When’s a Clipper not a Clipper?

Special to the Martinez Gazette

“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

– Paul Simon

Baseball recalls Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio as “Joltin’ Joe” but he was also famously known as “The Yankee Clipper”. Understanding this background is key to any baseball fan comprehending the significance of that name as it applies to the Martinez Clippers, the new Pacific Association ballclub which plays the Sonoma Stompers in its inaugural game here tomorrow night.

In the 1930s, windy New York sportswriters considered DiMaggio as speedy and graceful in center field as a 19th Century “clipper ship” was on the horizon. Like Joe’s gliding outfield strides that smothered line drives – these tall-masted sailing vessels were capable of making the world’s difficult waters ride easy.

At the time, tall ships had not been seen on the docks of New York City and San Francisco for half a century. But readers knew what the sportswriters meant when they hung that antique maritime nickname onto the lofty Yank.

They thought the term “clipper” honored the man’s fishing heritage. However, the sporting scribes were referring to exactly the wrong “clipper”! “Tall ships” – indeed!

Although his father and older brothers – not to mention their Sicilian ancestors – were commercial fishermen, Joe DiMaggio detested that immigrant lifestyle. He was lucky to get wrapped up in the national pastime after his family moved from Martinez to San Francisco’s North Beach. Originally these relocated Sicilians fished like their ancient Roman and Greek ancestors – from traditional “feluccas” powered by oar and a single sail known as a “lateen”. The fishing life was not easy on these slow boats.

Eventually, the DiMaggios became professional enough to fish local waters in “Monterey Clippers”. Oddly enough, these low boats had replaced actual tall Clipper ships on the docks of Martinez before the demise of Contra Costa’s grain farms which originally fed Grangers Wharf with wheat bound for Europe.

Monterey Clippers were slow two-man vessels powered by clunky one-stroke motors made and serviced in Benicia. These working wooden fishing boats required constant maintenance and were used by Italian fishermen to set their gillnets, also high-maintenance tools of their trade. A well-preserved fleet of Monterey Clippers still floats in San Francisco Bay, mostly to benefit tourists visiting Fisherman’s Wharf.

Martinez writer Harlan Bailey, a renowned fisher poet and salmon fisherman, also believes the term “clipper” was used to describe the unique cut of the bow of these ships, a sharply angled curve climbing quickly out of the water. It “clips” through the water. Bailey points out that the clipper ships of yore had the same cut bow as the Monterey clippers.

Confounding things further is the fact that upon his retirement, the New York Yankees gave their “Clipper” an inboard Chris Craft Cruiser called “The Joltin’ Joe”. Forget the sportswriters, what part of “tall ships” did the Yanks not understand?!?

Joe’s pleasure craft suffered from years of neglect on the local waterfront, but was carefully restored over a period of several months by Sons of Italy and other volunteers for the Hometown Hero Project, which expects to display the refurbished Joltin’ Joe at Clipper home games this season. The last Monterey Clipper residing in Martinez is also out of water – in dry-dock at Eagle Marine.

Thanks for assistance in research: Harlan Bailey, Julian Frazer and Bob Cellini.

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