Saturday, April 2, 2022

An old favorite from 2012 revisited...


The Day Joe Came to Town


from Yeah, What Else?


Vallejo Little League received its charter and held its first player draft in 1952. As I write this (April 2012), the league has just celebrated its sixty-first opening day. That’s a remarkable milestone, especially for those of us who were there for the first one. But the one many of us will never forget was opening day 1954.

That’s the day Joe DiMaggio came to town.

Joseph Paul DiMaggio. Joltin’ Joe. The Yankee Clipper. Thirteen seasons with the Yankees, thirteen times an all-star, and three times league MVP. Nine World Series championships. A lifetime .325 batting average. He of the venerable fifty-six game hitting streak achieved in 1941, arguably a record that will stand forever. The man who retired in 1951 at the relatively young age of thirty-seven because chronic injuries prevented him from playing like Joe DiMaggio.

He wouldn’t give the fans anything less.

First, a little background. Vallejo Little League played its first two seasons at an all-dirt diamond located at Tennessee Street and Highway 40, on land owned by Ed Case of Ed Case’s Minit-Man Car Wash. It’s pretty remarkable to think of it now. There were four teams, fifteen players to a team, sixty kids in total for the entire city of Vallejo. That very first year, the post-season All-Star team came within one win in Santa Monica of advancing to the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. But then Vallejo was a great baseball town, with talent developed on the sandlots under the recreation district program managed by Lyston Johnson. When you picked the best players from that talent pool, it’s no wonder they were successful.

But that was 1952. In 1954, we were moving to our permanent home: Callen Field at the corner of Amador and Florida Streets. It was a diamond with real grass in the infield and outfield, grandstands on both sides, and a two-story building behind the backstop that would house a snack bar, equipment storage, a meeting room, and a press box. From that second story perch behind home plate, Ray Denny would broadcast our games live on the local radio station.

Opening day 1954 was an occasion to be celebrated. As it turned out, it was a day we would never forget.

Al Manfredi was a twelve-year-old third baseman for Steffen’s Sport Shop, one of the four sponsored teams in the league. (The other sponsors were Marine Chevrolet, Case’s Car Wash, and The Optimist Club.) Al’s father, a respected pharmacist and businessman, happened to be a friend of Dominic DiMaggio. Dom was known as “The Little Professor,” one of three DiMaggio brothers, along with Vince and Joe, to come out of San Francisco and play major league baseball. Mr. Manfredi would see Dom from time to time at the family’s restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. They were discussing Little League baseball one day and he asked Dom if Joe would consider coming to opening day ceremonies. Dom said he didn’t know, but he would ask. About two weeks before opening day 1954, Mr. Manfredi received a call from Dom: “Joe says he will be there.”

That didn’t leave much time for planning, but I think everyone would agree that Joe made it as easy as possible. With teams lined up around the base lines and the stands packed with friends and family, he stood in the infield and made a few remarks. He posed for a picture with each team. He even posed for some small group and personal photos.

One of those shots included Ronnie Smith, Jerry Warren, and Bruce Bigelow of the Steffen’s Sport Shop team. Bruce had that picture blown up and framed, sitting where everyone could see it in his home. Eddie Hewitt, who played for the Optimist Club, remembers a photo that appeared in the Times-Herald showing Joe holding a bat, giving batting tips to my teammate Steve Cox. Steve hit a homerun that day. I’ll bet Steve held on to that picture too. [Author’s note: I’d post the photos but they’ve gone missing. Dang!]

Joe also sat for an interview with sportswriter Don Gleason that appeared in the Times-Herald, our local newspaper. Of course, Gleason had to ask the question that was on everyone’s mind: “So, Joe, where is Marilyn?”

Joe and Marilyn Monroe were married in January of 1954, and their stormy relationship was still in the honeymoon stage. Joe’s answer was that Marilyn was off making a movie. Checking her filmography, my guess is that she was shooting There’s No Business Like Show Business, released in December 1954. Her next film would be The Seven Year Itch, which began production in September of that year and included the famous scene of Marilyn standing on a subway grate, the wind blowing her skirt up over her head. The filming of that event, through repeated takes, reportedly made Joe furious and the couple had a horrendous fight as a result.

Marilyn filed for divorce a month later. The marriage lasted just nine months, or in Joe’s case, for the rest of his life. It is the stuff of legend now. How they were rumored to be getting back together again, just before her death in 1962. How he claimed her body, took over the arrangements for her funeral, and kept it small, quiet, and dignified. How for twenty years, he had roses delivered to her crypt three times a week.

In 1967, The Graduate was released. It was the film that launched Dustin Hoffman’s career and it included an evocative soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel. One of the songs, “Mrs. Robinson,” included the following lines:


Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you


What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away


I remember Joe being interviewed on television and being asked what he thought Paul Simon meant by those lines. Joe said, “Ya know, I have no idea.”

I think he was being modest. We all knew what Simon was getting at. The war in Vietnam was at its high point, with more than five hundred thousand men and women deployed there. It was the age of the credibility gap—that vast disconnect between what we were being told at home versus what we could see every night on our television screens. Paul Simon was saying, Where are our heroes? Where are the men and women of integrity? Where are the people we can count on?

Funny thing: that was a long time ago, but the questions remain the same.

So here we are at opening day 2012. I wonder if Vallejo Little League had any special guests, and what words of encouragement they had to offer? I wonder how many kids were there in uniform, listening to the adults ramble on, itching to get the ceremony over with and the games underway? And I wonder what those kids—and the adults—would say if you told them Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio stood on Callen Field on its very first opening day in 1954?

I wonder…