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Joe DiMaggio

The Hero's Life

Joe DiMaggio by Richard Ben Cramer
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Chapter 1

Joe DiMaggio sat on the tar of the playground, with his back against the wall on the Powell Street side, his legs cocked in front of him like a couple of pickets. At fifteen, Joe was mostly legs -- leg-bones, more like it -- and a head taller than his friends. It was Niggy Fo who gave him his nickname, Coscilunghi -- that meant "Long-legs" in Sicilian.

All the boys on the North Beach playground had names -- that meant you were in, you belonged there. There was Shabby Minafo and his brother, Bat (he only wanted to bat), and Hungry Geraldi (he could really eat); Friggles Tomei had those fancy feet at second base; Lodigiani they called Dempsey, because he once decked a guy in a fight; and Niggy, of course, got his name for his dark skin. They were always on the playground or on the street. Who had room at home? On this spring afternoon, in 1930, they were playing Piggy on a Bounce -- one guy with a bat, everyone else in the field, and one guy would hit till someone caught the ball, or caught it on one bounce, and then the batter had to take the field.

Joe was at the playground most days, too...but like today -- not exactly with them. He'd come out of his house, down the hill from Taylor Street -- but he'd sit apart, watching in silence, arms draped across his knees in a pose of solitary sufficiency. Or maybe it wasn't all pose. Joe was different from the other guys. They always wanted to play ball. They were desperate to play ball -- even if they could barely play. Joe could play. But you had to get him to play.

Bat Minafo and Frank Venezia always picked the teams. They were little guys, but pretty good players. They'd flip a coin, and whoever won would pick Joe. Guys would actually say, "Oh, you got Joe, you're gonna win." It wasn't just the way Joe could hit. (Even those mushy city-issue softballs, Joe could hammer them the length of the playground, a block and a half, into the swimming pool.)...But more than that, it was the way he was in a game. He had to win. That was the reason he'd play -- he wanted to win something. Sometimes, Bat and Frank would make everybody throw in a nickel or a dime, and they'd play winner-take-all. Then Joe would play, for sure. But playing just to play...well, mostly he'd sit.

In the long fingers of his right hand, he'd dangle a smoke in front of his shins -- if no one was looking. There were rules about smoking, but not for Joe. The playground assistant was a guy named Rizzo. He only had one arm, but he played a mean game of tennis. He'd throw that ball up, whip his racket around with the same hand, and bang -- the guy could murder the ball. No one but Joe could return his serve. So Rizzo let Joe smoke -- sort of a tip of the cap. Still, Joe was furtive, so no one would mooch. If he had a pack, he'd keep it in his sock. If anybody saw it, that pack was a goner. Mostly he'd roll his own. A pouch of Bull Durham cost the same five cents, but he could roll a hundred smokes. A nickel was something to hold on to in Joe's world.

At that Powell Street playground wall, he was at the center of everything he knew. There, arrayed in front of him, chasing that city softball, laughing at each other, tearing up their shoes on the tar, were the boys who were personages in his life -- apart from his family, it was almost everybody who mattered. That day, it was Niggy Fo, Shabby, Bat; there was Nig Marino watching from the side (Niggy was a fighter, not a ballplayer); big George Solari in the outfield; Hungry, Friggles, and Banchero in the infield; Ciccio LaRocca on the mound. And the batter was Frank Venezia, who was slapping line drives all over the lot (and laughing at Ciccio, who usually got him out with five pitches)...that was one reason Frank would remember the day -- he never thought he was that good with the bat.

They all lived within ten tight blocks. Joe knew their little brothers, who tagged along and tried to play. He knew their sisters, who played rotation basketball at the hoop past left center field. (Well, he knew the sisters by sight: Joe never said five words in a row to anybody's sister.) He knew all their houses, and who slept where. He knew their mothers, and where they shopped. He knew what their fathers fished.

On the left, past third base, was the boys' bathroom. Joe spent a lot of time in there, playing cards. Joe was good at cards. But that was like baseball: he wasn't just playing. Joe and Niggy Marino used to box the cards -- fix the deck -- or they'd play partners, and kick each other to signal for discards: five kicks meant to throw the five, two for the deuce, etc. By the time they finished, their legs were black-and-blue. But they went home with a few extra nickels -- money from the patsies. Poor Frank Venezia! He played all the time and never caught on they were cheating him. But that was Frank. He just thought he was lousy at cards.

Past the outfield, past the basketball and tennis courts and the open swimming pool, Columbus Avenue cut the playground off at an angle. Nothing was exactly square in North Beach -- a neighborhood of odd intersections and acute hillside corners -- because Columbus sliced through the street grid diagonally, from the office buildings downtown, north and west to Fisherman's Wharf. Columbus was the hub for Italian San Francisco, and the boys' window on the ways of the world. On Columbus, at the corner of the playground, they'd catch the F-car downtown -- Stockton Street, all the way to Market. After school, kids rode two for a nickel.

A block and a half up Columbus lay the expanse of Washington Square, the gran piazza, like a carpet of green spread in front of the great Sts. Peter and Paul's Church. The Italian Cathedral of the West was at that time only five years old -- Joe had seen the whole thing built. But its massive twin spires, the solemn gleam of the grand marble altar, even the bright modern classrooms for the School of Americanization, were designed to bear witness eternally to proud Italianità and the achievement of his parents' generation. On the grass in front of the church, the men of the community gathered every afternoon for coffee (maybe a little wine) and argument -- though Joe's dad seldom made an appearance. Giuseppe DiMaggio wasn't much for talk.

Near the church on Columbus stood the other institutions of the grown-up world: there was the Valente-Marini Funeral Home (you could pass from your christening at Sts. Peter and Paul's to a coffin -- hopefully not too fast, but all within a couple of blocks). Up the street, there was the community hall, Casa Fugazi, named for Commendatóre John F. Fugazi, a banker and one of the early Italian-American prominenti. At Columbus and Stockton stood the Bank of America, whose founder, A. P. Giannini, was most prominent of all prominenti. On Columbus, too, there was the library -- but no one Joe knew went to the library. The boys were more interested in other cultural sites on Columbus, like LaRocca's Corner, where the wiseguys played cards all day over cups of LaRocca's homemade wine. (Prohibition was an approximate science in North Beach, and Vince LaRocca, Ciccio's uncle, was "well connected.") And nearby were the nightclubs, the Lido Cafe and Bimbo's 365 Club, with their showgirls -- tall gorgeous girls, who'd come from all over...though not from North Beach. No Italian family had showgirls.

From Columbus came food for the neighborhood tables -- from Molinari's big new deli, and Caligari's bakery on Green, just off the Avenue. On Columbus at Green was the Buon Gusto Market, and off Columbus, on Powell, there was Celli's, where they made the best pasta and let you buy on credit. In Joe's crowd, there were months when everybody ate on credit -- say, before crab season began. Clothes, same way: without credit, you'd wear your big brothers' stuff forever. Every family ran a tab at Tragone's, on Columbus, for clothes and shoes. You could get the shoes cheaper at Gallenkamp's, on Kearny Street -- but that was all the way downtown. (And it was some kind of Kraut chain, strictly cash-and-carry.)

Three blocks west of the playground was Joe's first school, Hancock Elementary, just up the alley from his house. The school was built into a down-slope, so the recess yard in front of the school was a flat pad of concrete below street level. And a pathway, like a little bridge, led from the street to the school's main door. In that recess yard, the boys used to play a kind of baseball -- but with no bat: you'd just whack the ball with your hand and run like hell to first base, which was a basement doorway. Joe was the only boy who could smack the ball over the bridge. He had long arms and big hands he could swing like a hammer. That was his main distinction at Hancock. That and penmanship. One of the teachers, Mrs. Lieboldt, made her kids do every exercise in the workbook -- perfect round O's, straight lines crossing T's...then she gave out fancy certificates: "For acquired excellence in practical BUSINESS WRITING by study and practice from The Zaner Method of Arm Movement Writing. (The Zaner-Bloser Co., Columbus, Ohio)." It was the only school honor Joe ever won. (But everybody got one, even Niggy Marino -- and Niggy got thrown out of all his schools. Even the Ethan Allen School for tough kids, they threw him out.)

Joe's second school, two blocks east, was Francisco Junior High. Nobody made him do anything there. Joe and Frank Venezia used to sit in class like a couple of dummies -- they never kept up on the reading. The other kids gave all the answers. They just seemed smarter. Actually, Joe wasn't stupid. But he never wanted to open his mouth, say something wrong, and look stupid. That came from home. In the flat on Taylor Street, they talked Sicilian. Everybody laughed at Joe's lousy Sicilian. (Even his little brother, Dommie, made fun of him.) And shame was what Joe couldn't stand. He was a blusher. (That embarrassed him, too.) So, he just grew silent. His sisters talked about him behind his back: they thought he was "slow."...Anyway, Joe didn't have to talk at school. None of the teachers made him talk. They just moved him on, year after year. It was like no one even knew he was there.

Joe knew well enough to get along in his world. He knew how to strip the copper wire from dilapidated buildings and the lead from around the pipes. He could sell that stuff for four cents a pound any day. Of course, the way Joe was, he wanted six cents. There was a junk dealer who came up Columbus -- used to stop at the corner of the open field where the boys played hardball. They called it the Horses' Lot because the Golden State Dairy turned its horses loose there, afternoons and weekends, when they weren't out with the milk wagons. Where Columbus Avenue cut off the Horses' Lot (in left center field), there was a wall of billboards. That's where the junk man stopped to rest his horse. They called him Blue Wagon. "Four cent f'coppa..." Blue Wagon would say. Joe would mutter to his friends: "C'mon, Jew 'im down." (Of course, he meant Jew him up -- but that didn't sound right.) Sometimes, they could keep Blue arguing long enough to steal something off the back of his cart. Next day, they'd sell it back to him. Niggy Marino figured out how to wrap all the guys' wire together around a cobblestone -- and sell the whole bundle as copper.

Niggy was a leader. He could fight better than anyone -- and did: he had a bout almost every day. He'd take care of all the other guys' fights, too. Niggy led the raids when the grape trucks would rumble in. All the papas made wine in their basements, and the grapes arrived in big, rattling farm trucks -- tons at a time. When the trucks geared down for the hill in North Beach, Niggy would climb on the back, or he'd get Frank Venezia to run the truck down (Frank could run like a deer), and they'd throw grapes off to everybody else. Niggy had another trick when the pie truck showed up at the grocery. The driver knew the Dago kids would try to steal his pies. So he'd park where he could see his truck's back door while he was in the store. Niggy would saunter over to the truck, pull the back door open, take out a pie, and stand there, cool as an ice chip. Sure enough, here comes the pie man out of the grocery, screamin' bloody murder, and Niggy would take off. When he got around the corner with the pie man in pursuit, all the rest of the boys would step up to the truck and walk away with fifteen pies. They'd eat till they were sick and sell the rest, twenty-five cents apiece.

That sort of money could take them to the movies. Hell, the way they worked it, a dime took them all to the movies. One guy would buy a ticket at the Acme, or the Peni-a-cade -- those were the two cheapest theaters -- and then the guy who paid would fling open the back doors and everybody else got in free. (How's the usher supposed to catch fifteen guys?) It was movies that brought the roar of the Twenties to North Beach. Romance at the captain's table on some swank ocean liner, champagne socialites dancing in speakeasies -- the boys knew all that stuff from picture shows. When pictures started talking, in 1927, even North Beach was abuzz. But when The Jazz Singer finally arrived, they charged a quarter to see it. So Joe didn't go. Anyway, Joe didn't favor movies with a lot of guys in tuxedos, singing and dancing. He liked that desperate squadron of airmen in The Dawn Patrol...or tommy guns in the streets of Chicago -- Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar...or maybe best of all, Gary Cooper, The Virginian -- or Johnny Mack Brown, the Alabama running back (hero of the Rose Bowl in 1926), who now bestrode the screen as Billy the Kid.

Outside the picture shows, it was like the boom of the Twenties never happened -- not in North Beach. In Joe's world, the papas still woke in the middle of the night and walked down the hill to the wharf and their boats. They'd be back in the afternoon, each with a catch to sell, with nets to fold, with maybe a secret paper sack (illegal striped bass, to carry home for supper). In Joe's world, meat was still for Sundays -- and Mondays, when the mamma made the leftover scraps into stew or soup.

Maybe Joe's house was poorer than most: nine kids, and a dad whose boat wasn't big enough for crabbing. But everybody had leftovers on Monday -- and the same pasta underneath. All the boys on that ballfield could trace their personal histories back to the rocky Sicilian coast -- to Sciacca, Porticello, Ísola delle Fémmine -- all the parents came from the same poor towns. Even in the present, on this vast new continent, the lives they made (and taught to their sons) had the clammy jumbled intimacy of the village. Take LaRocca's Corner, up on Columbus: the building was owned by an uncle of the pitcher, Ciccio LaRocca. But the apartment upstairs was the home of the batter, Frank Venezia (Vince LaRocca was his uncle, too). And now that Frank's dad had died (eating bad clams), Vince LaRocca was trying to marry Frank's mamma. This was a world folded in on itself.

pardAnd the future...well, that seemed just as contained -- and alarmingly close. With Frank's dad dead, Frank would have to go to work, for good. Niggy Marino's dad was sick: Niggy would have to take over the boat. Joe's older brothers Tom and Mike -- they already had to go fishing. No one ever saw them playing ball anymore.

Joe didn't want any part of a boat. He couldn't stand the sea, the smell of the fish. But even so, he would have bet five to one his future lay somewhere between that wall on Powell Street and the foot of Columbus -- Fisherman's Wharf. At that point, he couldn't see how he would ever escape his father's life, much less the world of North Beach. He barely left the neighborhood now. Why would he? Except when his mamma sent him off to buy meat -- that was cheaper over the hill, a half-mile away, in Chinatown. And afternoons he made the trip downtown to sell newspapers. That's how he brought money home -- and escaped having to help his dad unload and fold the nets on Fisherman's Wharf.
That's why he was waiting at the playground, that afternoon. He and Frank Venezia would always share a nickel tram fare down to Market Street, to pick up their papers. They should have been on their way already. Joe never liked to wait. And if you showed up late, you could get screwed. They'd give half your papers to some other guy.

"Frank! Come on!" he yelled. "Are you comin' or not?"

But Frank was still batting -- Piggy on a Bounce. And he told Joe to cool his heels. Just a few minutes more...he was on a streak!

Joe sold The Call at Sutter and Sansome, near the Market Street trolleys. It was three cents for the paper and the kid who sold it got to keep a penny. On a good day, you'd come home with a buck and a half -- two bucks or more if the World Series was on or Lindbergh was flying. When Dempsey knocked out Firpo, you could sell 'em for a quarter -- people wanted the paper that bad. All the North Beach boys sold papers, if they didn't have some other job. Tony Santora worked at Hyde and Union, Shabby Minafo had the Standard Oil Building, Dario Lodigiani sold at Montgomery and Sutter, Frank Venezia was three blocks away at Battery and California. Joe had a good corner, banks on both sides and offices stacked on the floors above. By four p.m. there was a steady stream of businessmen heading home. They wanted papers. He didn't have to say a word. Joe's little brother, Dom, started hawking papers before he was ten (he took the corner right across from Joe) -- and even Dommie brought home more than a dollar a day.

The best spot was the safety zone where the Market Street trolleys stopped. That was Niggy's. Who was gonna fight him for it? In the safety zone, a guy would flip you a nickel, you'd hand him his paper and then dig around your pockets, like you had to hunt around for two pennies change. Half the time the guy's streetcar would come, and he'd say, "Forget it," and jump on his tram. Niggy was in tight with the wholesaler, Howie Holmes. One day, Howie told Niggy that some guy was giving his paperboys a hard time. So Niggy went and punched the guy out. After that, Howie would leave Niggy's papers in the safety zone. Nig could pick 'em up any time he wanted. Niggy made a lot of friends with his fists.

One afternoon, Niggy's little brother jumped on a streetcar to sell his last papers, but the conductor smacked him, and shooed him off the car. Joe got the number of the tram and told Niggy. The next time that car came through, Niggy jumped on, walked up to the conductor and hit him in the jaw with a straight right hand. The conductor went down -- change was rolling all over the car -- and Joe and Niggy took off, laughing. Joe still had papers to sell, but, for once, he didn't mind. "You hit him a pretty good shot," he said. Niggy nodded happily: "He won't hit no little kids anymore."

If Joe ever got in a beef, Niggy was there to take care of business. Not that it happened much: Joe never courted trouble with his mouth. And he wasn't the kind to push his way into someone else's fight. That was one thing the guys liked about Joe: he didn't try to be like anybody else. He didn't have to fight. That was fine for Nig. He didn't have to try to talk to girls. That was Ciccio's specialty. Joe was sufficient to Joe.

That's what Frank Venezia admired, why he liked to hang around with Joe. They were both quiet. But Joe was without need to talk. Joe was quiet at the bottom of himself. He had control. That's the way he was with a bat. Never eager, never jumping at the ball. He'd just stand there, while it came to him. Then he'd hit the tar out of it. That's the way he was about everything. If they had a good day selling papers -- they had enough to give to their mammas, and then some -- Frank would stop with the other guys at the U.S. Restaurant, on Columbus: fried ham on French bread, a big sandwich for a dime. But it wasn't really about the food. They were young, out at night, with money in their pockets -- how could they just go home?...But Joe would say, "You guys go on." And he'd be gone, with his dime still in his pocket. Joe always brought his paper money home. His parents were strict about that. But he always had some quarters, if he needed them, for cards. One time, Frank and Joe signed up for the Christmas Club at Bank of America. You'd put in fifty cents a week, and in December, you got a fortune -- twenty-five dollars. Frank gave up by summertime, took his money out, blew it that day on a new glove. But Joe kept going and got all the money. And that was his. Frank always figured that Joe's family didn't know about that twenty-five. The way Frank saw it, Joe was always a winner. And in his own eyes, Frank was always a loser.

Except today, with that bat in his hands, at Piggy on a Bounce. Frank hit for, musta been, forty-five minutes straight! It was like magic, like he could hit any pitch, any way, anywhere he chose. He could see the ball just sittin' there for him -- then he'd cream it. It was like he imagined Joe always felt....Jesus -- Joe!

Frank had forgotten about Joe sitting there. Frank turned around now. But Joe was gone.

That was the year they'd gotten so close. Frank and Joe had always been friends, but since that past September, they'd spent just about every day together. What happened was, they got to Galileo High School, and that's where their string ran out.

They were hopeless from the day they walked in the door. They'd sit in class, and it was like the rest of the kids had grown up in some other country. "Who knows this?" the teacher would say, and everybody else would stand up, waving their hands with the answer. Joe would look at Frank, Frank would look back at Joe: What the hell's going on here?

They'd never taken a book home. But they'd always got through with passing grades -- they made no trouble. The only thing they cared about was sports. But at Galileo, they didn't even get into gym class: they got put into ROTC, the fuckin' army class! As if Joe was gonna march around with a stick on his shoulder, like a stronzo. Forget it!

And then, Italian class! The teacher was Mr. Zuberti, a stuck-up Florentine or
Genoese -- from up North somewhere, where they thought Sicilians were scum. He'd pick 'em out. Conjugate this verb! (What the hell's a verb?)...One morning, Zuberti threw Joe out of class. Joe didn't say a word. Just stood at his desk and walked out, while everybody stared at him. His face was burning red. Joe heard the giggles behind him, as Zuberti sang a little song, in Italian, to Frank: "Oh, YOU'LL be the next to go..."

And that was the end. Later that day, in Mrs. Cullen's English class, Joe was sitting next to Tony Santora, and he muttered: "I won't be here this afternoon."

"Why not, Joe?"

"My father comes in with the boat about one. If I don't help clean up, I don't eat tonight."

Of course, that was bullshit. Joe missed most days at Fisherman's Wharf. But this much was true: he didn't come back to school -- that day, the next day, or any day thereafter. Frank started playing hooky, too.

They had the same routine. They'd get up in the morning, get ready for school. They'd have some bread, milk with a little coffee, walk out the door and turn down the sidewalk toward Galileo High...then they'd wander off to the park.

They'd hang around Marina Park all morning, watching the older guys with their "tops" -- a monte game, where the aces and deuces show up, and you bet against the come. The older guys were always trying to take some young sucker for a buck or two. Joe and Frank would take lunch along, or figure out some way to eat. They could never go near the Wharf: someone would see. The playground was out: they'd be spotted for sure. Sometimes, they'd spend a nickel for the ferry and ride all the way across the Bay -- mostly in silence. They were just killing time, like a lot of guys. In that winter, the turn of the 1930s, a couple of young men with time on their hands was nothing to draw a stare. One day, outside the Simmons Bedding plant at Bay and Powell, Frank counted fifty men on the corner. Nobody had anywhere to go.

About three o'clock, Joe would have to check in at home. That was the rule in his family, and Joe obeyed rules. He'd bang the door like he was coming home from school, say hello, make sure no one knew anything. Frank had no one to check in with at home. He'd go to the playground, to see if he could get into a game for a while, before they had to go sell papers.

It went on for months -- Joe and Frank hanging out all day -- until Joe got caught: the school sent a letter home. Joe got a beating from his older brothers. And he was summoned to see the principal, Major Nourse. (No one knew why he was called Major, but the title fit him: he was discipline, first, last, and always.) Tom, the eldest DiMaggio brother, took Joe back to school. But when they got there, Major Nourse wasn't in.

They sat on chairs in the hallway. And they sat.

They sat an hour, an hour and a half. The chairs were hard. They sat.

Finally, Joe said, "Tom. They don't want me."

"Okay," Tom said. They got up and walked out. And that was the last day Joe went to high school.

He promised Tom he'd go to "continuation class" -- the school for dropouts. But Joe never went there either.

For a while, he hung around with Frank -- who was still on the loose -- the school never cared if he came back. But soon, Frank had to go to work. He hooked on -- as much as he could -- at Simmons Bedding, in the steel mill plant. He tied bed rails into bundles and loaded them onto trucks. That was five bucks a day.

Joe tried his hand as a workin' stiff, too. He worked a week or so for Pacific Box, stacking wooden crates, or bringing slats to the men at the nailing machines. The work was stupid, and the money wasn't great -- ten, twelve bucks a week. Joe moved on to the orange juice plant. But that was worse: up to your ass all day in sticky juice, with acid eating into the cuts on your hands. And for what? He didn't even make a full week there.

There wasn't anything that he wanted to do, except to have a few bucks in his pocket -- and avoid his father's boat. He went back to selling papers.

Frank thought maybe Joe could hook on at Simmons Bed. They had jobs there, if you knew someone. And they had a ball team. Maybe they could both play. He would have talked to Joe about it.

But they weren't talking.

After Frank made Joe wait for Piggy on a Bounce, Joe had to take the streetcar downtown -- on his own nickel. After that, Joe wouldn't talk to Frank for a year.

Copyright © 2000 by Richard Ben Cramer
Simon & Schuster; January 2013
560 pages; ISBN 9781439127988
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Title: Joe DiMaggio
Author: Richard Ben Cramer
 
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ISBNs
9780684865478
9781439127988