Joe DiMaggio was just a prospect when he stepped onto the field 80 years ago, on May 3, 1936, for his first big-league game. A new recruit from the minor-league San Francisco Seals, DiMaggio hurt his ankle during Yankees spring training games and then proceeded to get a sun-lamp burn on his foot that, as TIME reported after the first week of the 1936 season, left him spending “his days reading how his teammates had contrived to lose three out of their first five games.”

Expectations for the outfielder had been high, as his signing price was a then-lofty $75,000 and sportswriters covered his spring training exploits with a combination of drool and awe. Yet there were no shortage of jaded fans who thought the bonus baby would turn out to be a flop when it came time to really play.

MORE: LIFE With Joe DiMaggio: Early Photos of a Baseball Phenom

DiMaggio soon proved those cynics wrong. In his first game, he had three runs for six at-bats—and the hits just kept on coming.

“Far from achieving the collapse which his billing led sophisticated baseball addicts to expect, Rookie Di Maggio proceeded to make the notices seem inadequate,” TIME reported at mid-season. “For his first month of play, he batted .400, fielded his position almost perfectly, hit safely in 18 games in a row. In his second month, his batting average slipped to .350 but he became one of three American League baseballers in history who have hit two home runs in one inning for a total of eight bases.”

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Here, take a look back at DiMaggio’s first year in the majors.

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