It’s been a while since I have blogged about a baseball book, and I got the craving, not coincidentally, around Opening Day (capitalized here because it should be a holiday). On my bookshelves, I had a Richard Ben Cramer biography of Joe DiMaggio titled “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life.” As I’ve noted at least twice before, RBC is the author of one of my favorite political books, so I had high hopes for this biography. I wasn’t let down.
I’ll freely admit that I didn’t always enjoy baseball. In the past few years, however, I’ve grown to enjoy it immensely. But my baseball history is sorely lacking. So reading about DiMaggio, for me, is riveting if only because I’m not familiar with the story. Recall my first blog about Willie Mays.
What did I like most? The Yankee pride. The Italian roots in San Francisco. The streak. The remarkable number of World Series championships. And the sheer force of will that DiMaggio demonstrated nearly every time he went to the plate. Lots to like about the guy. For a time, he was deservedly America’s hero.
It’s no wonder New Yorkers have so much affection for the Yankees. When you play for a team that had Ruth as #3, Gehrig as #4, DiMaggio as #5, Mickey Mantle as #7 and so on, well, you have a bit of legacy to be proud of. I can see why their fans are a tad passionate.
As you would expect of Richard Ben Cramer, we don’t just see a portrait of this baseball superstar. Instead, we see all of the warts. According to Cramer, DiMaggio was a scoundrel with the ladies, he mentally, if not physically, abused both of his wives (including, yes, Marilyn), and he wasn’t exactly ethical with his financial dealings. He seemed obsessed with money (people who grow up poor can be that way) and had a jealous streak that cost him more than a few friendships.
What struck me most about DiMaggio was that he was dreadful at managing his personal relationships. They rarely went further than skin deep. It ruined his marriages and his family was always distressed. He was distrustful of others, as he was surrounded by those who were either in awe of him or those who were looking to take advantage of him. Cramer quotes a reporter who described him this way: “I did recognize a profound difference in the personal climate that surrounds DiMaggio and the Yankees this season. It is a frigid one, all because Joe, who always was a strange man, difficult to understand, is now living in a shell that is virtually impenetrable.”
Like so many of the rich and powerful and famous, it’s hard to fault DiMaggio for living in the shell. But maybe it was also this: He saved his best for the relationships that centered on the game.
This weekend, I had lunch with one of my oldest and dearest friends. She’s also a relatively recent devotee of America’s pastime. We were discussing our mutual and new love of baseball, and she said the reason she liked it was because she thought it was all about relationships. That it was like a soap opera. At this point, I begged her to not ruin baseball for me, but eventually I relented and let her continue. And just like about so many other things in life, she was right. Think about the drama that occurs between a pitcher and a batter each time they face one another. The ego involved in each decision. The feelings of shame, pride, and adrenaline, all playing out in a natural tempo, more reminiscent of the actual pace of life and not the pace of a sporting event. A season of 180 games, and not 18. Another great sports writer, Buzz Bissinger, captures this dynamic in his brilliant “Three Nights in August.”
So maybe that’s why DiMaggio was so deficient in his personal relationships. Fortunately for us but unfortunately for his family and friends, DiMaggio put all of his energy into his professional relationships (a danger for anyone, not just a baseball player). The best players do leave it all on the field.
What’s the moral here? Fame and fortune might be attainable, but not without great personal sacrifice. More often than not, our idols are human, and accomplishments in one aspect of their lives don’t always translate to the others. And this, likely the most important moral: Even if you are a distrustful misogynist who is obsessed with money and your personal standing, winning nine World Series, hitting in 56 straight games, being a thirteen-time All-Star, hanging out with Frank Sinatra, AND sleeping with Marilyn Monroe means very simply that you are always going to be more of a hero than a goat.
Thanks for reading.