By Annette Hinkle
Author Tom Clavin has written a number of books about fabled American sports figures over the years. But ironically his latest book, which came out last week, was one he initially wasn’t keen to write at all.
“I turned it down … twice,” admits Clavin who was pitched the idea by his literary agent Bob Rosen.
It’s probably a good thing he relented — because the book, “The DiMaggios: Three Brothers, Their Passion for Baseball, Their Pursuit of the American Dream,” has already garnered a lot of attention. Clavin has been a guest on sports radio talk shows and he recently took part in a highly successful author event at Fenway Park in Boston. The book is also a top selling sports biography on Amazon, and earlier this week, Clavin had a signing and book talk at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side in the city.
For Clavin, his reluctance to take on this project stemmed largely from the many books already written about one of the most famous baseball players in the world.
“I said, ‘What else can you cay about Joe DiMaggio?’” recalls Clavin. “And Bob said, ‘That’s exactly the point, it’s not Joe, it’s the three brothers. Please, as a favor to me, look into it, talk to a couple people.’”
So Clavin did just that — and he discovered a DiMaggio book unlike any other in that it is the story of three — not one — with all the twists, turns and rivalry worthy of the most cautionary allegorical tale.
“I found out it’s really a book about a family — not baseball,” says Clavin, who notes the book covers 110 years of DiMaggio family history, beginning Giuseppe’s arrival in America in 1898. “It’s the story of an immigrant family of 11 that sent three boys to the major leagues. All three were All-Stars and one was the most famous of all.”
Vince, Joe and Dominick — the baseball playing sons of Sicilian immigrants Giuseppe and Rosalie DiMaggio — were the three youngest of the couple’s nine children. They grew up in San Francisco where their father and two oldest brothers made a living from fishing, and Giuseppe initially scoffed at the notion of his sons playing baseball — until the money and fame started rolling in.
Joe became a Yankee in 1936, Vince signed with the Boston Bees in 1937 (he went on to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates where, despite being a stellar center fielder, led the league in strikeouts six times) and Dominic signed with the Red Sox in 1940. Despite being excellent ballplayers in their own right, Vince and Dominic could never escape the giant shadow cast by middle brother, Joe D.
“In one article I found, when Vince won a game on a base hit, they wrote that ‘the wrong DiMaggio is the hero today,’” says Clavin. “That’s what they had to deal with.”
They also had to deal with a less than cozy relationship. It was certainly never a case of strong brotherly love on the part of the notoriously prickly Joe, who had little to do with his brothers — particularly Vince — throughout much of his adult life.
“Baseball was the best thing that happened to the family, but the worst thing that happened to the brothers,” explains Clavin. “Joe sky rocketed and all mortals were left behind, including the family.
For Clavin, perhaps the most intriguing DiMaggio was the youngest, Dominic, the “runt of the litter” who in fact had the greatest life success.
“Joe had the greater career, but Dominic was a seven time All-Star,” says Clavin. “They loved him in Boston. When he retired he began a company and within a couple years was successful business man.”
“He and his wife, Emily, were married 61 years. Their kids were the first to go to college and he raised millions for charities,” says Clavin. “He was a very contented man. He lived the American dream.”
The story of Dominic is one Clavin couldn’t have told without Emily, Dominic’s widow, who is still alive. After so many books about Joe DiMaggio, what Clavin offered was a chance to shed some well-deserved light on the lives on the other brothers.
“That was something no other book could have because they would never speak before,” says Clavin who adds that Emily shared some interesting new details about Joe — particularly in his relationship with Marilyn Monroe.
Even after they divorced in 1954, Joe and Marilyn still had rendezvous at Dominic and Emily’s place in Massachusetts. Clavin also learned that in the summer of 1962, Joe and Marilyn had secret plans to remarry — but just days before the wedding, Marilyn died from an overdose. DiMaggio was at a baseball reunion on the West Coast with his brothers at the time and got the news by phone. Her funeral was August 10 — the day of the wedding.
“You could say that was probably the worst day of his life,” says Clavin. “When Marilyn died, Joe lived another 35 years, but he never married again or had a serious relationship.”
While Joe had a fierce on the field rivalry against Dominic, in his private life, it was his older brother Vince who really got the cold shoulder — perhaps because Vince had a way with people that Joe could never duplicate.
“Vince was going to be an opera singer,” says Clavin. “He had a wonderful tenor voice. When he and Joe sold papers on the corner as kids, they would see who could sell more. Vince always won because he sang these amazing arias.”
“I don’t think Joe had any respect for Vince,” adds Clavin.
Though he didn’t have a lot of money, Clavin says Vince saw life as a “glass half full” and didn’t think of himself as poor, though Joe had a rather pointed way of reminding him of that fact from time to time.
“When Joe discarded a suit, he’d send it to his brother,” says Clavin. “It was kind of humiliating. For Vince, it was like, ‘He won’t visit me, but will send me his used suit.”
Perhaps the most revealing incident came late in the brothers’ lives — at an old-timers game at Fenway Park in 1986. It was the last time the three were in uniform on a ball-field together and Vince, who was terminally ill but not yet aware of the fact, had made the trip from the West Coast to be there. After the old-timers left the field, he and Dominic stayed to watch the Red Sox play.
“But Joe didn’t. He got in his car and drove back to New York and ate dinner at a restaurant alone,” says Clavin. “His nieces and nephews said he was a sad man. He did not live out his life as a divorced man — he lived as a widower.”
Tom Clavin will be at BookHampton’s East Hampton store (41 Main Street) at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 9 to discuss “The DiMaggios.” He will also appear at the Shelter Island Library on Friday, June 21 at 7 p.m.