The Oakland A's are one of baseball's biggest 2012 surprises. Right up along with the A's are the Baltimore Orioles. The two franchises surprised baseball pundits who predicted this spring that the teams would extend their long losing histories.
As the A's rose in the standings during the season's last weeks, I dug deep into my baseball library and found a 1968 Athletics yearbook which contains two Joe DiMaggio images that, although I have seen them dozens of times, still cause me to pause.
First there's Joe, the great New York Yankee Clipper, decked out in an A's uniform — white and green cap, sleeveless jersey and blindingly white cleats. Second, there's Joe again, this time in a green khaki military uniform he wore during a Vietnam Goodwill tour he made with thenCommissioner Bowie Kuhn during the late 1960. Several baseball stars accompanied DiMaggio, including Pete Rose.
DiMaggio had a military history. In 1943, DiMaggio enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Santa Ana, Hawaii and Atlantic City, N.J. before his 1945 discharge.
How DiMaggio landed in Oakland and thereby returned to his California roots is story long since forgotten. In 1914 DiMaggio, the eighth of nine children, was born in Martinez to his Italian immigrant parents. When Joe was a year old, his family moved to San Francisco. Desperate to get out of working on his father's fishing boat, DiMaggio took up baseball. DiMaggio soon joined his brother Vince on the legendary San Francisco Seals. Another brother, Dom, also played major league baseball.
DiMaggio tore up the Pacific Coast League and in 1935 was named the Most Valuable Player. Soon thereafter, the Seals sold DiMaggio's contract to the New York Yankees and his Hall of Fame career took off. By the time DiMaggio's playing days ended, he had 13 All-Star Game appearances, nine World Series titles, three Most Valuable Player crowns and still holds a Major League record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games.
But when DiMaggio retired in 1951, he lacked two years to qualify for the league's maximum pension allowance. The A's maverick owner, Charles O. Finley, had just moved his chronically last place Kansas City franchise to Oakland and was looking to make a public relations splash. Using all of his persuasive selling skills that he honed in his insurance salesman career, Finley eventually convinced DiMaggio to sign a two-year contract as the A's Executive Vice President and Consultant.
Exactly how much influence DiMaggio may have had on the young A's players is hard to measure. But in 1968, the A's won 20 more games (82) than the team did in the previous year. And the A's posted their first winning record since 1952 when the team was a perennial cellar dweller in Philadelphia.
Certainly DiMaggio had to be impressed with the A's young talent: Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, two future Hall of Famers, as well as Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, Sal Bando and Gene Tenace.
Sunday, the A's take on the Tigers in Detroit. Of course, since like DiMaggio I'm also a California native, I'm rooting for the A's. I give general manager Billy Beane a hat tip for helping the A's reach the playoffs despite a next-to-last $55 million payroll opposed to the Tigers' fifth highest, $132 million.