The San Francisco Kid
SAN FRANCISCO – It all started with a barnstorming tour of the Hawaiian Islands. Well, for shortstop Augie Galan, that is. In late 1932, Galan asked San Francisco Seals owner Charlie Graham permission to skip the last three games of their season to join the barnstormers in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Though willing to allow Augie his leave, he would need someone to take his place on the field to finish out the season. Graham had no prospects.
Spike Hennessey, the grand old caretaker of the Funston Playground who schooled generations of kids on how to play baseball, had a recommendation for the Seals magnate. He knew of a promising 17-year old who had been knocking around the playground playing third base and shortstop. That young man happened to be the brother of one of the regular players with the team. That regular was asked by Spike if his brother would be interested in finishing out those remaining games of the Seals season at shortstop. Graham offered no official contract and no money, just an opportunity.
It would be the first time that Joseph Paul DiMaggio would play baseball with a professional team. Though somewhat wild in the field during those last games, he certainly seemed at home in the batter’s box. On Saturday, October 1, he cracked a triple to right-center off of Ted Pillette in his first plate appearance.
Impressed, the opposing team that day – the Missions – tried to sign Joe to a contract in the off-season. DiMaggio’s older brother Tom however, had a different idea. He took his brother back to Seals owner Graham, who would offer him a contract to play in the 1933 season. Charlie had already gambled with two former stars, Vernon ‘lefty’ Gomez and Frank Crosetti, both of whom would fetch a total of $107,000 from the New York Yankees. Thinking that having a local boy who could hit at a low cost would be a good bet. At that point, youngsters in the league were making $125 a month. DiMaggio asked for and got $225.
Reporting to training camp, it was clear that the barnstorming Galan still owned the shortstop position. When he got injured, DiMaggio had his opening to win the position. Manager Jimmy Caveney sent him to short, and Joe continued to falter defensively. Fans behind first base quickly learned to move to avoid errant throws. As the games mounted, he slowly improved, but started to realize that he would never make it as an infielder.
When the regular season started, Joe found himself on the bench. Though he received much encouragement from his brother Vince and Manager Caveney, it was not until another Seals player suffered at the plate that the young DiMaggio got another chance to prove himself. The right fielder, Stewart, had played remarkably well in training, but had stopped hitting when the season opened. During one game, Caveney told Joe to pinch hit for the man. Surprised, DiMaggio went to the plate and took a base on balls. When the inning was over, the manager told the youngster to get into the outfield. Though both his older brother Vince and Prince Oana were fine outfielders and good, experienced hitters, it was Joe who won out. Vince failed to pick up his own offensive game over the weeks, and was shipped to the Hollywood Stars after suffering an injured arm
At first, the kid’s reviews were less than favorable. He had yet to fully grow into his 6’2” frame, and was described by a San Franciscan reporter as “a gawky, awkward kid, all arms and legs like a colt. He began to play the outfield regularly, where he would commit 17 errors during the season. Though, his arm would be responsible for a league-leading 32 outfield assists. More noticeable was how he looked as a hitter.
In the box, his statuesque right-handed stance was seemingly beyond relaxed. Standing almost completely erect and motionless, his bat was held shoulder-high, while his feet lay about two feet apart. When beginning his motion, his front foot would move only an inch or so, and then with a pivot of his hips, his arms and upper body were the catalyst behind the bat exploding through the hitting zone. Though a pull-hitter, DiMaggio could spray the ball to all fields. That graceful swing produced more line drives than long-range bombs. Even while using a 38-inch, 40 ounce bat, he made hitting seem effortless.
On May 28, the last day of a home stand, the Seals were playing a doubleheader against the first place Portland Beavers. During the second contest, DiMaggio connected for a double in four at bats. The team went north for a doubleheader with the Seattle Indians, and Joe continued to hit, going six for ten. The next five saw DiMaggio hit in every contest. When the Seals returned home for a weeks worth of games against the Oakland Oaks, Joe continued his tear, again hitting in each for a .400 series average.
As he continued hitting, the Seals began to win with more regularity. DiMaggio kept his torrid pace up and had hit safely in 30 consecutive games before anyone in the press even began to notice. It was finally Abe Kemp from The Examiner who noted that though “DeMaggio” had improved his skills since the opening of the season, he had a long way to go before he would present any sort of threat to old Jack Ness, who had hit safely in 49 consecutive games in 1915.
As the games mounted, the Seals became a hot ticket around the Pacific Coast League. Turnstiles clicked, attendance doubled, and Graham was beginning to realize the value of his budding youth. It seemed that everyone was coming to see this young kid hit, including plenty of Italians who were enthused to finally identify with someone of their own lineage. By July 4 weekend, in addition to seeing Seals Stadium packed to capacity, it seemed like all of the sports writers began to catch on, as they abandoned their regular stories about the San Francisco team in favor of their new muse. The Sporting News ran a profile on the youngster in their July 7 issue, and for the first time, DiMaggio caught the eyes of the nation.
However, while clamoring for more from the young budding sensation, members of the general public were usually met with frustration. As his bat had heated up, sportswriter’s questions were answered with mere grunts and shrugs. The Chronicle’s Ed R. Hughes began to keep tabs on his gestures while on the field, curtly noting his lack of drama. Earning the nickname of ‘Dead Pan Joe’, DiMaggio’s aloofness was first mistaken for weakness and insecurity, but the press began to equate it to courage and humility, the prospects of both being much more colorful than the quiet youngster’s demeanor.
And so, he kept on hitting. After tying Ness’ record of 49 with much fanfare, the Seals were so confident in their star that they held a celebration for the record breaker before the fiftieth game even started. True to his nature, after being presented with flowers, a gold watch, a fine leather traveling bag, and a check, he made no comment or overt exhibition of gratitude. It was not even until that very week that the press had began to spell his name correctly. They were tipped off by Charlie Graham, who had only learned himself a few days prior, pressing his indifferent young star for the information in order to have one of those celebratory gifts engraved.
On July 26, in front of a huge crowd, DiMaggio was held hitless in his five plate appearances by Oaks pitcher Ed Walsh, the son of the famous Major League spitballer with the same name. The collar not withstanding, Joe’s long sacrifice in the ninth inning won the game for the Seals. When the smoke cleared that late July night, he had hit safely in 61 consecutive games, an incredible feat for any ballplayer, but most especially for someone in his first pro season.
That same campaign saw ‘Dead Pan Joe’ compile a .340 batting average, 28 homers, 259 hits and 169 runs batted in. And with the 61 game hitting streak, Joe DiMaggio caught the attention of the nation.
It was only the beginning.