Sports Nut

Yeah, Yeah, but What Made DiMaggio Such a Winner?

Not to worry. You are not about to read yet another piece about Joe DiMaggio and the hero machine, another deconstruction of Richard Ben Cramer’s deconstruction of the man-America-needed-to-love-cum-the-man-America-loved-to-hate.

No, I didn’t like the book. But my beef with Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life has nothing to do with its heavy-handed revisionism; after all, we’ve come to expect it from the genre that Janet Malcolm once dubbed “pathography.” Nor am I exercised over the endless psychoanalysis of a man who was, in the event, not all that complicated. I didn’t even mind Cramer’s self-consciously Damon Runyonesque prose (“He’d jumped from newsboy to national star without apprenticeship, no stops in between—from the commonest kid to king—and his feet had barely touched ground.”) My gripe is with what the author somehow failed to do in this 500-plus-page biography, and that is solve the real enduring riddle of DiMaggio: What made him such a winner?

Consider DiMag’s relationship with his archrival, Ted Williams. In 1941, Teddy Ballgame posted an average of .406. Wow. Even nowadays, in the undisputed era of the hitter, you’re grabbing headlines if you’re flirting with .390 … in July. Of course, 1941 also happened to be the year that the Daig hit safely in 56 consecutive games. Asked about DiMag’s streak, Williams, who was a much better hitter than his Yankee nemesis, remarked: “I believe there isn’t a record in the books that will be harder to break than Joe’s 56 games. It may be the greatest batting achievement of all.”

And what did DiMaggio have to say about the Bosox left fielder? “Sure, he can hit. But he never won a thing.” Or, on another occasion: “He throws like a broad.” Now, you can—as Richard Ben Cramer does—interpret these admittedly ungenerous remarks as all the proof you need that the Yankee Clipper was a jerk, but the thing is, DiMaggio was absolutely right. Williams was a masterful batsman, probably second only to Babe Ruth, but he had one hell of a weak arm. More to the point, Williams managed to deliver one meager pennant to Boston in his entire career, and not a single world championship. (The entry on Williams in my baseball encyclopedia pathetically offers his performance in two All-Star Games as evidence that he was a clutch hitter.) DiMaggio, by contrast, played on 10 pennant-winning clubs and nine world-championship teams in his 13 years with the Yankees. Even Ruth, who played for one more year than Joe and on a Yankee dynasty that was more dominant, fell far short of those totals.

Thus far, all of the ink spilled over Cramer’s book—and there has been plenty of it—has been devoted to the question of how did such a loathsome guy become so beloved. But who really cares? What we baseball fans want to know is this: How did DiMaggio always manage to come out on top—whether that meant carrying his club through so many post-seasons, or hitting in so bloody many straight games.

You won’t find an answer to that question in Joe DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life. Sure, Cramer will tell you about that fourth game in the streak, when DiMaggio went 3-for-3—a dribbler, a bloop, and an interference call. And Cramer will tell you that DiMaggio would never have made it 10 games if he had known that the fate of the nation was resting on his shoulders (“He steeled the nation for its greatest test! He stood, he persevered, he excelled, even as the shadow of Hitler drew nigh!”) And yes, he will tell you all about Joe’s corner booth at Toots Shor’s place. But if you’re waiting for insight into the true mystery of Joltin’ Joe, the greatest winner the game of baseball has ever produced, keep waiting.