The DiMaggio Nobody Knew

Article excerpt

Exclusive: He died as he lived: without intimates of any sort, an object of feverish curiosity, walled up in impenetrable secrecy, swaddled in myth, without even a nod to the public's right to know.

Joe DiMaggio was our first modern media star, an athlete of extraordinary gifts and grace, a personage of regal dignity, an icon of American glamour. He was also the loneliest hero we have ever had.

In the end, he was free of the crowds that cheered and revered him, the crowds that made his fortune and that he detested. He always hated it when fans would interrupt him in restaurants, stop him on the street, ask him to sign. Now, at last, with the help of a roaring squadron of San Francisco motorcycle cops, Joe DiMaggio would make his last trip on earth nonstop, beyond all annoyance, in perfect privacy. Perfection was always the goal. Joe's brother Dominic, the old Red Sox center fielder, ruled that only family could say goodbye in the grand old church. Dom said that's what Joe would have wanted. Yet even among those 60 mourners, there were many whom Joe had pushed away in life. There were aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, whom he'd walked away from 50 years ago when he thought they wanted too much from him. That pallbearer with the gray ponytail-that was Joe DiMaggio Jr., whom Big Joe bitterly cut out of his life. Father and son never spoke. Even Dommie, the youngest and sole surviving brother, didn't speak with Joe for years. Only as lung cancer was killing Joe at 84 did the brothers try to repair the breach.

Still, Dominic knew him cold. In the vast, empty, echoing Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, Dominic made the eulogy ... and filled it with the records of which Joe was so proud: the MVP years, batting crowns, home-run championships and World Series winners. After all, it was Joe himself who insisted for the past 30 years that he be introduced (last-always last) as Baseball's Greatest Living Player. That couldn't be said anymore, of course. But to ignore the stiff pride would have missed this man.

Dominic made another point-this not as a fellow player, but as a brother, and once again a bull's-eye-that Brother Joe, for all the pride, for all the fame, all the love of the crowd, never found his life's partner. And that was his sadness. Dommie didn't have to say the rest-how in this very church, 60 years before, while 10,000 of his townsmen cheered, Joe took his bride Dorothy Arnold. That marriage ended in a nasty divorce. And certainly Dommie would never bring up Joe's other wife, Marilyn Monroe, whose death sealed Joe's solitary fate forever. He always thought it was the crowd and the Kennedys, the hero machine, Hollywood and its hangers-on, who were responsible-they killed his girl. Joe wouldn't permit mention of her name in life-why would he now, in death?

That was the point: he died as he lived ... without intimates of any sort, an object of feverish curiosity, in impenetrable secrecy, swaddled in myth, without even a formalistic nod to the public's right to know. Dominic was correct: that's what Joe would have wanted ... as the family in the church, the fans in the morning chill on the street who politely applauded his casket, as the nation as a whole looking in on TV ... said goodbye to the loneliest hero we have ever had.

There was actually a vote for the greatest living player, in '69, baseball's centennial year. By that time, Ruth, Cobb and Gehrig were gone. But Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400, was very much alive in memory and in person. The voters all had fresher visions of the modern greats-Musial and Mantle had recently retired, Mays and Clemente were still All-Stars. Still, it wasn't even close. Even dimmed by two decades' distance, one name, one man stood out alone. Joe DiMaggio walked away with the honor, as he'd won every other accolade in baseball-without apparent strain.

What was it about DiMaggio that set him apart-not just from players with whom he shared the field, but from every mortal who ever played the game? …