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Sunday, March 21, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joe Dimaggio Jr.: In The Shadows

The Hartford Courant

Amid the typical buzz of a baseball card show some years ago, a man thrust a copy of Sport magazine in front of Joe DiMaggio.

The magazine was born in September 1946, and the very first cover featured the Yankee Clipper and his 5-year-old son, Joseph Paul DiMaggio Jr. They clearly are posed, in the hokey style of the day, looking toward right field. They both wear Yankees caps and radiant smiles.

DiMaggio looked down at that cover and frowned slightly. Still, he was about to put pen to paper when the man, pointing to the kid, said, "Hey, do you know who that is?"

DiMaggio stiffened. "Of course, I know who it is!" he said angrily, pushing the magazine away. The man didn't get his autograph.

"There were two subjects that were taboo with Joe: Marilyn Monroe and Joe Jr.," said Barry Halper, the pre-eminent baseball collector, who witnessed the incident and knew DiMaggio for 27 years. "In all the time I knew him, he never said a word about either one. You knew not to ask."

At San Francisco's Sts. Peter and Paul Church where DiMaggio received his first communion, his only son helped carry his father's casket after the funeral service. Joe Jr., gray-haired at 57, had been estranged from DiMaggio for years. He hadn't talked to his father in more than two years and refused to come to Florida while the former New York Yankee star, 84, battled lung cancer.

In the end, however, the son helped bear the father to his final resting place, Holy Cross Cemetery in nearby Colma. It was appropriate in some measure, for the son has borne the burden of his father's name all of his difficult life. Their conflict has the classic markings of so many soured relationships between parents and their children.

"It's very hard when a father is great and visible and famous," said Ken Robson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in practice at Hartford, Conn.'s Institute Medical Group. "There's always some degree of primitive competition between fathers and sons. For a lot of reasons, the kid had a mission that was probably impossible."

Beyond their names, the two men shared a notorious love of privacy and the resultant disdain for the media. In recent years, Joe Jr.'s only known on-the-record conversation was with "Inside Edition," the tabloid television magazine. In an interview that aired Feb. 11, Joe Jr. explained why he never joined his ailing father in Florida.

"You know, I never got the words, `Come now,' or I would've been there in a flash," Joe Jr. said. "I love him, and just all of the things that are felt, but never said, between people. When he wants me there, I'll be there."

The call must not have come.

Joe Sr. was celebrated by everyone from Mel Allen to Hemingway to Simon and Garfunkel as an athlete of style and grace and class. Joe Jr. grew up surrounded by glamour and attention and attended New Jersey's prestigious Lawrenceville School and Yale University.

Years later, something drew Joe Jr. to Martinez, Calif., just east of Oakland, where his father was born. When "Inside Edition" aired its story last month, Joe Jr. was living in a trailer, working in a junkyard.

"What is Joe DiMaggio's son supposed to do?" he said. "(I'm) free ... just a free spirit. No commitments. The first of the month rolls around, and I have no payments to make."

There were times when he almost seemed to revel in the contrary nature of his life.

"My lifestyle," he once told a reporter, "is diametrically opposed to my father's."

In 1941, Joe DiMaggio produced one of the greatest and enduring feats in sports. The Yankees center fielder had a 56-game hitting streak. That same year, he also produced his only son.

DiMaggio had met Dorothy Arnold, an actress, when both appeared in the movie "Manhattan Merry-Go-Round" in 1939. They were married later that year at the same twin-spired church on Washington Square that DiMaggio grew up worshipping in. It was described as "the biggest public wedding ever seen in San Francisco."

Joseph Paul DiMaggio Jr. was born in San Francisco. Arnold retired from acting to be a mother and a wife, but the marriage ended in divorce after three years. Arnold complained that DiMaggio didn't speak to her for weeks at a time - even during baseball's off-season - and that he rarely came home before early morning. Arnold never asked for alimony; she and DiMaggio agreed to share custody of Joe Jr.

In 1951, DiMaggio's last year with the Yankees, he saw a picture of Marilyn Monroe in a newspaper and asked a friend in Hollywood to fix them up on a blind date. For three years, they had a not-so-private love affair. With DiMaggio's baseball and Monroe's movies, their meetings in San Francisco and Beverly Hills, Calif., were rare.

But when Arnold spotted a newspaper photo of Monroe, DiMaggio and Joe Jr. on the pool deck at the Bel-Air Hotel, she was outraged. "He's a little young for the smart set," Arnold said in explaining her desire for full custody. The court battle raged for two years in the New York newspapers. Eventually, they settled their differences and Joe Jr. continued to spend time with both parents.

DiMaggio married Monroe in January 1954, and she moved into the Marina District home DiMaggio originally bought for his parents. There, Joe Jr. lived with two of the biggest cultural icons of our time. Monroe's relationship with her stepson blossomed and would last the rest of her life.

The marriage, however, did not go as well. DiMaggio, largely idle in retirement, grew jealous of Monroe's long hours in Hollywood. On a trip together in the Far East, their growing distance surfaced in a conversation. While Monroe traveled to South Korea to entertain troops, where she was received with wild applause, DiMaggio stayed behind in Tokyo. When Monroe returned, she said, "Joe, you've never heard such cheering."

His sullen reply: "Yes, I have."

That October, 274 days after they were married, DiMaggio and Monroe were divorced.

DiMaggio had now been married twice for a total of four years. As a baseball player, he was a perfectionist. Those who played with him said he never made a mental error on the field. DiMaggio expected the same, unwavering concentration from his teammates. He often held postgame debriefings, cataloguing the various mistakes his fellow Yankees had made.

According to some who knew him, that was DiMaggio's intense approach in his personal life. He was often curt, even cold - and not just with autograph-seekers.

Joe Jr. enrolled at Yale in 1960 and played freshman football. That is the last trace of Joe P. DiMaggio, Class of '64. He quit, apparently, to join the Marines.

In fact, as a 21-year-old private in 1962, Joe Jr. was one of the last people to speak to Monroe, who laughed repeatedly in a phone call hours before her death. That last night, she tried to reach Joe Sr., but was unsuccessful.

"If anything was amiss, I wasn't aware of it," Joe Jr. told "Inside Edition." "She sounded like Marilyn."

Monroe's death briefly brought father and son closer. But Joe Jr. never seemed to settle down and make a serious effort to succeed.

Dom DiMaggio, the former Boston Red Sox outfielder, said he found his nephew to be "a problem" when he worked for him.

"I do know Joe has gone to bat and helped him out numerous times," Dom said. "Beyond that, it's kind of a mystery. I do not know what happened between them."

Those who spent time around Joe Sr. say Joe Jr. had a chip on his shoulder. One friend said Joe Sr. "felt (Joe Jr.) took the easy way out. The kid never put his head to anything."

Halper explained, "People would get introduced to him and they'd say, `Oh, so you're Joe Jr.?' And even before they could say anything else, he'd say, `And, no, I don't know what happened with Marilyn."

By the mid-1960s, Joe Jr. had drifted out of his father's life. He got married to an older woman, who had two girls, Kathie and Paula, from a previous union. The marriage ended in divorce.

And though the daughters were not blood relations to Joe Sr., he came to take immense pleasure in them. He called them his granddaughters. Apparently, Joe Sr. faulted his son for neglecting his daughters.

Joe Jr. kicked around out West. He lived in a trailer in Nevada for some years before winding up back in California. He made local headlines in 1995 when he was arrested for operating a bicycle under the influence of alcohol. He drove into a van at 1:25 in the morning and sustained a broken leg.

Joe Jr., like his famous father, never discussed his feelings at length in public. It is instructive that many of the son's happiest memories are from early youth, before he fully understood his father's stature. Some of his best days, he told "Inside Edition," were in the Bronx, around "the Yankee clubhouse and a lot of the ballplayers at the time ... the fact that my father was who he was and I didn't know that he was different from anybody else."

But Joe DiMaggio was different, of course, and as Joe Jr. grew older, it certainly troubled him. And yet, the closest he came to bitterness in the television interview was his comment that his famous upbringing was "a cross to bear."

What were Joe Jr.'s thoughts when the daily news reports chronicled his father's deteriorating condition 3,000 miles away? What about Joe Sr.?

When he died March 8 in Florida there were five people at his bedside: his brother Dominic, two longtime friends and his two non-blood granddaughters, Kathie and Paula.

At the funeral, their husbands, Roger Stein and James Hamra, were pallbearers. Reportedly, the granddaughters were generously remembered in DiMaggio's will.

Joe Jr. was not quite as fortunate. He will receive a $20,000-a-year trust fund.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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