Sunday, March 8, 2009

DiMaggio’s diary - $33 a word

Joe DiMaggio died a decade ago today. He was one of the most famous of American baseball players, and is perhaps best known for his 56-game hitting streak, a record that still stands, or, possibly, for a marriage to Marilyn Monroe that lasted less than a year. There is nothing about Monroe, however, in DiMaggio’s diaries, and not much else interesting either, according to reviewers. Nevertheless, a variety of original pages from the diaries are on sale at $2,000-5,000 each.

There is no shortage of information about DiMaggio on the internet. Wikipedia’s article is a bit full of jargon, Notable Biographies is a much easier read, and the official Joe DiMaggio website has lots of photographs too. 

DiMaggio was the eighth of nine children born in 1914 to Italian immigrants, and grew up in San Francisco. He made his professional baseball debut shortly before his 18th birthday, and became a local Minor League celebrity. A serious knee injury slowed down his career down slightly, but in 1936 he made his Major League debut for the New York Yankees, in front of many thousands of Italian fans. He soon earned the nicknames ‘Joltin’ Joe’ for the power of his batting and ‘The Yankee Clipper’ after the transAtlantic ships built for speed.

In the 1939 season, DiMaggio won the League’s Most Valuable Player award, and in 1941 he created the record that still stands - a fifty-six-game hitting streak. (For non-Americans, the term ‘hitting streak’ refers to the consecutive number of official games in which a player gets at least one base hit, and a base hit is when the batter safely reaches first base after hitting the ball into fair territory, without the benefit of an error or a fielder’s choice.). He spent three years in the army returning to professional baseball in 1946 and winning his third Most Valuable Player award in 1947.

With injury problems having affected his play for several seasons, DiMaggio retired in 1952; the Yankees then, in honour of their much-loved player, retired his uniform number (5) so no player could use it again. Thereafter, he worked in television. He was married once before the war, to Dorothy Arnold, and then briefly - for less than a year - to the actress Marilyn Monroe after the war. In 1955, he was he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1969 a poll of sports writers named him the sport’s greatest living player. He died on 8 March 1999, ten years ago today.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Joe DiMaggio kept a diary from 1980 to 1994, although this was at the suggestion of his accountant so that he could have a record of expenses. In 2007, these diaries were acquired by Steiner Sports, which describes itself as ‘the leader in autographed sports memorabilia and sports collectibles’. Immediately, it announced that it would try to auction them for a minimum of $1.5m. The auction received plenty of publicity, and it was widely reported that there were over 2,000 pages in plastic protective sheets contained in 29 thick, black, loose-leaf binders.

According to Onion Sports Network, though, the diaries are not very interesting. They are merely a listing of all the things and people DiMaggio hated: ‘Jukeboxes, dollar stores, Paul Simon, Washington DC, speaking, Garth Brooks, myself, and automobiles. Also sore throats, Yogi Berra, films, Lee Iacocca, coffeemakers, anyone who has ever referred to me as Joltin, sandals, baseball.’

And the UK newspaper The Independent was not very impressed by DiMaggio’s diaries either: ‘His so-called diaries are a random collection of 2,000 pages, offering a clipped daily chronicle of events . . . next to nothing about Marilyn Monroe, and precious little even about the Yankees. Instead you find bland entries about dinners with friends, and endless complaints about the burdens of fame. ‘Swamped with the signing of baseballs - pictures - radio and TV,’ he writes of one July 1989 day in Anaheim, California. ‘Stress too much.’ ’

Although there were many reports of the proposed auction by Steiner Sports, there appear to have been none about the result. Presumably, the company did not find anyone willing to pay $1.5m, and therefore decided to sell - as it said it might - the great baseball’s players jottings one by one. Indeed, individual specified diary pages, some of them with only 150-200 handwritten words, are currently on sale at the Steiner Sports website for $2,000-5,000. Each page, it says, will be shipped in ‘a blue protective hard cover display’, however, it stresses, the purchase includes no rights to copy, reproduce or publish the page.

For example, the diary page 2 March 1992 is on sale for $5,000. Steiner Sports describes the content as follows: ‘DiMaggio had a very late breakfast at the club then met with a couple of friends who wanted to say hello before hitting some balls at the driving range. Met a friend at the range and decided to play nine holes with him. After the nine holes DiMaggio took at [sic] steam and had dinner at the club.’ The website shows a picture of the diary page, so I can calculate that there are no more than 150 words, and that therefore each word is worth at least $33. 

According to the company, the diaries detail ‘a myriad of memories’ including: ‘A visit with President Ronald Reagan at the White House at Gorbachev dinner . . .; a meeting with New York City Mayor Ed Koch; missing the final game of the 1986 World Series to receive Ellis Island Medal of Honor; sitting in George Steinbrenner’s box and talking baseball with the Yankees owner; reaction to Commissioner’s press conference on Pete Rose; the pressures of the 56 game hitting streak . . .; watching the Gulf crisis unfold on television; sitting in an airport lounge getting ‘high on diet cokes’. ’

However, it is not clear which of the pages for these events have already been sold, nor indeed how many pages in total have been sold since 2007. Nor have I any idea whether pages containing the following extracts have been sold or not.

28 April 1989
‘Up at 5am . . . Book people felt me out with questions pertaining to baseball. Some part of my private life but not too strong on that. Will not reveal anything in a negative way towards Marilyn - only books that have come out on her might have not been truthful.’

30 April 1991 (at Kennedy Airport)
‘. . . was asked for another autograph - just one interruption after another - people must think I have skin like an armored plate. Will get a checkup and find out how I’m holding up.’

And NBC Sports has these undated laments about a public relations frenzy and about travelling: ‘If I thought this would be taking place I would have stopped the hitting streak at 40’; and ‘Plane food should be fed to pigs’.

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