I was three years old the first time I got a pack of baseball cards, four when I went to my first game, five when I started Little League. I began to read about baseball history a few years later, and for most of my childhood, I idealized the game. I read its stories, saw my favorite players as icons and was mostly unaware of their flaws. I connect a lot of the innocence of my youth to how I felt about baseball, how it played into my relationships with friends and family, how those memories still make me feel today. It’s one reason I love the game.
I still love baseball, though somewhere between the 1994 strike, the subsequent steroid scandal, and my own coming of age, I began to see ballplayers and people in general as human. Today, I know that some of my favorite players from Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Pete Rose all had their flaws as human beings. And that’s fine. Personally, I find these types of players easier to relate to.
I mention this all because a book debuted on March 8, Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil by Jerome Charyn. It’s only the latest work on the Hall of Famer (and not even the only one that came out on March 8, given Kostya Kennedy’s book on DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak) though Charyn takes a new tact, seeking to repair the tattered image of his hero.
Ostensibly, Charyn’s book is a response to Richard Ben Cramer’s 2000 biography, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life which was controversial in its portrayal of DiMaggio as a cold, calculating loner. Cramer wasn’t the first writer to offer a less-than flattering look back at a player who was lionized if not deified by the press during his career. Gay Talese broke rank with his landmark 1966 feature in Esquire magazine, capturing DiMaggio alone in San Francisco, mourning the death four years prior of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, and telling a well-wisher and fan, “I’m not great. I’m just a man trying to get along.”
Then there’s David Halberstam’s classic 1989 book on the 1949 American League pennant race between the Yankees and Red Sox, Summer of ’49. Halberstam wrote in an author’s note of being rebuffed by DiMaggio for an interview, saying the only time he reached him on the phone, he “spoke to a very wary former center fielder.” Halberstam continued, “He said he would see me, and thereupon avoided all further entreaties. So be it; if there is a right under the First Amendment to do books such as this, there is also a right not to be interviewed. I’m sorry he didn’t see me; he still remains the most graceful athlete I saw in those impressionable years.”
Like Halberstam, Charyn portrays DiMaggio as a uniquely gifted player, though he does so with more poetic license. I’m not sure if all the literary devices work. The phrase idiot savant is used multiple times to describe DiMaggio the player, as if describing some Rain Main in pinstripes. Charyn also repeatedly refers to DiMaggio as Jolter, only clarifying on his final page that the nickname comes from a poem by famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, An Ode to the Jolter. It got a little grating. Still, Charyn writes gracefully enough to forgive the occasional awkward metaphor, and at 146 pages, the book can be read in a sitting. I found myself drawn in early on.
The book’s title refers to DiMaggio’s long period of mourning after Monroe’s death. Charyn writes of DiMaggio, who had roses sent to Monroe’s grave three times a week for 20 years, as the one person close to Monroe who never tried to use her. He also said DiMaggio was deeply impacted by her death, writing:
Did the Jolter really survive Marilyn Monroe? He lived another thirty-seven years with the trappings of success…. [but] the Big Guy was unconscious half the time, going through the motions without the least spark of fire. It’s no accident that Richard Ben Cramer in his biography of the Jolter skips over the years from 1963 to 1998 with the knowledge that nothing internal happened to the man; the mark of these years on him was as minimal as the diary he would keep, whether he visited the White House or was waiting in an airport lounge. It would get even worse as he went from memorabilia show to memorabilia show that was a peculiar kind of hell; he was a performer in his own living death and never even knew it. He’d been mourning Marilyn all along, in spite of his little flings and fixations on former Miss Americas. He missed Marilyn beyond reason. He couldn’t repair himself.
It’s a bold take, and I’m not sure I go for it. I don’t know if I see DiMaggio as a victim or a tragic figure, but I also don’t fault him for being something short of the image people expected of him or even one he cultivated for himself. Jim Bouton wrote in a follow-up to Ball Four, “Why can’t Mickey Mantle be a hero who has a bit too much to drink from time to time and cries into his glass that he will soon be dead, like his father and his uncle? Why do our heroes have to be so perfect and unflawed?”