Baseball is about stories. An announcer who is unable to relate a few good stories over a two-hour, 45-minute game is limited in his profession. Some of the stories are even (largely) accurate. I asked Al if Bleed Cubbie Blue had ever had an article on the Cubs’ foiled attempt to sign future Yankees center fielder and Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio. He said it hadn't happened, and it leaped to the top of my to-do list.
Minor league ball from the 1950s and before was entirely different from what it is now. While some organizations, the Cardinals among them, developed their own talent vigorously, others allowed the Open leagues and Independent teams to make it apparent who the best talent was. Many cities and regions would have teams, and meeting payroll was often a challenge. If the best prospect type could fetch five figures and a player or three, it was often a win-win. That was the backdrop for DiMaggio's foray into minor league ball.
Joe's dad Giuseppe came from a line of fishermen, and his hope was that his five sons would follow his path. Joe hated fishing, and it wasn't just the smell. However, if you hate the smell of fish, being a fisherman might be a bad career choice. Giuseppe moved the family from Italy to Pittsburg, California, over a number of steps. As Pittsburg is very near San Francisco, that's where Joe was trying to do anything but fish, much to the consternation of his father.
While Joe was playing semi-pro ball, his older brother Vince got him a look as an emergency fill-in at shortstop in 1932. The next season, DiMaggio rattled off a 61-game hitting streak in the Pacific Coast League, which was classified as Open at the time.
Nobody had rights to any particular PCL players. If you could execute a trade or purchase, so be it. The Cubs had a bit of a foothold in the PCL, though. They often had rights-of-first-refusal, as William Wrigley Jr. and his son P.K. valued their West Coast venture almost as much as the Cubs, sometimes.
In 1934, DiMaggio suffered a knee injury getting out of a vehicle in the hilly Bay area. His career was in question as he tried to recover. The San Francisco Seals owner, Charles Graham, realized that selling DiMaggio could get him some much desired cash freedom, but his injury concerns limited takers. He decided to offer Wrigley's Cubs a deal they couldn't refuse.
Graham offered DiMaggio to Wrigley for $25,000 in late 1934. Wrigley balked, fearful of DiMaggio's prior knee injury. Presumably after a succeeding harrumph, Graham offered the same deal with a buy-back to the Seals, at the same fee, if he failed to impress. Wrigley still declined. In 1936, DiMaggio had an OPS in the American League of .928, and patrolled center field for most of the time until Mickey Mantle took over. The Yankees, with no money-back guarantee, sent four players and an amount of money reported as $5,000 to $50,000 on November 21, 1934.
Two questions seem pertinent. Why would the Cubs pass on the money-back offer? Would the Cubs have had a system in place to get the same results as the Yankees received? It sounds like the Yankees were diligent in getting DiMaggio to a knee specialist, something the Cubs might not have done. New York also had famed San Francisco-based slugger Lefty O'Doul with DiMaggio as a bit of a mentor. As to whether the Cubs would have done something similar is for hypotheses.
Why would Wrigley pass on DiMaggio for a refundable fee? First, he was that cheap. There were no punishments in the 1930s for going over spending limits for a season. The Great Depression had reached a bit of a muddling stage. The amount requested was a bit significant, and his knee injury was severe.
My own personal idea, based on nothing in specific, was that Wrigley didn't much like DiMsggio. Both were in California a bit. When you own a team in even a remotely active fashion, you get to know players on the other teams. DiMaggio was no Yogi Berra. He was good at playing baseball, but has rarely ranked especially highly on lists of "most liked people," though he was admired from coast-to-coast as an athlete and military service member. If Wrigley thought he was immature, and he thought his team wouldn't be able to "serious him up," I could see that as a reason.
Whatever factors led them to not take the deal offered, the Cubs passed on a shot at a player who could have been their best ever center fielder. That tossed him to the Yankees, who went to work adding to their World titles.
This is how my article sat in queue for over a week. All the information, and no finish. It wasn't going to print until I had a close to it. Eventually, I decided the best close was something a bit ordinary. Any assessment of a potential transaction ought to be based on expected expectations.
At the very worst, Wrigley would have been out of a significant amount of "walking around money," and that was too steep a price for him. Nowadays, owners are expected by blogs to spend more than last year unless tanking or pandemic. Back then, you could go to a game, or not, and that was it. Now, instead of numerous writers and quite a few newspapers, owners deal with bloggers, and video/audio outlets. Same premise, different outlets.
The Cubs dropped the ball on DiMaggio. Not because he turned out well in an organization pot-committed to winning, but because the signing of DiMaggio would have been rather easily accomplished. Pick the good low-hanging fruit. The Cubs weren't as committed to winning as the Yankees, and it showed when they played. Success is preparation plus time. The Cubs didn't prepare well. How should teams prepare during the COVID-19 delay? Answers are of importance now, more than in twenty years looking back.
Though it would be fun to read online articles from back then, if online had existed, about how the Cubs bungled the DiMaggio signing.