Sunday, August 8, 2010

42. Joe DiMaggio: Brother Number Two

Going through my old drawings trying to find yet another thing I misplaced, I found the cards I did of the 3 DiMaggio Brothers depicting them on the San Francisco Seals. For the life of me I can't remember why I shelved them, but for some reason they never saw the light of day. I brought out Vince the other day, now it's his younger brother Joe's turn... maybe you've heard of him?

The eldest DiMaggio boy made the hometown San Francisco Seals team halfway through the '32 season and with three games left in the schedule, the team found itself short handed when a couple of the regulars jumped ship to barnstorm in Hawaii. Vince recommended his middle brother Joe to the manager as a fill-in shortstop. Just 17 at the time, he was already a neighborhood legend for the way he could hit the hell out of the ball. The younger DiMaggio batted just .222 in 9 at bats, but remember, he was still a teen and was playing in what could almost pass as a third major league. Anyway, it was good enough to merit a call back the next spring when the Seals went into their training camp.

The first thing the Seals did was move Joe to the outfield, he had a great arm but was wild. In the outfield they could make better use of his long legs and strong arm. Free from the pressure to perform in the infield, DiMaggio concentrated now at destroying the Pacific Coast League pitching. On May 28th he went 1 for 4 against the Portland Beavers, and continued to have a hit in every game for the next 61 games! The younger brother was becoming the star of San Francisco and along with the thousands of strangers who followed his career closely was his father Giuseppe, whose negative view of the game of baseball began to dissipate when he found out Joe was making more a month playing ball than he did as a fisherman. The old man welcomed the eldest brother Vince back into the family as well and Giuseppe remained a fan of the game until his dying day. On a side note, Vince, the reason Joe was even on the Seals to begin with, was released by the team after the start of the season. Fortunately he was quickly snatched up by the Hollywood club and his career remained on track, reaching the majors in 1937. But if you read the entry on Vince DiMaggio, you already knew that. Back to Joe...

So his first full season in organized ball not only shattered the league record for hitting safely in continuous games but he also hit and monstrous .340. Not bad for an 18 year-old! The country became transfixed by the young Italian from the coast as news of his great talent splashed across the sports pages. Italian-Americans, one of the biggest growing ethnic groups in the country, embraced Joe as a hero, much like Hank Greenberg did for the Jews in America at the same time, instilling pride that one of their own made good in America's Game. In the modern context it is hard for us to fully comprehend how important the sense of belonging was to recent immigrants and their children. Unlike today when too many people hyphenate their nationality and try to separate themselves from the fabric of the country, Joe DiMaggio gave Italians a star player of their own to rival any other player of what ever ethnic origin who came before him. Joe DiMaggio made them belong.

The next year Joe's career almost ended as quickly as it began. The official story was he was getting out of a cab while visiting his sister and twisted his knee in the gutter between the taxi and curb. Later stories came out he was injured while getting into his own car after a big night out at the Market Street nightclubs in San Francisco. Who knows what the real story was, the result was that he tore all the ligaments in his knee, a career-ending injury back in 1934. Surgery for such an injury didn't come about until decades later and all the doctors could do was put him in a cast and hope for the best. Because of his 61 game streak and great season the year before, Joe DiMaggio was already a known name in the baseball world, regarded as the next big thing. Now the scouts from the majors became nervous and kept their distance. All except one team. This particular ballclub, always the shrewd headhunter of talent, recognized that the best baseball prodigy in the land could now be had for a bargain price. The disappointed Seals agreed to sell their former star for a quarter of what they were asking before the accident. $25,000 and Joe DiMaggio became property of the New York Yankees.

Joe's knee healed up just fine and he played the last half of the 1934 season batting a promising .341. When the Yankees bought DiMaggio's contract they agreed to let him play the 1935 season with the Seals and he promptly hit a colossal .398 and smashed 34 home runs. Let there be no doubt, Joe DiMaggio was ready for the big time.

But waiting in the wings, urged on by his old man and the drive to be as good as his brothers was the youngest DiMaggio, Dominic...

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