Hey Joe

The Booing of the Great DiMaggio

This was the man who said of DiMaggio, "I hope the young man has learned his lesson."

That lesson had many facets, but for DiMag, the booing was at the heart of it. Not only did he have to swallow the humiliation of his failed holdout, he had to suffer the front-office manipulation of his fans. And the mail! "You would have thought I'd kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, the way some of those letters read," DiMag would say years later. It shattered his pride. It led him to believe that no matter how great his talent or how proper his decorum, he would always be vulnerable to the slanders of others. The booing, then, became an assault on his psyche, and DiMag would never again emerge from his shell, never let himself be at ease, never see the world as anything but a battleground on which he would have to fight for himself.

For me, however, the holdout experience became a source of energy, an insight as to how the system works. I would nurse my resentments until, 17 years later, I wrote a novel, Man on Spikes. My young hero, like DiMaggio, was the son of an immigrant father who also resisted his kid's love of baseball. He was not a superstar like DiMag, but one who fought his way up the ladder through 16 years in the minors, forever exploited by a greedy club owner until, at 35, he finally made it to the bigs for a quick cup of coffee.

Because of that book I met DiMaggio in 1955. The nexus was a magazine assignment on Joe Page, the once great Yankee relief pitcher who had roomed with DiMag on road trips.

DiMaggio wouldn't see me, I was told. No way, other writers said. Then came his one writer-friend, Jimmy Cannon, who had included in his New York Post column the following golden words: "The truest baseball novel I ever read is Man on Spikes by Eliot Asinof."

Because of it, DiMaggio was willing to see me. I told him that I was there when they booed him, and now I was here because of it. He liked that. He remembered every moment of that day, scowling now at Ruppert's insults, hating the entire front office from the top down. "Baseball is a life! It ain't just a job. But guys like Ruppert, they use that!" We talked for over an hour, about Joe Page, yes, but mostly about his accumulated resentments, not only at contract time but the rest of it. Club doctors and trainers had almost destroyed him. Despite an eye infection that nearly blinded him in one eye, Joe McCarthy made him play, more concerned about game receipts than Joe's vision. He had even more contempt for Casey Stengel, who had overused Page to win a pennant, damaging that great left arm in the process.

He was anything but shy. He was not dumb but highly perceptive. He was not cold but angry.

"Baseball is a life," I repeated his words.

He liked my book. He said in parting, "Let me know if I can help you." He gave me his phone number to back it up.

In his bio, Cramer recaptured DiMaggio's retired years as if it were an endless dance of a New York/Hollywood Dolce Vita. His marriage to the blond showgirl Dorothy Arnold ended as a disaster. They had a son, Joe Jr., but Joe Sr. was no better as a father than he was as a husband. Then came Marilyn Monroe in a similar sorry scenario. He found himself trapped in a continuing chaos with no hope of release. When I ran into him again at a Baseball Writer's dinner, he was quick to acknowledge the source of his problem. "I miss it," he said. Baseball, of course.

After his divorce from Marilyn, he missed it all the more for he had nothing to fall back on. What it came down to, he could not love a woman, not in a way that would satisfy her. He had never had the training. Love was for people in towns without a big-league ballpark. If you could hit .350 and enjoy an endless line of beautiful women, what was love? He had become a victim of his fame.

Fame had stripped him of any chance at normality. He lived in a world of bizarre people who thrived on his company to add stature to their lives. Gossip columnists couldn't leave him alone. Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons, Dorothy Kilgallen, Sidney Skolsky, on both coasts, all of them sucking around for whatever tidbits their readers could feast on. And there was the loudmouth Toots Shor and his hangout for the sporting crowd where Joe had his own special table. And friend George Solitaire, a Broadway ticket broker who supplied whatever else Joe wanted. And Longy Zwillman, a well-connected tough guy who was always generous with money. Why not? Whatever else they were, they all treated him with a lot more respect than Jacob Ruppert ever did. What choice did he have anyway? He passed his time moving from charity lunch to celebrity golf tournament, or dinners where he got big bucks for merely sitting on the dais. He would suit up for Old Timers Day at the stadium (always the honored last to be introduced), where 60,000 fans waited to see him at the plate again until a new breed of old pitchers threw artful junk to make him pop up.

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