SABR

Joe DeMaestri

This article was written by Joseph Wancho.

There are many middle infielders who are tagged by scouts as “good field, no hit.” For the most part, these players are steady performers in the field. They make all of the routine plays with ease and the more challenging ones seem as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Their offensive contributions are minimal; causing fans to remark, “Well, he has a good glove.” Still, there are the rare occasions when he strokes a key hit, or makes his mark in the box score.

Joe DeMaestri fits the mold of this type of player, often being characterized as a fine fielder with a strong and accurate arm. Whatever offensive lift he can give the team is indeed an extra bonus. On July 8, 1955, DeMaestri had one of those days. The Kansas City-Detroit tilt meant little in the American League standings. Both teams were double-digit games behind the pacesetter, New York. But DeMaestri, batting leadoff, gave the patrons at Briggs Stadium a piece of baseball history for their collective memory banks. DeMaestri went six-for-six, all of his safeties singles. He led off the first, third, fifth and eighth innings with a hit. He was the thirty-fourth player in major league history to collect six hits in a game.

Unfortunately for the Athletics, and DeMaestri, it was Detroit’s Earl Torgeson who stole the show. The first baseman slugged two home runs, the second off reliever Johnny Sain with two on and one out in the bottom of the eleventh inning. The shot gave the Tigers an 11-8 victory.

“You don’t forget the kind of nights like that,” DeMaestri said. “The reason that night sticks in my mind so much is my first time up I remember hitting a line drive to right field. The ball was a good solid line drive. Al Kaline came running in and he stopped. He decided to play it on one hop. He could have caught it. After that, the five other were real complete singles. There wasn’t any doubt.”1

Joseph Paul DeMaestri was born on December 9, 1928, in San Francisco, California. He was the only child born to Sylvio and Lillian, who both emigrated from Italy, Sylvio DeMaestri worked as a truck driver. Like many players, DeMaestri played on sandlot teams, American Legion ball and at Tamalpais High School. One of his teammates was Boston/Washington outfielder Karl Olson. DeMaestri was scouted by several teams, but signed with the Boston Red Sox because their scout, Charlie Walgreen was a family friend.

DeMaestri graduated from high school in 1946 and began his climb through the Boston chain. He bounced around the first three years, playing in various Class C leagues before establishing himself at Birmingham of the Southern Association in 1950. DeMaestri batted .283 against solid competition at a higher level. Left unprotected for the Rule 5 draft, DeMaestri was claimed by the Chicago White Sox on November 16, 1950.

Before DeMaestri headed off to his new team, he wed the former Margot Jehly, also of San Francisco on January 28, 1951. Their marriage lasted56 years and produced three children; Joseph Jr., Donna and Christine.

Chicago manager Paul Richards was happy to land DeMaestri primarily for his versatility. “DeMaestri definitely has ended our worries about a reserve shortstop behind Chico Carrasquel,” Richards said. “The beauty of it is, however, is that he also can do a good job at either second or third base. He should make an ideal utility man.” 2 That is exactly the role DeMaestri played, backing up at all of the infield positions with the exception of first base. He played more consistently in mid-September when the White Sox were eliminated from pennant contention. He hit a respectable .266 in 34 at-bats in this period. He stroked his first career homer on the last day of the season, connecting for a two-run shot off St, Louis hurler Ned Garver in the fourth inning.

Even though DeMaestri filled the role he was acquired for by the White Sox, he was on the move again as part of an eight-player deal that sent him to the St. Louis Browns. The Browns were the perennial cellar-dwellers of the American League. Their front office attempted to infuse a winning attitude and a positive influence on its players when they signed Marty Marion to play shortstop. Marion was a star for the Cardinals the previous decade, but was released after the 1951 season. DeMaestri was going to spell Marion at short, serving the same backup role as he had in Chicago.

The Browns’ manager was Rogers Hornsby. A great player in his day, Hornsby was known to be temperamental and hard to play for. DeMaestri was a bit more direct in his thoughts about The Rajah. “He was the worst manager and worst person I ever played for. Everyone hated him.”3

After the Browns posted a 22-29 record, Hornsby was relieved of his duties, Marion, who also managed the Cardinals, was named as the new skipper. Marion felt that Joe was the heir apparent to step into the shortstop position for the Browns. “That may sound a little ridiculous for me to be showing another fellow how to take my job as a player on this club,” Marion said, “but that’s the program I’ve mapped for myself. If we can’t win with Joe, I’ll have to play myself, if I feel such a move will help the Browns. But I will be pulling for DeMaestri to replace me. That will have to happen sooner or later, so why not start working in that direction now?” 4

But DeMaestri could not find any continuity, and struggled in the field and at the plate. In 53 starts, he hit .226 in 186 at-bats. Many times he spelled Marion late in games, constantly being shuffled in and out of the lineup. He was dealt back to the White Sox for another young shortstop, Willie Miranda on October 16, 1952.

DeMaestri reported early for spring training to attend a mini-camp at the behest of Paul Richards. After a few days DeMaestri was dealt again, this time with Eddie Robinson and Ed McGhee to the Philadelphia Athletics for Ferris Fain and a minor league player on January 27, 1953.

DeMaestri was happy to be reunited with Robinson and Gus Zernial, two teammates from when he was first employed by Chicago. As much as he loathed Hornsby, he admired and respected A’s manager Jimmy Dykes. After starting shortstop Eddie Joost slid into second base and badly sprained his ankle and knee on June 19 against Chicago, sidelining him, DeMaestri took over as shortstop the rest of the season. DeMaestri was comfortable, and showed it, batting .255 and smacking 17 doubles, both career highs.

At the end of the season, A’s general manager Arthur Ehlers was looking for a way out of Philadelphia, as was Dykes because the franchise had little money to spend and the team consistently finished in the second division of the American League. When the St, Louis Browns moved to Baltimore, the opportunity presented itself and both Ehlers and Dykes headed to the Charm City, leaving Philly behind.

Eddie Joost was named as the replacement for Dykes. But the move yielded few results on the diamond. They finished a monstrous 60 games behind first-place Cleveland, helped to that finish with the lowest team batting average (.236) and the highest team ERA (5.18) in the league.

The 1954 season would be the last one that the Athletics would call Philadelphia home. Rumors of the team being moved or sold swirled about the city and the clubhouse. The financially- strapped team was being run by Earle and Roy Mack, Connie Mack’s sons from his first marriage. They eventually found a buyer in Arnold Johnson, who owned the Kansas City Blues Stadium, and longed to bring major league baseball to the “City of Fountains.” Johnson also had business dealings with New York Yankee owners Del Webb and Dan Topping, who helped Johnson gain the support to relocate the franchise.

The Athletics moved to Kansas City for the 1955 season. “I thought it was great that the Athletics moved to Kansas City,” DeMaestri said. “The fans who watched us in Municipal Stadium were polite, win or lose. They couldn’t have been happier. They were knowledgeable about baseball because for years they had supported the Yankees’ minor league team, the Kansas City Blues. They were so excited to get a major league team, and we had a lot of pride being that team.”5

It may have been a love fest at first between major league baseball and the good people of Kansas City, but year in and year out the move half way across the country did nothing to change the fortunes of the Athletics. Even though they shed the “minor league” label, the front office did little to improve the foundation of the team. Johnson dealt frequently with his pals in New York, an incredible 19 deals between the two clubs between March 1955 and December 1959. The Athletics were nothing more than a major league farm team.

Lou Boudreau was given the reins of the new club, and knew a little about playing shortstop. Boudreau had been a shortstop in the 1940s with Cleveland, serving as a player-manager on their World Championship team in 1948. His brilliant career led to his enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970. The A’s had an above average infield with Jim Finigan at the hot corner, DeMaestri at short, Hector Lopez at second base, and the slick-fielding Vic Power over at first. Boudreau felt that Joe was an adequate shortstop and the glue of the infield.

“Boudreau helped me more than anybody,” DeMaestri said. “He taught me how to play shortstop. Even though I had the arm to play deep, he told me how to shorten up and cut off a lot of ground balls and how to play the hitters. And that really helped….He’d set up plays that were incredible that he’d pulled off when he was playing. He made it a little more fun. He put more into the game for us.”6

DeMaestri took to Boudreau’s instruction well. He led American League shortstops in fielding in 1957 and 1958 with an identical fielding percentage of .980 each season. In 1957 he was selected to represent the Athletics in the All-Star Game, although he did not see any action. He was considered one of the better shortstops in the league, along with Tony Kubek and Luis Aparicio. Teammate Vic Raschi, pointing at DeMaestri, said, “There is the most under-rated player on the team.” 7At the conclusion of the 1959 season, DeMaestri was the lone remaining player left on the roster who had been a member of the team in Philadelphia.

DeMaestri at thirty years old may have been considered to be getting a bit “long in the tooth” to play shortstop. Kansas City acquired Ken Hamlin from Pittsburgh for Hal Smith on December 9, 1959. Hamlin, a shortstop, was considered a top prospect in the Pirates farm system. Two days later, DeMaestri was dealt to the Yankees along with Roger Maris and Kent Hadley for Norm Siebern, Marv Throneberry, Hank Bauer and Don Larsen. The key player in the deal was Maris, and the thought of Maris hitting behind Mickey Mantle in Yankee Stadium with a short left field angered baseball executives around the league. When Kansas City acquired Maris from Cleveland in 1958, many baseball types felt that Maris was one step away from the Bronx. Now it was a reality most teams dreaded facing.

“When I came over with Roger and put on the new uniform for the first time,” DeMaestri recalled, “I looked around and Yogi Berra, Gil McDougald, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Bill Skowron were dressing around me. They welcomed me and told me words I’ll never forget: ‘Joe, when you walk out on that field, you are screwing around with our money.’ In those days on the Yankees, if you were dissatisfied with your contract, they’d tell you, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to pick up a World Series check in October.’”8

DeMaestri’s playing time was curtailed significantly, now that his role was to back up Tony Kubek. He started two games at shortstop, serving as a defensive replacement at both short and second base. His 35 at-bats were the lowest of his career. But he experienced a season from the opposite end of the spectrum. The Yankees were back on top of the American League pennant after Chicago claimed the flag in 1959. DeMaestri was going to his first World Series in his tenth season in the majors.

Their opponent in the Fall Classic was the Pittsburgh Pirates. DeMaestri’s only two at-bats came in Game One at Forbes Field. The Bombers crushed the Bucs 16-3, and Joe contributed a hit and a run scored in the seventh inning. He was used as a defensive replacement, as Kubek would move to left field to spell Berra in the late innings.

The Series was tied at three games apiece as Game Seven was played on October 13, 1960, in Pittsburgh. The Yankees were leading 5-4 when they tacked on two more runs to increase their margin to 7-4 in the top of the eighth. Before the Yankees took the field, Kubek asked manager Casey Stengel about the defensive switch. But Stengel did not seem concerned and waved Kubek to the diamond to take his place at short. “With us hitting in the top of the eighth, I went to the bullpen to get loose,” DeMaestri said. “I was sure I was going into the game. That’s what Casey had done all season and during the Series.”9

Gino Cimoli led off the Pirates’ half of the eighth with a pinch-hit single. Bill Virdon came to the plate and hit a grounder to Kubek, a tailor-made double play. However, the ball took a wicked hop and struck Kubek in the throat. Kubek collapsed to the ground, and was removed from the game. DeMaestri replaced the fallen Kubek. The Pirates roared back, as their five-run inning was capped by Hal Smith’s three-run homer.

DeMaestri was lifted for pinch-hitter Dale Long in the ninth, as the Yankees battled to tie the game back up 9-9. However, Bill Mazeroski’s solo homer in the bottom of the ninth won the Series for the Pirates.

The following season was more of the same for DeMaestri. He started nine games at shortstop, but also saw time at second and third base. He had a front row seat to watch Maris and Mantle chase Babe Ruth’s home run record. The Yankees won the pennant again in 1961, and this time toppled Cincinnati in five games to win the World Championship. DeMaestri did not see action in the Series.

Joe DeMaestri retired after the 1961 season. He batted .236 for his career with 49 home runs, 114 doubles and 281 RBIs. His career fielding percentage at shortstop was .967. During his playing days, Joe worked in the beer distributing business back home. DeMaestri Distributing Company was formed and they were one of the largest distributors of Anheuser-Busch in Marin County, California. The family business was sold to Eagle Distributing Company in 1992. Margot DeMaestri passed away in 2007.

Today, Joe is retired in Novato, California. He has fond memories of a solid baseball career, despite not seeing much action his final year. “But that was only one year in what I considered a wonderful career. I had done what I wanted to do, and I was very satisfied.”10

 

Notes

1 Peterson, John E. The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2003), 57.

2 Munzel, Edgar, Sporting News “Richards Glows Over Bonus Kids and Drafted Men,” March 28, 1951, 10.

3 Peary, Danny. We Played The Game (New York: Hyperion Publishing 1994), 195.

4 Gillespie, Ray, Sporting News “Marion to Groom DeMaestri as His Successor at Short,” July 9, 1952, 21.

5 Peary, 299.

6 Peterson, 57.

7 Mehl, Ernest, Sporting News, “DeMaestri’s Classy Fielding Features Early Games of A’s,” March 21, 1956, 14.

8 Clavin, Tom and Peary, Danny, Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 117.

9 Kubek, Tony and Terry Pluto, Sixty-One: The Team, The Record, The Men (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1987), 65.

10 Peary, 528.

 

Other sources

Katz, Jeff. The Kansas City A’s & the Wrong Half of the Yankees. Hingham, MA: Maple Street Press, 2007.

United States Census Bureau

ABwholesaler.com

Retrosheet.org

Baseball-reference.com

SABR.org

Baseball-Almanac.com

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