When Joe Was a Seal

by Richard Keller

Published in Giants Today, special ballpark section of the San Francisco Chronicle; April 1, 2000

He would become the Yankee Clipper. Joltin' Joe DiMaggio. An American idol in the truest sense. He would be an inspiration to Hemingway, and to Paul Simon a generation later.

From the moment he caught the public eye in 1936, as a 19-year-old rookie with the Yanks, his baseball skills seemed honed beyond his age, in fact almost to the point of perfection. From day one, his daily exploits on the diamond would be accomplished with such casual grace as to make even the aged pundits wonder if there'd ever been another like him.

First astride Lou Gehrig in his prime, later as unquestioned team leader, DiMaggio played the central role in the greatest of all Yankee dynasties, winners of nine World Series in the 13-year span of his career. He would become the toast of the game, its highest-paid player. He would marry Marilyn Monroe. And even his tenure as Mr. Coffee in '70s TV commercials could not tarnish the near-sacred image he carried to his death last March at age 84.

But no amount of Big Apple polish and pinstripes could completely mask what DiMaggio really was, a shy kid from San Francisco's North Beach, an intensely private individual who like many athletic heroes, seemed more at ease on the field than off. His life and career are documented in old newsreel footage, more than a dozen biographies, and thousands of newspaper clippings from years past, while DiMaggio himself remained elusive, above it all, adding further to his legend.

It was 65 years ago next week--April 12, 1935, to be exact--when DiMaggio strode onto the field for Opening Night of his final season with the San Francisco Seals, before embarking upon the stardom that already seemed his destiny. By then, he was already a Pacific Coast League sensation, having strung together a record 61-game hitting streak in his rookie year in ‘33. He looked much like he was described in a Life magazine article a few years later, "a tall, thin Italian youth equipped with slick black hair, shoe-button eyes, squirrel teeth and a receding chin." And boy, could he play the game.

The eighth of nine children born to Sicilian immigrants Guise and Rosalie DiMaggio, young Joe wasn't cut out for his father's fishing business. "I never could take the smells aboard the boat and I always got seasick," he said. An indifferent student at Hancock Grammar School and Galileo High, he found his greatest pleasure in games of baseball, football and tennis on the neighborhood playgrounds. His first organized team in the Boys Club league won the city championship in their division, with DiMaggio hitting two homers in the deciding playoff game. Said DiMaggio, "They spotted me for a good hitter and the next thing I knew I was being approached by managers and independent teams, and I played a lot of pickup games on the weekends." In 1932, older brother Vince signed with the San Francisco Seals, and toward the end of that season the local PCL club also signed 17-year-old Joe, who played the final three games as the Seals' shortstop. Although he hit only .222, the Seals saw enough potential to invite him to spring training in ‘33.

From that moment forward, the specialness within DiMaggio began to materialize. After starting the season on the bench, he was finally inserted in right field to replace a slumping teammate. DiMaggio responded by hitting .340 with 28 HR, 45 doubles, 13 triples and an astounding 169 RBI. The 61-game hitting streak that earned him instant fame wasn't halted until Ed Walsh, Jr., of the Oakland Oaks no-hit the Seals on July 26.

Suddenly, DiMaggio had found his calling, his purpose, his mode of expression. And he enjoyed it from the very start. "I had the good luck to spend my entire minor league career in the Pacific Coast League, in which all travel and accommodations were first-class, and with my hometown team, the San Francisco Seals, at that," DiMaggio wrote in a biography. "Playing on my hometown team meant when the club played its home stands I could live with my parents, occupy my own room." Charley Graham convinced Barrow to let him keep DiMaggio for the entire 1935 season. While Barrow would later call the purchase of DiMaggio "the best single deal I ever made," the Yankees certainly wished they’d had Joe for the ‘35 season, since they failed to win the pennant for the third straight year.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, DiMaggio and the Seals would have a season for the ages. Graham brought back local legend Lefty O'Doul after 11 splendid seasons in the bigs, and named him player/manager. With O'Doul batting third in the lineup and DiMaggio fourth, the Seals overcame early season inconsistencies and started to gel around mid-season. Playing a split-season format, the Seals couldn't catch the Los Angeles Angels for the first-half title. But in the second half, they hit their stride, winning 62 games, losing only 40, to take the second-half crown. In the best-of-seven playoff, the Seals beat L.A. 4 games to 2 to capture their first PCL championship since 1931.

DiMaggio was at the center of it all, earning Most Valuable Player honors with his .398 average in 172 games (missing the batting title by a point to "Ox" Eckhardt). DiMaggio had 270 hits, 456 total bases, 34 homers, 48 doubles, 18 triples, 173 RBI, and stole 24 bases in 25 attempts. There was no question now that DiMaggio belonged in the big leagues. After the season, Graham said DiMaggio was the best all-around Seals player since he had owned the team. "I have awarded Joe the maxima cum laude," Graham told The Chronicle.

The following spring, when DiMaggio made his first trip to training camp in Florida, he hitched a ride with San Francisco neighbors Tony Lazzeri and Frank Crosetti, already established Yankee stars. As the story goes, Lazzeri, who owned the car, drove the first leg of the 3,000-mile journey, and Crosetti the second. When it was DiMaggio's turn to take the wheel, he said, "I don't drive." Taken aback, Lazzeri said, "Let's throw the bum out, and let him walk the rest of the way." Unfazed, DiMaggio laughed and settled back in the rear seat. "Cmon guys, let's get going," he said. "You know I've got a date with the Yankees."