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Our National Exaggeration

As the New York Yankees' star centerfielder from 1936 to 1951, Joe DiMaggio is enshrined in America's memory as the epitome in sports of grace, dignity, and that ineffable quality called "class." But his career after retirement, starting with his nine-month marriage to Marilyn Monroe, was far less auspicious. Writers like Gay Talese and Richard Ben Cramer have painted the private DiMaggio as cruel or self-centered. Now, Jerome Charyn restores the image of this American icon, looking at DiMaggio's life in a more sympathetic light.

DiMaggio was a man of extremes, superbly talented on the field but privately insecure, passive, and dysfunctional. He never understood that for Monroe, on her own complex and tragic journey, marriage was a career move; he remained passionately committed to her throughout his life. He allowed himself to be turned into a sports memorabilia money machine. In the end, unable to define any role for himself other than "Greatest Living Ballplayer," he became trapped in "a horrible kind of minutia." But where others have seen little that was human behind that minutia, Charyn in Joe DiMaggio presents the tragedy of one of American sports' greatest figures.

1.

First there was Babe Ruth. No one man has ever altered a sport, changed it forever, the way Ruth did. Ruth didn't invent the home run. He simply turned it into a lethal weapon. Baseball had once been a game of wits, where pitchers and fielders dueled among themselves, and a bunt single or a base on balls could be the difference between life and death. Like parsimonious squirrels, a team would guard and nurse a one-run lead that most often would win a game. There was a constant panorama of hit-and-run plays. The home run seldom figured in this firmament. When Ruth was a nineteen-year-old rookie pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in 1914, his team hit a total of 18 home runs.

But the Red Sox soon discovered that they had a power hitter on their hands. In 1915 their young left-hander had 18 victories and led the team in home runs (4). But this wasn't the barrel-chested Ruth we like to remember. He was as long and lean as a knife, even his broad, flaring nostrils. By 1918 he was only a part-time pitcher. He appeared in 95 games and led the major leagues in home runs (11). In the greatest baseball blunder of all time, the cash-starved Red Sox sold their star outfielder-pitcher to the New York Yankees near the end of 1919.

Nothing was the same after that. Ruth not only hit 54 home runs in 1920, he also stole more bases than any other Yankee (14). He was a colossus nurtured in the hit-and-run era who now originated an era of his own. He packed the Polo Grounds, where the Yankees played as tennants of the New York Giants because they didn't have their own ballpark. Until Ruth arrived, the Giants and their manager, John "Muggsy" McGraw, had been the kings of Manhattan. Muggsy fought with his players, fought with umpires, fought with the fans, and had turned the Giants into baseball's most feared enterprise. They had won the second World Series, in 1905, and were featured in the Ziegfeld Follies, where statuesque blondes ran around in baseball caps and chased their rivals off the runway. But they had no rivals.

All of a sudden they had an enemy in their own house. Ruth could fill a ballpark wherever he went. Soon the National League began to suffer because it did not have a Babe of its own. The Giants were so jealous of Ruth and the fans he brought to the Polo Grounds that they kicked the Yankees out, and Colonel Jacob Ruppert, the heir to a brewery fortune and principal owner of the Yankees, was forced to build his own stadium across the Harlem River in the Bronx. Thus the Bronx Bombers were born in 1923 at Yankee Stadium, Ruth's own arena.

The Bombers won their very first World Series that year, beating the Giants 4 games to 2, with Ruth hitting 3 home runs. Ruth not only murdered McGraw, he made the Yankees rich and helped begin a dynasty. The Yankees would become the most successful franchise in baseball, going on to win 39 more pennants and 26 more World Series (and counting). It couldn't have happened without the Babe.

He dominated all of baseball. He turned the Yankees into a kind of public spectacle. You loved or hated the Yankees as much as you loved or hated Ruth. Fans were never indifferent to him. He wouldn't have allowed them to be - the Babe was having too much fun. Heckle him and he would climb on top of the dugout and challenge the crowds; hurl a bottle at him and he would chase the bottle-thrower into the stands; the first time he moved from the pitcher's mound to left field he began to sulk. "Gee, it's lonesome in the outfield. It's hard to keep awake with nothing to do."

He reveled in every moment, had to be seen, had to be felt. He loved to mingle, to drive down Broadway in his maroon sports car or lounge in front of a hotel, "his broad nostrils sniffing at the promise of the night." He had his own vaudeville act one season, would banter and croon in his great baritone voice, but he was as much of a vaudevillian right on the field. Baseball had become his very own big show. He had, according to another player, "the prettiest swing of all," and was most pretty when he struck out, with his own kind of high drama. "In Charleston he swung so hard striking out that as he spun around, his spikes caught in the hard clay of the batter's box and wrenched an ankle ... No one in Carolina could recall seeing a man swing so hard he hurt himself when he missed."

A new apparatus of sports writers had been built around the Babe; writing about his exploits on and off the field had created a new fabric, a new skin, out of a straggler's game that had once belonged to bumpkins. None of these bumpkins could compete with the Babe, a "country boy" from Baltimore who was raised in an orphanage even though he wasn't an orphan, the beloved bad boy of baseball who would do anything for a laugh. "He ate a hat once," according to teammate Joe Dugan. "He did. A straw hat. Tool a bite out of it and ate it."

But the Babe wasn't as uncontrolled as he seemed. A superb showman and manager of his own image, he hired a publicist, Christy Walsh, and was shrewd enough to license "his name and face to sell everything from candy bars to automobiles."

He was just as foxy with sports writers, could play them as seriously as he could swing into a pitch. "The man was a boy, simple, artless, genuine and unabashed," wrote Red Smith in the New York Times. But there was a lot of art in his artlessness. He loved to parade around with Yankee batboy Eddie Bennett, a hunchback who was the Babe's personal mascot. Bennett would run after the Babe with cups of bicarbonate of soda to fight off the heartburn that accompanied his constant quota of hot dogs. Bennett might stand over a visiting team's dugout and taunt the players while the Babe saluted them with his cup. His whole life was about performance, whether it was on the field, at a luncheon stand, or inside a bordello. "He was the noisiest fucker in North America," recalled one of his friends.

It was noise itself that catapulted him, noise that got him noticed, noise that was his engine. Louder and larger than anyone else, he hit the longest home runs, created headlines for the Yankees and himself, until baseball was a kind of circus that traveled with him from town to town. Presidential candidates had to beg for the opportunity to shake his hand. He wouldn't pose with Herbert Hoover in 1928. "Tell him I'll be glad to talk to him if he wants to meet me under the stands," he told his reporter friends, who followed the Babe and all his exploits, fed off his furor, and were a crucial part of his endless circus train. "Without the Babe there wasn't an awful lot to write about," said Dan Daniel of the World-Telegram, who jealously guarded his access to the Babe until no one else at the Telegram was allowed to go near him without Daniel's permission.

Daniel and other sports writers such as Grantland Rice helped establish a "baseball nation" around Ruth. And that little nation was severely rocked when the Yanks got rid of Ruth after the 1934 season. The Babe was thirty-nine years old. He joined the Boston Braves, was hyped as the new sultan of the National League, but couldn't even finish out 1935. He quit after socking 6 home runs in 28 games, striking out 26 times, and with a batting average way below .200. He had become a jester and clown; dubbed vice president of the Braves, he made no decisions at all. on the field or off. The Dodgers would hire him as a coach in 1938; but again he had nothing to do. "He was like an ex-President, famous but useless," according to his biographer Robert Creamer.

He went hunting, he bowled, he fished, and he waited and waited, "but the call to manage never came." Owners didn't want this unmanageable man to manage their teams. He was reckless in their eyes, irresponsible. He couldn't be bullied. He was much too large for any of their domains. He continued to bowl and began to waste away with throat cancer. "The famous round face had become so hollowed out that his snub nose looked long," Murray Schumach wrote in the New York Times. His hair had gone all white.

"The termites have got me," Ruth told Connie Mack, owner-manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, just before he died in 1948.

2.

How are we to measure such a man when the truth is that he was unmeasurable? We can't find him in the records he broke, in his slugging percentage, in his bases on balls. God knows the games he might have won had he remained a pitcher for the Red Sox and hit only an occasional home run. He was far more valuable when he was their ace left-hander. They won three pennants with Ruth on the mound. But what if he had never been sold to the Yankees? Would he have seized our imagination in the same way?

It's hard to tell. The myth of Ruth was born and nurtured in Manhattan. New York, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world." Ruth became part of Fitzgerald's Jazz Age. And the heart of the Jazz Age was Manhattan which would introduce "a new kind of culture - mass culture - and a new kind of city - a city of desires and dreams." The Babe fell right into this city of desires, even though Yankee Stadium itself was in the grasslands of the Bronx. When he arrived in Manhattan, Ruth lived right on Broadway, as the Ansonia; a Beaux-Arts palace built in 1904, it quickly became the home and hangout of actors, opera singers, musicians, and Broadway impresarios. Ruth was its first and only baseball player. He would drop baseballs down its winding stairwell and practice his swing on the landings. He would drive down Broadway in a coonskin coat, visit jazz clubs with Bix Beiderbecke, and haunt Manhattan's nightlife. Ezra Pound had been mesmerized by this same electric life. New York, with its panorama of electric signs, made "the seeing of visions superfluous ... Squares upon squares of flames, set and cut into one another. Here is our poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will."

And Ruth himself had some of the same electric flare in a city where public relations bled right into the culture. He was "the first sports figure in history to be packaged like a product," as he licensed himself, like some human billboard that towered over Broadway.

He was "our national exaggeration," an outsized creature who stood alone. There was a sense of danger about him. He'd exploded onto the landscape with his "restless, roving energy," and neither baseball nor the country was ever the same. One might even say that he pulled baseball into the Jazz Age. The crowds that followed him everywhere - the sycophants, the sports writers, the fans - loved to see him clown. But they wanted much, much more than that. They wanted to live near that sense of danger, to feel the high drama that he could add to a game, destroying a team with one or two deadly swats of his bat, so that when he hit his 60th home run on September 30, 1927, in a game against the Washington Senators, the sports writers would declare "Ruth 4, Senators 2."

That was Ruth's real legacy. He was the Sultan of Swat, the magician of the long ball whose tape-measure home runs soon became a kind of national hunger, an addiction that latched onto baseball and never let go.

Jerome Charyn is the author of Johnny One-Eye, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, and The Seventh Babe, a novel about a white third baseman on the Red Sox who also played in the Negro Leagues. He divides his time between New York and Paris. http://joe-dimaggio-the-long-vigil.blogspot.com/


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