“Why’s this so good?” No. 24: Gay Talese on Joe DiMaggio
“Do you know how George Washington died?” my girlfriend asked one evening last week.
I was busy working on this piece, and in truth, I had no idea. Because after he kicked out the British, helped establish modern democracy, and became the first American Hero – never mind the first president – Washington left the realm of popular history.
Which, oddly enough, recalls “The Silent Season of the Hero,” one of a pair of magazine profiles Gay Talese wrote for Esquire in 1966. First came the perennially lauded story about Frank Sinatra, who happened to have a cold. Second was “Silent Season,” tracing life after the Yankees for Joe DiMaggio.
It’s always mentioned second, too. In most tellings, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is the best magazine profile ever written, while “Silent Season” gets kid brother status as the best sports story. Maybe it’s because I’m a second son, but to me, DiMaggio’s always been the better of the two.
Calling “Silent Season” a sports piece is a little misleading, because it doesn’t lean too heavily on the designation. The main sports action comes in a handful of words about a very specific stretch of games (more on that in a minute) and in its closing lines, when DiMaggio takes a few swings in a batting cage during spring training. Otherwise, it’s a short look into the life of someone who used to be famous.
Talese has said that his goal in covering celebrities is usually to show them after the celebration is done. That’s apparent in both of these profiles, and also in his writing about boxer Floyd Patterson, which just gets better as Patterson’s career gets worse.
That’s the reason DiMaggio trumps Sinatra, and why it’s so good: It truly gets to the heart of what it means to be a hero after your time is up, and the cheering has faded. Sinatra was still in the spotlight when Talese was following him around, with specials on two networks, a major motion picture filming, and a new album in the works. DiMaggio, on the other hand, has this:
[DiMaggio’s sister] Marie was in the kitchen making toast and tea when DiMaggio came down for breakfast; his gray hair was uncombed but, since he wears it short, it was not untidy. He said good morning to Marie, sat down, and yawned. He lit a cigarette. He wore a blue wool bathrobe over his pajamas. It was 8:00 A.M. He had many things to do today and he seemed cheerful. He had a conference with the president of Continental Television, Inc., a large retail chain in California of which he is a partner and vice-president; later he had a golf date, and then a big banquet to attend, and, if that did not go on too long and if he were not too tired afterward, he might have a date.
Depressingly ordinary stuff. But for the most part, all of that not-fit-for-a-hero minutiae is exactly what happens in this piece. He has a conference, plays golf, and goes to a banquet. (If he had the date, it wasn’t with Talese.) Those ordinary moments, though, serve as the springboard for a series of flashbacks that Talese uses to bring out the character of DiMaggio.
Reading his newspaper, “he turned to the sports page and read a story about how the injured Mickey Mantle may never regain his form,” and that transitions us abruptly to Mickey Mantle Day in 1965. Even compared with a modern high stakes act of shameless promotion like LeBron James’s prime-time betrayal of Cleveland, Mickey Mantle Day is a bizarre setpiece. Talese mostly plays it straight, listing, without commentary, the gifts laid before the Mick: “a 6-foot, 100-pound Hebrew National salami, a Winchester rifle, a mink coat for Mrs. Mantle, a set of Wilson golf clubs, a year’s supply of Chunky Candy.”
But then Talese dives deeper, with a second-level flashback based on the signs held by children in the stadium, and this happens:
The banners had been held by hundreds of young boys whose dreams had been fulfilled so often by Mantle, but also seated in the grandstands were older men, paunchy and balding, in whose middle-aged minds DiMaggio was still vivid and invincible, and some of them remembered how one month before, during a pregame exhibition at Old-Timers’ Day in Yankee Stadium, DiMaggio had hit a pitch into the left-field seats, and suddenly thousands of people had jumped wildly to their feet, joyously screaming—the great DiMaggio had returned, they were young again, it was yesterday.
By the numbers alone, it’s a hell of a sentence: 95 words, 10 commas, and an em-dash. But it’s those last seven words – “they were young again, it was yesterday” – that get at why writing about a used-to-be hero can be as good, even better, than writing about the hero in his prime.
Because when you break it down, baseball’s just a game about hitting a ball. For 56 straight games in 1941, Joe DiMaggio hit the ball and he got on base, and he turned the most ordinary, fundamental part of the game into something special – even heroic – by setting a record that nobody’s come close to since. And America, paunchy and balding, loved him for it: “DiMaggio kept hitting, and radio announcers would interrupt programs to announce the news, and then the song again: ‘Joe … Joe … DiMaggio … we want you on our side.’ ”
Back in the silent season, DiMaggio is a slugger no more. He’s the golfer hooking shots into the woods, the restaurateur with the select circle of confidants, the lovesick divorcé insisting on fresh flowers for Marilyn Monroe’s grave “forever,” and a pro-bono hitting coach for his old club. But he’s still the hero, so a bit of batting practice for a pack of sportswriters is an event, even if “obviously it was not the classic DiMaggio stance … there was none of that ferocious follow-through, the blurred bat did not come whipping all the way around, the No. 5 was not stretched full across his broad back.”
Walking out after only a few pitches, he was finished before he went in. DiMaggio vanished into obscurity, his future buried in shadows thrown off by the brilliance of his past. He might as well have been the late George Washington, dying from a throat infection.
Jonathan Seitz is an editorial assistant at Nieman Reports.