'Baseball's greatest living player' was also human

Joltin' Joe" DiMaggio was one of the most legendary figures of the 20th century. In 13 major league seasons, he led the New York Yankees to 10 pennants and nine World Series championships, a record unsurpassed by any other player. He married the nation's best-known movie star and, despite their divorce, remained devoted to her. Throughout the course of his life, he came to personify grace, class, and dignity.

Yet according to Richard Ben Cramer in this sensational, well-written biography, DiMaggio was a lonely man. He had few close friends and "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."

And DiMaggio wanted to remain an enigma. He almost never spoke to reporters, and he expected those who knew him to do the same. Those who violated that rule were cast aside. So while the basic outline of DiMaggio's life is well known, the man himself is a complete unknown.

This presents a huge problem for a biographer, but Cramer overcomes it by using his skills as an investigative journalist (he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979). The result, without any help from the subject, is terrific.

Baseball players need to have "five tools" - the ability to run, field, throw, hit, and hit for power. DiMaggio, Cramer says, "was the first man in history to be brilliant at five out of five." His 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is still regarded as one of the most impressive accomplishments in baseball history. He won three Most Valuable Player awards. In 1969, he was voted "Baseball's Greatest Living Player," and he insisted on being introduced that way for the rest of his life.

But it is the man himself that interests Cramer. The keys to DiMaggio, according to Cramer, were an intense desire for privacy, enormous personal pride, fierce ambition, a need to control all aspects of his life, great reluctance to trust others, and a "legendary disinclination to pay."

There is much in this book that will raise eyebrows. For example, DiMaggio was close to mobsters all his life and happily took money from them. According to Cramer, when DiMaggio left the Yankees after the 1951 season, he had $1 million in the Bowery Bank (the same financial institution he would later advertise) courtesy of these grateful, if somewhat disreputable, friends.

In his later years, DiMaggio became exceptionally close to a Florida lawyer who, Cramer says, exercised excessive, and not always benign, control over the aging DiMaggio's life.

But the stories of his tempestuous relationship with Marilyn Monroe will attract the most interest. They met in 1952 after he had left baseball and her career was on the rise. Initially, she had no idea who he was. Married in January 1954, they separated before Thanksgiving. Yet such was DiMaggio's devotion that, even after the divorce, he willingly dropped everything whenever she asked. They were, Cramer says, planning to remarry, but two days before the wedding, she was dead.

Many observers would agree that DiMaggio and Monroe were mismatched from the start. He was an extremely private individual who shunned publicity. She was always anxious for publicity and public acceptance.

Cramer disagrees. "They may have been the only two people in the country ... who could understand each other," he writes. "Because both were living inside vast personages that the hero machine created for them. And inside those personages - those enormous idols for the nation - these two, Marilyn and Joe were only small and struggling, fearful to be seen. And alone - always.... In their loneliness they could have been brother and sister."

There is much about DiMaggio that we will never know. But Cramer's book provides a wonderfully rich and full portrait of a man who wanted desperately to avoid revealing anything about himself.

Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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