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Richard Ben Cramer chats about his book, 'Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life'

October 25, 2000
12 p.m. EDT

He was the leading baseball player of his time: Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper. He was known for his grace afield and for his well-tailored dignity off it. But DiMaggio wasn't the man presented in the papers, on television, even in advertisements for banks and coffeemakers. He was tight with a dollar, unhappy in love, an often difficult, aloof figure -- a tragic hero, if a hero at all.

Richard Ben Cramer, the author of the tremendous presidential campaign chronicle "What It Takes," spent several years researching DiMaggio to create the definitive biography of the Hall of Fame baseball player.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to, Richard Ben Cramer.

Richard Ben Cramer: Hello to all online, thanks for being here

Chat Moderator: What first drew you to the story of Joe DiMaggio?

Richard Ben Cramer: I think the story of DiMaggio was alluring precisely for its impossibility. There had been plenty written about Joe the ballplayer, and about Joe the icon. But about Joe the human being there was nothing until I began my book, more than five years ago.

Question from Haley-CNN: Did Joe DiMaggio get to read the finished project before he died?

Richard Ben Cramer: Joe never read this book -- nor would he have. He was absolutely against the idea of biography and in fact had turned down two million dollars to write his own memoir -- which, of course, he could have controlled. This wasn't personal to me. Joe had been hiding his life away for more than fifty years before I ever came on the scene.

Chat Moderator: Did he know about the book -- did you get a chance to speak to him or to interview him?

Richard Ben Cramer: He did know about the book. My first step when I began was to write him a letter with a full explanation. Thereafter I spoke to him a number of times -- but it was always about why Joe didn't want to help.

Question from Carol: did Joe send flowers to Marilyns grave until he died? I heard he always had them sent every year.

Richard Ben Cramer: Joe sent flowers twice a WEEK to Marilyn's grave -- roses always, which were her favorite. But in the mid-1980's, the increasingly cheap and irascible DiMaggio stopped sending the flowers: People were stealing his roses!

Question from JC2244: Who was Joe's best friend on the Yankee team while he was playing?

Richard Ben Cramer: Joe had friends when he first came up -- notably Lefty Gomez, the great pitcher known as "El Goofo" . . . but in latter years as Joe took over as the leader of the club, he was more and more an eminence in the clubhouse -- a man without peers. By the latter days of his playing career, he'd only hang out with rookies or others who held him in awe. The press always wrote about his fellow outfielders, Henrich and Keller as Joe's friends on the club. But Henrich told me in twelve years together, they never even went out to dinner.

Chat Moderator: What do you believe to be the most common misconception about DiMaggio?

Richard Ben Cramer: I think the most common misperception about all the players in those days was that they played for the glory of their towns, or the love of the game or other altruistic ideas. In fact -- no less than in our own day -- every man in the Yankee clubhouse played for the money, and played as hard as he could.

Question from Haley-CNN: Didn't Joe have an estranged brother, who was living on the streets of New York?

Richard Ben Cramer: Joe was estranged from almost all his family. He didin't speak for years with his older brother Vince (also an outfielder, in the National League), and he similarly froze out Dominic, his youngest brother, who played center field for the Red Sox. Joe was also estranged from his only child, Joe DiMaggio, Jr., who in fact drifted, homeless and addicted, into a wanderer's life. While the old man was making a quarter-million dollars per weekend, signing baseballs, Junior was living in a dumpster in California.

Question from Carol: How many were in his family?

Richard Ben Cramer: Joe was one of nine children born to Giuseppe and Rosalie DiMaggio, who were immigrants from a small fishing village in Sicily. The dad, Giuseppe, never made it big on his boat in the Bay, and in fact was mostly a bait fisherman. The upshot was there was never any money -- all the boys sold papers to bring home a little extra cash -- and Joe was nearly obsessed about money, piling up the cash, for the rest of his life.

Chat Moderator: Was there anyone who Joe was close to during his life?

Richard Ben Cramer: Joe had a series of close "pals" -- who were often more life gofers, idolaters, guys who'd do for him. This started when he was only 18 years old, but already the toast of the town in San Francisco. Later, in New York, Joe was surrounded by a clutch of admirers at Toots Shor's saloon. The one real intimacy in his life -- and the great chance he had for some happiness in the Hero's Life -- was his relationship to Marilyn Monroe.

Question from Carol: Where is his son today? Is he still homeless?

Richard Ben Cramer: The son today is dead, like his dad. When Junior got the little bit of money ($20,000 a year) that his dad bequeathed to him in his will, he bought a bunch of drugs and died from a crank overdose, only months after Big Joe was buried.

Question from Seth: Why did Joe hate Bill Clinton? I heard that he lied to avoid sitting at the same table as the President.

Richard Ben Cramer: That's true. At the grand Time Magazine dinner, March 1998, to celebrate the mag's 75th anniversary, Bill Clinton wanted Joe at his table. But Joe said he already had a commitment to sit with Henry and Nancy Kissinger. It was a fib, but his pal, Kissinger, backed him up. Joe detested Clinton because he was : 1) a Democrat -- and Joe hadn't admired any Democrat since the Kennedys had soured him on the party; and 2) he thought Clinton was soft, self-indulgent and a phony.

Chat Moderator: What did you find out that surprised you most?

Richard Ben Cramer: I think the biggest surprise for me was the layers of obsessive secrecy and suspicion which had surrounded Joe his whole life. I didn't really come to understand until I'd been reporting for two years . . . and then I found out that in the middle of the hero's life, Joe was scared every moment that we would get a good look at him, and then the whole thing could come crashing down.

Question from Haley-CNN: Are there plans to make your book into a movie in the future?

Richard Ben Cramer: There are plans to make a movie out of the book (although plans may be too firm a word). But the book has been optioned by Universal Studios, and producer Larry Gordon, who made "Field of Dreams."

Question from Carol: Who gets the money that his made off his products?

Richard Ben Cramer: The organization that marketed DiMaggio for the last few years of his life was called Yankee Clipper Enterprises. That organization was structured and operated by a lawyer in Hollywood Florida, Morris Engelberg, and it's he who sits on Joe's vast pile of money. The heirs in Joe's will were his "granddaughters" -- actually not blood relations but women whom Joe Jr. had adopted when he married their mother thirty years ago. But the granddaughters only enjoy the interest from Joe's trust. The trust itself and the tens of millions which Joe had piled up are all under the control of Mr. Engelberg (who, of course, drafted the will).

Question from Seth: Why did Morris Engelberg try to keep a park in San Francisco from being named after Joe?

Richard Ben Cramer: Morris fought with San Francisco, insulted the Mayor of New York and soured literally hundreds (or thousands) of people who loved Joe because Morris wants absolute control of Joe's legacy. It's not too far to go to say that now Morris Engelberg thinks he owns Joe DiMaggio, or is Joe DiMaggio -- or somehow he's working out his own personality problems.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Richard Ben Cramer: I think, to sum up, that Joe made a grand a glorious sweep through the century -- a big life and a fascinating life, for a guy who started in San Francisco without a lot of advantages. I have a lot of sympathy for Joe -- for the pressures we put on our gods. We gave him the Hero's Life, and he took it ... but I'm not sure he had many happy days in it.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Richard Ben Cramer.

Richard Ben Cramer: It's my pleasure. I hope to be talking with you again online, soon.

Richard Ben Cramer joined the chat via telephone from CNN Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and typed for himself. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Wednesday, October 25, 2000.

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