In October 1965, Gay Talese, a young writer recently departed from the more confining pages of The New York Times, suggested to his editors at Esquire that the next piece he wanted to write was about Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was by then the mythic baseball hero to two generations of Americans, a figure of epic proportions, albeit an almost completely unexamined one, and Talese wanted to do a portrait of DiMaggio some fourteen years after his last game. What happens, Talese wondered, to a great figure after the cheering stops, and what kind of man was DiMaggio anyway? He knew the legend but not the man, and DiMaggio had always been treated by writers as a legend rather than a man. Off he set for San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the DiMaggio family restaurant. It would turn out to be the perfect union of reporter, magazine, and subject matter at a critical time in the history of nonfiction journalism….
What came through in Talese’s work was a kind of journalism verité, reporting profoundly influenced by cinema verite—the reporter as camera. American nonfiction journalism was changing at an accelerating rate in those days, and Esquire in the early sixties was very much the leader in the changes taking place, the magazine where young restless writers wanting to challenge these archaic professional formulas were coming together under the talented leadership of two exceptional editors, Harold Hayes and Clay Felker….
In addition the subject, DiMaggio, was perfect—because of the almost unique degree of difficulty he presented to the writer, for in truth he was a man who could not be reported on with any degree of accuracy under the old rules. The premise of what both Talese and Hayes were pushing at, and what would eventually be called the New Journalism, demanded a new journalistic realism, and at its best it stripped away the facade with which most celebrities protected themselves as they presented themselves to the public. In this new kind of journalism just coming of age the journalist was able to see these celebrities as they really were, not as they had so carefully presented themselves over the years.
And perhaps no celebrity was a better subject for that kind of reporting than Joe DiMaggio. At that moment he remained not merely in the world of sports, but to all Americans, a kind of icon of icons, the most celebrated athlete of his age, the best big game player of his era and a man who because of his deeds, looks and marriage to the actress Marilyn Monroe, had transcended the barriers of sports in terms of the breadth of his fame. But in journalistic terms, he remained a man about whom a great deal had been written but also, about whom very little real reporting had ever been done, and about whom very little was known.
Because the Yankees almost always won and because DiMaggio was the best player on those dominating teams and played with a certain athletic elegance (in the media capital of the world no less), and because it was a decidedly less iconoclastic era, he had always been treated with great delicacy by an adoring New York and thus national press corps. The essential portrait of DiMaggio which had emerged over the years was of someone as attractive and graceful off the field as he was on it. DiMaggio had rather skillfully contributed to this image—he was extremely forceful and icy in his control of his own image, as attentive and purposeful in controlling it as he was in excelling on the field, and he quickly and ruthlessly cut off any reporter who threatened to go beyond the accepted journalistic limits. Those limits were, of course, set by Joe DiMaggio. At the same time he was deft at offering just enough access—access under which he set all the ground rules—to a few favored reporters and he was particularly good with a number of columnists who were unusually influential in those days, most notably Jimmy Cannon, then of the New York Post, who often hung out with him. If you were influential enough, you were on occasion allowed to pal around with him, but if you palled around with him, you could not write about what he did or said when you palled around together. Over the years Cannon and a handful of others had created an image of a graceful, admirable, thoroughly likeable DiMaggio. No one had ever been allowed enough access to dispute that image.
Yet the truth among those who knew him relatively well was somewhat different: he was said (privately by people who did not want to go on the record) to be an unusually self-absorbed man, suspicious, often hostile, and largely devoid of charm….
Talese in time showed up to meet with him. DiMaggio, it turned out, was not happy to see him despite his earlier promise, and for several days did not return his phone calls. After almost a week of waiting, his calls still unanswered, Talese set off for the DiMaggio family restaurant. What happened then—DiMaggio’s almost lethal rejection of him—is what makes the piece so powerful—DiMaggio, dodging him in the restaurant and then calling him on the phone—both of them still inside the restaurant: “You are invading my rights. I did not ask you to come. I assume you have a lawyer, you must have a lawyer, get your lawyer!” All of this was shouted at him by one of the most famous and most admired men in America. It is the reader as well as the writer who feels buffeted and beaten up at this point, the reader who, like the writer, has dropped in on a much admired hero, ready to like him even more but finds that he is a very ordinary and not particularly likeable man; it is the reader who has his face slapped in the piece. The particulars seem to flow from that first scene, DiMaggio angrily handing back the letter he had written about an interview they had agreed on, the letter still unopened. Talese, it should be noted, did not bend under DiMaggio’s assault. He managed to ask for permission to hang out with Lefty O’Doul, an old DiMaggio pal and the most independent of the men around him. DiMaggio assented, and through O’Doul, Talese finally began to connect to DiMaggio and his inner group. What we end up with is an evocative portrait of a great ballplayer long after his last game is over, and we have a powerful sense of his loneliness and his essential separation from almost everyone around him….
…I still believe this is the best magazine piece I ever have read…. Talese’s…impact on his contemporaries was simply stunning, and here I speak not merely for my generation but for myself. I can remember distinctly reading the DiMaggio piece—it was the spring of 1966 and I was still working in the Paris bureau of The New York Times after being expelled from Eastern Europe—I simply devoured it. By the time I finished reading it I had decided to get out of daily journalism. That one piece, it struck me, was worth everything I had written in the past year. Within a year I had left the Times to become a contract magazine reporter for Willie Morris at Harper’s, an editor who was trying to emulate what Harold Hayes and a number of other editors were then doing with what had been up until then a rather stodgy magazine.
It strikes me that the Talese piece reflects a number of things that were taking place in American journalism at the time—some twenty years after the end of World War II. The first thing is that the level of education was going up significantly, both among writers and among readers. That mandated better, more concise writing. It also meant that because of a burgeoning and growing paperback market, the economics of the profession were getting better: self-employed writers were doing better financially and could take more time to stake out a piece. In the previous era, a freelance writer had to scrounge harder to make a living, fighting constantly against the limits of time, more often than not writing pieces he or she did not particularly want to write in order to subsidize the one or two pieces the writer did want to do….
The DiMaggio piece took some six weeks of legwork. By contrast some of his lineal successors picked up the form but not the substance of what he did; they did not put in the man hours, and as such their work was always notably thinner, and seemed to lack the density and thus the grace of his work.
From the book “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century,” edited by David Halberstam, series editor Glenn Stout. Introduction © 1999 by David Halberstam. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.