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February 26, 2009
You Could Look It Up
How Things Have Changed
Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and owner Frank McCourt had a lengthy meeting Wednesday with Manny Ramirez's agent, Scott Boras, and a Boras associate, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. The Dodgers extended a new offer to the free agent outfielder.
In 1937, Joe DiMaggio, the Yankees' second-year center fielder, batted .346/.412/.673. He led the American League in runs scored (151), home runs (46), and slugging percentage, was second in RBI (167), and third in on-base percentage. The Yankees won the World Series that fall, their second straight. DiMaggio was a starting outfielder in the All-Star game, placed second to Charlie Gehringer in the MVP balloting in a close vote, and received several Player of the Year awards from local BBWAA chapters as consolation prizes. Having done all of these things, he went home to San Francisco.
In early January, 1938, the New York Times reported that "the Yankees may have another spirited 'holdout war' on their hands ... word was received here from California that Joe DiMaggio was beginning to formulate a pretty good idea of his worth to the world champions next season. Though the great DiMag, who led the American League in home runs last season, has quoted no figures, he intimated that he doubted whether even the inviting sum of $25,000, if offered, would be sufficient. Last year, his second in the majors, DiMaggio received $15,000."
On January 13, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert and general manager Ed Barrow met, decided the salaries for the 1938 roster, and pronounced themselves satisfied. "And so, all that remains," said Barrow, "is for the players to show themselves similarly satisfied, and everything will be swell." This proved to be wishful thinking. Several key players were keenly dissatisfied, among them DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Red Ruffing, and Lefty Gomez. Of this handful of future Hall of Famers, DiMaggio would prove the most intractable.
On January 21, DiMaggio met with Ruppert and Barrow-though they first kept their young star waiting for 45 minutes. The Yankees began with an initial offer of $15,000, DiMaggio's 1937 salary. DiMaggio responded with $40,000. Both of these figures were understood to be starting points, not serious offers. In the end, Ruppert offered $25,000; a $10,000 raise, and the highest salary of any third-year player in the game. DiMaggio suggested he could settle for $30,000. They argued for half an hour without either side bending. It was at this meeting that Barrow asked, "What would you say if I told you Lou Gehrig, who has been a star for fifteen years, doesn't make $40,000 himself?" Answered DiMaggio, "I'd say, Mr. Barrow, that Gehrig is grossly underpaid."
DiMaggio went home to San Francisco, where he and his brother Tom had a restaurant. Emerging from the meeting, a frustrated Ruppert responded bitterly to a reporter who asked how much DiMaggio had turned down, saying, "I think you'd be satisfied with it."
Neither side made any effort to settle, and when the Yankees went to Florida at the end of February, DiMaggio was not in camp. Ruppert had a firm rule that unsigned players could not work out with the team, so DiMaggio remained in California. Asked how the situation might resolve itself, a dispirited DiMaggio replied, "I suppose it will wind up with the ballplayer signing the contract, as he usually does."
DiMaggio joined the camp of his old Pacific Coast League team, the San Francisco Seals. The level of invective coming from Florida increased, with Yankees manager Joe McCarthy telling the press that the team could "get along without DiMaggio," and that the $25,000 offer would not be raised, to which DiMaggio responded, "Well, maybe McCarthy knows what he's talking about, maybe he doesn't. But the contract... they sent me is gone with the wind. Just say I've lost it. They're going to pay my price or else." Meanwhile, the other holdouts slowly came to terms. When Gehrig signed a $39,000 deal on March 12, DiMaggio was left as the only unreconciled Yankee.
Ruppert took the occasion of Gehrig's signing to blast DiMaggio in the press. "DiMaggio is an ungrateful young man and very unfair to his teammates, to say the least. He wants $40,000 and I've offered $25,000, and he won't get a button over that amount. Why, how many young men earn that much? As far as I'm concerned, that's all he's worth to the ballclub, and if he doesn't sign we'll win the pennant without him."
The season began, the Yankees dropping their opener against the Red Sox. From California, DiMaggio expressed his sympathy for his old club. Barrow answered by threatening to place him on the restricted list. Ruppert: "I have nothing new on DiMaggio. I have forgotten all about him. Presidents go into eclipse, kings have their thrones moved out from under them, business leaders go into retirement, great ballplayers pass on, but still everything moves in its accustomed stride. If DiMaggio isn't out there, we have [Myril] Hoag for center field. He's a fighting ballplayer. He's a good fielder and he hits all right. We'll get along."
Hoag, then 30 years old, was about halfway through a career that would see him bat .271/.328/.364. In a semi-regular role in 1937, he had batted .301/.364/.423, not quite average production (.265 EqA). The effect of replacing DiMaggio with Hoag would not have been much different from that of replacing Manny Ramirez with Juan Pierre.
The Yankees opened the season on April 18. A 1-1 split seemed to give DiMaggio no additional leverage; he was licked. Boxing manager Joe Gould, who was a friend and advisor to DiMaggio-the owners considered player agents a threat tantamount to communism-told him to fold. "You have a chance to break a lot of records and then get the money you want," he said, "but you can't break any records in San Francisco."
On April 20, Ruppert received a telegram from DiMaggio: "Your terms accepted." Having defeated their center fielder, Ruppert and Barrow proceeded to turn it into a rout: DiMaggio would not be paid while working himself into shape, and he would not even be reimbursed for his costs. "Until he is in condition, if he wants to travel with the Yankees, he'll have to pay his own way." In 1937, Red Ruffing had been a late holdout, but manager McCarthy insisted that his salary begin even as he went through the equivalent of extended spring training. "I don't want him hustling too fast to get in shape," he said. "He may tell me he is ready before he actually is, and only harm may result." DiMaggio was not extended the same courtesy. "I hope the young man has learned his lesson," said Ruppert.
DiMaggio and Ruppert exchanged signatures before writers and photographers a few days later. "Here's your contract, Joe DiMaggio," Ruppert said peremptorily. "Now go ahead and sign it." As McCarthy predicted, DiMaggio rushed himself into shape, not wanting to lose any more money (the total came to about $2,000). He made his season debut on April 30. The Yankees were 6-6. Taking over for Hoag, who had hit about .350 in DiMaggio's absence, Joltin' Joe chipped in a quick RBI single in an 8-4 win. He also nearly chipped his skull-in the sixth inning, DiMaggio rushed in for a shallow popup. Second baseman Joe Gordon went out for it, they collided head on, and both were knocked unconscious. The injuries sustained were ultimately of the transient kind, just bruises and swelling, but DiMaggio, already unpopular for his holdout and booed when he had stepped onto the field, was blamed for the accident. If he had participated in spring training, it was said, he and Gordon might have been used to each other and avoided the collision.
Despite the booing, the Yankees would get hot with DiMaggio back on the field, winning eight of their next nine games and going into first place. The Yankee Clipper, as he would someday be known, had another fine year, batting .324/.386/.581 with 32 home runs, 129 runs scored, and 140 RBI, though in the context of his career it was one of his weakest seasons. Nonetheless, the Yankees won the pennant again, and that fall collected their third straight championship. Still, the jeering continued to follow the 23-year-old.
"All I was trying to do," DiMaggio said, "was to get as much as I could. Is that so terrible? ...I hear the boos, and I read in the papers that the cheers offset them, but you can't prove that by me. All I ever here is boos. Pretty soon, I got the idea the only reason people come to a game was to boo DiMaggio. And the mail. You would have thought I had kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, some of the letters I read." Despite another title in 1939, DiMaggio's popularity would not be fully restored until 1941, the year of the Streak.
Sources for this article included: The DiMaggio Albums, Richard Whittingham, ed.; Joe DiMaggio: An Informal Biography, by George De Gregorio; DiMaggio: The Last American Knight, by Joseph Durso; Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, by Richard Ben Cramer.