By JAMIE JOBB
Special to the Martinez Gazette
Before he turned three years old, Joe DiMaggio and his family had left Martinez for good. Joe often returned to the town of his birth after he retired from baseball, but San Francisco gets to call itself Joe’s hometown. That’s where Joe and his brothers Vincent and Dominic learned the ropes of professional baseball.
If they’d remained in Martinez, fishing knots would have been the only ropes the DiMaggio boys would have known. Papa didn’t like his sons wasting time playing ball. But few people realize the real reason the DiMaggios had to leave Martinez in the first place.
Their move was the result of an odd accident involving a passing train and Joe’s sister, Frances DiMaggio, who was seven at the time.
The DiMaggios – father Giuseppe and mother Rosalie along with their nine children – lived in a small house at the base of Island Hill at the foot of Grangers Wharf on Foster Street near where Barrellesa crosses the railroad tracks. The house no longer remains, but it’s marked by an historic placard.
Like other Sicilian-American children in the neighborhood at that time, the DiMaggios were accustomed to playing on and around the railroad tracks that ran less than a block from their house. One day young Frances was playing there when she was hit in the eye by a sudden piece of hot charcoal from a passing steam locomotive.
The damage to her eye was so severe that inexperienced local doctor Edwin Merrithew, M.D., could do little more than treat her with bandages in Martinez. Merrithew was known as “Il Dottore del Dichu” – or “the Doctor of The Ditch” – which referred to Alhambra Creek, where no other doctor in town would venture.
So Rosalie had to take her child to San Francisco for proper ocular health care. Bridges to the city would not be build for another two decades, so Frances and her mother had to ferry to the City. That was not an easy commute in 1917.
After a while, those transbay trips became so burdensome that Rosalie convinced her husband to move the family to North Beach where he and his sons could still maintain their fishing boats in Fishermans Wharf from their apartment on Taylor Street.
Little did these parents realize how much The National Pastime would affect their younger sons once they started playing hardball in their fields of dreams on San Francisco streets.
“Ya Gotta Believe!”
Another famous big leaguer, New York Met reliever Tug McGraw, also grew up in Martinez. But Tug’s legacy doesn’t hold the water that the Yankee Clipper held. For one thing, McGraw was born in 1944 and belonged to a generation of ballplayers far removed from the heyday of DiMaggio, Ruth and Shoeless Joe.
McGraw’s dad was know as “Big Mac”, so his mother knew their son needed a nickname. She decided to call him “Tug” because of his particularly aggressive way of breast feeding. The McGraws left Martinez before Tug entered high school, so he never got to play for the Alhambra High Bulldogs.
McGraw is most remembered for minting the phrase “Ya Gotta Believe” – which became the rallying cry for the once hapless Mets as he became the National League’s top closer in the early 1970s. Tug’s son is country music superstar and actor Tim McGraw.
Tug’s catchphrase might be something Martinez Clippers would want to try as their rallying cry! At least they could claim that the expression has a somewhat local pedigree!
Martinez author Jamie Jobb has written a play, “Joe Fish Ties the Knot” or “Last Gillnet on Grangers Wharf”, which assumes a guy named Joe never left his hometown, particularly after he met the girl of his dreams named Norma Jean. In this what-if story, Jobb assumes Norma Jean never knew Hollywood and Joe never played baseball. She worked in the cannery and Joe toughed out his living on a Monterey Clipper hauling in salmon stuck in gillnets.
The play will be read as part of the Dramatists Guild “Footlight Series” on September 1 in San Francisco. For more information, contact: 925 723-1782.
Joe DiMaggio – The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer. 2000. Simon & Schuster, New York. p. 18
Martinez Museum exhibit of local sports – in June
Jelani Cobb – The New Yorker sports