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Ron Fimrite
November 06, 2000
This portrait of an American icon is no pretty picture
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November 06, 2000


This portrait of an American icon is no pretty picture

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Joe DiMaggio, The Hero's Life
by Richard Ben Cramer/ Simon & Schuster, $28

Joe DiMaggio may well have been the longest-living Living Legend. As we learn from this iconoclastic biography, that's no way to live. Comparing Joltin' Joe to ordinary mortals, Cramer writes that it "was as if the Hand of God had reached down and made this man great—uncommon, unlike them—and that would wall Joe away forever." His "home address," writes Cramer, "was the Pantheon."

There may never have been a time when DiMaggio was not, in one way or another, famous. Raised in San Francisco's predominantly Italian—and certainly not, as now, chic—North Beach, the future Yankee Clipper was, because of his athletic prowess, a boy apart in the neighborhood, a hero to the other kids even then. Vaguely indifferent at first to the game that would bring him riches, he was an instant success in professional baseball. As an 18-year-old with the San Francisco Seals, he set a Pacific Coast League record by hitting in 61 consecutive games, back when the PCL was the top minor league.

After batting a cool .398 in his final season with the Seals, he became, in 1936, major league baseball's most trumpeted rookie, the presumed successor in Yankees iconography to Babe Ruth. He certainly lived up to expectations. In fact, he was the first player to excel brilliantly in all five of the game's accepted skills: running, throwing, fielding, hitting and hitting with power. When, in 1941, he hit in a record 56 consecutive big league games, even the war raging in Europe seemed incidental.

The Clipper's celebrity never diminished after he left baseball at the end of the 1951 season. He even married the nation's sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, in 1954. It was a marriage of children, doomed to fail, as it did after only nine months, and Cramer breathlessly recounts its every tectonic shift. DiMaggio's dignified grief at the funeral for his former, and future, wife—according to Cramer, just before her death, Marilyn had agreed to remarry Joe—only endeared him more to an already adoring public.

Cramer, writing in a variety of styles ranging from the gossipy to the cynical, takes on the generally rewarding job of exposing feet of clay. The DiMaggio we find in these pages is a greedy, stingy churl who was capable of uncommon cruelty to wives and friends alike, any of whom he would cut off on a whim. He was America's guest, a freeloader who wouldn't recognize a hotel bill or a restaurant check if it were handed to him, which it never was. He consorted with mobsters, prostitutes and other unsavory sorts. There is a puzzling 27-year gap in the book's chronology, as the author, without explanation, touches only briefly on events from 1962 to '89. As a withering octogenarian DiMaggio raked in a fortune in the memorabilia racket, aided and abetted by an unscrupulous lawyer. The hero had the personality of a stone. It is not a pretty picture, though it certainly makes for lively reading.

But in his zeal to vilify Joltin' Joe for his callousness to old pals, Cramer occasionally overextends himself. When, for example, he writes that DiMaggio dumped one of his oldest and most faithful compatriots, the San Francisco tavern owner Reno Barsocchini, and further implies that Joe refused to attend his friend's funeral, I can personally testify that Cramer is wrong. Reno was a friend of mine, too, and he was one of the constants in DiMaggio's life. Far from eschewing Reno's funeral, Joe was, with his brother Dom, a weeping pallbearer. I know because I was there.

As a matter of fact, I don't think the Clipper ever forgot where he came from. Even for an icon, the man wasn't all bad.