Joe DiMaggio, A Star With The Power of Silence

Originally published on March 26, 2011 9:22 am

For a couple of generations, Joe DiMaggio symbolized the word class. He was called the Yankee Clipper because he seemed to glide across the baseball field: stately, graceful and powerful. He set an untouchable baseball record of hits in 56 consecutive games, and he married Marilyn Monroe, who quickly jilted him even as he remained devoted to her through sickness, health and death.

But DiMaggio never appeared to be anxious, troubled or unruffled; he didn't bare his soul on talk shows and refused millions to write his autobiography. As Paul Simon, who put his name into a song, once said, "Joe DiMaggio understood the power of silence."

Jerome Charyn tries to find the key to soft-spoken DiMaggio's inner life in a new book, Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil. In the book, Charyn uses the phrase "idiot savant" to describe DiMaggio on more than one occasion: His magic was born on the baseball field, and abandoned him once he left it.

"Joe really couldn't function away from baseball," Charyn says. "That was his language; that was his beauty; that was his grace."

When he stepped on the field, everybody fell silent; but Charyn refers to DiMaggio's inability to cope outside baseball as "the sadness of his life," as DiMaggio fell into a state of being as "a legend without a purpose."

He'd met Monroe as his star descended and hers was rising, and Charyn argues that DiMaggio rescued her career at a time when she was faltering and lies about her past were being uncovered. At that moment, Charyn says, Monroe's first date with DiMaggio rescued her image, and they soon became the "prince and princess" of America.

Their relationship was tumultuous, to say the least, and with their lives in the spotlight it's difficult to say who loved whom, or who used whom. Charyn believes that their relationship ran into troubles because she suddenly had a sparkling career ahead of her just as his was ending.

"He wanted her to become a housewife, and she was very much involved with films and wanted to keep her career," Charyn says. "And he never could understand that."

DiMaggio's own career, in its time, reached impressive heights — he was the first baseball player to earn over $100,000. It wasn't the monstrous heights of salary reached by professional athletes nowadays, and so he still had to earn some extra income after retiring. Instead of shilling for a local bank, DiMaggio turned to selling his memorabilia, a choice that some found undignified.

"The sad thing about it," Charyn explains, "is that he could earn more in one day signing baseballs and bats than he did in his entire career as a Yankee."

DiMaggio earned that income during the memorabilia craze of the 1980s, and Charyn points to it as a sign of baseball's transformation from sport to big business.

Sports fans can put unrealistic expectations on their idols — "he was a hero, and we expect our heroes to remain heroic," Charyn says. At one point, DiMaggio had a television show and needed a cue card in front of him even to say, "Hello, this is Joe DiMaggio"; he was a communicator on the field, not in front of a camera. He had no language outside his form as a ballplayer, Charyn says:

"And that's why he was so spectacular," he continues. "Because you suddenly see a very silent man begin to dance on the field. And there's nothing more beautiful than that."

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

For a couple of generations, Joe DiMaggio symbolized the word class. He was called the Yankee Clipper because he seemed to glide across the baseball field: stately, graceful, and powerful. He set a modern baseball record, getting hits in 56 consecutive games that no other player has approached, and lots of experts say never will. He married a sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe who quickly jilted him even as he remained devoted to her through sickness, health, and even death.

Yet DiMaggio never appeared to be anxious, troubled or unruffled. He didn't bare his soul on talk shows, and refused millions to write his autobiography. As Paul Simon, who put his name into a song, once said, Joe DiMaggio understood the power of silence.

U: The Long Vigil." He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JEROME CHARYN: Thank you very much, Scott, for inviting me.

SIMON: You know, you have a phrase appear a couple of times in the book that I think is going to be quoted for years. You say, Joe DiMaggio was like an idiot savant, whose magic was born on a baseball field and abandoned him once he left it.

CHARYN: Yes, because it's very hard to find the key to Joe DiMaggio. I mean, Joe really couldn't function away from baseball. That was his language. That was his beauty. That was his grace. And anyone who ever saw him play understood that. I mean, there was complete silence in the field when Joe appeared, everyone was watching him. And I think that he could not function away from baseball and that's the sadness of his life.

SIMON: In fact, you refer to him, I think, after he leaves the game as being a legend without a purpose.

CHARYN: Yes. Well, his purpose was tied up with Marilyn Monroe to some degree. And what most people don't know is that he really rescued her career - that she was faltering when they first met.

I mean all these nudie calendars suddenly appeared. And also, she claimed to be an orphan, when her mother indeed was in an insane asylum, so that when this was found out she needed someone to rescue her. So her first date with Joe served as that purpose and soon they became the prince and princess of America.

SIMON: In recognizing that they're both gone and we are asking you this question to do that hardest of thing, which is to judge a love from the outside.

CHARYN: Right.

SIMON: Did they love each other or merely use each other? Did he love her more than she loved him?

CHARYN: I don't think Joe ever used her. I don't think he was capable of that. That was not part of his sensibility. He had a kind of purity, whereas for Marilyn, it was very much a career move. I think she did love him or did grow to love him. The problem was that he was a star descending and she was suddenly a much bigger star than he was. He behaved very badly in relation to her. He wanted her to become a housewife, and she was very much involved with films and wanted to keep her career. And he never could understand that.

SIMON: Joe DiMaggio, I believe, was the first ballplayer to earn over $100,000.

CHARYN: Yes.

SIMON: And I, what, Alex Rodriguez gets $100,000 by the time he losses his teeth in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHARYN: Yes, at least.

SIMON: So when he left baseball, although he'd made a lot of money and didn't fritter it away the way some stars do, he still had to work for a living.

CHARYN: Yes. But we have to remember that he earned, you know, during the memorabilia craze in the 1980s, now this is an extraordinary statistic...

SIMON: Well, I mean this is what I mean; he found ways to cash in on his fame...

CHARYN: Right.

SIMON: ...that some people found undignified, but what else could he do?

CHARYN: What else could he do? It was better than being Mr. Coffee or being the spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank. But the sad thing about it is that he could earn in one day signing baseballs and bats than he did in his entire career as a Yankee. So this shows what happened to baseball. It went from being a sport to becoming big business.

SIMON: Did fans, as we can do, put unrealistic expectations on him?

CHARYN: Oh, we always do. I mean, he was a hero and we expect, you know, our heroes to remain heroic. But he couldn't do it, you know, after he left baseball. For example, he had this show, the Yankee show, and just to say hello, this is Joe DiMaggio; he had to have a little card in front of him. He couldn't even read his own lines. He had no language outside his form as a ballplayer. And that's why he was so spectacular. Because you suddenly see a very silent man begin to dance on the field. And there's nothing more beautiful than that.

SIMON: Jerome Charyn, who lives in New York and Paris. His new book in the Icons of America series of the Yale University Press is, "Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil." Well, Mr. Charyn, thanks so much.

CHARYN: Thank you very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.