Legend in the Gray Flannel Suit

Joseph Paul Dimaggio, 1914-1999

All of that, of course, was as a player. His private life was an unholy mess, a riot of contradictions awaiting a tough-minded biographer to sort them out. He was the first great national sports hero of America's immigrants, or at least those immigrants who came here speaking a foreign language. Yet, his demeanor suggested not his Italian blood and upbringing but that of a WASP movie star— Cary Grant, many thought. He guarded his private life with fanatic intensity yet courted a public life that practically created tabloid celebrity journalism. He was a symbol of an era that supposedly played for the love of the game, yet he hawked Mr. Coffee on TV and almost single-handedly created the pay-for-autograph circuit.

Millions of words of tribute have been spilled over DiMaggio. Never has nice been one of them. And we can practically see ahead to how his first real biographer will become to sports what Albert Goldman is to rock and roll. All that really needs to be done to stir outrage in the sports establishment is to recount the unpleasant facts of DiMaggio's life that are already known— but which the press unofficially agreed to forget. There was the time, for instance, when DiMaggio held out for more money during the war. He was vilified in the newspapers, but forgiven by the time V-J Day came around. Or the time that DiMaggio, along with then-pal Frank Sinatra and a couple of private dicks, kicked open a door— the wrong door— while trying to catch Marilyn Monroe in an affair. That incident was erased by the image of a weeping, gray-haired DiMaggio, who managed her funeral.

And what are we to make of the pettiness he always displayed toward Mickey Mantle and his mild intrusions on Joe's mythical territory? Surely Mantle wanted nothing more (and probably a great deal less) from DiMaggio than the average fan. Imagine how appalled we would be this week if some Hall of Fame player acted as boorishly during DiMaggio's funeral as Joe did during Mickey's— he failed to show up and repeatedly brought up Mantle's deficiencies as a ballplayer.

The press gave him a freer ride than it will ever give another athlete— but who's to say he didn't earn it? If his private life wasn't all we or he wanted it to be, there was surely no one for him to look to for a role model. Whose life, whose legend was he to measure himself against? It must have gotten awfully lonely up there at the end, awfully cold.

"You're a legend a lot longer than you're fact," Clyde Edgerton once wrote. Joe DiMaggio was a fact for 84 years and has already been a legend for nearly two-thirds of that. That's got to be a record of some kind, and the streak ain't over yet.

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