It's hard to pinpoint what it is exactly that differentiates popular personalities from legitimate folk heroes. There are a few figures in 20th century American history who are on the borderline: Douglas MacArthur, John F. Kennedy, perhaps Jack Dempsey. These are some who were loved by the great majority of people, but also hated by many, Franklin D. Roosevelt for one. And in rare instances, there are men who reach the peak of adulation, only to fall from favor and wind up mistrusted and disliked; Charles A. Lindbergh is the premiere example. Finding the genuine hero, someone whom an entire nation idolized, cared for, and most importantly identified with, is a difficult task. Yet few could contest the claim that Joe DiMaggio belongs in this last category.
Refugees from Hitler who arrived in American in the late 30's and early 40's used to say that they discovered it was easy to get around without knowing English. The only two words you had to be able to say were Joe DiMaggio. A number of ballplayers have hit for higher average, many have exceeded his home run total, a few have even had better arms, according to sprotswriters who claim to be able to quantify an immeasurable like throwing a runner out, under pressure, from deep center. But no other athlete, in fact pretty much no one in any field won himself as significant a place in the national consciousness as DiMaggio.
What made DiMaggio so special is a combination of factors. He broke into the majors in 1936. The economy was picking up steam, the second New Deal was about to begin--working people again had work, and money to spend in their leisure time. He was a first generation American, the son of Italian immigrants, who grew to prominence in a period when Americans, and particularly ethnics, perceived of the United States, or at least wanted to, as a land of boundless opportunity. The human interest stories about DiMaggio and his too numerous to count brothers filled the newspapers, alongside stories about Anschluss and Blitzkrieg, giving Americans a sense of apartness, of pride, and of security. The dream still worked over here, no matter what was happening on "the other side."
And finally, DiMaggio was a winner: he played for the Yankees when the Yankees were a conglomerate of the best talent in the game and their consistency and durability were as steady as the tide.
Maury Allen doesn't get any deeper than a surface recount of DiMaggio's career. He describes the 1941 batting streak in vivid and exciting detail, offers some insight into DiMaggio's longstanding feud with the late Casey Stengel, and shares a few until now unreported tidbits about Marilyn Monroe and Joe. But mostly he allows old ex-Yankees to do the talking and many of them, particularly Lefty Gomez whose monologue goes on for pages, have a propensity for talking more about themselves than about DiMaggio.
Allen is a first-rate sportswriter for The New York Post, and if this biography was divided into a series of newspaper columns and published in the Post, it would probably hold up a good deal better. The stories are certainly interesting--how DiMaggio related to his teammates, how he held up under the pressure of the batting streak, what he did with himself in retirement. But it just doesn't seem to go anywhere specific. And sometimes it is remarkable in its total simplicity. We're never told why DiMaggio remained completely enraptured with Marilyn Monroe, 13 years after her death, even to the point of ending his relationship with longtime best friend Toots Shot, when Toots made a disparaging remark about Marilyn. Not that romance is ever subject to logical analysis, but it does seem that Allen could have made something of an attempt to deal with this crucial factor in DiMaggio's life.
Allen also makes little effort to explain DiMaggio's hero status--he alludes frequently to the fact that DiMag was somehow different from everyone else in Allen's owneyes and in the nation's, but he doesn't give any hint of why. He begins the book, "I was fifteen when I first touched Joe DiMaggio. He doesn't remember it. I can never forget it." This is undoubtedly an accurate portrayal of his and others' sentiments, but to treat DiMaggio as a phenomenon and leave it at that is to skirt the issue.
In short, Allen leaves us still waiting to find out who Joe DiMaggio was and why he represented all that he did. He has done the legwork and provided a biographical base. But someone else will have to do the hard analysis.
Perhaps, as Allen and many others say in the book, no one ever really knew Joe DiMaggio. Even Marilyn never understood what it meant to be DiMaggio. Story goes that is 1954, when Marilyn returned from entertaining troops in Korea, she said to DiMag, "Joe, you've never heard such cheering." DiMaggio replied softly, "Yes I have."