Think the path to a long-term, multi-gillion dollar contract for the more-than-deserving Derek Jeter has been tortuous and unnecessarily prolonged? Just consider what things must have been like for the greatest living ballplayer when he was trying to squeeze something less insulting than $25,000 out of the stingy Yankee management.
Think of it this way: You are Joe DiMaggio, one of nine kids in a poor immigrant family. Your fisherman father wants you to join him but you hate the smell of fish. Besides, your passion is for playing ball. Even as a child, you are the best. You become leading hitter in the Pacific Coast League, then get sold to the New York Yankees. Writers call you the greatest, maybe even greater than Babe Ruth. In your first two years you lead the Yankees to consecutive world championships and help draw over a million fans a season. Everyone all over the baseball nation says you are the finest all-around ballplayer they have ever seen.
But then it’s time for your third-year contract. And the number being offered is much less than you’re worth. Your pride alone demands that you refuse to sign. You hold out. Your club owner, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, has a snide way of putting it: “DiMaggio is an ungrateful young man, and is very unfair to his teammates, to say the least. . . . Why, how many men his age earn that much? As far as I’m concerned $25,000 is all he’s worth, and if he doesn’t sign, we’ll win the pennant without him.” At such infuriating words, you wonder why writers don’t ask Ruppert how many 21-year-olds can hit 46 home runs and bat .346! And as for winning the pennant without you, haven’t you proved otherwise? And where does your manager, Joe McCarthy, get off echoing his master: “The Yankees can get along without DiMaggio. And that $25,000 is final.”
In the end, you are forced to submit. Three days after the season begins, you agree to sign on Ruppert’s terms. He even makes you pay all your training expenses and suffer fines for every day you miss playing. He tells the world, “I hope the young man has learned his lesson.” Insults piled on insults.
When you rejoin the club on the road, the Yankees are one game out of the cellar. But in your first seven games, you hit an astonishing .600 and bring the club to within a half game of the lead. You are so impressive, in fact, that McCarthy has you batting fourth instead of Lou Gehrig. You haven’t sulked at those insults. You speak only with your bat.
Now, finally, you are back in the stadium. In the dugout your teammates—Gehrig, Dickey, Crosetti, Gomez, Ruffing—let you know how much they respect you. Because of intermittent rain, there are only 7000 in the stands. You would have liked 50,000 to greet your return. You love the crowds; they fortify your pride. At last, you lead the team onto the field, a moment you have always loved, for this is what you have been put on earth to do.
Then, like the wrath of a scornful God, loud booing reverberates through the vast stadium. Your heart climbs to your throat. In Yankee Stadium? How can this be? This is the ultimate insult. You are Joe DiMaggio and they are booing you!
In his biography, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, Richard Ben Cramer does not make enough of this incident. Perhaps, if DiMaggio had consented to talk with him, it might have been different. Cramer tried hard enough but he never had a chance. Ironically, readers of his book will see countless examples of why. Writers constantly invaded his privacy, filling their columns with ludicrous comments, most of them false. Athletes have always been wary of writers—so-called “jock-sniffers” in the locker room—who are fascinated by off-the-field gossip and adept at stirring up controversies to make for more exciting copy. They thrive on extremes, like great streaks or miserable slumps. They are slaves of statistics. They don’t bother with the marvelous subtleties of the game.
That’s why ballplayers used to tell reporters, “If you could hit you wouldn’t write.” To a ballplayer, a writer is as suspect as a cop to an inner-city kid. DiMaggio, shy to begin with, would want no part of them, and certainly not a biographer.
I was there on the day of that booing—May 4, 1938—an 18-year-old lover of the game and a devoted fan of the great DiMaggio. I had followed the holdout all through the long winter, as suspenseful as the final weeks of a tight pennant race, a fight to the finish between Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Joseph Paul DiMaggio. Until then, I had never given a club owner a moment’s thought, but now I had to know more.
I learned that Colonel Ruppert wasn’t a colonel at all but was merely given the label by an ex-governor of New York who owed him favors. Nor was he founder of Ruppert Brewery but an heir to the family millions. Using his money, he served as four-time member of the House of Representatives. He lived in a magnificent 12-room apartment on Fifth Avenue with five full-time servants to care for his every need. He was like an aristocrat. As a bachelor, he escorted choice women in New York’s high society. His hobbies included collecting fine art and bric-a-brac. He had a passion for raising thoroughbred horses and pedigreed dogs. It would seem that such a man would gravitate to grand opera or elite museums, but in 1916, with a partner, he bought the New York Yankees for $450,000, picked up George Herman Ruth for $125,000, left the Polo Grounds for what became known as the House That Ruth Built, and made millions in the process. In 1936, he bought Joe DiMaggio from the San Francisco Seals and made still more millions. When he traveled to spring training, it was in his own private railroad car.
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.
No, he wasn’t doing so great. But because his fame never dwindled and the blonds were forever available and the money kept escalating from autographs and commercials and assorted giveaways, he pretended that this was the way it was supposed to be.
“I miss it,” he had said. He would miss it more and more.
One day I was having lunch with a producer from Screen Gems Hollywood, who was intent on making a film of Man on Spikes. In the midst of discussion, he suddenly looked up, eyes popping, mouth agape. “My God, it’s Joe DiMaggio!” as if he’d seen the Lord, himself. As it turned out, Joe saw me and came right to the table. When I greeted him, I told him what we’d been talking about. “Hey, it’s about time,” he said, then added his usual support line: “Let me know if I can help you.”
The result was an instant turnabout. I was told to put Man on Spikes on the back burner. We would make The Joe and Marilyn Story. I would be the writer and associate producer. Hadn’t Joe himself said he would help me? I couldn’t disabuse him of this—by the time we had coffee, I had so completely rejected his idea that my book was not only off the back burner but out the kitchen window.
I never got to tell DiMag of that misfortune. Years passed. There was Marilyn’s suicide (or murder, take your pick); the San Francisco earthquake that wrecked his home; a Florida lawyer, Morris Engelberg, who befriended him as he supervised the highly remunerative signing of baseballs, bats, cards, and whatever else might hold his name. I would read of these preposterous ventures, see pictures of Joe behind stacks of baseballs, pen in hand. It was all very depressing.
The last time I heard from him was in the mid ’80s, when a man rang my doorbell. I recognized him as a member of Joe’s entourage. He was there because Joe wanted my book—Man on Spikes, of course. I brought him a copy. He held it for a moment, then politely asked if I would write my name in it. My God, Joe DiMaggio wanted my autograph!
“Dear Joe,” I wrote. “Let me know if I can help you. Best wishes. Eliot Asinof.”
Joe died 62 years after the day of the booing, after Joe Ruppert said he hoped the young man had learned his lesson. As Richard Ben Cramer described it, the deathbed scene was as gruesome as anything I’d ever read. There is Morris Engelberg bidding the nurse to pry the 1936 World Series ring from DiMag’s finger, insisting that Joe wanted him to have it. Then, according to Engelberg, Joe died in his arms. Even Ty Cobb’s loveless death seemed less sordid. Whatever lesson Joe learned in his lifetime, it was not one that brought him joy.
Life can be grim in America’s national pastime.