Book on DiMaggio: From Mafia to scam

Published Oct. 16, 2000|Updated Sept. 28, 2005

Joe DiMaggio was in bed with the Mafia during and after his playing career and was scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of memorabilia by his lawyer in his dying days, according to the author of a new biography of the Yankee Clipper.

In the book, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, author Richard Ben Cramer details how DiMaggio was able to walk away from baseball and his $100,000-a-year salary with the Yankees in 1951 because mobster Frank Costello had set up a "trust fund" at the Bowery Bank for him.

Every time DiMaggio made an appearance in any of the prominent New York nightclubs, the Copa, Stork Club, El Morocco, all of which were controlled or operated by Costello, a deposit of about $200 was made to the account.

"Costello loved Joe," Cramer told the New York Daily News, "and he felt it was the gentlemanly thing to do _ to put a couple of bucks in the Bowery for Joe's retirement.

"Of course, the irony of this arrangement is that years later, Joe did all those commercials as the spokesman for The Bowery. When he told us how safe your money was with The Bowery, he knew what he was talking about."

Cramer documented his information with multiple sources, including retired mobsters from that era. He also reveals tales of DiMaggio's connections with the New Jersey mob, particularly the notorious Abner "Longy" Zwillman and Richie "The Boot" Boiardo, who controlled the first ward in Newark.

"Longy had three boxes of cash, which he left at Joe's house for "safekeeping,' " Cramer said. "But when Longy was found hanging from his chandelier in West Orange, Joe kept the cash."

Cramer also reveals that DiMaggio and actress Marilyn Monroe had agreed to remarry before her death of a drug overdose in 1962.

Throughout the book, Cramer paints an often harsh picture of DiMaggio as a lonely, suspicious, bitter man obsessed with money and protecting his privacy. Those obsessions collided during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, when DiMaggio was interviewed by reporters as he emerged from his quake-ravaged house in the Marina area.

"At the time, Joe talked about how he was searching for his sister," Cramer related. "In each of his arms he was holding these huge garbage bags, which people assumed were filled with his valuables and baseball mementos. What was really in them was over $600,000 in cash he'd earned from his memorabilia signings."

Fiercely guarded, never allowing anyone to get too close, DiMaggio was a helpless captive of his lawyer, Morris Engelberg, for nearly five months as he lay dying of lung cancer, Cramer writes.

Engelberg has insisted that he had nothing but DiMaggio's best interests at heart. According to Cramer, Engelberg made more money for DiMaggio than any of his previous business managers and gained his trust.

Cramer writes that the attorney squirreled away thousands of items of DiMaggio-signed memorabilia, including balls, lithographs and canceled checks without DiMaggio's knowledge, with the intention of selling them and pocketing the money.

"Absurd," said Engelberg from his home in Hollywood, Fla. "Over a 16-year period, I waived more than $5-million of agent fees, plus legal, accounting and other fees, which amounted to a significant sum of money. Why would I scam a few thousand dollars from Joe DiMaggio?"

DiMaggio's final days, as documented by Cramer through interviews with hospital and home care attendants, were especially tragic because Engelberg exploited him to the end. DiMaggio's most prized possession was his 1936 World Series ring. Cramer details how Engelberg had it pried from DiMaggio's finger shortly after he died.

"Just before the nurse wrapped his body in the sheets, (Engelberg) ordered him to get the ring," Cramer said. "But when the nurse had trouble removing it, Morris yelled: "Get something to get it off!' They then yanked the ring off Joe's finger."

Excerpts of the book, due to be released Tuesday, were included in the Oct. 23 issue of Newsweek magazine.

Cramer says Engelberg made a secret deal to get 2,000 baseballs made specially for Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 27, 1998, with the intent of having them unwittingly signed and then sold for his own gain without DiMaggio's knowledge. "That is absolutely ridiculous," Engelberg said. "I never bought 2,000 balls, Joe never bought 2,000 balls. An outright lie."

Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Middle East with the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979, took more than five years to complete the book. He interviewed hundreds of DiMaggio's associates and every living former teammate.

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