Say It Ain't So

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A question to ponder: how was it that Joe DiMaggio-a high school dropout whose favorite reading material was Superman comics, a man who was a lousy father, an unfaithful husband and a wife beater, a guy who was reluctant to enlist in World War II, someone who never did a meaningful day's work in the last 47 years of his life-became a hero? Simple. He could hit and throw and run with a gliding grace, and when he could no longer do those things he — well, he looked great in a suit. As Richard Ben Cramer shows in his absolutely persuasive DiMaggio: The Hero's Life (Simon & Schuster; 546 pages), Joe D. knew the power of silence. The less he gave, standing remote and noble and regally aloof, the more the world took it as evidence of dignity. Normally, you might worry about a writer's ability to draw meaningful bio blood from the soundless stone that was DiMaggio. But Cramer is an all-star reporter, and if his fertile prose at times sprouts too many colloquial tendrils and exclamatory blossoms, it soon gives way to the sheer muscle of his facts. Oddly, the book's weakest part is the section on DiMaggio's deathless entanglement with Marilyn Monroe. The rest of DiMaggio is rendered so vividly you almost want to look away. During his career, DiMaggio learned to squeeze every drop of privilege out of his fame. Every nightclub operator in New York City understood that if DiMaggio came into his joint, it was good for business-which was why no one minded paying the required couple of hundred. In the '90s, he demanded to be introduced as "baseball's greatest living ballplayer," insisting on first-class travel even if he was taking a cab from across town. But still, he did play baseball like a dream, didn't he?