(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Richard Ben Cramer teeters adroitly between the startling and the sympathetic in this blockbuster psychobiography of the legendary Joe DiMaggio, who died in 1999 at eighty-four. In effect, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life chronicles a variation on the Greek myth of Narcissus. The young DiMaggio falls in love with his own image, but so do hordes of worshipers who transform him not into a flower but into a split personality.

In matters of seeing and being seen, the “Yankee Clipper” (as DiMaggio was christened by broadcaster Arch McDonald, who likened the twenty-three-year-old center fielder to the sleek 1939 Pan American airplane) had to have a private life even before he became famous. As Cramer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, puts it:

Joe had a funny attitude about people watching him. He was sure they always did. That was fine on the ballfield, where he could be perfect. . . . But any other time, anywhere he might show at a disadvantage—well, it made him edgy. . . . He wanted to be well known at what he was known for—and for the rest, he wouldn’t be known at all.

As celebrities such as Greta Garbo and J. D. Salinger learned to their sorrow, they could not have it both ways. In 1941, when Joe hit safely in fifty-six straight games—believed by experts to be the most unassailable record in baseball—Joe DiMaggio was the most famous man in America, a man at every moment watched. However, there was much about his life that he did not want anybody to see. Gay Talese, a practitioner of the 1960’s “New Journalism”—a kind of parajournalism in which true stories are constructed to read like novels—broke the silence barrier. Writing in Esquiremagazine in 1966, he reported that the superstar, pampered by the New York sports columnists, was an unusually self-absorbed man, suspicious, hostile, often surly, and in private largely devoid of charm.

Around Talese’s theme of the two Joe DiMaggios, Richard Ben Cramer has built a 546-page monster of a book that ups the stakes for sports biographies. From now on, quickly assembled books by facile writers who draw their material from newspaper clippings and anecdotage will not pass muster. Mere admiration—even awe—will not suffice. For better or, in the wrong hands, worse, a biographer had better write to a thesis, the more explosive the better. In Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, Cramer is intent on stockpiling evidence that celebrity and the “hero machine” can destroy a man.

Two characteristically brief responses by the ballplayer define the tension of which DiMaggio was never free. Late in the 1947 season he was asked by Jimmy Cannon, a sportswriter who worshiped him, why, plagued by injuries and the pennant clinched, he was pushing himself so hard. As Cannon quoted Joe: “I always think, there might be someone out there in the stands who’s never seen me play.” Fifteen years after retirement, called by Talese “a great man,” DiMaggio protested: “I’m not great. I’m just a man trying to get along.”

To Americans, however, he became perhaps the first media star. In book, film, and song, he was celebrated in ways that he did not always understand. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the Cuban fisherman declares, “I would like to fish with the great DiMaggio. They say his father was a fisherman.” Singer Paul Simon’s lines from “Mrs. Robinson” begin: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/ A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Many used Joe’s triumphs—his enactment of a poor boy who from the start could hit a ball a mile, his marriage to America’s golden girl, his seemingly graceful (Joe was always blessed with grace) transition from all-star to icon—to advantage.

Joe signed the “hero” contract for life, for he had learned this early: His fans and, after baseball, his followers would give him anything as long as he played—even if it was a...

(The entire section is 1614 words.)