Our Daily Dread: Maybe you don’t remember L.A.’s Wrigley Field, but 40 years later, you ought to check it out

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There’s a square block of South Central L.A., across the Harbor Freeway and about a mile southeast of the Coliseum, that you’ve got to drive over and see sometime.

Really. Don’t be scared.

Bordered by San Pedro and Avalon streets, and running along the stretch of homes on 41st Place and 42nd Place, the activity is an interesting microcosm of the urban renewal that often takes shape in sprawling major cities that try to keep up with the times.

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You’d need to be slightly beyond the age of 50 to see those street names and immediately equate them with where Wrigley Field used to be. The same one you can see in its full glory on old photographs or on postcards, like the one above after it opened in 1925 and was called the “newest and finest in the United States,” with the California-style adobe roof, the tall clock tower (once dedicated to World War I veterans), and the spacious reach that seemed to hug the neighborhood.

Upscale, historic, it was the baseball palace of yesterday’s Los Angeles, for the minor leagues and, one special season, the big leagues. The Los Angeles Angels, in their first year of existence, played there in 1961 and, with the help of a couple of Roger Maris visits, set the major league record for most home runs allowed in a season. Until Coors Field came around in the lighter altitudes of Denver.

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Named Wrigley Field a year before the more famous one was in Chicago, constructed by the same chewing gum giant, Phillip Wrigley, who owned the Cubs and would bring them to Catalina Island for spring training.

Home to hundreds of Los Angeles’ most famous sporting events. Prize fighting, with Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. Football games, where Red Grange and the Green Bay Packers came barnstroming to play a game there in 1933. It was the home of a start-up West Coast Negro League team in the mid ’40s that only lasted a season. Babe Ruth came through with a barnstorming team in October, 1931, and wowed the crowd with a home-run exhbition of his own.

Walter O’Malley owned it in a swap of possessions before he moved the Dodgers west from Brooklyn in 1957, and thought about it as a place to play. Some artists renditions were made of the place to become the new Dodger Stadium. That never happened. The nearby Coliseum somehow was a better fit.

In 1963, a crowd of more than 35,000 jammed Wrigley Field for a freedom rally on May 26, at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told the audience, “We want to be free whether we’re in Birmingham or in Los Angeles.” This was about 25 years before Santa Barbara Avenue, just two blocks north, was changed to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Hollywood made its mark. Aside from the Hollywood Stars using it as a home (before moving to Gilmore Field near Fairfax and 3rd), movies, such as “Damn Yankees,” were filmed there. The TV show, “Home Run Derby,” brought the place to the small screen for its one and only season of existence, and made us wonder how the people who lived on the other side of that left-field wall must have enjoyed having baseballs rain down on their lawn, from the bat of Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, who were flown to Los Angeles during the winter months for this competition.

After the Angels came and went, and the Dodgers never invested more into it, a few City baseball titles were played there in the mid ’60s.

Then it came finally down, in gray, decayed ruins, in 1969.

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In fact, it happened 40 years ago this week. The final wrecking ball demolished the whole lot. That’s a photo from the old Herald Examiner, now available in the archives of the Los Angeles Public Library, taken by Michael Haering, showing the final days of the stadium that had, for all intents and purposes, been just an abandoned facility, left to vandals of the changing neighborhood. More photos of the glory days of the place are on the library website (linked here).

And what’s become of it?

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It’s easy to get in the car and cruise through the neighborhood again and find the negatives.

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On the very corner where home plate used to be, there’s a fellow with an old baseball cap, trying to find some shade of a tree, crushing aluminum cans with his boot and stuffing them into a garbage bag.

Behind him is a soccer field — made of fake grass — part of the renovation of Gilbert Lindsay Park. That’s what the sign says, at least.

Today, someone decided to paste over it a notice about a yard sale nearby.

Down along 42nd Place, construction continues on a nice looking rec center. It’s not far from a decent looking skateboard park, which on this day sits empty.

Beyond that, going farther east where there used to be the place they parked cars for 15 cents, there a towering psychiatric hospital, right next to a senior center.

And, there, where left field used to be, across the street from the white steeple of the Harmony Mission Baptist Church, there’s the Wrigley Field.

Wrigley Little League field, more specificially.

Wrigley Field hasn’t been forgotten. It’s just reblossomed.

It’s easy, too, to spot some signs of trouble on this block. The people hanging out in the nearby park, sitting on the picnic tables, don’t look like the types who’d be very cordial if you approached them looking for a bottle opener or spare change. The person pushing the shopping cart full of trash is mumbling to himself.

It’s South Central. A few miles away from the Watts Towers. Where you can see the outline of downtown L.A. if you squint through the smog.

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Katy Aquino has lived in this neighborhood all her 31 years. She grew up on Central Blvd., near Adams. She lives a block away from the Wrigley Little League diamond, on 40th place and Avalon.

“I never knew the story behind Wrigley Field until last year when I got more involved,” said the Wrigley Little League’s secretary. “After that, I even looked it up on-line and saw how great it looked.”

Online, the old Wrigley Field may look to so as if it’s still in existence. There are enough websites dedicated to old ballparks that have come and gone (linked here and another look back here at the L.A. Times’ Daily Mirror blog).

“I wonder why this isn’t an historcial site,” who works as the Synergy Charter Academy (linked here) on 34th Street and Central Ave. “As you probably notice, this place is lacking things like beauty, safety and land.”

Sure, but you need to look past that.

“As a parent I can definitely tell you that the park has done great things for my family,” said Aquino. “The first time we were involved with Wrigley was in 2004, when my daughter Heaven was 7 and my son Joshua was 5. They both played T-ball and my husband (Ricardo Olmos) and cousin (Relles Aquino) coached it.

“Now, Heaven is 11 years old and she signed up for baseball last spring season. We started a girls’ softball league then, and at first she didn’t want to do that, but after the first season she really enjoyed herself.

“This has given us more family time. She has made new friends. We have been able to travel to different places.

“The park at this time is going through some transformation and I believe it’s for the best. I still wonder though, if our community would be so deteriorated if the original Wrigley Field would still be there.”

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The Wrigley Little League website (linked here) could use some updating as well. The photograph at the top of the page makes it look as if its linked to the ballpark in Chicago instead of the one that used to be right on the same property. It’s also advertising registration for the 2008 season.

Among the sponsors of the league is a bail bondsman.

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Wrigley Little League president Mike Garcia has that on his growing list of things to do.

Right now, he says he has a $4,000 credit-card bill that he used to buy the uniforms for the 75 kids who’ve signed up this season. He only has about $1,000 from registration fees. He’s about 100 players short from a season ago.

Most of it, he admits, is due to the economy, where many single-home parents are working several jobs and don’t have the spare time or energy — or finances — for the $65 registration fee that barely covers expenses such as equipment and insurance.

Garcia, who with his wife and three kids (aged 14, 10 and 9) live in the nearby Slauson/Crenshaw area, realize that his committment to keeping the league alive has long-term affects to keep the community alive.

“Volunteering at my church as I grew up here, I believe the more you give the more blessings you’ll receive later,” said Garcia, who works as a State Farm Insurance agent in Burbank and has been the Wrigley Little League president the last two years.

He know the neighborhood well, having grown up in the Vermont Square Park area of 48th and Budlong, going to Manual Arts High, “ending up on the wrong side of the street, and now trying to make sure other kids aren’t doing the same thing,” he said.

“In this community we live in, we can be behind closed doors,” he said. “We have to see the positive side and see there are alternatives.”

The more culture awareness probably comes from the opposite end. As a member of the Little League District 25 — which includes leagues from Beverly Hills, Malibu, West L.A. Santa Monica and North Venice — the Wrigley league accepts plenty of donations of equipment and shoes from their All-Star division rivals.

Interestingly enough, a large fast-food sandwhich chain is sponsoring a kickoff event of Little League’s 70th season with a game in Beverly Hills on Tuesday, featuring the District 25 champions from Culver City against Beverly Hills. Dave Winfield and Fred Lynn will be there to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and coach the game.

A couple miles away, Garcia will be trying to figure out if he’s got enough players to field a team against another local league with some borrowed equipment.

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“We’re the welfare kids of Little League, but that’s OK,” said Garcia, who two years ago was able to coax the Dodgers into paying for a trip to the White House for a group from the Little League during the T-ball game that President Bush liked to hold each year.

“I often feel myself pushing and pushing and not getting much in return. It takes a lot of hard work to keep this moving. I can’t even find enough volunteer umpires any more. I have to go out and pay them or else we can’t have games. But where do I have the money to pay them?”

Without enough kids to fill their own division teams — there is only one T-ball team, two in the minors, one in the majors, two softball and one junior team, from the kids 5 through 14 who were able to pay and signup — Wrigley Little League has to link with nearby leagues, such as Ladera or MLK, and share fields to get games to play.

A 1 p.m. game scheduled for Saturday at the Wrigley diamon has their major-league team facing the Red Sox from Toberman Park (in the Union/Washington area). But since Garcia doesn’t have his unforms yet — the season started late last month — his Dodgers are wearing Cubs hand-me-down jerseys that Garcia scrambled to find.

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“Maybe it’s not my nature to be such an aggressive person,” said Garcia, in his mid-30s. “I’m quiet, happy, do this stuff for the kids.

“I admit, I didn’t know alot about the history of this neighborhood. When I have free time, I Google it and it surprises me everytime I read something new about the old Wrigley Field. The more I read the more amazed I am that there’s no landmark in place.

“I feel like I’m still helping to build history here. There are so many good people helping me do that, too. That’s what keeps me going.”

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Along the stretch of 42nd Place, the old Wrigley Field looked like this, on the left, versus how it stands today, on the right:

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Right about where home plate used to sit, there’s this soccer field corner-kick spot, above.

If you hang around the neighborhood long enough, look for signs and listen to the construction that still goes on, the history won’t necessarily come out and reveal itself. It tries. You have to coax it a bit.

There are signs posted in and around the park, from politicians who want the people of the neighborhood to know they’re not forgotten, that public funds have been used here to improve the quality of life.The Dodgers, knowing the site well, made the field one of its Dream Foundation revitalization charity projects, and planted a sign above the backstop screen to mark the occasion in 2005, with the help of the city’s parks and recreation department. The field is also marked by a sign from the Amateur Athletic Foundation, helping to keep it living and breathing.

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But it’s those who really live in the somewhat harsh environment, a little rough around the edges maybe, who make it happen.

For a place you’d not normally venture unless you were at a USC football game and maybe made a wrong turn heading toward the Harbor Freeway, make it a point next time to visit an historical spot in Los Angeles sports history.

Considering its proximity to Exhibition Park, Wrigley Field was just as much a gem of the city as all the other sporting facilities in the nearby area. And, like many stadiums, even the best of them in New York, they suddenly disappear.

But history isn’t finished here.

Boys and girls playing Little League on the old site of Wrigley Field have enough dreams of their own to make sure of that.

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Cal Montney / Los Angeles Times
Stanley Evans, left, and Kenneth Thompson visit Wrigley Field as it is being demolished, in a photo published March 21, 1969

Dreams it seems these kids were just 40 years too early to enjoy. On the same spot they sit amidst the Wrigley Field rebar and cement rubble back then, they’d be just about in a third-base dugout at the Wrigley Little League field today.

Comment here or email to thomas.hoffarth@dailynews.com.

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  • buddy

    Had a great time watching the Angels PCL,battle the Stars and lucky enough to see Maris and Mantle hit home runs against the New Angels in 61 a night game too.

  • Jenna Major

    This story of the stadium’s controversial creation, as well as the story of the L.A. ballparks that preceded it, can be found in photographs and other images from Southern California’s archives

    Jenna