by Jerome Charyn. Yale University Press, 2011.
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This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of those sports records still considered to be unbreakable: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
While most of the books over the years — especially those written in a long-ago time, when athletes were always heroic rather than mortal like the rest of us — concentrate on the his accomplishments on the field, this year’s offerings (the other being Kostya Kennedy’s 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports), take a different and darker approach.
The subtitle The Long Vigil can be viewed in more than one way. In one, it represents DiMaggio’s need to maintain his status as “The Greatest Living Ballplayer,” a title officially bestowed upon him when baseball celebrated its centennial in 1969.
The dust jacket offers another angle.
Rather than the image of the Yankee Clipper in Yankee pinstripes, the photo — taken by John Vachon for LOOK magazine in 1953 — represents the main “accomplishment” of DiMaggio’s post-career: his love affair with Marilyn Monroe, which continued long after their divorce and even past the Hollywood icon’s death.
DiMaggio does not look especially happy in the photo, even though Monroe is smiling, perhaps whispering some loving nugget into his ear. There are no other photos in the book, as if Charyn did not want to intrude further on DiMaggio’s notorious demands for privacy.
One word is repeated through The Long Vigil: “brood.” Charyn portrays DiMaggio as a man who was never comfortable in his own skin, always wanting to be the best. He sought the accolades of an adoring public with one hand, but pushed them away with the other. Was that separation born of aloofness or an innate shyness/inferiority complex? Either way, DiMaggio was always thinking about his image and his place in the hierarchy of the game. He spent most of his life observing how the public observed him, both during his playing days and in retirement. On the one hand, he wanted to be left alone, Garbo-like. On the other, he wanted — needed — the adulation and was reluctant to share it with anyone, not Monroe, not Ted Williams (his main source of competition for the headlines in 1941, as the Boston slugger batted .406), not Mickey Mantle (who would replace DiMaggio as the face of the Yankees).
Can contemporary readers imagine what the hitting streak mean to to a nation on the brink of war? With no other distractions? Even the chapters that don’t focus on DiMaggio’s own accomplishments deal with his impact on the culture of the era. A section on Josh Gibson, a fixture of Negro League lore, had delusional conversations with the Yankee. “Josh’s sad refrain is perhaps the severest indictment of white baseball we will ever have,” writes Charyn. “He could only try and seek solace from its most visible player, Joltin’ Joe. But white baseball wouldn’t talk to Josh Gibson.”
Did DiMaggio falter in his later years as well? Charyn writes about the curious symbiotic relationship between the Clipper and attorney Morris Engelberg. Was he a true fan or just someone trying to take advantage of a lonely man working hard to not be forgotten? I’m still not sure, although the author seems to put Engelberg in a more favorable light than other accounts I’ve read.
Charyn has included baseball in several of his novels, most notably The Seventh Babe. He is obviously a great fan of the game in general and DiMaggio in particular, so this must have been a difficult project for the author. It’s never easy for a fan to grow older and realize the celebrities he or she put on a pedestal are just as flawed as everyone else. And, just as everyone else, ballplayers are dead a lot longer than they’re alive, including the “death” of retirement. It’s like walking on the moon; what can you do after that of any consequence?