It’s not Babe Ruth calling his shot at Wrigley Field in Chicago, but putting on a boxing exhibition at the old L.A. Wrigley Field.
We never got to meet Larry Zuckerman, but we tipped our 1961 Los Angeles Angels cap (the one with the silver halo sewn around the top of it) to him on Saturday.
In what was called the “First Annual Los Angeles Former Baseball Sites Tour” sponsored by the Allan Roth Chapter Los Angeles of the Society for American Baseball Research (official organization site linked here), which produced Sunday’s column on the subject (linked here), the late Larry Zuckerman is given props in the handout for those who took the trip. Without his work, this tour would not be possible, it says. Zuckerman also wrote the book, “Ballparks of Los Angeles, and Some of the History Surrounding Them” in 1996 as a SABR Minor League History Research Journal. The framework of the tour was all his, and Al Parnis, the semi-retired school teacher from San Bernardino, was the one who wanted to carry it out.
“We got the idea when we went to a national (SABR) convention to Pittsburgh, and they had their tour of former ballparks in that area, so why not try it in L.A.?” said Parnis. “We were fortunate to get some people from the Los Angeles City Historial Society on board, and it just took off from there.”
Aside from collecting and reseaching baseball data, the SABR mission statement includes as its goal: “To help disseminate educational, historial and research information about baseball.” You can, in effect, write a library full of books, filled with valuable hours of digging for new and interesting angles to the stories that have been documented in newspapers and magazines and other books over the years. But to actually take people out the physical sites, let them see what’s there now and try to imagine what used to be, takes the history to another level.
So adding to that, for those who couldn’t be there (but may be interested in the second annual trip), here are some highlights:
No. 1: Washington Park
Above: A panorama shot of Washington Park in L.A. in 1911, taken by George Prince, from http://www.hellolosangeles.com/Photos_Panoramic.Cfm
Historian Ron Selter, author of the book “Ballparks of the Dead Ball Era” and winner of the 2009 Sporting News Research Award, began talking about the site of the park on the corner of Washington Blvd., and Hill Street, a few blocks south of the 10 Freeway, and a couple blocks west of the new (and now temporarly closed) Sports Museum of Los Angeles. This is now known as the Furniture and Decorative Arts District, where the L.A. Mart stands, and a giant brown chair sculpture stands in the parking lot where first base once was.
Both the Los Angeles Angels and Vernon Tigers owned the park (capacity, about 13,000), but couldn’t play on Sunday mornings because of city ordinances. It was used for 15 seasons, an extension of a giant fairground that used to exist near the downtown area. When the wooden structure was disassembled, it was to have been moved to Venice (where the Vernon Tigers wanted to relocate). But the Angels, who owned the territorial rights to Los Angeles and just had their new Wrigley Field built in 1925, wouldn’t allow that to happen.
Instead, the Tigers, and the stadium, eventually moved to San Francisco where it was used as the new home for the minor-league team known as the Missions. Records show the last game played here was on Sept. 27, 1925, when Vernon defeated Portland 6-4.
A month later, it was gone. There is no plaque designating the area as a place of baseball history.
No. 2: Vernon Park
Moving southeast, past a couple of closed (for the moment) gentlemen clubs, restaurant depots, the Santa Fe Railway Distribution Center, into a part of town that used to be the home of the Farmer John meat packing plant, the city of Vernon (just four square miles) comes up — named after Captain George R. Vernon, a Civil War officer who settled there in 1871.
On the corner of 38th and Irving, just west of Santa Fe Ave., where a timid brick building stands, is where we’re told the first Vernon Park stood, built in 1907. A half block away is the employee entrance and parking lot for the Hannibal Industries Inc. facility (site linked here), which makes steel tubing and offers storage space.
Two versions of the Vernon Tigers played in this neighborhood, in two different stadiums. The team that played here starting in 1909 (and originally owned by Fred Maier, who created Maier Beer and Brew 102) were at a 4,000-seat park where the left-field power alley was just 325 feet. It was because the owners couldn’t buy enough land. The team moved to Venice in 1913 at a new park built for $20,000, but this park remained, and the Venice relocation only lasted until 1915.
The newer park in Venice was actually put on rollers and moved to Vernon for the new 1916 season — and was known as Vernon Park II, or Maier Park. With a capacity of about 12,000, it now had a shot of 375 feet to left center, and 393 to right center. The location for this park, we’re told, was a bit farther southeast.
As Al Parnis explains in his visual diagram, the Vernon Tigers eventually left Vernon Park in 1920, played their games back at Washington Park until 1925 (when the Angels left) and then moved to San Francisco. Maier Park was still used for boxing matches, soccer games and semi-pro baseball. But for him, and many others, it’s the place where Bob Meusel and Ernie Shore once played.
In the mid 1930s, the park disappeared. Again, no landmarks are present to allow the history to be told to current curiosity seekers. But from maps and current guides, we’re still trying to figure out where everything was laid out.
According to more research, the Vernon Chamber of Commerce (linked here) occupies a site that was known as Doyle’s Tavern (38th and Santa Fe), which was touted as the longest bar in the world (with 37 bartenders). Left field of the newer Vernon (former Venice) Field butted up against the bar, allowing some players to (according to legend) sneak over between innings for a beer (alcohol was one of the driving forces to having the games played in this city before and after prohibition).
And then there’s that whole Fatty Arbuckle angle to the region — the comedian was president of the Vernon Tigers and tried to buy them outright for $65,000 but was turned down in 1919 — a couple of years before his famous scandal that had him tried three times (and eventually aqcuitted) on manslaughter charges for the death of a woman he was with in San Francisco.
No. 3: Wrigley Field
We’ve enjoyed documenting the recent history of the site at 42nd Place and San Pedro, west of Avalon (a street so named because of the Wrigley family’s joint ownership of Catalina Island, which features Avalon Harbor) and for that, you can find here (at this link). Discovering more photos of Wrigley, many from the L.A. Public Library, has also been a recent pursuit (linked here).
Forty years ago last March, the facility build in 1925 it was finally torn down, a shell of its former glory, in a neighborhood of South Central somewhat neglected by time.
Chuck Carey led this part of the tour, recalling his boyhood amazement at seeing such players as Cliff Chambers, Eddie Sauer, Lou Stringer, Bill Shuster, Cecil Garriot and Clarence Maddern play for the Seraphs (that’s the endearing nickname for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League). Later, it was the legendary Steve Bilko and Lou Novikoff.
When the newly created American League Los Angeles Angels played their one and only season there in 1961 — where Roger Maris hit two of his record-breaking 61 homers that season for the New York Yankees — the park was criticized a bit for being too small to house such a major entity. But those who saw the PCL thrive there for years had some pride in the fact their park (which the Dodgers also considered using upon arriving in L.A. in 1958 while they awaited Dodger Stadium to be built) was considered to be suitable enough for the big leagues.
Of the 50-some people on the tour, more than a dozen raised their hands when Carey asked if any had attended an Angels game at Wrigley Field — which would have been more than 50 years ago. Al Parnis recalled the story he’d read about former outfielder Irv Noren, who was the PCL player of the year in 1949 (and then spent 11 years in the big leagues, the last in 1960 for the Dodgers) — Noren used to ride his bike from Pasadena as a young teenager to watch games at Wrigley in the late ’30s, leave the bike unlocked outside, and get it to ride home afterward.
The Wrigley Little League had a game going at its field where Wrigley’s old left field would have been. But there are still no plaques or monuments designating the historial significance of Wrigley – leaving those who play soccer, ride their skateboard or hang out in the current Gilbert Lindsay Park to realize what kind of place they’re standing on. Dick Beverage, the founder of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society, says that’s been tried several times in the past, but the red tape included county supervisors and city representatives battling to get their proper recognition in the acknowledgement.
To some, the memories of Wrigley are like a water color painting that thankfully won’t fade away.
Above: A 1977 watercolor painting by Carl Aldana of left field from Wrigley Field, found on display at the George Krevsky Gallery (linked here).
No. 4: The Coliseum
Those who attended last year’s Dodgers-Red Sox exhibition game at the Coliseum and were part of the 115,000-plus trying to figure out why there was no left fielder could only get a sense of what it was like for the Dodgers to occuply the bastardized facility from 1958 to 1961.
Andy McCue of the local SABR chapter produced a sheet to show how there were a couple of versions of the baseball field that was crammed into the football stadium that opened in 1923 with 75,000 seats (it’s currently listed as 94,159 after fluctuating between 78,000 and 105,000 and once had 134,254 for a Billy Graham gathering in 1963.)
In 1958, the left-field screen was 40 feet high, sitting just 320 feet from home plate, expanding to 425 to straight away center and a ridiculous 440 feet to the right-field alley before tapering off to 300 feet at the right-field foul pole. The right field fence met the grandstand along the first-base side at 390 feet. The left field line: 251 feet. The east end of the stadium had seats that were 150 feet from the home-run fence.
In 1961, the screen in left rose to 42 feet, center field was adjusted to 417 feet, right field came into 380 feet and the fence met the first-base seats at 333 feet. The foul poles remained at 251 to left (there was not much to be done about that) and 300 to right.
Still, McCue’s statistics showed that in the last year of the Dodgers’ existence in Brooklyn, they were fourth in the league with 147 homers hit at Ebbets Field in 1957. The were second in homers at the Coliseum with 172 in ’58, but after that, finished fifth in the league for four consecutive years (hitting between 125 and 157). Opponents’ home runs ranked first or second in the league every season there.
McCue’s best stat, however, was a quote that he produced from Casey Stengel. The Yankees manager (and later the Mets manager) was asked how he felt about the Coliseum as a baseball facility. “Well, it holds the heat very well,” he said.
There is a plaque in the peristyle end of the Coliseum commemorating the Dodgers’ existence in the facility.
And one more little known fact: The USC baseball team also played a season at the Coliseum after it opened in ’23. No, Rod Dedeaux wasn’t the coach.
No. 5: Gilmore Field
Third and Fairfax are the crossstreets more famous to point visitors to L.A.’s Farmer’s Market, and now the Grove shopping complex. But drive a little farther north, to Beverly and Genesse, where there’s a street that leads into the CBS Television Studios.
If you can get past the guard shack, and walk up to Studio 46 on the left, where benches allow the contestants for “The Price Is Right” to wait for the show’s seating to begin, there’s a plaque up on the wall that shows this as the site of the old Hollywood Stars of the 1930s through the late 1950s.
That’s the work of the PCL Historial Society, which takes pride in at least having this place marked as a baseball site. Dick Beverage points out that the plaque is as the site of the former ticket booth (seen above), while home plate is behind the studio and down a driveway about 80 feet in. It pointed out toward downtown L.A.
In the circle of baseball life, it was the San Francisco Mission team (that used to exist in Vernon) that wanted to move south. But again, since Wrigley owned the L.A. territorial rights, it didn’t come easily.
An agreement was reached in 1938 but while Gilmore Field was being built by the Cobb family (of Brown Derby restaurant fame), the now-named Hollywood Stars played one season at Wrigley Field, sharing it with the Angels, and then at Gilmore Stadium, better suited for football and midget car racing.
Playing at Gilmore Stadium, Beverage said, had to be like the Dodgers in the Coliseum. Except the Stars twisted the field the other way to make right field the short one.
“There’s a story about Babe Herman hitting a ball out of the stadium,” said Beverage. “But it only counted as a double because it was on the wrong side of a marker.”
Gilmore Field was all about the glamor of Hollywood. Beverage talked about the 10-cent scorecard that had plenty of features about the Hollywood fans of the team, such as the Marx Brothers (Harpo was the one most into it), Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Bing Crosby and Joe E. Brown. And the time the Stars were talked into wearing short pants, despite the razzing from the opponents, and their fans.
Ted Williams once hit a home run at Gilmore during an exhibition game that many remember, despite the fact that the stadium “was a tough place for home runs,” said Beverage, “because the winds didn’t blow out as well here as at Wrigley.” It was 335 feet down both lines and 407 to dead center, with 365 to both alleys. A 10-foot high wooden fence framed the facility.
In 1957, the agreement that the Stars and Angels had over territorial rights was about to expire, Beverage said. This was before there was any talk of the Dodgers coming this way from Brooklyn. CBS wanted the property for its studios. Once the Dodgers arrived, the Stars were told and moved to Salt Lake City, where they became the Bees, and bulldozers took down Gilmore Field on the weekend before Thanksgiving, 1957.
In 1996, Beverage said there was some construction work going on at the CBS site and workers found the original Gilmore dugouts, undisturbed, buried in the fields. There was a though that the original trees that lined the outfield were still around the area, where now a giant condo complex sits just east of the site.
“For 15 years, this was the L.A. sports center,” said Beverage, noting that Loyola football and some semi-pro teams played at the Gilmore Stadium, and the Pan Pacific Auditorium nearby was home to the UCLA Bruins’ basketball team.
And for the last 50, it’s all been pretty much gone.
The tour’s future
The site in the city of Venice where its old baseball field sat for a couple of years has not been clearly determined, said Parnis. There was also a spring-training site at Brookside Park in Pasadena, where the current golfcourse sits around the Rose Bowl. Big-league teams also trained in San Bernardino, Redondo Beach … all sites that haven’t been pinpointed by SABR and the PCL Historial Society.
So the treasure map hasn’t been complete. Anyone out there have any more clues?