Frank Demaree was a two-time National League All-Star outfielder who played in three World Series for the Cubs, as well as one for the Cardinals. He was one of the best-hitting outfielders in the National League from 1936 to 1939 and, at least in his time with the Cubs, was a pretty solid defensive right fielder.
Yet today, Demaree is far better known for what he did in the minor leagues than anything he did in the majors. Why? Because in 1934, Frank Demaree turned in what may be the greatest minor league season for the greatest minor league team in history.
Frank Demaree was born Frank Dimaria on June 10, 1910 in Winters, CA, a small farming community just west of Sacramento. He played baseball for St. Mary's College of California, a nearby school that was quite a baseball power at the time, having produced such major league greats as Hall of Famer Harry Hooper, Duffy Lewis, Dutch Leonard and Lew Fonseca, among others. From there he signed with the Sacramento Senators of the Pacific Coast League, where he had big years in 1931 and 1932.
The minor leagues were in flux in this period, going from being lesser but independent leagues in the 1920s to something closer to the farm systems we have today by World War II. The Pacific Coast League was the strongest minor league of its day, drawing upon the booming population of the West Coast as both a strong talent and fan base. California players back then had the same advantage that they have today--the ability to play baseball year round. The Pacific Coast League took advantage of that by playing seasons sometimes as long as 200 games. It wasn't a major league, but star players in the PCL could often make a lot more money there than they could in the majors, and many weren't anxious to leave.
But the talent base in California was too great for the majors to ignore. As early as 1921, William Wrigley had bought the Los Angeles Angels and built Wrigley Field Los Angeles in 1925, a version of our hallowed home, for them to play in. Other teams in the PCL that were still independent, like Sacramento, were still forced to sell players who had been drafted in the off-season for a pre-determined price.
Determined to get more than a standard fee for their star outfielder, Sacramento sold Demaree to the Cubs in July of 1932, where he served as a part-time outfielder and spot starter against left-handers. He played two games in the 1932 World Series sweep by the Yankees and hit a three-run homer in game four.
Demaree's arrival in the major leagues was a part of two trends in the changing demographics of major league ballplayers at the time. One was the already mentioned steady stream of Californians that would enter the majors at this time, expanding the majors' talent search beyond their Northeastern and Midwestern borders. The other trend of this era is that Italian-Americans begin to enter the game in large numbers. Many of the game's biggest stars of the 1930s, such as Tony Lazzeri, Joe DiMaggio, Ernie Lombardi and Demaree, were both Italian-Americans and Californians.
Cub outfielder Kiki Cuyler broke his ankle during spring training in 1933 and as a result, Demaree became the Cubs' starting centerfielder. He turned in a pedestrian second season, hitting .272 with only six home runs, and the Cubs fell to third place. So when Cuyler was healthy for the start of the 1934 season, the Cubs shipped Demaree to Los Angeles in the PCL.
That's where the magic happened. Demaree joined the Angels, already a strong team with such players as former Cub outfielders Jigger Statz and Marv Gudat, first baseman Jim Oglesby and second baseman (and former roommate of Babe Ruth) Jimmie Reese. Reese coached in baseball for decades after his playing career, up until his death in 1994. His number is one of only five retired by the current Los Angeles Angels, the ones in Anaheim. Gene Lillard was a power-hitting third baseman the Cubs later converted to a pitcher. Fay Thomas led the pitching staff, along with Lou Garland and Emile Meola.
Demaree was the best of all of them that season. In 186 games, Demaree won the PCL triple crown, hitting .383 with 45 home runs and 173 RBI. He also led the league in runs scored, hits, doubles and slugging percentage. He stole 41 bases. He was named the league MVP, an even more impressive achievement considering that the San Francisco Seals had a young center fielder named Joe DiMaggio that season.
The Angels destroyed the competition in 1934. By mid-June of its 188 game season, the Angels had an 18 1/2 game lead, so the league directors voted to have a split-season and declare the Angels the first-half winner, in a hope that there might be a pennant race later. No such luck, because the Angels then won the second half by 12 games. Their final record was 137-50. Because they won both halves, a championship series was arranged between the Angels and an all-star team from the rest of the league. The Angels won that series in six games. In 2003, in a celebration of 100 years of minor league baseball, the 1934 Angels were named the greatest minor league team of all time.
The question remains: If these guys were so good, how come we've never heard of any of them? Demaree was the only Angel on that team to become a star in the majors. Some, like Statz and Reese, had already had their time in the majors and no one was going to give them any more. Others got injured at inopportune moments. Others simply never got much of a chance, the result of teams favoring "veteran leadership" over a young, untested California rookie. Were the Angels as good as a major league team? Not a good one, of course. The Cardinals, Cubs, Yankees or Tigers would have cleaned the floor with them. But they certainly could have given a bad major league team, like the Reds or the White Sox, a run for their money. In the context of their place and time, the Angels were a great team and Demaree was their best player.
Demaree got that chance to be in the majors the next season as the Cubs recalled him from Los Angeles. Away from the smaller fields and warm weather of California, Demaree's power didn't translate and he only hit two home runs in 1935.
There wasn't much need to steal bases in the National League of the mid-thirties, so Demaree only stole six. But he hit .325, which was enough to allow the Cubs to release Kiki Cuyler and install Demaree as their regular right fielder. With Demaree in right, the Cubs, powered by a twenty-one game winning streak in September, won their second pennant in four seasons. And although Detroit won the World Series, Demaree equaled his season total with two homers in the six game series.
The next two seasons, 1936 and 1937, were Demaree's best in the majors. He hit .350 with 16 home runs and 96 RBI in 1936 and followed it up with .325 and 17 homers and 115 RBI in 1937. He was named to the National League All-Star team both seasons. Demaree seemed to be a quiet performer on those teams, as his teammates Gabby Hartnett, Stan Hack and Billy Herman seemed to be the players that the fans remembered and the writers wrote about so eloquently. Truth be told, all three were better players than Demaree, but Demaree brought a great on-base percentage, a ton of doubles and acceptable defense in right.
The 1938 season was a happy one for the Cubs for the most part, as they once again took the NL pennant on "Hartnett, Hurricane and Happiness." But Demaree had his worst season since returning to the National League, hitting only .273 with eight home runs and shockingly, only 15 doubles. The Yankees swept the Cubs in four games and Demaree only hit .100 for the series. After the loss, Cub management decided to make changes, and traded Demaree along with Billy Jurges and Ken O'Dea to the Giants for Dick Bartell, Hank Lieber and Gus Mancuso. It was a classic "challenge" trade that we don't see much of anymore--an outfielder, shortstop and backup catcher for an outfielder, shortstop and backup catcher. This pointless trade did little to help the Cubs fortunes.
Demaree enjoyed two solid if unspectacular seasons in New York. But he started putting on more and more weight every season, and by 1941 this combination of aging and poor training habits had badly eroded his baseball abilities. The Giants released him mid-season and he finished the 1941 season with the Boston Braves. After 1941 he really wasn't good enough to play in the majors anymore, but as other players entered the military, teams kept giving him a chance for the lack of better options. He managed to play in one more World Series, for the Cardinals in 1943, losing once again. He played for the St. Louis Browns in 1944, but was released mid-season. By 1945, he was back in the Pacific Coast League for Portland. In Portland, he dropped 35 pounds and turned in a productive season, leading the Beavers to a PCL pennant.
The Philadelphia Athletics invited him to spring training in 1946. But by that time, age had eroded his skills too much to compete with ballplayers returning from the war and he was released before the season started. His playing career was over and he retired with a .299 career batting average. Had he only one fewer career at-bat, his career average would round up to .300.
Demaree returned to California managed briefly in Fresno and San Bernardino. He then used one of the Hollywood connections he had made during his time with the Angels to land a job as a grip at United Artists, quietly working in the shadows until his death in 1958. It was a fitting job for one who never sought the limelight as a major league player.
For years, Demaree has just been remembered as the third or fourth best hitter on some pretty good Cub teams, with about as much attention paid to him as one pays the key grip in any Hollywood movie. But movies don't get made without grips, and pennants don't get won without players like Demaree. And with the recent research into the history of the minor leagues, Demaree has now gotten a starring role in a small-budget, independent blockbuster, the 1934 Los Angeles Angels. Maybe that's not what he'd want to be remembered for, but like his .299 career batting average, it will have to suffice.