Access denied

Before Talese interviewed Joe DiMaggio, athletes' real lives were always hidden from the public. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 12, 2011, "Interview Issue."

WHEN THE LEGENDARY MAGAZINE WRITER Gay Talese set out to profile Joe DiMaggio for Esquire in 1966, he flew to San Francisco and went to DiMaggio's restaurant down by the pier. Talese had written letters and made many phone calls, but DiMaggio, private and cool, had not answered them. Apparently, it was true that gods do not answer letters, at least not those very particular gods who played baseball. Talese then decided to make the magazine writer's Hail Mary and just showed up, hoping to find DiMaggio at his restaurant. He did.

The man was furious. After DiMaggio shouted at Talese that he'd better get a lawyer -- over the phone, even though he was in the same building -- the former Yankee appeared in front of the shaken writer like an apparition. DiMaggio was verging on old then, 15 years removed from his playing days; he had a dead movie-star ex-wife and a restaurant. But he still cut an elegant, imposing figure when he sat down alone at a table and lit a cigarette. "I don't want to cause trouble," Talese said. "I think you're a great man, and ... "

"I'm not great," DiMaggio interrupted, spitting out smoke. "I'm not great. I'm just a man trying to get along."

What's strange, as well as alarming, is that we're on the verge of a New Age of Hagiography.

The result of that conversation and others was "The Silent Season of a Hero," still considered one of the great pieces of sports writing. It stripped away the myths that had shrouded DiMaggio and showed him for what he really was: a sad, sometimes lonely man, now on an impossible quest for something like peace. The story helped Talese become, in retrospect, one of the pioneers of a new form of journalism. His work was beautiful and important in a way that nonfiction hadn't been before.

More than anything else, it was revealing. Before Talese and his like-minded friends came along, there had been a contract between the men who played games and the men who wrote about them: The athletes' private lives -- their real lives -- would never enter the field of view. They would remain the sum of their achievements in the scorebook. If anything, they would be made into something grander than that sum. They would be turned, the way Joe DiMaggio was, into American icons, when DiMaggio was just a fisherman's son who happened to be very good at playing baseball. That didn't make him invincible. It didn't make him immune to self-doubt or petty jealousies or a broken heart. But once he became a monument, it took someone like Talese -- and DiMaggio himself, in that singular moment of honesty -- to turn him back into a man.

What's strange, as well as alarming, is that we're on the verge of a New Age of Hagiography. Despite all our advanced technologies and the seeming invasiveness of our coverage, or maybe because of those things, we actually know less about the real lives of athletes today than we have at any time since Talese walked into DiMaggio's restaurant. What passes for access -- Twitter, stage-managed corporate appearances, a million microphones in a postgame scrum -- doesn't give us any actual insight. It's the pretty rare truth that can be crammed into 140 characters. It's even more rare when one can be found in a sound bite or a shampoo commercial.

This isn't a sports writer's lament. It's a fan's lament. If you haven't turned 40 yet, you're further removed from the objects of your affection than you've ever been. Our modern walls allow something like Penn State to happen. They allow terrible secrets to be kept. But more often, they prevent us from simply getting to know the people behind the names stitched on their backs. Now our athletes look as though they've all been stamped out on the same factory floor. Why is your favorite player your favorite player? Is it just because he's good at his chosen profession? Or is it because you'd like to believe he's something or someone more, maybe even someone like you?

Or maybe Talese made a terrible mistake that day in San Francisco. Maybe it's better when we don't know. People watch sports because they grant an illusion of clarity to our complicated lives. Maybe it's better for us to be able to think that a fisherman's son really can become an American icon without his heart ever breaking. That's always been the trouble with standing on the shoulders of giants; if we see what they see, they won't look like giants anymore. Suddenly they'll just be men, trying to get along, and who would want to cheer for anyone like that?

Chris Jones is the back page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter and like us on Facebook.