1998. Interestingly, there is no section on the nearly three decades between Monroe’s death and the San Francisco earthquake of 1989—a gap in his coverage that Cramer does not explain. In these sections, the author trains his sights on Joltin’ Joe’s prehistory in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood (“Destiny”); his major-league career (“The Game”); his post-baseball career, starring Monroe (“Fame”); and his decline into a stooped old man whose chief pleasure was taking money from adoring fans (“The Greatest Living…”).
By the end of the book, DiMaggio is portrayed as a latter-day Lear, old but not wise, surrounded by a series of opportunistic piranhas and yes-men, the most awful of whom was Florida lawyer Morris Engelberg, for whom Cramer has a special hatred. Cramer never got to talk to DiMaggio, and Engelberg was clearly the keeper of the keys.
In one of the final scenes of the book, DiMaggio has finally expired and Engelberg is shown rushing from the room with the dead man’s 1936 World Series ring, which the nurse has just wrestled off his finger at the lawyer’s insistence. Now that’s class for you.
Cramer’s book, like any good freshman comp paper, has a thesis: that DiMaggio was a victim of the American need for heroes—he could never be left alone, his private life was never private, and so on—and his way of coping with the rage thus aroused in him was to play hard-to-get with his admirers and take his star-struck public to the cleaners. The entire book is a piling up of scenarios that beat this thesis to death—a thesis that most baseball fans probably accepted at the outset.
Worse, the style of Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life is New Journalism at its godawful worst; at times, it is nearly unreadable. Cramer is a Zelig-like narrator; he attempts to speak in the voice of whoever is at the center of the action, whether DiMaggio, Monroe, Engelberg, restaurateur Toots Shor or some other “character.” The conceit quickly begins to grate. New Journalese also has a taste for getting inside the head of the character like an omniscient narrator. Writing of DiMaggio’s jealous anxieties about Monroe, Cramer has him muse:
Why was she always late? Ten minutes late from traffic, sure. But two hours? What got into her?…That was another thing! She wasn’t shooting on a film that day. What was she doing at the studio? And who was she with? (That voice coach who ate her up with his eyes? That greasy designer who made her dress like a whore?…)She was always at the goddamn studio.
The last genre where you want to see New Journalism is biography, because the truth of a person’s life is elusive at best and the techniques of fiction only license the biographer to write what he or she wanted to write in the first place.
What Cramer is actually good at is making the reader feel the excitement of the game as DiMaggio played it, and as a result the section covering his baseball exploits is the strongest. Here there seems to be less of the maudlin psychologizing that permeates the rest of the book, and Cramer seems genuinely caught up in the pleasure of describing DiMaggio’s clutch RBIs, his toughness at the plate against great pitchers like Bob Feller, his unbelievable over-the-shoulder catches feet from the center-field wall:
The noise sank to murmurous unease again. Strike one. Parnell squared himself and threw the same heater, same spot. This time DiMaggio squibbled it foul on the ground. Now the crowd came back to life, urging Parnell on. He had DiMag at oh-and-two, just where he wanted him—and he threw a pitcher’s pitch: a perfect fastball, inches off the outside corner. DiMaggio didn’t even flinch. He was waiting for Parnell to come in. And Parnell knew it: so he threw one just off the inside corner. DiMaggio moved not a whit….There was nothing left for Parnell to do but throw DiMaggio a strike. Parnell reared back and threw his best. And DiMaggio hit it—so hard, so high, so far…it didn’t just clear the Monster, it didn’t just sail over the screen on top. Whanggg! It smashed, with the sound of hammered steel, off the top of the light stanchion that loomed above everything.
But even such scenes, rare as they are, are larded with purple prose.
The late writer, sociologist, and psychoanalyst Paul Goodman once responded to a question about behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s success in training pigeons to play pingpong. He said, yes, it’s true they play, but they don’t play very well. Goodman’s point was that we are at our best when we do the things that our nature and gifts have made us graceful at. For pigeons, that thing is flying through the air, not playing pingpong. And for Joe DiMaggio, it was baseball. If he was a schmuck in every other aspect of life, it nonetheless seems somewhat lacking in grace to write 500 pages of mediocre prose about it. CP