It's the greatest spectator sport in the country," says Gov. Frank Skeffington in Edwin O'Connor's rich novel of Americana, The Last Hurrah. "People begin as strangers and in a little while they know the names and numbers of all the players; a little while more, and they're telling the coaches how to run things. They wouldn't play the game for ten thousand dollars, but it's great fun to sit in the stands and look on. I must say I can understand how they feel; it is exciting to watch."
The esteemed governor knew how to wield a metaphor--he wasn't talking about baseball, football or basketball, but about that other great American sport, politics. It's now October 2000, in the homestretch of a presidential campaign that will be put on semihold as the World Series occupies the nation's attention for the remainder of the month. Publishing's own "Mr. October," Richard Ben Cramer, a man equally at home on the baseball diamond or in a smoke-filled room, is, in fact, in search of just that--a smoke-filled room--as he meets PW at the midtown offices of his publisher, Simon & Schuster. The smoke-free corporate environment is not for the cigar-chomping Cramer, and the search begins for a spare office on another floor. Cramer becomes a blur, all shirt and suspenders, until an office is found, a window is opened, a match is struck and the talk quickly turns to two things that Cramer knows best--politics and baseball. Both are played with a hardball, but what makes them so captivating to Cramer? "Both have another connection," he says, "which is this: they're subjects much written about, that garner a lot of interest and a lot of ink, but in both cases I thought that there was a real space for someone to come in and do the hard work that never gets done."
In 1992, Cramer's hard work resulted in What It Takes, a 1,047-page history of the 1988 race for the White House published by Random House that leaves the reader alternately feeling sandbagged, laughing uncontrollably out loud, or embarrassed for the candidates themselves. Politics is show business for ugly people, it's often been said, so it wasn't much of a leap for Cramer to go from the dour conformities of the likes of Bush, Dole, Hart and Dukakis to the glamour of baseball, Hollywood and the glittering personas of J DiMaggio and Marilyn Monr . J DiMaggio: The Hero's Life examines an American icon and makes allegations about the revered Yankee Clipper and his dealings with Monr and the mob. It also details DiMaggio's final years on the baseball memorabilia circuit that will leave J D admirers angry, aghast or in denial.
DiMaggio died in 1999 just around the time the publisher was ready to do the book, Cramer says, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter wasn't satisfied; he knew there was more to the story."Once he died," says Cramer, gesticulating, stogie in hand, "the book really changed from journalism to history. And so there was a kind of calmer tone that was required and a fuller treatment of the times in which he lived and the world that he came into and the world as he left it. It's a much better book after he died; not only d s it have new information but it's much more ambling and tranquil in tone."
"He was J DiMaggio, and that was his business. He always was served and hosted--he was America's guest."
DiMaggio's death opened the flood gates. "Not only the people who wouldn't talk to me for four years," confides Cramer, "but the people who had talked to me, they all wanted to come back and tell me something more that they hadn't been able to tell me."
The results of Cramer's excavation of DiMaggio's life are shocking. On Marilyn Monr : Cramer documents how DiMaggio beat her up on at least three different occasions, the most prominent time being the evening after Monr filmed the famous scene with her dress flying up over her waist as she stands over a New York City subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. "That was the fight," says Cramer, "that really convinced her that there was no future with J ." After Monr 's divorce from Arthur Miller, she and J reconciled, and Cramer claims DiMaggio planned to remarry her on August 8, 1962--which turned out to be the day of Monr 's funeral.
On the mob: the gangsters that DiMaggio knew constituted a Hall of Fame of Godfathers: Albert Anastasia, Sam Giancana and Frank Costello. "It wasn't that J sought them out," Cramer contends. "They had to have DiMaggio. What good was being the king of the rackets in Newark, N.J., if you couldn't have DiMaggio at your dinner table?" Cramer alleges that the two biggest financial coups that DiMaggio received from the mob were from a trust account at the Bowery Bank set up by Frank Costello that eventually netted DiMaggio over $1 million dollars and from Jewish gangster Longy Zwillman, who secretly asked DiMaggio to keep three of his "boxes" for safekeeping. When Longy was wiped out by his fellow mobsters, DiMaggio discovered he had well over $500,000 in cash--tax free.
On Morris Engelberg and the booming baseball memorabilia business, where DiMaggio made up to $250,000 for a weekend's work: Engelberg, a lawyer, has made a second career for himself as the self-anointed longtime "friend" and trusted "confidant" to DiMaggio. Cramer alleges that Engelberg surreptitiously hijacked many of the products that DiMaggio autographed--worth well over a million dollars. Cramer is blunt in his characterization of Engelberg. "Theft," he says evenly, "is always illegal." In the book are letters from Engelberg's lawyers basically telling Cramer to "cease and desist." And with the publication of J DiMaggio, Cramer is ready for more heat. "I would expect that he'll turn his threats into reality, yeah," says Cramer with no trace of fear. "I personally made the mistake of thinking that Morris was just a nut. Morris was, in fact, the last stop of the train. If you look at life like J did, where every new person is somebody who is going to try to eat a chunk of your life or take a piece of you, well, the logical last step is the guy who wants to eat it all."
Cramer leaves no stone unturned in his hunt for DiMaggio the man. He was a true natural on the baseball field; off the field, he was perhaps the first "pampered" athlete in what was has become an age of pampered athletes. "People think of DiMaggio as the exemplar of a 'golden age,' and in some ways he was. But in the most fundamental ways, he was really the first modern athletic superstar because, number one, he ushered in the era of big money; and number two, he never did anything except that--he never really took another job in another industry. He was J DiMaggio and that was his business. He always was served and hosted--he was America's guest. And I really I don't think we would have the athletes that we have today and the social system in which they live without DiMaggio and what he did."
Cramer also surveys how notoriously cheap--and that's the only bare-knuckled adjective that can be applied here--DiMaggio was. Perhaps because he came from a background of near poverty, even as a kid he would manipulate people for money. In fact, the first time he went to a brothel as a teenager, a friend paid for it--$1.50. "His disinclination to spend didn't stop with sex. Free lodging, free food, free clothes, free transportation, free everything." Throughout his life, DiMaggio--although he didn't have a remotely ostentatious lifestyle--would do anything to save a buck, from putting off a divorce with his first wife to changing his residency to Florida to avoid the California state income tax. Cramer also says that DiMaggio's claim that all his World Series rings--except the '36 ring that he always wore--were stolen is false. He bartered and sold them.
Every part of Joltin' J 's personal life is scrutinized, even down to the parameters of his physical endowment. "I have it on good authority," says Cramer with a laugh.
While the storm brews about DiMaggio, controversy and danger are nothing new to the 50-year-old Cramer. Born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., he earned an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University in 1972 and went to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He won a Pulitzer in 1979 for his reporting from the Middle East. He also covered the Iran hostage crisis before moving on to the next hot spot--Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. "I was with the mujaheddin, the rebels, and they were fighting against the Russians, and they would bring me along. Some of the adventures, when I look back at them now, it's a wonder I'm still around."
Having survived both the Middle East and Afghanistan, Cramer became a freelance magazine writer, which had its own perils. "I worked at that for about three years, more or less," he says, laughing, "until I figured out that every story I wrote, I lost money." During this period his first book, Ted Williams: The Season of the Kid (Prentice Hall, 1991), took shape. "The history of that book is that I wrote a long piece in 1986 for Esquire, about 15,000 words," recalls Cramer. "I think they ran 13,000, and years later, Dan Okrent, who's a wonderful editor and author on baseball, called me up and asked me if he could use the full version of that as a coffee-table book about Ted, and I said, absolutely, go right ahead. I had days with Ted; it was wonderful. He's a great man. A big-hearted, large, wonderful man."
Seeking a more financially secure life, Cramer looked to get another book contract. "Basically, I was looking for a book that I thought played to the strength of a reporter," Cramer says, "but that wasn't being done somehow. I was reading all the presidential books, but I never got the sense of these human beings who were running. It seemed to me we lost the thing I loved in Teddy White, which was sitting in the back room with Kennedy. So I proposed to David Rosenthal, who was then at Random House, that I would go out and do the candidates themselves, rather than their tactics. And David, bless his heart, said, 'OK.' Now, think of trying to sell this book. You come into Random House and say, 'Listen, I need a hell of a lot of money, but I can't exactly tell you what the story is and I'm not sure who the candidates will be. But just trust me.'"
With agent Flip Brophy of the Sterling Lord Literistic Agency handling the chores (as she would on all his book projects), the massive work on What It Takes began. It's a book filled with anecdote, characterization and at times mind-numbing minutiae. While it's about the 1988 presidential campaign, the book describes several incidents that echo in the 2000 campaign of George W. Bush. Most astonishing is the instance in 1988 when Vice-President Bush referred to Leslie Stahl of CBS News as a "pussy," then refused to apologize for it. George W. Bush acted up similarly when he was caught making an off-color remark about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, and also refused to apologize. PW asked Cramer if he didn't sense a touch of hypocrisy in Governor Bush since he's always preaching about bringing civility back to the White House. "Well," says Cramer, "you know, in the Bush household--and I'm going back years now; I'm going back generations--good manners were always taught and always prized. But at the dinner table, a comment might be made about somebody that finishes that guy forever in the household. And that was how business was conducted."
Cramer has real affection for the Bushes. "I love Dubya," he says forthrightly. "He saved my bacon with the first book. He's the guy who got me in to see his dad and took me to play golf and brought me up to Kennebunkport. He's a wonderful fellow."
These days, Cramer spends time with his wife and daughter in Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. As a writer, he strives for steady production every day. "My rule for myself is, 'a thousand words that are keepers' or you've got to sit there for eight hours," he says, laughing.
PW asks about his latest project. "I hope I have a project coming up," he says with the trepidation of the working writer. "I have a story that comes from my own family that I've always wanted to write. It's a family story, but it's a story of immigrants and business--the America Dream."
Baseball, politics and the American Dream. Richard Ben Cramer is also a lot like Frank Skeffington in another way--he knows where the bodies are buried. Perhaps, in the end, they'll say to Cramer as they said to Skeffington: "You've done grand things. Grand, grand things." And like Skeffington, Cramer will cryptically reply, "Among others."