Where Did You Go, Joe DiMaggio?by Patrick Walsh
As long as I live, I shall cherish my childhood visits to Yankee Stadium. Decades later I can still recall the intoxication of entering the sublime “House that Ruth Built”: the high white walls creating and capturing the sacred aura of the physical space itself; the supernatural greenness of the grass; the grace and proximity of the players in their beautiful, spotless, pinstriped uniforms; the God-like voice of Bob Sheppard over the P.A. system intoning, “Now batting for the New York Yankees…”; the mixture of joy, solemnity and expectation in which people moved and talked; the sky blue and comforting; “the sun that is young once only.” But most of all it was the knowledge (obtained both by reading forests of hagiographic histories borrowed from the public library and the surreal banter of Phil Rizzuto on WPIX) that right there on that green ground in front of me had once stood the Babe, Lou Gehrig, Jolting Joe DiMaggio, the Mick, and all the greats who gloried there long before me and mine showed up. Little did I know or care that by the early 1970s my beloved Yankees had not merely run out of their line of instantly replaceable superstars (leaving poor Bobby Murcer to be haunted by the fact that he was merely a fine player rather than a mythic one), or that I was fated to watch countless threads ended by Horace Clark or Jake Gibbs (immortal names, these) grounding into countless double plays, or that, in short, my once murderous Bronx Bombers had atrophied into the undeniable state of extreme suck. Me and my brothers and pals paid $1.50 for grandstand seats we never once sat in, paid as little attention to the ushers as they did to us, and roamed Yankee Stadium at will, working class kids in penniless paradise, as free as bees and dreaming of glory. We were in love with the park, in love with our lousy team, in awe of the legacy that hung over both like the Holy Spirit over the chalice. And there was no greater part of that legacy than Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio, we seemingly understood through a process akin to osmosis, was “class” incarnate, the hero even of heroes. DiMaggio’s very differently tempered ghost haunted the Stadium as powerfully as did Ruth’s—only with more class. Better still, the Great Dimag was among the living and once or twice a year, but only on special occasions (always the last to be announced and always announced as “baseball’s greatest living player”) he’d show up in the flesh, wave majestically to the crowd, take in their prolonged cheers, then vanish. “Joe would say he was touched by their welcome. But they (the fans) were the ones who’d feel touched by their hero.” More: If baseball reflected America, DiMaggio reflected baseball. The ever-dapper Number 5, we were told and told, was the guy who did everything right: the epitome of grace and style. The last American hero. Class.
DiMaggio was also, until recently, the great white whale of American sportswriters. The Great Man himself was as silent as the Sphinx, and over time would assume a similar mystique) and any friend knew that should they speak one word of his person to anyone, they would instantly banished from the ever-precarious circle of the Yankee Clipper. Not a bad deal, actually, at least as portrayed in Richard Ben Cramer’s exhaustive, if not elephantine, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (Simon and Schuster, 2000). With almost tedious and disturbing repetition, Ben Cramer shows Joe’s idea of a friend was someone willing and able to be his lackey, if not outright slave. After all, he was Joe DiMaggio. What’s more, DiMaggio knew, and knew with uncanny certainty, that for every person he cast out from his presence, one hundred more would not only instantly materialize, but also crawl through a sewer to do his bidding simply to bask vicariously in his glory. In other words, Joe DiMaggio knew that he was Joe DiMaggio, which is to say a hero—surely the most important word in this disturbing and revealing book. Indirectly, but powerfully, Ben Cramer portrays not only the bizarre life of DiMaggio but also the sublime wisdom of the third law of the Mosaic code (“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath…You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”) Indeed, as Ben Cramer shows more times then you’d like to see, both hero and worshipper are ultimately deformed and debased, the former severed from his humanity, the latter severed from dignity. DiMaggio also knew somewhere (and this is the reason for his code of Omerta), that there existed a Grand Canyon between what he was and what people thought he was. Or weirder and sadder still, what he was and what they desired him to be. In almost direct proportion to his supernatural and effortless excellence in his 13 years on the diamond, off the field in his 84 years of life, Joe DiMaggio, to put it bluntly, was a calculating, semi-literate money mad scumbag who loved few (perhaps only one), and trusted no one. He was, in fact, the outright antithesis of any meaningful notion of “class” or “grace.” But his is also a very American story and one that tells us as much about its hero as the nation that produced him and “loved” him.
The legend in a nut shell: Born the eighth of nine children to a hardworking Sicilian fisherman near San Francisco, for the first 16 years of his life the boy who would become Joe DiMaggio appears to be inexorably fated for a life hauling crabs and lobsters at Fisherman’s Wharf. Then baseball. Adolescent DiMaggio takes to the game with absurd ease and a mystical grace. Signed by the San Francisco Seals of the now defunct Pacific Coast League, DiMaggio amazes all who see him play. One of these is a scout for the New York Yankees, who buys DiMaggio’s contract for $25,000 and in 1946 (just as Lou Gehrig was failing) 21-year-old Joe arrives in Yankee Stadium to immense fanfare “jumping from news boy to national star without apprenticeship…from the commonest kid to king…and his feet had barely touched ground.” Booze hounds/sportswriters/mythologizers compete amongst themselves to nickname the new phenom: for a time he is called—in print!—“The Wallopin’ Wop,” “The Roamin’ Roman” (despite the fact that Joe’s Sicilian), or simply “Dago.” At length they settle for “Joltin’ Joe.” Midseason of his rookie year finds Joe on the cover of Time Magazine. Greeted with hype like no other player before him and few if any since, hailed as the savior of the Yankees and the successor of the Babe and Gehrig, the myth of the Great DiMaggio is launched and soon to be institutionalized. But it ain’t just hype. This kid is every bit as good as the writers say he is. Awkward when not sullen, the lumpenprole with the strange horse-like face also possesses deer-like grace and a lion’s courage. Somehow, the exotic Italian is becoming the quintessential American hero. And then something more than a hero: “But in 1941, the affect of classical perfection attached to him entirely…Joe’s story, his glorious deeds, seemed to say something wonderful about America (and just when America needed to hear it.)” And hear it they did. That same year, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio”—the song!—reached number one on the Hit Parade. No American athlete had ever reached nor had ever been thrust so far into the American psyche and in such a particular way. To wit: Americans seemed to equate his athletic glory with their moral attributes. If DiMaggio was great, we were great. Whatever and whoever he was, by no volition of his own, DiMaggio seemed to millions to embody the best of the nation in ways that had nothing to do with hitting a baseball. When DiMaggio married it was to a movie star, Dorothy Arnold, with whom he had his only child, Joe Jr. Both stories were national news. Ten years later, at age 37, it was all over. Or so it seemed. DiMaggio’s prematurely aged body and surgically botched up heels no longer had it. Or more precisely, no longer had it to meet the standards of Joe DiMaggio. In the spring of 1952, with a lifetime BA of 325 and 361 HRs (despite Yankee Stadium’s cavernous left field fence), the Yankees offered DiMaggio $100,000 simply to suit up and play when and if he felt like it. In a final gesture of class, DiMaggio turned it down. Beautiful.
And, like so much of what was written of DiMaggio until the day he died, pure bullshit. (“The club would pay Joe his hundred G’s to move into the broadcast booth…”) DiMaggio’s span on earth was not yet even half over. Basball had secured his transformation from potential wharf rat to national hero. A pathetic and tormented nine-month marriage to Marilyn Monroe burnished his image and spread his fame even wider. (DiMaggio was madly in love with the impossible woman and violently jealous of everyone and everything that gave her pleasure. On their honeymoon he watched TV.) Forces far more mysterious and intangible—longings, voids, fantasies, vicarious identities—would now propel his slow but steady transfiguration to something of a national deity. Whatever it was, it would in time destroy him and reflect, albeit imperfectly and eerily, on some of the forces that continue to corrode America.
Retiring from baseball, DiMaggio was a lost man. But not for long. For the next 40-odd years of his life, DiMaggio slowly discovered that he could live (and live very well, thank you) by simply being Joe DiMaggio. Discovered that is, that whatever he was as a man, in a culture increasingly blurring the line between reality and image, his image now had such resonance that an endless parade of institutions, corporations, and wealthy fans across the country would be overjoyed to pay him, buy him cars, provide him with meals, pay for his hotel rooms, get him tickets for sporting events (which DiMaggio would then sell), simply to spend some time with the Great Man. He was, after all “the very embodiment of how America liked to think of itself, proud, straight, and true.” For such folk, it did not matter that DiMaggio was too cheap to look after his own sister in her infirmity, that his only son and namesake was living, toothless and insane, in an abandoned truck, that the man would not lift a finger without seeking some kind of financial reward. Nothing mattered; except the great man’s gaze which somehow enlarged those few upon which it fell and devastated the many from whom it was withdrawn. And in the end, it was withdrawn from all. But somehow even that didn’t matter.
The middle years of DiMaggio’s life were simultaneously bizarre and culturally opposite. As the schism between reality and image grew simultaneously wider and weirder, DiMaggio was the unwilling beneficiary, if not the avatar, of two subtle but extraordinarily powerful and often-linked currents in American culture. The first has been the increasingly accepted reality of vicarious experience if not existence. The second has been the emergence of the cult of the body, which has led not only to the billion-dollar health club industry (and indirectly, to contempt for the mind) but also to the unspoken notion that, somehow, excellence in sports means excellence, period. Long before Michael Jordan, Joe DiMaggio was the paradigmatic hero, paving the way for all who came after him. More: The greater the distance from his playing days, the greater his legend grew. DiMaggio had not played ball for almost 20 years when Paul Simon asked so poignantly, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” and declared so longingly, “Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you,”—astonishing words to attribute to an athlete. (Upon first hearing the song, an oblivious DiMaggio threatened to sue.)
In time, DiMaggio discovered an infinitely more lucrative racket—if one based on similar impulses and needs—in yet another arm of the ever expanding Sports Industrial Complex: the sports memorabilia market. To this, The Clipper took to with a vengeance, signing bats for $4,000 and balls for $150, “the Great DiMaggio” (as even cynical old Ernest Hemingway had called him), sometimes pulled in three million a day. In 1994, writes Ben Cramer, “the highest paid major leaguer wasn’t the Million-Dollar Man, Bobby Bonilla. The highest (at age seventy nine) was Joltin’ Joe.” But if he made three he wanted six. (To my right is a print out from www. joedimaggioestate.com. On it, one finds, is an autographed imitation DiMaggio jersey selling for $7,995 and a mass-produced signed Louisville Slugger for $20,000. Such amounts of diposable income are not generally procured by the mentally ill.
If the middle years of DiMaggio’s life were bizarre, the last years were first tawdry and then ghoulish. Friendless, estranged from both his remaining brother and son, DiMaggio moves from one group of sports memorabilia “business associates” to another, until finally establishing Yankee Clipper Enterprises with one Morris Engelberg, Esquire, attorney for the estate and the Yankee Clipper’s oldest and dearest friend, as well as the self described “son he never had.” With Engelberg, easily the sleaziest character in a book dripping with sleaze bags, cancer ridden Joe DiMaggio orchestrates his own day at Yankee Stadium for the sole purpose of reaping the 15,000 Rawlings commemorative balls he demands freebie and envisions he could sign and l sell at $400 a pop. A year later, on his death bed, lapsing in and out of comas, DiMaggio is still signing the baseballs handed to him by the “son he never had,” whose last filial act was to wax the Clipper’s 1936 World Series ring off his corpse. The son he did have, meanwhile, was drinking 40’s and eating insects. Class.
My last visit to Yankee Stadium was a couple of years back. The grandstand was now called “tier reserved” and cost $18. Queen’s moronic “We Will Rock You” blasted intermittently over the PA. Commercials played on the scoreboard between innings. Vast areas of the stadium seats called ‘sky boxes’ and owned by corporations lay empty. The team itself was great but everyone knew that half of them would be playing elsewhere come the following spring. Everything seemed five times more expensive than it should have been. I wondered how a working-class family could possibly afford it. And even if they paid the cruel prices, they sure as hell could not roam at will. Crowd controlling cops and security goons pestered you –“tickets please!” – every time you left your seat. As I sat there, I was forced to the appalling conclusion that had I been born into my family—a proud working class family—30 years later, it’s unlikely I would have ever been to a Yankee game. Nor would I have had any reason to go. I realized that baseball had indeed come to reflect America, albeit in a very different way than I once believed. The memory of that evening haunted me as I read this book, realizing that what had happened to baseball had happened to America and long ago had happened to lonely Joe DiMaggio. And the image of his son, Joe Jr., laughing beneath the ever-calculating American moon seemed to me to make perfect, gruesome, poetic sense.
Patrick Walsh is a writer and contributor for the Brooklyn Rail.