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." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.