The forgotten story of ... Joe DiMaggio and the San Francisco Seals talent factory
On 14 July 1933, a cold Friday in San Francisco, 10,000 people flocked to Seals Stadium, where a young star had a date with history.
There was fanfare and pageantry, and even a neat pregame presentation, during which the slender, buck-toothed hero received a gold watch from the mayor. Shy and somber at eighteen years old, the elegant outfielder accepted the applause of a shivering crowd, which congratulated him on hitting safely in 49 consecutive games and begged him to break the Pacific Coast League record later that night.
The player looked sheepishly at the watch and, noticing an error on its engraving, whispered to the team president, Charles Graham, that his name had been misspelled. “DeMaggio,” it read, like most newspaper headlines that summer, but Joe, timorous and bashful, typically let it fly.
DiMaggio came to bat in the bottom of the first inning, with two runners aboard and the crowd sensing magic. He swung and missed at the first pitch, before lining a hard single up the middle, breaking the record, and sparking pandemonium.
It was a victory for poor Italian boys everywhere; a testament to the skill and fortitude of young Joe; and, unquestionably, the finest moment in the history of the San Francisco Seals, a quirky, unique and ineffably enchanting baseball team.
Though now long forgotten, the Seals were, for 55 years, the predominant force of West Coast baseball, during an era when the established Major Leagues sprawled only east of the Mississippi, and games weren’t broadcast on television. The team played an integral role in baseball history, surviving considerable hardship to win 14 Pacific Coast League (PCL) championships and launch the careers of several legendary players.
DiMaggio, a Seal between 1932-35, was undoubtedly the greatest such player, but a string of immortals broke through in San Francisco, including Frankie Crosetti and Lefty Gomez, local kids from poor neighborhoods who eventually won an abundance of championships with the mighty Yankees; and Earl Averill, Paul Waner and Lefty O’Doul, future Hall of Famers who were first discovered by the Seals.
Of course, in New York, DiMaggio became a national hero, the heir to Babe Ruth in the public’s imagination. He fulfilled his potential a one of the greatest players who ever lived, winning nine World Series rings, three Most Valuable Player awards and, in 1941, famously hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, a feat foreshadowed eight years earlier with the Seals. Yet, no matter how far he traveled, and no matter how eminent his name and image became around the world, DiMaggio always had a special place in his heart for San Francisco and the Seals. After all, it was home, and they were the first team to believe in him.
The later success of alumni gave the Seals a patina of glamor but, in reality, the team endured a rough existence, fighting more for survival than international acclaim.
“The PCL had a more relaxed atmosphere than the Major Leagues,” says Jacob Pomrenke, of the Society for American Research, “and many players and fans enjoyed the laid-back culture.
“Because of the superior weather on the West Coast, the PCL season was often more than 200 games long, and some players were paid even better in the PCL than they were in the Majors.”
Nonetheless, the Seals struggled in their first few seasons, regularly finishing fourth or fifth under the stewardship of different managers, before disaster struck in April 1906, when a devastating earthquake ravaged San Francisco, causing untold structural damage and killing more than 3,000 people. Over 80% of the city was destroyed, including the Seals’ Recreation Park home, as fires raged for days in one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
Fortunately for San Francisco, new owner Cal Ewing safeguarded the Seals during their hour of greatest need, building a new ballpark and, in 1909, masterminding the team’s first championship. That year, the Seals went 132-80 under manager Daniel Long, setting the benchmark for future generations.
In 1914, Ewing sold the team to Henry Berry, who, despite overseeing two championships in four years, quickly fell out of love with baseball and allowed Charles Strub, George Putnam and Charles Graham to take over, heralding the start of a golden era for San Francisco baseball.
Within the consortium, Strub, a wealthy entrepreneur, supplied the most money; Putnam, an experienced sportswriter, took care of promotion; and Graham, a former player in the PCL, provided the baseball acumen. The group held control for 32 years, helping the Seals win 10 championships and generating over $1m from the sale of players to Major League teams.
O’Doul, a talented reliever converted into a mighty slugger, went to the Yankees in 1917; Waner, a fine everyday player in three years with the Seals, was sold to the Pirates for $40,000 in 1925; and Smead Jolley, another fine outfielder, was eventually bought for $50,000 by the White Sox. Meanwhile, Averill, a legend with the Cleveland Indians, started his journey with the Seals in 1926, and the quartet of DiMaggio, Crosetti, Gomez and Augie Galan combined to earn the Seals $157,000, and played in 5,529 Major League games.
With such a pipeline of talent, the Seals became perennial contenders in the PCL, winning championships in 1922, ‘23, ‘25, ‘28 and ‘31. Soon thereafter, the ambitious owners, attempting to take full advantage of the team’s rise in popularity, built Seals Stadium, a baseball palace with brilliant amenities and room for 18,600 spectators. In every way, the stadium, constructed at a cost of $600,000 during the Great Depression, was a monument to the Seals’ dreams of one day becoming a Major League club.
In 1932, the team had a new attraction, in the form of Vince DiMaggio, the third of five brothers born to Giuseppe, a taciturn fisherman, and his wife Rosalia. The DiMaggios lived an austere existence in San Francisco, in an area where aspirations traditionally stretched no further than the local wharf. But Vince, a thoroughly American boy, had big dreams, and subsequently broke the mold, becoming a professional player with the Seals and paving the way for his younger brothers.
When the Seals needed a fill-in shortstop at the end of 1932, Vince suggested the 17-year old Joe, who played brilliantly in a handful of games and eventually earned himself a full-time contract. Joe converted to the outfield, robbing his brother of playing time, and set the PCL ablaze. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Joe DiMaggio perhaps saved the league’s existence,” says Dick Beverage, president of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society. “The Great Depression of the 30s had a major impact on the PCL and, by 1933, all of the clubs were nearly bankrupt. Attendance shrank, and there was some question as to whether the league would survive another season. Then DiMaggio began what would become a 61-game hitting streak and, by July, attendance increased greatly as fans in all cities followed his progress. Most certainly, he won the hearts of Italian-Americans throughout San Francisco.”
Indeed, the push for Major League Baseball’s westward expansion increased in the decades following DiMaggio’s streak, as San Francisco went baseball crazy. The Seals won another championship in 1935, before securing four in a row between 1943 and 1946, as attendance soared to a record-breaking 670,000. Yet, increasingly, experts believed the crowds weren’t solely a display of affection towards the Seals, who featured Dominic DiMaggio, Joe’s younger brother, by that time, but also a wider illustration of San Francisco’s hunger for, and ability to sustain, a Major League team.
At this time, owners of endangered teams checked regularly for potential relocation opportunities, and the West Coast, now accessible thanks to advances in air, rail and road travel, became a fascinating proposition. Before long, once-marginalized teams, such as the Boston Braves, migrated west to find new opportunities beyond baseball’s conventional borders, as beleaguered owners elsewhere watched on enviously.
In particular, Walter O’Malley of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Horace Stoneham of the New York Giants became increasingly covetous, as their respective attempts to build new stadiums in New York were stifled. Both owners saw attendance dwindle despite championship seasons in 1954 and 1955, and felt that, without new ballparks, their teams would effectively die. Accordingly, when New York City refused to cooperate, they began scouting for possible expansion sites and, after much deliberation, settled upon Los Angeles and San Francisco. They moved in time for the 1958 season, becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, respectively.
Of course, with the Giants rolling into town, the Seals were immediately forced out, abruptly ending five-and-a-half decades of tradition and success in San Francisco.
“There was no way that a minor league team such as the Seals could compete against Major League Baseball,” Beverage says of the team’s demise. “But, to those of us who grew up with the Pacific Coast League, the Seals remain a fond memory that will never be forgotten.”
Indeed, very little remains of the humble starting point of Joe D, Lefty, Frankie and the rest. Seals Stadium, the Giants’ temporary home on arrival, was demolished in 1959. The Pacific Coast League, once a hub of ambition, regressed into a true minor league soon thereafter. And now, aside from occasional commemorations by the Giants, memories are all that is left.
Memories of a fabled ball team that thrilled San Francisco through downturns and wars, earthquakes and fires. Memories of a cultural hub that brought pride to Italian immigrants and native San Franciscans alike. Memories of a special team, from a special town, in a special age of American innocence.