Joe DiMaggio Gets Lawyered-Up

Review by Joe Rosenberg

coverDiMaggio: Setting the Record Straight
by Morris Engelberg and Marv Schneider
With a Foreword by Henry A. Kissinger
MBI Publishing, 2003

The book should really be subtitled “The Revenge of Joe D’s Lawyer,” as Mr. Engelberg was the Yankee Clipper’s attorney and business advisor for the last 15 years of his life.

At the time of DiMaggio’s death, Engelberg was criticized in the media and by DiMaggio’s definitive biographer Richard Ben Cramer, for the way he conducted himself during his client’s final illness.

Engelberg, a probate and estate attorney in South Florida, claimed he never took a fee from his idol (but did, according to Cramer, receive seven figures for writing this book and profited from the sale of signed memorabilia obtained from DiMaggio). This is all interesting to followers of 21st century in-depth gossip, but does little to enhance off-field the reputation of DiMaggio.

For those born after 1951, Joseph Paul DiMaggio was the best all-around baseball player of the pre-World War to Post-War period. Of his closest rivals, Ted Williams was a better hitter, but DiMag did better in the clutch. Teddy Ballgame also was an uninterested fielder. Stan Musial lacked the other two’s charisma but was the best clutch hitter and a very good fielder and is now, with Willie Mays, the best living player. (Segregation robbed Jackie Robinson an early start in the major leagues but he was the best all-around athlete.)

Until Gay Talese in the 1960’s unmasked the moody, selfish, kvetching DiMaggio in Esquire, writers fed the myth of a kindly charming man who cut a “bella figura” even in retirement. A bio by Maury Allen in 1975 was worshipful of the on-field icon, but showed readers the Clipper’s self-absorption and obsession with his second wife, Marilyn Monroe. Then, in 2000, Richard Ben Cramer let it all hang out in a well researched exposé of DiMaggio’s mob friendships, use of admirers as “go-fers,” and paranoia that people were making money off his name.

Engelberg and co-writer Marv Schneider do nothing to refute Cramer, as they note the same faults in DiMaggio. Further, this book takes great pains to put down almost everyone else in DiMaggio’s like, his family, ex-wives, and scores of rivals to Engelberg’s assertion that he was Joe’s main man.

It’s typical of the Engelberg that he drags Kissinger into the morass of invective—although Henry the K, in the introduction, just pitches the earlier version of Joe-the-stoic-hero in his superfluous foreword.

In the end, Engelberg uses Kissinger just like DiMaggio used his so-called best friend. As it is, Joe DiMaggio did little terrible to anyone—except friends and family in his last 48 years. All right—so he did adore some of his grandchildren. Overall, it was not a bad or evil life that he led. It’s ironic that Cramer, the disinterested reporter, shows this better than Engelberg.

Read both Cramer’s book and this one to get the unvarnished picture. Or—watch some video of Joe D batting or fielding instead. Those images, not his post-retirement behaviors, are DiMaggio’s golden legacy.

Joe Rosenberg writes from Northwest Baltimore.

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This story was published on May 13, 2003.