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Hard Times for Heroes
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Richard Ben Cramer

      . . .Pulitzer Prize winning reporter/author. Acclaimed for his influential best-seller, What it Takes:  The Way to the White House, for Joe DiMaggio, The Hero‚s Life, and for his writing about Ted Williams, Mr. Cramer is a journalist whose dispatches from the Middle East for „The Philadelphia Inquirerš won the Pulitzer for International Reporting in 1979. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Time and Newsweek.

Excerpts3:42 secs

      Everybody loves a hero. Or do we? The very idea of „heroš reflects as much about the times in which a person lives as the person who fits the bill.  Joe DiMaggio was a hero of and for an America looking for Mr. Perfect in a time when America longed for the unambiguous and craved certainty. Joe delivered. In return, America idolized him.

      But Richard Ben Cramer, in examining the person behind the DiMaggio icon, found that America loved its creation, not the man trapped by his own legend, alone and obsessed by money. Why the compulsion for money when at his death, Joe was still the highest paid player in baseball? Because that‚s how Joe kept score. And Joe had to be Number One. Mr. Perfect.

      Richard Ben Cramer did not set out to diminish the celebrated one-dimensional character DiMaggio, an idol created in the 40s and 50s by a captive press corps. (The sports reporters were paid by the ballclub owners.) But the real Joe -- son of Sicilian immigrants, a kid who was inarticulate and lousy in school, with no reason to expect to benefit from America‚s bounties -- is who captured Mr. Cramer‚s attention. And on closer inspection, the real Joe turns out to be a lot more interesting than the cardboard figure who struck a lucrative 65 year deal with America.

      Joe DiMaggio was a perfect fit for the public‚s pigeonhole marked „Mr. Perfect.š We paid him well for squeezing into that straitjacket. But the great DiMaggio paid a great price for his elevation -- Mr. Cramer tells us Joe never grew up and was weighed down by a sadness on an operatic scale.

      Public figures are as complex as we are, Mr. Cramer reminds us. Comparing Joe DiMaggio to the presidential candidates on whom Mr. Cramer reported in his best-selling and influential book _What It Takes: The Way to the White House_, Mr. Cramer shares his growing distrust of America‚s insidious demand for perfection in our heroes. Real heroes -- heroes like Odysseus -- have warts and failings and things to teach us about ourselves, says Mr. Cramer. And these are things we need to know but do not get when we demand perfection or accept mind-candy pseudo-heroes.

      e are more likely to find public figures heroic if we allow them to live among us like human beings, Mr. Cramer insists. Value them for what‚s really great about them. It would also realign us with what‚s really heroic about America -- a nation founded on ideas, not individuals, committed to the notion that no person should be raised by a myth-making process to kingly status. When we are true to those ideas about people and the lives we live, Mr. Cramer suggests we will be much closer to finding the heroes for whom we long.

[This Program was recorded October 24, 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Richard Ben Cramer describes the „iron masksš Americans put on would-be heroes for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Mr. Cramer compares Joe DiMaggio‚s era to today.

Conversation 2

The changing role of the press is seen in politics and sports over decades. Mr. Cramer describes the juggernaut of the sports business during DiMaggio‚s time, comparing it to today. The window of independence that opened after DiMaggio is closing again, Mr. Cramer reports, then expands on why the renewed concentration, inside both sports and the media, matters.  He describes DiMaggio as a prisoner to his public persona and elaborates on the lucrative deal that lasted 65 years which DiMaggio implicitly made with the American public. Mr. Cramer considers what is required for a person to mature and declares those things absent in DiMaggio‚s life.

Conversation 3

Joe DiMaggio‚s private, personal side is described. His inability to verbalize his emotions is put forth as both negative and positive. Mr. Cramer uses touching examples to demonstrate how DiMaggio followed the dicta: a person plays baseball as he is. Mr. Cramer describes how profoundly DiMaggio‚s relationship to baseball and to money changed after he lost his bid with the owners for remuneration based on his talent. Mr. Cramer expands on how money was the way DiMaggio kept score, and eventually became his obsession. Mr. Cramer summarizes Joe as America‚s creation.

Conversation 4

Mr. Cramer connects America‚s obsession with money to Joe DiMaggio‚s, assuring us that in DiMaggio‚s day, like today, players were in the clubhouse for the money. Mr. Cramer expands, then compares DiMaggio to Michael Jordan. He describes how profoundly similar Joe DiMaggio‚s experience was to Marilyn Monroe‚s and how dead wrong each was about the other. Mr. Cramer considers the impossible pressure on both of their lives. Joe‚s role as the most famous Italian-American in the country is considered along with how Joe related to the Mafia. Mr. Cramer describes the overall impression of America in the ő40s and the role DiMaggio played in that series of illusions.

Conversation 5

Reviewing the work he did on Presidential candidates in 1988, Mr. Cramer gives an example of how attitudes toward heroes have changed. Pointing to DiMaggio as a prime example, Mr. Cramer maintains that the real people about whom he‚s written are more interesting than the public figures we have created of them.  DiMaggio is compared to Odysseus, as Mr. Cramer remembers encountering Joseph Campbell‚s work on heroes. DiMaggio‚s final „operaticš sadness is remembered. Mr. Cramer considers how America‚s earliest commitment to ideas (and not to kings) can and does shape the kinds of heroes we want and need. He poses opportunities for more fully-rounded, complex public heroes than the caricature which constrained DiMaggio.

Conversation 6

The twentieth century is considered in light of writing, reporting and influence. Hunter Thompson‚s proper place in that century is considered within the context of New York University‚s poll of the 20th century‚s most important journalists. Mr. Cramer, having focused on politics and baseball, speculates on what‚s next for him.  He reveals his unorthodox approach to reporting.


Our thanks to Simon & Schuster‚s publicist Rachel Nagler, who always makes it easier to do good work.

Related Links:
Joe DiMaggio: The Hero‚s Life is published by Simon and Schuster

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