Semi-favorite Son

Vince DiMaggio was more than Joe's older brother. (via Library of Congress)

Vince DiMaggio was more than Joe’s older brother. (via Library of Congress)

Where have you gone, Vince DiMaggio?

Our nation has no interest in you.

Boo hoo hoo.

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?

Virgo Vince is lacking in cachet.

Hey, hey, hey.

Pity poor Vince DiMaggio. He had a respectable 10-year major league career, which places him in a very small minority of humanity (in his day, a mere 400 men were major league ballplayers at any time), and would make him the envy of most of his peers. Yet he wasn’t the best player in his family. In fact, he wasn’t even second best, so he never got the respect he deserved. Not too many people, other than Jesus Alou or Rodney Dangerfield, could empathize with his plight.

Best known of the DiMaggio clan (there were nine children – a baseball team in itself), of course, is Joe DiMaggio (born in 1914), an American icon, a Yankee legend, a household word even among non-baseball fans, truly a man who needs no introduction, certainly not to visitors to this website.

Less renowned, but a formidable presence nonetheless, was Dom DiMaggio (born in 1917), the youngest. Dom was no national icon, but he had an outstanding career as a player and a lengthy post-baseball career as a businessman. Like Joe, Dom played his entire career with one team (the Red Sox) in the American League.

Then there is Vince (born in 1912), the oldest of the trio. Unlike his brothers, he played for more than several major league teams, all in the National League.

Curiously, all three brothers played center field, all three had the middle name Paolo or Paul (their fisherman father’s favorite saint), all batted right and threw right, and all thee played for the hometown San Francisco Seals.

Vince, Joe and Dom were, in order, the seventh, eighth and ninth children of the brood. Joe was the biggest (6-foot-2, 193 pounds), Dom was the smallest (5-foot-9, 168 pounds), and Vince was in the middle (5-foot-11, 183 pounds). In terms of achievements on the field, Vince’s were clearly the least of the trio. But that doesn’t mean he is not worthy of our attention.

Vincent Paul “Vince” DiMaggio, was born in Martinez, Calif. on Sept. 6 (as noted above, a Virgo), 1912 to Giuseppe and Rosalie DiMaggio but spent most of his formative years in San Francisco’s North Beach area, close to Fisherman’s Wharf, where papa Giuseppe docked his boat. Understandably, Vince found playing semipro baseball (notably for Jack’s Haberdashery) more interesting than casting out and reeling in fishing nets while bobbing up and down on San Francisco Bay. When not playing baseball, he dreamed of being a professional singer – yet another pipe dream to distract him from real work. What a worry he must have been to Giuseppe!

Vince’s relationship with his dad vis-à-vis baseball was a textbook case of generational conflict among immigrants and their children. Immigrant parents generally fell into two camps: (1) get to work as soon as possible and start making some money to bring into the family, or (2), study, study, study, go to college, make something of yourself, and make us proud. That binary left no room for baseball.

Card Corner Plus: Gene Michael and High Intelligence on 1972 Topps
Three smart players devoted their lives to baseball.

In Vince’s case, it was the former camp. Like his older brother Mike, a talented ballplayer who put the game behind him, he was expected to follow in his father’s fish steps. According to Richard Ben Cramer in Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, the old man had a change of heart after Vince came home from his first year in the minors with $1,500 cash. In the depths of the Depression, this was an impressive sum. Having proved that a man could make a buck playing baseball, Vince was no longer persona non grata…until he married without papa’s approval.

More importantly, Vince’s breakthrough cleared the way for papa to accept the career choices of Joe and Dom. Even if the old man knew nothing about baseball, he realized that his sons were doing the family proud and he followed the box scores religiously in the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Vince made his major league debut with the Boston Braves at age 24 in 1937. That is neither notably early nor late for a major league debut, but in Vince’s case, it might have rankled a bit because little brother Joe had beat him to the Show, specifically, at age 21 on May 3, 1936. Dom, by the way, made his debut with the Red Sox at age 23 in 1940.

One can imagine Vince having mixed feelings about his younger brother leapfrogging him, much the way a single older sister might be happy for a younger sister getting married, while being slightly perturbed that the birth order has been breached.

Vince broke in with a bang, albeit at Class D, when he hit .321 with 31 homers for the Tucson Lizards of the Arizona-Texas League in 1932. From there on, he spent the rest of his pre-major league career in the Pacific Coast League, then classified as Double-A. Vince’s first stop was San Francisco, where brother Joe played with him briefly. According to legend, Joe took his older brother’s job with the Seals. This is technically true, but Vince was cut because of an injury, not because Joe was waiting in the wings.

After San Francisco, Vince moved on to Hollywood, and then San Diego. In his last three seasons in the PCL (1934-1936), he hit .288, .273 and .293 with, respectively, 17, 24 and 19 homers. Not great, but good enough to attract the attention of the Boston Bees (later Braves), who traded for him in the offseason.

Vince D’s 1937 rookie year with the Bees was respectable: a .256 average in 493 at-bats, with 13 homers and 69 RBIs. The sophomore slump hit in 1938, however, with his average dropping to .228, though his power stats were similar (14 HR, 61 RBIs). That was enough to motivate the Bees to move him.

He was the proverbial “player to be named later” in a transaction that sent him from the Bees to the Yankees, but he never got to play with Joe. He spent most of the 1939 season with the Kansas City Blues, the Yanks’ farm team in the Double-A American Association. After he hit 46 home runs there in 154 games, the Cincinnati Reds took a flyer on him. In return, the Yankees got more than double Vince DiMaggio’s value in syllables, acquiring Frenchy Bordagary and Nino Bongiovanni.

Vince’s time in the Queen City was brief, 14 at-bats at the end of the 1939 season and four at the beginning of the 1940 season. Then he was traded to Pittsburgh, where he rewarded the Pirates’ faith in him by hitting .289 with 19 homers and 54 RBIs. He saved his best for the next season when he hit 21 homers with 100 RBIs. Granted, his 1941 stats pale in comparison to the 56-game hitting streak his brother Joe was compiling in the American League that season. Some years, Vince’s stats would have been good enough for All-Star consideration. The 1941 season, however, was not one of them. It was the last major league season before Pearl Harbor and the NL talent level was high.

I wouldn’t say that World War II lengthened Vince DiMaggio’s career, but it certainly didn’t hurt. A 29-year-old family man at the time of Pearl Harbor, Vince didn’t go off to military duty but worked at the California Shipbuilding Corporation at the port of San Pedro in Los Angeles during the offseason.

In 1942, he hit 15 home runs and 75 RBIs to go with a .238 average. Certainly nothing to write home about, but he led the team in home runs and was second in RBIs to Bob Elliott with 89 (Elliott was second in homers with nine).

Then came the All-Star years of 1943 (the first All-Star game under the lights, played in Philadelphia) and 1944 (played in Pittsburgh). Admittedly, a virtual asterisk could be applied to almost any All-Star selection during the war years. For sure, many of the players would not have been named to pre-war or post-war squads. That appears to be true of Vince.

Vince had 15 homers and 88 RBIs to go with a .248 average in 1943. Again, good but not great. But he gave a good account of himself in the All-Star game. Pinch-hitting in the fourth inning for Harry Walker, he singled and remained in the game. In his subsequent at bats, he tripled and homered, scoring two of the three NL runs. All for naught, however, as the AL won 5-3.

The next year, his stats were less impressive: 9 homers and 50 RBIs with just a .240 average. His appearance in the All-Star game was limited to late-inning defense. As it turned out, his offense was not needed, as the NL won easily (7-1).

All-Star status notwithstanding, after the 1944 season Vince was traded to the Phillies, with whom he had another respectable season (19 homers, 84 RBIs, .257), but there was no All-Star selection. In a way, it’s too bad he wasn’t picked, as it is the one gap in the DiMaggio family All-Star streak. From 1936 to 1952, somebody named DiMaggio (Joe from 1936 to 1942 and 1946 to 1951; Dom in 1941, 1942, 1946, and 1949-1952) was selected for the All-Star game every year, save for 1945.

After V-J Day, the aging (he turned 33 four days after the official surrender aboard the USS Missouri) Vince was no longer in demand. At the beginning of the 1946 season, he was a mere 4-for-19 for the Phillies before being traded to the Giants for Clyde Kluttz. If that sounds like a career death knell, it was. He went 0 for 25 for the Giants and that was the end of his major league career. His career totals were 959 hits, 125 home runs, 584 RBIs and a .249 average. Papa Giuseppe died in 1949, so Vince was the only son whose major league career he could follow from start to finish.

In the late 1940s, the Pacific Coast League was an inviting option, especially for a native Californian like Vince, both before and after a player’s major league days. So he returned to the San Francisco Seals in 1946, and then crossed the bay to Oakland in 1947. His stats were more or less in line with his big league totals.

In 1948, he was offered a job managing in the low minors. So he became a player-manager at Stockton of the California League (Class C), moving on to Pittsburg of the Far West League (Class D) in 1948. Notably, he hit .367 in 1949 and .353 in 1950.

Vince finished his playing career at age 38 with the Tacoma Tigers of the Western International League (Class B) in 1951, the same year brother Joe retired with much greater fanfare. Dom, by the way, was enjoying one of his best seasons. Batting leadoff in 1951, he led the league in plate appearances (751), at bats (648), and runs (113) while hitting .296, just two points shy of his career average.

Now there’s no shame in playing in Joe’s shadow. Almost everyone else, including Dom, did. Admittedly, Dom (born in 1917) also had a better career than Vince. Despite losing three seasons to military service, he compiled 1,680 hits and a .298 batting average from 1940-1942 and 1946-1953. No Gold Glove awards in his day, but he had a reputation as a swift, strong-armed center fielder. Also, no plaque in Cooperstown for Dom DiMaggio, but he is a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame. He also got to bask in reflected glory. As Joe’s brother and by flanking Ted Williams in the Red Sox outfield, Dom had lengthy relationships with the two best AL players of his era. David Halberstam, in his book The Teammates: a Portrait of a Friendship, detailed the friendship between a moribund Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky.

So Vince’s career was surely the least illustrious of the three DiMaggio brothers – though all three are in the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame.

Vince also came up short in longevity. He died at age 74 on Oct. 3, , 1986 (the final weekend of the baseball season) in North Hollywood, Calif. Not a bad showing, but Joe made it to 84 and Dom to 92.

Well, I started by subbing a Vince D reference into Paul Simon’s song lyrics involving Joe D, so let’s go out the same way, this time to the tune of Les Brown’s “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio:”

He’s not in baseball’s Hall of Fame,

He didn’t make gobs of dough.

But he upheld the family name,

Vig’rous Vince DiMaggio


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Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 47 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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87 Cards
Guest
87 Cards
To Frank Jackson–“Mr. 47”–Mad props for the phrase “father’s fish steps”! June 4, 1943–Vince D scored from first-base on a passed ball. Vince, a Pirate then and said to be fleet-afoot, was aided by Giants’ pitcher Bill Sayles failure to cover the plate, catcher Ernie Lombardi’s snail-in-peanut-butter “speed”, and the brobdingnagian geometry of Forbes Field (110 feet from the dish to the backstop, close to twice the distance of other parks). Those advantages on the record, I still hand-out mad-props to DiMaggio for daring and opportunistic baserunning with two-outs in the 8th and the Bucs holding a one-run lead. http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/June_4
Cliff Blau
Guest

Some held that Vince was the best fielder of the Dimaggio brothers. While he was a good hitter, he struck out a lot, and that was frowned upon at the time.

gc
Guest
gc

I know Joe D started at SS in the PCL so if he subbed for Vince you would expect Vince could play some SS. So either he was an excellent OF or no one thught of putting in a better hitter in the OF and letting him be a low average inf with some pop. He could have had a more valuable utility career but only made one appearance each at 2b, ss, and 3b (the last two during the war). Ben Zobrist or Tony Phillips, perhaps?

Scooter
Guest
Scooter

This was a joy to read. I love the Hardball Times for bringing us explorations like this.

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