Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Joe DeMaestri, All-Star and member of 1961 New York Yankees, passes away at 87

Joe DeMaestri, a major league All-Star and member of the 1961 World Series champion New York Yankees, passed away August 26, 2016 at his home in Novato, California according to his daughter, Donna. He was 87.

Born December 9, 1928 in San Francisco, DeMaestri was a star at Tamalpais High School. He caught the attention many teams, but ultimately signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1946 due to his connection with scout Charlie Walgreen, who was also a family friend.

Joe DeMaestri signed baseball card /

His break came when he was signed by the Chicago White Sox in the Rule 5 draft after the 1950 season. He served the 1951 season as a backup infielder, spelling Chico Carrasquel at shortstop and Hall of Famer Nellie Fox at second base. Now christened as a major leaguer, the St. Louis Browns took a chance on the upstart DeMaestri, acquiring him in an eight-player trade prior to the start of the 1952 season.

The lowly Browns were helmed by the curmudgeonly Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who took over the team just as DeMaestri arrived. Speaking with DeMaestri during a 2008 interview from his home, he felt that nothing could have prepared him for the experience of playing for Hornsby.

“He wasn't one of the favorite managers of anybody at the time,” DeMaestri said. “He was really from the old school. Bill Veeck fired him halfway through the season. He was really tough on everybody. What he expected, you just couldn't do. Everybody was supposed to hit like him; he was just a tough old boy.”

Hornsby wasn’t the only colorful character he countered in St. Louis. DeMaestri found himself placed in a surreal position playing defense behind the legendary ageless pitcher Satchel Paige.

“It's been so long that I remember playing with Satch,” he said. “We didn't know how old he was. He certainly could throw; he had tremendous control.”

DeMaestri’s reign in St. Louis was short, as he was on the move once again during the offseason, going to the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for first baseman Eddie Robinson. This trade finally gave him the opportunity to play full time, learning the nuances of the position from two great shortstops of his era, first with Eddie Joost in Philadelphia and then later under Lou Boudreau when the team moved to Kansas City.

“I had the fortune for playing Marty Marion, Lou Boudreau, and Eddie Joost,” he said. “What else could I ask for? Boudreau taught me the game more than anybody as far as short stop goes. I had a good arm, an accurate arm. Every field was different; some had tall grass and slowed the ball down. [He taught me to] know your hitters and how fast they are. One of the fastest was [Mickey] Mantle down the line, so was [Luis] Aparicio. Batting lefty, Mickey was the toughest. If Mickey hit one towards you and it was a two hopper, you better get it out of your glove and over there because he was gone.”

He played seven seasons for the Athletics, making the American League All-Star team in 1957. His fortunes changed at the end of the 1959 season when he rode the elevator from the cellar to the penthouse, going to the New York Yankees in the trade that brought Roger Maris to the Big Apple. He encountered a locker room full of familiar faces, not only from playing in the same league, but from the trading exchange that the Yankees built with the Athletics, using them as a pseudo farm club during the late 1950s.

“That was a story because nobody else wanted to trade with the Yankees,” he said. “We were struggling in Kansas City. If they needed somebody in a hurry, they got them from Kansas City.

“I knew all those guys; I played against them for seven years. We got to knew each other well. Roger and I were in the same trade and I was in Kansas City with Hector Lopez and Clete Boyer. We were all ex-teammates.”

While DeMaestri was now in a position to experience the thrills of post-season baseball and the riches that came with it, one thing he had to sacrifice was his playing time. While in Kansas City he was the starting shortstop, on the Yankees he was one of Casey Stengel’s platoon players. He only appeared in 49 games in 1960, managing a mere 35 at-bats. He quickly learned to change his mind set to be ready when summoned.

“It's a whole different ballgame when you are playing every day instead of sitting there and trying to stay ready,” he said. “It was the toughest thing I had to do, trying to stay ready, especially when I went to New York at the end. Gil McDougald and I were the reserves. It was like spring training every day. You might not get in for two-to-three weeks, and then all of a sudden you get in. Stengel kinda had his defensive club when we got the lead. I'd go to short and Kubek would go to left. Yogi [Berra] was playing left [field] at the time. I got to play more in the second half during that 1960 season.”

DeMaestri in a front row seat to watch teammates Roger Maris and the aforementioned Mantle battle for the single season home run record and a World Series Championship in 1961. Unfortunately for DeMaestri, he spent the majority of the season on the bench, filling a similar reserve role as he did the previous year. Despite his lack of playing time, he enjoyed being a witness to a historical season.

“In 1961 we had Roger and Mickey hitting those home runs,” he said. “That was something that we all looked for everyday we went to the park. It was just a matter of waiting to see who was going to hit the most home runs that day. It was a great season. It was really a lot of fun in New York.”

DeMaestri retired from baseball after the 1961 season, going to work at his beer distributing business for the next 31 years. He sold the company in 1992 to the Eagle Distributing company.

Looking back at his career during our 2008 conversation, DeMaestri, who was known primarily for his defensive abilities, marveled at how the game changed in the field. Infielders now play much deeper than their predecessors, something he attributed to artificial turf.

“I don't think you could play that way today on these artificial fields, the ball comes too fast,” he said. “On the grass fields, nobody played back on the outfield grass. Now with the white line on the artificial fields, you look at where some of these guys are playing, these guys are making plays now in the short outfield. We never saw plays like that.”


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