Joe DiMaggio was a complex personality, to put it mildly. Aided by his dark and handsome Italian good looks, his model-like Adonis physique, his quiet and reserved demeanor, his flair for really fashionable conservative taste in the best of men’s clothing, and his radiant energy appearance as a sophisticated, well-educated man of the world, Joe DiMaggio owned the key to the City of New York.
Fellow teammates, the media, New York socialites, theater and movie celebrities, and even some world-shakers all tended to deferentially give Joe D. wide berth as the royal American guest to the best that the Big Apple had to offer. Famous club host Toots Shor fawned all over the needs of Joe DiMaggio at his famous Manhattan club. – You get the picture.
Underneath all of this external view, I’ve formed the reasonably stable impression that Joe DiMaggio was many things as the real person behind that “yield to my needs” power he obviously possessed over so many who gave him his start on his finally insisted upon reputation by introduction at all baseball events as “the world’s greatest living ballplayer.”
Inside, Joe was still a poorly educated son of a San Francisco area immigrant fisherman, but very intelligent to the effect of the image he projected to others. He knew he wasn’t the suave, wise, and educated man of the world that everyone thought he was. In the company of the literati, he was often exposed in small group table talk to words he did not understand. All the more reason he remained quiet, probably in the hope too that no one would ask him for his thoughts on the subject.
DiMaggio’s classic shyness, I think, was not the easy self-esteem problem that many of our pot-boiling social media shrinks today might think it was. Joe D. had many reasons to feel good about himself. He knew he was great ballplayer, he knew he was a winner, that young women were attracted to him, he even stood up for more baseball salary money in a 1938 holdout from the Yankees that cost him the affection of some Yankee fans and New York media types,
When Joe demanded $40,000 for 1938 over the club offer of $25,000, Yankee GM Ed Barrow pointed out to DiMaggio that he was asking for more money than the great Lou Gehrig was paid, the Yankee Clipper replied: “Then Mr. Gehrig is a badly underpaid player.”
Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert held his ground and Joe finally came around to something less than the original club offer, but he never forgot those who sided against him in the struggle, nor did he ever abandon the idea that, no matter how much money he had, he always felt he deserved more. If that’s anyone’s argument for DiMaggio’s damaged self esteem, I would not waste time in fractious argument, but I would ask: How many of us human beings have ever not wanted more of something from some source outside ourselves. On this level of understanding, Joe DiMaggio is only different from so many of us because he’s Joe “Freakin'” DiMaggio.
What really signatured Joe was the fact that he both wanted more of what he knew he had – and all of whatever everyone else thought he had, thought he was, and he thought he deserved that perceptual credit and royal treatment – beyond simply being a great ballplayer. So, in a way, Joe had to keep his mouth shut from being discovered a fraud on many levels. He was never the educated, sophisticated man of the world, and savvy dude that so many thought he was. He was just a savvy dude and one helluva baseball player.
People bowed and scraped in the presence of Joe DiMaggio until they day he died.
The wonderful late baseball writer, David Halberstam, tells this great story of how one of the few people who was allowed to be honest with Joe DiMaggio was Yankee clubhouse guy, Pete Sheehy.
“Once, when DiMaggio had been examining a red mark on his butt, he yelled over to Sheehy, ‘Hey, Pete, take a look at this. Is there a bruise there?’ ‘Sure there is, Joe, its from all those people kissing your ass,’ Sheehy answered.” *
- “Summer of ’49”, David Halberstam, William Morrow & Co., 1989, p 50.