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From his debut at Yankee Stadium in 1936 until his death in 1999, Joe DiMaggio made Americans feel good. "People used to pile around him like he was God Almighty. And everybody loved him and it was Joe DiMaggio and that was it," says Spec Shea, a former pitcher for the New York Yankees. At his prime, the elegante DiMaggio thrilled the nation with an unprecedented 56-game hitting streak and a starlet wife. But there was a dark side to life in the limelight: in the middle of it all, Joe was tightly wound, ulcerated, coffee-jangled, sleepless, and lonely. He had millions of fans, thousands of acquaintances, hundreds of pals -- and not one friend in whom he could confide.

"Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life" is produced by Mark Zwonitzer and written by Richard Ben Cramer and Mark Zwonitzer. Through the voices of childhood chums, Army pals, teammates and others, the ninety-minute special presents an unconventional, sharp-edged portrait of a man who lived a life of public triumph and private pain. Richard Ben Cramer narrates.

One of nine children, DiMaggio was raised in an immigrant Italian community in San Francisco’s North Beach. When Joe bombed out of school at age fifteen, no one even noticed. It was baseball that saved him from becoming a bait fisherman like his father. Joe started with the neighborhood team, but a few months later was lured away by a rival team for two dollars. Soon he was a hitter-for-hire on semi-pro teams around the city. "He could throw, he could field, he could do anything," says Frank Venezia, boyhood friend. "And I think deep down he knew he had it. But he never bragged. He never talked about it."

He got a tryout with the San Francisco Seals and soon his name was bannered across the same newspapers he had been selling just the year before. In his rookie season, he got hits in 61 straight games. By the time his streak ended, Seals Stadium was aswarm with major league scouts. Two days before his twentieth birthday, he was bought by the New York Yankees.

Dozens of sportswriters awaited Joe’s arrival at spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida. Now the hero machine swung into action. Radio, newsreels, and glossy magazines brought the shy and silent Sicilian kid into millions of lives. "Joe was the first one we knew like a friend," says narrator Richard Ben Cramer. "He was in our lives -- his stance, his smile, the woes of his famous and fragile body, the quaver of his voice." For the first time since Babe Ruth’s retirement, the Yankees drew a million fans. "When it comes to personal magnetism, you’ve either got it or you ain’t," wrote Lou Miley in the Daily News. "Gehrig is a helluva ballplayer . . . . but it is Joe, through no effort of his own, who captures the imagination of the fans."

By his third year in the major leagues, Joe was demanding $40,000 -- more than the Yankees were willing to pay. After a standoff, he had to swallow his pride and settle for $25,000. Maybe the Yankees never would pay him what he was worth, but as long as he kept winning there was money in just being Joe. Days were spent on the field; nights at Toots Shor’s nightclub or on the dinner club circuit.

It looked like Joe had it all: stardom, money, a penthouse on Manhattan’s West Side -- and a baby boy on the way with his wife, Universal Pictures’s "Oomph Girl" Dorothy Arnold. But a month into the 1941 season, Hitler was firebombing London and worries spread about America’s entry into the war. Once again, Joe gave the nation something to feel good about: From May 15 to July 18, he hit in 56 straight games. By the time it ended, The Streak would be part of baseball history.

Yet even Joe’s fame couldn’t keep his marriage from crumbling after just three years. "He was very jealous," recalls Dorothy’s sister, Joyce Hadley. "He would take off at night and go out, leave her alone and just ignored her. He’d get upset with something, and wouldn’t talk to her for days at a time." Age twenty-eight, Joe joined the army and spent the war playing baseball for Uncle Sam. But killing time in his quonset hut, Joe seethed. "The way he saw it," says Cramer, "the war had taken his whole life -- and cost him $130,000 in big-time, big-league wages."

In 1947 the hero machine’s potent new engine, television, made its debut. Against the odds, against time and age, Joe clawed his way back to the top in front of the largest audience in baseball history. Now he was Broadway Joe, squiring showgirls at the Stork Club, living like royalty.

After the 1951 season, at age thirty-seven, he left baseball -- the biggest winner in its history. Before long, he landed in the gaudy world of his new girlfriend, Marilyn Monroe; they married three years later. DiMaggio was crazy about Monroe, but he couldn’t handle the role and couldn’t stand her world. Their marriage lasted 274 days. Eight years after their divorce they were going to remarry, and then she died. "The fame had eaten up his life," Cramer says. "And now it took from him the one person who might have understood."

DiMaggio, on his own, had become an expensive commodity. "He could scarcely walk out his front door without being paid," says Cramer. But who were the millions for? He barely spoke to his son, Joe, Jr., who ended up homeless in California. In March 1999, DiMaggio died as he had lived: revered, extolled, subject of a frenzied commerce, in a national floodtide of sentiment. He had lived the hero’s life for 65 years.


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