In a day before hyperbole and spin

 

Deprived of basketball by petulant millionaires and waiting for the NFL season to reach meltdown point Americans have been diverted lately by the fates of Archie Moore and Joe DiMaggio.

Archie Moore died in the middle of last week, 84 years old and a living refutation of the dangers of boxing. He fought Marciano for the heavyweight title when he was close on 40 and heading for a career record of over 200 bouts.

Moore was an old timer and, trawling back through the stories about him, what is amusing is the sincere mint of his quotes about other fighters. "Most impressive. He seems like a tremendous guy. I hope I can match his determination with my own."

Looking back on Moore's career and that of Joe DiMaggio one wonders not just what happened with sport but what became of sports-writing. Moore it was who helpfully boxed an exhibition with the writer George Plimpton, an escapade which forms the centrepiece of Plimpton's classic book Shadow Box.

Moore just dodged the tidal wave of hype which would drown out meaningful discourse in the world of sport. Joe DiMaggio caught it full on the face.

The man who succeeded Babe Ruth on the New York Yankees has been lingering on the threshold of death for the past three months.

Like Moore he is 84. Unlike Moore he is part of the American sporting imagination, an emblem of finer things.

His health has dipped and risen with America following the line as if it were sentiments stock exchange. One minute DiMaggio was gone, the next he was discharging himself, a cantankerous, stiff 84-year-old in the California sun.

Joe DiMaggio. Between Marilyn Monroe, Simon and Garfunkel and Ernest Hemingway he is the sum total of what we knew about baseball when we were schoolchildren. Lurching blithely through the pages of The Old Man and the Sea there he was - "I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing," the old man said. "They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and he would understand."

And a bespectacled schoolteacher from Cork would look up and explain who DiMaggio was.

Maybe he would have understood Hemingway's yearning fisherman.

DiMaggio is one of those excessively mythologised men who grew up in the era before hyperbole and spin was taken as a young sports stars due. He was inflated and promoted by the media until he resembled the caricature clean cut hero. And all the while he was as lonely as an oak in a field.

For a while he was the most famous man in America, celebrated for his possession of all the qualities that make up graduates of the great American dream. One of three baseball playing brothers, the sons of immigrants.

There is a story about him which Red Smith tells in one of his perceptive pieces on DiMaggio. It was the custom on the New York Yankees that DiMaggio never spoke to anybody, never mixed with anyone and roomed only with his friend Lefty Gomez, who had licence to intrude on the austere wall of silence in which DiMaggio lived. One evening DiMaggio was in the company of sportswriters in Toots Shoors, the legendary sports bar in Manhattan, and Gomez passed the table. The sportswriter, looking for some relief from the industrial strength brooding DiMaggio was treating them to, hailed Gomez.

Gomez stopped and told a rapid string of anecdotes creasing the company into laughter and in a moment he was gone, whisked off in a caravan of revellers. And Joe DiMaggio, the greatest, most adored sportsman of his time, just said quietly: "I'd give anything to be like that."

Of course he married Marilyn Monroe, strolling innocently into the propellers of a woman who would splice him every which way before he knew he was alive.

The relationship smelt dead from the start. DiMaggio told his friend, the writer Jimmy Cannon, while he was courting Monroe that she was "a plain kid, she'd give up the business if I asked her. She'd quit the movies in a minute". And on went Jolting Joe, the Yankee Clipper, ready for the jilt.

Something of the resentful isolation he felt is captured in an exchange between the two of them in 1954, the year of their marriage. They honeymooned in Tokyo and while there an American army general asked if Monroe would make a patriotic gesture and visit the US troops in Korea. She glanced at DiMaggio, who noted stonily.

"It's your honeymoon. Go ahead if you want to."

And she did, making 10 appearances in front of thousands of troops. She returned to Tokyo breathless.

"Oh Joe. It was so wonderful. You never heard such cheering."

"Yes I have," Joe DiMaggio said turning away.

They were divorced within a year and through the late 1950s and just beyond DiMaggio kept kindled a sad pathetic hope that he and she would be reconciled. He kept that daydream beside his bristling hatred of the Kennedy brothers and when Bobby Kennedy came along to a testimonial day in Yankee Stadium he had to be hidden from DiMaggio's sight.

They remained friendly in the years preceding her death and by the time of her funeral DiMaggio's proprietary haul of resentments was such that he banned many of her friends from attending her funeral.

And yet virtually nothing of the contemporary writing about DiMaggio captures his bitter isolation, his sense of imprisonment within his talent and celebrity. His story is all great deeds and glorious summer afternoons with caps doffed to cheering crowds.

In the end he went home to San Francisco hoping in old age to escape the celebrity which shackled him for half a decade. What he felt about Hemingway and Paul Simon namechecking him is unrecorded.

In 1941 DiMaggio had his greatest season scoring hits in 56 consecutive games, The great New York Times sportswriter Arthur Daley predicted then that DiMaggio's record would outlast Babe Ruth's home run record. Daley has long since been proved right and this summer, during the rebirth of baseball after its death from greed, a big slugger pumped with androstenedione dispatched Ruth further down the league table. And everybody cheered Mark McGwire and pronounced him a fine and freckled graduate of the American dream.

Times change but the endless hype remains the same and sportswriters and sports stars live in bitter adversity to each other now. Archie Moore and Joe DiMaggio wouldn't know the neighbourhood of sports now but at least Jolting Joe saw the phoney PR times coming.