The Second Coming of Joe DiMaggio
It was no sure thing when the San Francisco Seals sold Joe DiMaggio to the New York Yankees on November 21, 1934. The Yankees got an option to purchase DiMaggio from the Seals before the end of the 1935 season for $25,000 and five players to be named later, according to Richard Ben Cramer’s definitive DiMaggio biography, The Hero’s Life.
DiMaggio hit .340 with a 61-game hitting streak as an 18-year-old in the Pacific Coast League in 1933. But his stock plummeted after he twisted his knee stepping out of a cab in May 1934, missing the rest of the season. “Few clubs care to gamble on him right now because he severely injured a knee last Summer and nobody knows whether or when he will be whole again,” Tommy Holmes wrote on November 22, 1934, for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “But the Yankees can afford the gamble.”
Even as DiMaggio went on to a PCL MVP season in 1935, hitting .398 with 270 hits, newspapers of the day noted how the Yankees waited until just hours before the midnight deadline on September 10, 1935, to close the deal. The Sporting News devoted much of a December 26, 1935, story about the hype on DiMaggio to discussing Paul Strand, a PCL legend who flopped in the Majors.
The Yankees, of course, got everything they paid for and more, with DiMaggio hitting .323 with 29 homers in his rookie season and helping lead New York to the first of four consecutive championships. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, a former teammate of DiMaggio’s blossomed to hit a PCL-leading .359, drawing comparisons. Not many people outside of Joe Marty’s hometown of Sacramento, California, remember him anymore, but for a time, many people debated if he would be better than Joe DiMaggio.
With the Seals in 1936, Marty won the league batting title with a .358 average.
Posterity makes all sorts of bold proclamations look foolish. Joe Marty’s a footnote in Major League Baseball history, hitting .261 from 1937 to 1941. Sabermetrics available via Baseball-Reference.com paint a bleaker picture, with Marty worth -4.3 Wins Above Average lifetime, tied for 23rd worst in the Majors for the years he played. DiMaggio meanwhile had 27.9 Wins Above Average in that span, best in baseball.
After a four-year break for World War II, Marty went on to some success as a player-manager with the Sacramento Solons of the PCL, running a bar and restaurant near the ballpark. But he never came close to meeting expectations after the Seals sold him to the Chicago Cubs for $50,000 and four players at the minor league convention in Montreal on December 1, 1936.
“Marty has the equipment to become one of the greatest outfielders of all time,” Marty’s manager in San Francisco Lefty O’Doul told a United Press reporter in January 1937. “Why, if I had that kid’s ability when I was in the major leagues, I’d have batted .400 and they’d never get me out of the circuit.”
Shortly after Marty died at 71 in 1984, a Sacramento Bee columnist named Bill Conlin wrote that O’Doul said Marty was a better prospect than DiMaggio. Conlin might have been exaggerating for the sake of Marty, an old friend. In searching newspaper and Sporting News archives for this piece, I couldn’t locate any quotes from O’Doul ever saying that Marty was a better overall prospect than DiMaggio. But O’Doul favored Marty in certain areas.
“He has tremendous power in his shoulders, more than Di Maggio [sic],” O’Doul told a wire reporter in August 1936. “Marty is one of the fastest men in the league. His throwing arm isn’t as good as Di Maggio’s [sic] but he is a better base runner and covers more ground in the field. He should be a riot in the big show.”
Others might have considered Marty the better prospect. A wire reporter named Phil Sinnott wrote of Marty around the time of his sale, “Is he better than his former Italian teammate? You can get an argument from either angle out here on the coast, where everything’s moving except ships.”
Signs of trouble surfaced even before Marty’s sale. Sam Jackson of the Associated Press wrote in the spring of 1937 about the difference O’Doul made after becoming Seals manager in 1935. “Some fatherly talks have been given Marty by Manager O’Doul, who has been through the majors himself and wants his protege to be convinced that he’s just as good as any of them and maybe a lot better,” Jackson wrote. “He knows psychology is the big thing in Marty’s case.”
Holmes wrote for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on January 12, 1937, that O’Doul considered Marty and DiMaggio’s younger brother Vince the top prospects for the upcoming season. But Holmes added, “There is a widespread feeling out there that Marty suffers from an inferiority complex where DiMaggio was concerned. They played together for two seasons and Marty’s averages were .269 and .289. Then, when DiMaggio went on up, Marty stepped out and led the league.”
On January 7, 1937, Ed R. Hughes, who’d written about Marty and DiMaggio for the San Francisco Chronicle, compared the two for The Sporting News. “Marty and DiMaggio are far from being alike,” Hughes wrote. “DiMaggio will go along at an even pace no matter how things are breaking. Marty has his moments. When he is on a batting spree, he murders any kind of pitching. But at other times, he does not look so good.”
Even the Seals urged caution. When asked by Henry Super of the United Press in January 1937 why he wouldn’t call Marty a better prospect than DiMaggio, O’Doul said, “The kid’s moody. He can hit like a fool. He is a great fielder. He has a strong arm and covers his position very fast. But when he gets into a slump he can’t get out of it. He sulks and worries. That’s a bad frame of mind for a player to get in. I’d say that he lacks spirit. Take Joe DiMaggio—he’s an iceberg. Nothing ever ruffles him. He has plenty of fight and when things get tough he pitches right in there and goes to work. Marty is the opposite.”
O’Doul gushed about Marty after the Seals sold him at the Montreal minor league convention, where Marty and future Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr were the top prizes. Others were less enamored with Marty. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported one scout saying, “He’ll get lost on the way home from the ball park.” Former pitcher Dutch Ruether told the Eagle that Marty would need to show more than he did in the PCL to succeed in the Majors.
For a time, Marty defied skeptics, becoming starting center fielder early in his rookie season with the Cubs. He struggled initially, bawled out by Manager Charlie Grimm after a loss to the New York Giants on May 22, 1937, where Marty’s base running error cost the Cubs a tying run late. “You dreary-eyed blankety-blank,” wire reporter George Kirksey quoted Grimm as telling Marty. “I don’t want your kind of player around. Get ready to go home.” But Grimm told reporters after that Marty would remain in the starting lineup due to his composure during the tirade. Given new life, Marty surged among the leaders in the NL batting race.
“The rookie center fielder, Joe Marty, seems to have shaken off the curse of being called the National League Joe DiMaggio and is finally living the life he was accustomed to out in the Pacific Coast League last season,” wire reporter Harry Grayson wrote in a piece that ran on June 24, 1937. Kirksey wrote a similarly positive story on June 11, 1937, noting the constant encouragement of Marty’s roommate on the road, veteran hurler Tex Carleton.
Marty finished his rookie season hitting .290, helping the Cubs finish second. He slipped to .243 in 1938. Though he managed a homer in the 1938 World Series, where DiMaggio and the Yankees swept the Cubs, Marty lagged again in 1939. After starting the season 4 for 45 at the plate, Marty was benched along with teammates Billy Herman and Hank Leiber in early May, purportedly for not hustling. The Detroit Tigers had declined to sign Marty while he was in the PCL due to the same issue.
Other factors might have plagued Marty. Alan O’Connor wrote in his Sacramento baseball history book, Gold on the Diamond, that Marty once turned a sure double into a single when he stopped at first base to ogle actress Tallulah Bankhead who had box seats. O’Connor also shared a quote Marty gave a Sacramento magazine writer late in life that the Cubs were his favorite team in the Majors “because Chicago bars never close.”
On May 29, 1939, the Cubs traded Marty and two other players to the Philadelphia Phillies for future all-star pitcher Claude Passeau. The Phillies of those years were a perennial last-place club where aging and defective players were often consigned and where the best thing a bright young player might hope for was to be sold away when the team invariably needed money. For a player like Marty who required a supportive environment, there were few worse destinations.
While Marty took his trade in stride and offered a rate of offensive production slightly above league average with the Phillies, no one compared him to DiMaggio by the time his tenure was up. After Marty missed the 1942 through 1945 seasons serving on USO teams during World War II, the Phillies cut him during spring training in 1946.
Marty might not have cared, anyhow. Reportedly, he only rued later in life that not returning to the Majors kept him just shy of qualifying for a pension.
In the 1938 World Series, Joe Marty (center row, far left) was the Cubs’ leading hitter. He belted six hits in 12 at bats, drove in five, and scored one of the team’s nine runs.
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