|Thursday, October 26
Updated: May 31, 9:18 AM ET
'He was revered for his mystery'
By Richard Ben Cramer
From "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life"
Editor's note: ESPN.com is running excerpts from Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life recently published by Simon & Schuster. Today's excerpts are the Prologue and the first of three parts from Chapter 13, when Mickey Mantle joins the Yankees and shakes DiMaggio's world:
He had the ring on that Sunday as he rode around the warning track in a 1956 Thunderbird convertible. He wore a jacket and tie, of course, and held both hands above his head -- half a wave, half a blessing, like the Pope does. He'd part his hands, throw them open toward the crowd, both at once, so his thanks, his acknowledgment -- and more, a whiff of his chrism, some glint of his goodhood -- would fly from him back to the crowd, to all those thousands standing on the steep tiers, in their shorts, with their beer cups, cheering his name in the midday glare. Joe would say he was touched by their welcome. But they were the ones who'd feel touched by the hero.
That was the last distant view he permitted. I didn't go anywhere near him that day -- didn't try to intrude, try to ask questions. We'd been through all that. Joe didn't want to help with biography. He didn't want to help anybody know his life. It was a smart move by a smart man -- canny , anyway. In latter years he 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.
Still, even in that Sunday's wash of reverence, DiMaggio seemed a sad figure. It wasn't just the effects of age -- the way he'd shrunk -- that bent old man who took his rings behind home plate and tottered off the field. (There was no working microphone. Maybe the hero had nothing more to say.) More to the point, it was his cloak of myth that had shrunk. The lies around him were growing cheap. This tale of the stolen rings, for example. Joe didn't lose those rings to theft. More likely he traded them for free lodging, food, transportation, services of every kind. That whole Joe DiMaggio Day wasn't about rings, but about history and Joe's need to win; about Mickey Mantle and the way Joe resented him; and money, mostly money, as it mostly was with Joe.
The real story went back to 1995 and the day the Yankees dedicated to Mickey Mantle the fourth monument in the history of the Stadium. That was a big day at the ballpark, an emotional day -- the Mick had just died -- and of course DiMaggio had to show up. Joe resented that. When had Mantle ever showed up for him? . . . But what really griped him wasn't Mickey's monument in left center field. He'd been offered a monument, but turned it down. (He complained: Were they trying to bury him already?) No, what set Joe to seething was the special ball they used in that day's game. It was a regulation Rawlings game-ready Mickey Mantle Commemorative Ball, authorized by Major League Baseball. Right away the collectors and dealers in memorabilia bid those balls up to three hundred per. That was twice as much as Joe was getting for his balls -- which were autographed! That burned up the Clipper good. From that day forward, DiMaggio (to be precise, Yankee Clipper Enterprises) had angled for a DiMaggio Day and a special DiMaggio ball -- also by Rawlings, also regulation-made, game-ready, American League -- except , except . . . these could be signed by the Clipper himself. That would be a four-hundred-dollar ball, at least! And for starters Joe would autograph the fifteen thousand balls that he was demanding, free, from the Rawlings Company (you know, for use of his name). Fifteen thousand free balls, a few months to sign 'em . . . and (even at wholesale) that would be a cool three million, cash (in hundreds, please: Joe's favorite).
Of course, no one was going to tell that story on Joe DiMaggio Day -- or write it in the papers. So they wrote about remembered autumns of glory, about the love affair of the hero and the Yankee fans. For sixty years writers had to make up what Joe cared about. As Joe himself once explained: "They used to write stories about me like they were interviewing me, and never even talked to me." But now, most of the guys who knew him -- who could cobble up a good DiMaggio quote -- were gone. So Mike Lupica, from the Daily News (Joe's favorite among the new generation), would settle that day for the wistful "So many memories. So many seasons." . . . And for the New York Times, Dave Anderson (one of the last guys who knew Joe when) would write: "After the ceremony, he returned to that shadowy corridor behind the dugout, sat down, opened the box with the World Series rings and stared at them. 'Aren't they beautiful?' he said."
The fact was, DiMaggio was never wistful. (At that moment, he was furious.) And he never spent an instant in his life to marvel at the beauty of anything. Except maybe a broad. Which wasn't marveling -- that was wanting. Wanting he did. That was why he'd hauled himself out of bed at four in the morning, coughing up blood from the cancer he wouldn't speak about . . . to get to the airport, to fly to New York in time for his day. That was want. That was DiMaggio. If you lost track of that hunger, that toughness, you lost his core.
There wasn't another eighty-three-year-old in the country who could have held up that day, looking good -- not with Joe's irritated eye (something like chronic conjunctivitis), the old arthritis, the scoliosis that hunched his back into a painful curve, the pacemaker that kept his heart beating, the Lasix (a horse diuretic) that kept the fluid away from the pacemaker (and made Joe pee, seemed like every ten minutes). And now, the cancer that he would only call pneumonia-- maybe he had pneumonia, too. That wouldn't have mattered: Joe was going to make it through. Nobody else had his grit--- he always played hurt. Or his focus -- Joe would bring those balls home.
Nothing stopped him. Nothing turned his head. You could admire him for that. He was one of a kind. I also remember the day, five years back, when I was starting this book, first asking about DiMaggio. I had a long, rambling interview with an old baseball man named Frank Slocum. He'd spent his whole life in the game. He'd known DiMaggio for sixty years -- saw him when he came up, he'd met Joe's brothers, parents, wives -- saw him every which way. We talked for two hours, then three. Finally, I put away my notebook.
"I'll tell you one more thing," Slocum offered, after I'd stood up to leave. "You go out there and ask around. If you meet any guy who says, 'Oh, I know someone just like that DiMaggio,' I'll tell you this: That guy's a liar."
Chapter 13: The Oklahoma kid arrives
"There's never been anything like this kid which we got from Joplin," Casey Stengel told his writers. "He has more speed than any slugger and more slug than any speedster -- and nobody has ever had more of both of 'em together." The final authority, Pete Sheehy, did his talking with the Pinstripes. He'd been Clubhouse Boy since the Babe's broad back bore the Number 3. Gehrig, of course, wore Number 4. Pete gave DiMaggio Number 5. And for that spring, Mickey Mantle would wear Number 6.
Well, the writers took it from there. By the time the Yankee camp opened officially on March 1, Mickey Charles Mantle was The Story. He was still listed as a shortstop -- but all the writers knew he was moving to the outfield. (And the boldest among them suggested center field.) . . . He'd played only one full season at Class C, Joplin -- but everybody knew he'd hit .383 there. (And home runs that never came down: they were still aloft over southern Missouri.) . . . Any normal nineteen-year-old would have to spend at least a year at finishing school -- the Yankees' top farm, Triple-A Kansas City. (But on that subject, Stengel was quotably coy: "Don'cha think he'd be safer spendin' the summer with me in New York?")
Here was the replacement for Joe DiMaggio.
Mantle, for his part, was cooperatively spectacular (or vice versa, from the writers' point of view). He'd step into the cage (righty, lefty, didn't seem to matter), pull his cap down over his blond brush cut, take a stance that was natural, balanced, relaxed -- and then just crush the ball . . . over the field, over the stands, off the training ground. They disappeared! These were not the fierce, slashing line drives that DiMaggio was wont to hit. No, they were huge, soaring grandiosities -- astonishing in their excess.
Same way in the outfield, under a fly ball . . . well, no, take it back: he wasn't under any fly ball. A fly ball would be dropping, when young Mantle, knees pumping up and down in a blur, would streak across the grass (at a pace none of those writers had ever seen on a ballfield) . . . to spear the ball before it hit the ground. Once again, this was nothing like the loping spare stride of DiMaggio, as he arrived to tarry, elegantly, at the place where the ball would come down. Mantle had no idea where the ball would come down. But he'd get there, with the raw muscular speed of those jet-cars on the Bonneville Flats.
Here was the baseball star for the age of tail fins and the V-8.
DiMag? . . . He hadn't hit a solid line drive yet.
He was also heartily sick of the stink about Mantle from the moment he arrived. Seemed like that was all he heard from the writers: What about the kid? . . . Joe! You think Mickey could play center field?
Actually, they all seemed to have three questions -- not one of which he cared to discuss:
What about Mickey? . . .
Does anything hurt, Joe? . . . and:
Hey, Joe! How you doin' with the wife?
That's what they mostly wrote about DiMag. It turned out, Dorothy Arnold wasn't all that busy in Hollywood. She turned up in Phoenix, to watch the Yankees train. The Yankee writers might have given Joe a pass on that story -- but not while they were getting scooped in papers across the country. . . .
". . . I telephoned Joe, who is a good friend, to ask him if he and Dorothy were planning to reconcile and marry.
"Not on this visit," Joe said, "but there is a strong possibility that there may be a reconciliation later.
"Dorothy and I are still very good friends. She will bring our son to visit with me in New York this summer, and it is very possible we may remarry then. However, it is a little premature to discuss this matter now."
The two people who have worked ceaselessly to bring them back together are their very close friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lou Costello.
No wonder Joe decided he was news for all the wrong reasons -- and he ought to make some news of his own. It was still early in the training camp -- nighttime, at the hotel in Phoenix. Joe and Georgie Solotaire had knocked back a few belts apiece. They saw Benny Epstein, of the Mirror, in the lobby. They grabbed Ben and a guy who was with him -- Jack Orr, from a little paper called The Compass. Then, they rounded up Jim Dawson from the Times -- to give the story heft in New York. They didn't call any other reporters. That might have alerted Joe Trimble from the News. DiMag would have eaten dirt before he gave Trimble a story. Screwing Trimble was what made this such a good idea . . . well, it seemed like a good idea. Dago and Georgie took the writers off to a room -- and made news:
This, said DiMaggio, will be my last year.
He might as well have dropped a bomb on Times Square, the way those papers ran with the story. And the rest of the writers (Joe had shafted eight metropolitan dailies) were all rattled by "rockets" from the home office -- telegrams or phone calls: What the hell's going on out there? They followed up like they'd been goosed with a cattle prod.
Weiss was wakened in his room at dawn. He didn't know a thing about it -- except that he didn't like it: the biggest draw in the country was gonna take his marbles and go home? "DiMaggio has not discussed this with any official of the club," Weiss said. "We regret to hear anything like this, and we hope he will have the sort of season that will cause him to change his mind."
Stengel was pinned at breakfast -- he knew nothin' from no one: "What am I supposed to do, get a gun and make him play? I don't own him."
But Stengel wasn't altogether displeased. He was tired of playing hostage to the Big Fella's moods. And he'd seen a center fielder -- his center fielder -- under that blond brush cut. Now, Stengel took Mantle aside in the dugout for a fatherly chat:
"Kid, you wanna play in the major leagues?"
"Yes, sir," the boy replied.
"Well, do yourself a favor. You see that fella out in center field there?"
"You mean DiMaggio?"
"Yeah," said the Perfesser. "You go out and have him teach you how to play that position. Because you'll never be a shortstop."
There was only one problem with Casey's scheme: the nineteen-year-old pride of Commerce, Oklahoma, couldn't ask DiMaggio to teach him anything. Couldn't approach DiMaggio. Couldn't look at anything but his own shoes if DiMaggio happened by. . . . Years later, the great Mickey Mantle would have his own reputation as a hard man to talk to -- as difficult an eminence as DiMaggio, in his way. But in that camp, he was just a shy kid, trying to find a spot for himself. He had no idea how to speak to DiMaggio, unless the Great Man spoke first -- and as Mantle would recall (again, years later) that wouldn't happen until October. In April, the Yankees broke camp and went barnstorming -- for the first time west of the Rockies. They packed the Pacific Coast League parks. It should have been a tour of glory for DiMag, in his old haunts, with fans who remembered when. But there was only one glorious story with the Yankees that year.
As the other prime rookie on that club, Gil McDougald, remembered: "Mickey hit one out of Seals Stadium -- over the bleachers, off the property. . . . In the L.A. Angels park, Mickey hit a line drive toward right center. The center fielder took off toward right center to grab it. But it never came down. It just kept rising. The guy jumped, but the ball was twenty feet over his head -- and still going up as it left the park -- home run. The center fielder was in a state of shock. . . .
"Mickey," as McDougald said, "had a spring training like a god."
At the University of Southern California, Mantle hit one over the field, over the fence, and over the field house behind the fence. It must have gone six hundred feet -- no one could even measure it. But after that, at every stop, Stengel would tell a new flock of writers: "I have my outfielder, Mr. Mantle, who hits balls over buildings."
Joe? Well, they wrote history about him . . . they wrote about him and his wife . . . there were pictures when he visited Black Foxe Institute and posed, showing Joe Jr. how to hold a bat . . . and they wrote his brave assertions that he felt fine. But mostly -- no matter what he said -- they wrote that he was quitting. Joe had been trying to tone down that story since he woke up the next day and found the writers buzzing like mad hornets outside his door. He'd only meant to say, right now, this looked like it would be his last year. He said he'd see how the season went. He said his knees would tell him. Finally, he said, he wouldn't talk about it, till after the season -- and maybe not then. But he could have saved all that breath. The only thing he'd accomplished was to add a new insult to the litany: What about Mickey? . . .
Joe! Y'gonna get back with the Missus? . . .
How's the heels (back, neck, arm, knees, legs, eye)? . . . and:
Joe! You really think you're washed up?
It would not be a happy summer for either of the Yankees' big stories. Mantle got to the grand Bronx ballyard, took a look at the towering tiers of seats, the monuments to Huggins, Gehrig, Ruth in the vastness of center field, the pennants and World Series flags fluttering in rows atop the scalloped balustrade . . . and he stopped hitting atomic home runs. In fact, he was trying so hard to crush the ball, to be the miracle advertised, to hit as he believed a New York Yankee must hit (harder, surely, than he'd ever hit) . . . he couldn't hit a thing.
The Yankee fans got their first look at him, and decided -- well, he could strike out from either side. And being New York fans -- who expect their miracles right away -- they took to booing, which made the boy try to crush the ball harder.
In the outfield, Mantle had learned a lot from the Yankees' newest coach, Tom Henrich. In fact, Henrich was delighted with his pupil. Henrich had worked for days with young Mick, teaching him to catch the ball and get rid of it -- all in one move. It's a matter of footwork: you set yourself to catch the ball coming down on your back foot, so you can fire it, right away, with your body in the throw. Then, in a game with the White Sox, Jim Busby was on third base when Mantle caught a fly ball, came down onto his right foot, and fired a BB to the plate. And right over the plate -- a strike . . . that got there so fast, Busby stopped halfway home and fell down trying to get back to third. Henrich still laughed about it forty-five years later. "When Mickey came in, I says, 'You got that down pretty good. I think that's the best throw I ever saw!' "
But still, in 1951, Mick was green as the grass in right field: he'd never seen these batters -- had no idea how they hit, where to play. And Henrich hadn't quite drummed home the crucial instruction: you play off DiMaggio. Joe was like a Univac out there. He not only knew every hitter in the league; he knew what every Yankee pitcher would throw; and he'd see, right away, if their curve wasn't biting, if they'd lost a couple inches off the fastball -- then the hitter would get around just that much faster, and Joe would be shading two or three steps into the alley where that hitter would pull the ball (right into DiMaggio's glove). Every other kid on the Yankees learned: Watch the Dago -- if he moves, you move. Not Mantle. He wouldn't look at DiMaggio. Maybe he couldn't. Joe would be flicking his glove at the kid, like he was shooing a fly -- move over! Mantle would stare in at the plate until the ball was hit, and then he'd chase it to the wall.
Stengel hadn't done the boy any service by bringing him to New York that year. Within a couple of months, Mantle would be so shaky that Stengel would have to send him out to Kansas City. (And there, Mick would come within an inch of quitting.) . . . By that time, DiMaggio had decided Mantle wasn't worth all the talk. Not that he'd spent any talk on the kid. Joe told Lou Effrat (who, of course, wouldn't write it): "He's a rockhead."
By that time, Joe had problems of his own -- and unlike Mantle's, these could not be cured by experience. His big comeback, his grand finale, was passing in a bad blur. He wasn't even out of April before his shoulder and neck went stiff and started aching. He could barely swing, couldn't throw without pain, and had to sit out. He came back in mid-May, played for about three weeks, until a pulled muscle put him out of the lineup again. He was still riding the pine, June 16, when Dorothy arrived in New York, with Joe Jr. To the waiting press at La Guardia Field, she called it "a Father's Day visit." Joe clearly hoped it would be more.
But the next day, he got word from San Francisco: Rosalie DiMaggio had slipped into a coma. And he went back to La Guardia, to catch a plane -- alone. Maybe if Dorothy and the boy had come with him, things would have been different -- his future and his hopes. But he flew by himself across the country. Dominic flew from Boston all that night and into the day, but arrived minutes too late. Joe got there while his mother was still breathing. But that was all. She never regained consciousness, and died that morning, June 18, 1951.
The aftermath of her death was so much louder than her life that she probably would have been embarrassed. The newspapers called her "Rose Dimaggio, the sturdy Italian peasant woman whose three sons grew to baseball fame and fortune." All her boys were there, of course: the three famed outfielders, big Mike, and her eldest, Tom -- all carried her casket past the crowd, down the steps of the great Sts. Peter and Paul's, where she had slipped unnoticed into early Mass, so many mornings, for so many years. For a few days, they would all be home, with their four sisters -- together in the old Marina house, as mourners. Only later would anyone realize: that would be the last time they'd be all together, home. It turned out, without Rosalie, it wouldn't be home.
Joe flew back to New York to take his place again at Yankee Stadium. He hadn't hit worth a damn yet that year. Couldn't play the outfield without pain. His back was so stiff, his shoulder so tender, Rizzuto or Coleman had to run halfway out to the fence to take his cutoff throws. It hurt Joe even to bend over, to scoop up a ground ball. But he wanted to play. Now was when he needed his place. And that was his place. . . . Alas, no one thought to remind Casey Stengel.
July 6, at the Stadium, a big crowd, a big game with Boston. The Yankees weren't playing well -- in the midst of dropping five out of six (including three losses to the Red Sox), the Bombers were stumbling out of first place -- and Stengel was snappish. In the first inning, DiMaggio had misplayed a ball in the field, while Boston runners circled the bases -- and the Yanks had fallen behind 6-1. Now, as the second inning began, DiMaggio was at his post in center field, when Johnny Hopp, the veteran National Leaguer who'd come over to the Yanks that year, emerged from the dugout. Hopp trotted toward the outfield, to tell DiMaggio he was out of the game. Stengel wasn't waiting till the end of the inning. In the most visible and humiliating way, he was going to yank the Clipper right off the field. Joe's face darkened in fury, and he waved Hopp back to the dugout. "I'll tell Casey when I want to come out." As Phil Rizzuto remembered: "When that inning was over, DiMaggio came back to the bench and went right past Stengel, into the clubhouse without a word. I don't think they ever talked again. From then on, things got worse. Casey couldn't wait until DiMaggio quit."
There was an uproar in the sporting press. Jimmy Cannon -- who had always spoken for DiMag -- fulminated in his column: "There has only been one truly great baseball player in this generation. Some one should remind Casey Stengel the man's name is Joe DiMaggio. . . . It was a mean little decision. It was a thoughtless act of panic and insensitivity. It was nasty and petty and follows the pattern of cheapness which has assumed shape since Lonesome George Weiss, the friendless General Manager, took charge. The prestige of the Yankees diminishes rapidly."
The Yankees had to issue a statement denying all intent to insult the Great DiMaggio -- and denying any feud in the Bronx clubhouse. Stengel played dumb: claimed he only meant "to rest the Big Fella." He said he tried to make the change before the inning began -- but gosh, he looked around and Joe was already out on the field. . . . Stengel tried to make amends by naming Joe to the All-Star team -- even though the fans hadn't voted DiMaggio in with their ballots. But then, Stengel said Joe was injured -- and stuck him on the bench for the whole game. That took the story national.
From JOE DIMAGGIO by Richard Ben Cramer. Copyright ® 2000 by Richard Ben Cramer. Reprinted by persmission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Richard Ben Cramer is the author of the bestselling What It Takes: The Way to the White House, which was acclaimed as one of the finest books ever written on American politics. His journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Time and Newsweek. His dispatches from the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer won the Pultizer Prize for International Reporting in 1979. with his wife and daughter, he lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
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