New York Yankees History: Joe DiMaggio and Chipmunk Journalism

June 1, 2010   ·     ·   Jump to comments
Article Source: Bleacher Report - New York Yankees

Joe DiMaggio was “the most celebrated athlete of his age, the best big-game player of his era, and a baseball player who transcended the barriers of sports in terms of the breadth of his fame.”

Yet, he wasn’t, by his own admission, a great man. He was “just a man trying to get along.”

Joe DiMaggio joined the New York Yankees in 1936. It was a world that was very different from the one DiMaggio would occupy in his ensuing years.

When DiMaggio was a rookie, the only time fans could see him would be at the ballpark, in a movie newsreel, or—if they were fortunate—in a restaurant or similar public place.

There was little baseball coverage on the radio in 1936, and television was not yet significant, which meant that the fans’ only source of information was newspapers.

The lives of baseball players and the writers who covered them were interwoven, because traveling by train created situations in which avoidance was difficult, if not impossible.

Sports writing styles and objectives were different in the 1930s and 1940s from what they are today. The general attitude during most of Joe DiMaggio’s career was heroic coverage, with no attempts at reporting personal information of any significance.

Players trusted writers much more than today’s players, especially considering the tabloid mentality of most modern sports writers who “report” about modern athletes.

The “Chipmunk” Approach to Reporting

The players of the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s escaped the “chipmunk” approach popularized by Leonard Shecter of the New York Post and emulated by many writers who followed, such as Dick Schaap and Mike Lupica.

Those writers were designated “chipmunks” by veteran sportswriter Milton Gross because Shecter’s approach to an interview was analogous to a “chipmunk digging for nuts.”

Eventually, Joe DiMaggio became a victim of this new type of sports writing.

One of the first attempts to discover the “real” Yankee Clipper was made by Gay Talese, who wanted to “strip away the facade with which most celebrities protected themselves.”

Talese wanted to create a picture of Joe DiMaggio that revealed the private DiMaggio and he succeeded—despite the fact that he was unable to interview DiMaggio at length.

In attempting to reveal “Joe DiMaggio, the person,” Talese and Richard Ben Cramer interpreted information, some times dubious, for the reader.

Cramer wrote that at three o’clock in the morning, a lonely and depressed Joe DiMaggio lit a cigarette in his empty room as he turned off the television.

Who, but DiMaggio, knows what he was doing when he was alone?

One reviewer of Cramer’s A Hero’s Life makes the significant point that, since DiMaggio wasn’t the type who revealed his thoughts, guesswork was necessary. Guesses are not facts.

When Joe DiMaggio played baseball, did people care what he was going to do that night?

Did they care what he did that morning?

All that was important was what Joe DiMaggio did during the game.

Joe DiMaggio became an unwilling role model. It was not a role he asked for.

He did not have to be, nor did he want to be, a role model for your child. You have that responsibility.

The role of a baseball player is to be a baseball player. What he does before or after a game, or during the offseason is nobody’s concern but his own.

Joe DiMaggio wanted something that is becoming increasingly more difficult to get. He simply wanted privacy.


Halberstam, David, ed., The Best American Sports Writing of the Century . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

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