(Published in the Seattle Times online on July 23, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on July 26, 2020)
Joltin’ G.I. Joe DiMiaggio was once on Fort Lawton’s side
By Clay Eals
Where have you gone, big-league baseball stars? Our nation turns pandemic eyes to you. Woo-woo-woo.
This lyric update of Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson” may capture the mood of diamond fans who, because of a season stalled by the coronavirus, have been left with visions of the past.
One such apparition is Joe DiMaggio. Some call him baseball’s best. He also could be the most fabled, not just because Simon enshrined him in song. Joe’s troubled marriage and poignant devotion to second wife Marilyn Monroe, post-divorce, is the stuff of legend.
DiMaggio’s 13-year big-league career – topped by a 56-game hitting streak in 1941, never equaled in the majors – came in New York Yankees pinstripes, after three stellar seasons with the Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals.
So why, in our “Then,” is Joe in uniform for Fort Lawton, the longtime Army post on Magnolia Bluff that Seattle transformed in 1973 into Discovery Park?
The answer lies in World War II patriotism. Like other stars facing a new draft, DiMaggio enlisted instead. He played in Army Air Forces exhibition games in 1943-1945 to entertain troops in California, Hawaii and New Jersey.
En route to Honolulu in early June 1944, the elegant outfielder played at least two games at Fort Lawton. He arrived May 16, four days after finalization of a divorce from his first wife, movie actress Dorothy Arnold, and soon suited up for the fort.
Coverage of his Seattle stint was cryptic. “A team of soldiers which could probably win the World Series played a baseball game here yesterday, civilians barred,” stated a May 25 blurb by Royal Brougham, Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports editor. “Price of admission to the diamond performance by Joe DiMaggio, … etc., was an Army or Navy uniform. There are times when being a G.I. isn’t so bad.”
The wartime games were not Joe’s sole Seattle stops.
For the PCL Seals in 1933-1935, says historian Dave Eskenazi, he hit .411 (30 for 73) against the Seattle Indians at grassless Civic Field, site of today’s Seattle Center. In 1933, at just 18, he played there in eight games while compiling a 61-game hitting streak, still the second longest such feat in pro baseball history. (The longest: 69 games by Joe Wilhoit of the Western League’s Wichita Jobbers in 1919.)
In retirement, the Yankee Clipper often revisited our city. He lunched with Seattle baseball legend Fred Hutchinson in 1959, coached for the Oakland A’s against the Seattle Pilots in 1969, dedicated the “Hutch” cancer center in 1975, golfed in a 1980 tourney and tossed out first pitches for the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome in 1978 and 1985.
What’s that you say, local baseball fans? Joltin’ Joe was never far away. Hey-hey-hey.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Below are five additional photos, as well as 35 clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column. Also, as a bonus, see the four images at bottom of a signed Fort Lawton ball from 1943-1944!