Until I read a book these past few weeks about Joe DiMaggio, I knew virtually nothing about him other than he had a 56-game hitting while with the Yankees, was one of the best baseball players of all time, and married the famous beautiful model, Marilyn Monroe.
Now that I finished reading Richard Ben Cramer's masterpiece biography, Joe DiMaggio, The Hero's Life, I know so much more. Sadly, almost all of it I wish I didn't know because it shatters the myth in my mind that this guy was any kind of hero worth emulating.
Assuming Cramer's reporting and depiction of the man is accurate, DiMaggio ranks among the least likeabe, self-centered, manipulative, and cruel people that the sports world--and the world in general-has ever known.
For 528 pages the author dives extremely deep into this man's life from his humble beginnings growing up on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco as the son of a relatively poor and uneducated fisherman. From there it takes you on a blow by blow, person by person, hit by hit journey through this man's incredible life as. He was the King of the United States in so many ways because he had a rarified ability to hit a baseball better than anyone of his era. As a ninth grade high school drop-out, he started playing baseball more seriously in the local ballparks in his town and, because of his prodigious talent, rose to become one of the greatest baseball players of all-time.
But that's not even close to what this story is about. It's a character study, based on what he did from day to day, especially how he treated people (mostly mistreated), and how he dealt with his astronomical fame and good fortune. It's not pretty.
In every aspect of his life, he revealed what a difficult and mean-spirited man he was. Examples are numerous.
With teammates and coaches, Joe insisted that he always was the first one to take batting practice at Yankee games. No one was allowed to take practice swings before him. He didn't say anything about this; it was just the way it was because he was Joe and better than his teammates. Joe sat alone on the bench during games and rarely talked to his teammates or coaches. They knew not too bother Joe. If he wanted to speak to them, he did, but that was infrequent. In the locker room he acted the same way, sat off on his own by himself and not talking to his teammates much if at all. When a coach said something he didn't like about Joe, Joe wouldn't speak to him again the rest of the season and beyond. He used the silent treatment against others as a weapon. When Mickey Mantle joined the Yankees, Joe didn't embrace him and show him the ropes, teach him how to succeed in the big leagues. This would have been normal for a veteran to help out a young kid on the rise. He didn't say anything to him. He used silence towards others to intimidate and got away with it because he could hit a baseball among the best.
With business dealings, Joe showed ruthlessness constantly. He would agree to sign a hundred baseballs for a memorabilia event but take advantage of his fame by charging the event organizers much more than was reasonable. He did this time and time again with no regard for the other guy getting a good ideal; only Joe needed to get a good deal in his mind. Joe was a freak about money; he rarely spent it, especially on other people, and detested people who tried to make money off his fame. He didn't care how badly he made others off financially by charging them high prices for his autographs or to make appearances at events. He just stuck the organizers with exorbitant bills and, because he was famous and talented, got away with it.
With women, he was abusive. He beat his second wife, the famous actress Marilyn Monroe. He abused her verbally. He wanted her to stay at home and stop pursuing her acting career. He wanted her to just support him by being a stay-at-home wife and allowing him to be a big league baseball star. What she wanted wasn't his concern; he wanted to be seen as married to a gorgeous woman. What Joe wanted was paramount to Joe. His treatment of his first wife was no better. Again, he didn't want her to do much besides stay at home. Both women, ultimately, divorced him he was so difficult to deal with.
Yet this does not even begin to illustrate just how he treated women. During his career Joe could have-and did have---basically any woman he wanted because he was Joe DiMaggio, a national star. He had countless one night stands throughout his career and beyond. He loved being seen-and often was-with the most beautiful women in America. He took advantage of his situation with reckless abandon. He used them and left them.
With his never-ending number of handlers and pals who would do anything for Joe just to say they hung out with Joe, the baseball legend took full advantage and them but much more. The book reveals and astounding number of times Joe went out to expensive restaurants, got the royal treatment by a pal who owned the place or knew someone who did. The pals did everything for him, and almost never paid for a thing. Joe hardly lifted a finger except to point at the woman he wanted them to fetch and have come sit with him before taking her to his room. His pals drove him wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted to. On and on and on this went, the life of leisure and comfort and never having to do much of anything but be Joe DiMaggio. He knew he could do anything he wanted and his pals and handlers wouldn't question a thing. If they knew Joe and hung out with him, they figured they would gain stature in the community, generate more business, be more important. But he ended using and abusing all of them also. One cross word and he would never speak to them again, find another pal to do all of his dirty work, find him another woman. All Joe had to do was keeping getting base hits, being a great baseball player, and everything else was is-for free.
With the press, Joe controlled them like a fierce dictator. He told them little and they would print whatever he said. They didn't question Joe because he was a star. They knew if they wrote something negative about him, he would never speak to them again, they would be cut off, and that would hurt the reporter's career. Plus it wasn't cool for the press to attack Joe because, well, he was Joe DiMaggio. All of his selfishness, womanizing, and free-loading couldn't be reported because was America's hero, untouchable.
Upon finishing this book, it occurred to me that a book with such a negative portrayal of DiMaggio has probably never been written for the reasons just cited. There have been some negative books and articles about him, for sure, but none as damning as this book on so many levels. Joe wouldn't allow people into his life, wouldn't tell much. And anybody attempting to write something negative about him was doing so at their own peril. So powerful was Joe he could cut you out of his life and never talk to you again, and he would, if you dared mess with him. In the end, he had cut out just about everybody he ever knew including his brother.
Predictably, Joe refused to be interviewed for this book, making it all the more impressive for its depth of reporting of exactly what this man did with his life, his day to day dealings with people, his true essence. Clearly many people were finally willing to tell who this man really was.
Joe's true essence, it seems to me, stemmed in part from his lack of education and sophistication. As you read what he says in the book, so much of it is basic, pedestrian thinking. You won't find a lot of deep reflection or penetrating thoughts from Joe. His are short sentences-if and when he blesses you by talking-lacking in vitality. In his later years he befriended Henry Kissinger. The author points out that Kissinger wrote more books than Joe had ever read.
Many of the people he hung out with all those years in New York may not have been much more educated, but the business people probably were. They had more sophistication and savvy, but Joe had his big star-studded reputation and they didn't so he got away with not being all that smart. Had he not been able to hit a baseball, they would have taken him on and his abuse of people would have been thwarted. In truth, he probably would have grown up poor and lived a humble life in San Francisco.
I found one passage in the book to be especially powerful. The context is that one of his friends is with him soon after Marilyn Monroe has divorced Joe. Joe said:
"There's one thing I must know. Is there another man? Why did Marilyn divorce me?"
His friend explained in a memoir: "How could I tell him he bored her? How could I tell a man his ex-wife became his ex because she found him dull. I spoke all around it saying that Marilyn wasn't mature enough to be a wife, that she had failed before, that Marilyn's ever bigger ambition didn't call for a husband, that she didn't want to cater to Joe's likes and dislikes. Joe thanked me. I honestly don't believe he had the slightest inkling of what I had avoiding saying."
Despite all his unbecoming traits, it wouldn't be fair if I didn't mention of a few of his admirable qualities. He did buy a house for his mother once he started making big money. He did buy Marilyn Monroe Christmas presents. He did pay alimony to his first wife. He did practice hard to be a great baseball player and often played hurt.
But other than that, there do not seem to be many redeeming qualities in this oddly simplistic man. He lived his life selfishly and callously. He used friends and, if they said one thing that bothered him, he would cut them off and not speak to them anymore; no matter how much they had done for Joe.
This was who Joe DiMaggio was. Not much of a giver, and a big time taker and user of people. What's so chilling is he was like this entire life. This guy I thought was so cool wasn't cool at all.
He wasn't a hero. He was a mean, selfish and ruthless jerk.