Now that the major league baseball season is underway, the Dodgers coming off a sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates while the Angels had a bit of trouble in Arlington, TX, losing two of three games to the Texas Rangers this past weekend, and with the Jackie Robinson movie “42” , which is getting major buzz, scheduled to open later this week, I thought it would be fun to describe baseball’s history in America’s second largest city.
Contrary to popular belief, particularly by Generation X and the Millenials, baseball in Los Angeles did NOT begin with the arrival of the Dodgers and the building of Dodger Stadium, as there were professional teams in L.A. that were prominent in the national pastime, dating back to the turn of the 20th century.
Essentially speaking, two eras best describe baseball’s history in the City of Angels; before 1958, when the Dodgers came to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, and after 1958.
Let’s explore baseball in L.A. before Dodger owner Walter O’ Malley broke the hearts of Brooklyn fans and delighted Southern Californians by moving his blue-clad team to the Southland…
I. THE PRE-1958 ERA: ANGELS, STARS IN HOLLYWOOD, AND THE PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE
Much like today, there were two baseball teams that called Los Angeles home.
The only thing was, they were not big league clubs as St. Louis, with its Cardinals and Browns (who moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles), was the furthest west that Major League Baseball went through the 1950s; it was the Pacific Coast League, which although it was technically a minor league was considered a West Coast version of the majors in many ways and was the top minor league in pro ball, continuing with a Triple-A ranking to this day, that housed L.A.’s teams.
The most prominent ball club in this era was the Los Angeles Angels, who began play in 1903 and lasted for 54 years, all the way to 1957.
Now before anyone gets confused, these are not the Angels as we know them today – more on them later.
These Angels were regarded as the top team in the PCL in the first half of the 20th century, winning a total of 11 championships while playing in two ballparks: Washington Park, which was located on 8th and Hill Streets in downtown L.A., and more notably Wrigley Field – not to be confused with the Cubs’ home in Chicago but with the Angels being owned by that same chewing gum mogul, was given the same name as that ivy-fenced ballpark on Chicago’s Northside – which was located on 42nd and Avalon streets in what is now called South L.A. and where the Angels played for over 30 years.
The L.A. version of Wrigley’s biggest claim to fame was that it hosted the TV show “Home Run Derby”, which featured Hall of Famers like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron competing against each other to see who can hit the most balls out of the park, in 1960.
Quite a few stars wore the Angels’ uniform, the biggest ones who spent the bulk of their time in L.A. being Jigger Statz, an outfielder from the 1920s and 30s who still holds the PCL record for hits (3,356), games (2,790) and runs (1,996), and Steve Bilko, a first baseman who won the minor league Triple Crown in 1957 with 55 home runs, 160 RBIs, and a .360 average.
The Angels has two big rivals, the first ones being the Vernon Tigers, an outfit that played from 1909 to 1925 and was located in Vernon, located five miles south of downtown between the 110 and 710 freeways, because it was one of only two towns in Los Angeles County that allowed the sale and consumption of alcohol. After moving to San Francisco, they returned in 1938 as the Hollywood Stars and really became the Angels’ rival, to the point of a huge brawl that erupted between the two clubs on August 2, 1953, which took 30 minutes for the police to break up.
These Stars became prominent in the Los Angeles sports scene due to the fact that Robert H. Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurant and inventor of the Cobb salad, owned the team and got many of his big-name entertainer friends, including singing cowboy Gene Autry – more on him later as he would become much more prominent on the L.A. baseball scene – to buy stock.
Featuring innovations such as wearing shorts on the field in 1950 and being the first professional team, minor or major league, to drag the infield during games in the 5th inning, the Stars played in Gilmore Field, located on Beverly Boulevard and where CBS Television City currently stands, for almost 20 years, up until the beginning of the 1958 season, when something happened that was akin to a large asteroid falling on Earth and killing off the dinosaurs.
This armageddon-like event that happened in ’58? The Dodgers coming to Los Angeles, which pushed both the Angels and the Stars out of town, the Angels moving to Spokane, WA and the Stars relocating to Salt Lake City, Utah.
That leads us to the second part of this history lesson…
II. 1958 AND BEYOND: THE DODGER AND (new version) ANGEL BOOM
If there is one date that baseball fans in L.A. and Southern California need to remember, it is this one:
April 18, 1958 – the day of the Dodgers’ first ever game in Los Angeles.
Walter O’ Malley’s famous “Boys of Summer”, who enjoyed much success in New York City’s Brooklyn borough in the 40s and 50s, played the brand-new San Francisco Giants – who moved with the Dodgers from upper Manhattan to continue their rivalry – that afternoon in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, before an opening day record crowd of 78,652 ecstatic fans that now considered L.A. a major metropolis now that big league baseball was there.
The Dodgers lost that first game, but they wouldn’t lose too many more as it only took one year for the team to bring a World Series championship to California, beating the Chicago White Sox four games to two in the 1959 Fall Classic while filling up the Coliseum with crowds of more than 90,000, which are still records.
Being a football stadium that housed the NFL’s Rams and USC at that time, the left field fence in the Coliseum was a mere 250 feet from home plate. Outfielder Wally Moon was one of the first L.A. Dodger stars because he became proficient at hitting “Moon shots” over the huge screen in left, but there would be players wearing the blue “LA” cap that would be baseball icons a few short years later.
Meanwhile, as the Dodgers were getting acclimated to the west coast sun, O’Malley was looking for a permanent home for his team. He found that home while flying in a helicopter a few miles north of downtown and Sunset Boulevard, looking at Chavez Ravine and saying, “Here is the place!”
After some controversy regarding the residents of that area who had to be forced to leave, Dodger Stadium opened on April 10, 1962, and while they lost to the Cincinnati Reds that day 6-3, it was – and still is – widely viewed as a baseball paradise, with a capacity of 56,000.
It was the first baseball stadium to draw 3 million fans in a season in 1978, and holds the record of having the most seasons of drawing 3 million in attendance.
Two legends immediately established themselves in what former manager Tommy Lasorda calls “Blue Heaven on Earth”: Don Drysdale, who threw 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in 1968, and Sandy Koufax, arguably the best left-handed pitcher of all time, who threw four no-hitters, including a perfect game, in a four-year span from 1962 to 1965.
The Dodgers won three pennants and two World Series in those watershed 1960s, but perhaps their most memorable title came in 1988 when Kirk Gibson, who was so badly injured that he wasn’t even introduced in the pre-game ceremonies, hit a pinch-hit homer to win Game One over the heavily favored Oakland A’s and propelled the team to a four games to one upset.
Overall, the Dodgers have won five championships in Los Angeles, but during their first four years in Dodger Stadium another fledgling big league club shared the place with them…
After seeing what went down with the Dodgers and Giants, the American League, who wanted to join their National League counterparts in California, granted Gene Autry, who had gotten a taste of baseball ownership with the Hollywood Stars, a franchise in 1961. To honor L.A’s baseball past (I’m sure), he named his new team the Angels and placed them in Wrigley Field on 42nd and Avalon, where they spent that first season until moving to what they called Chavez Ravine in 1962, sharing that place with the Dodgers.
It soon became clear that these Angels needed a new home, which they got in 1966 when after making a deal with the city of Anaheim, Autry renamed his team the California Angels and built a 43, 250 seat stadium, featuring a scoreboard shaped like a big “A” in left field, 25 miles down the I-5 freeway and not far from Disneyland, bringing major league baseball to Orange County on April 19, 1966.
First known as Anaheim Stadium, the place endured many changes as it expanded to over 60,000 seats when the Rams came south from the L.A. Coliseum in 1980, then was renovated again when that team left in 1995, returning to baseball-only status in 1998. It was renamed Edison International Field of Anaheim that same year, then evolved to its current name, the Angels Stadium of Anaheim, in 2003.
For Angel fans and Orange County baseball followers, it is simply known as “The Big A”.
The Angels first gained baseball notoriety when Nolan Ryan joined them in 1972 in a trade from the New York Mets. By the time he left in 1979, the Angels winning their first division title that year, he had matched Sandy Koufax’s record of four no-hitters and, for all intents and purposes, put Autry’s team on the map.
Big-name free agents such as Don Baylor, Fred Lynn, Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson wore the Angel halo in the late 70s and early 1980s as Autry spared no expense to achieve his dream of winning a World Series. They won two more division crowns in 1982 and 1986, but they were denied Fall Classic berths each time with ’86 being a particular heartbreaker as the Boston Red Sox’s Dave Henderson, with the Angels one strike away from the pennant in Game Five of the ALCS, blasted a home run off Donnie Moore that devastated him and the rest of the team, the Red Sox eventually beating the Angels in that league championship series in seven games.
After another frustrating finish in 1995 where they blew an 11-game lead in the A.L. West and fell just short of a playoff berth, the Angels were sold to Disney in 1996. Their colors, logo and even their name were changed as they were known as the Anaheim Angels from 1997 until 2005, when Arturo Moreno, who had bought the team from Disney in 2003, changed the name to what the club is known as today, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Three years before that, Autry’s dream came posthumously true (he passed away in 1998) when the team that he founded, led by ex-Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia and players such as Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus and Troy Percival, finally broke through in an epic seven-game World Series, beating the Giants after being down three games to two.
The Angels continue to draw big crowds and provide pride to the people of Orange County to this day, as they have more than held their own against their Dodger neighbors to the north over the years, both in the pre-season Freeway Series and the in-season inter-league games.
To date, the Dodgers and Angels have played each other 92 times since inter-league play between the National and American Leagues began in 1997, and the Angels have won 54 of them.
This year the two teams will write another chapter in L.A’s baseball history as they will face each other four times, playing at Dodger Stadium on May 27th and 28th and in Angel Stadium on May 29th and 30th.
Just like Disneyland when Walt Disney said that it will never be finished, this history will likewise never end.
Which considering how rich it is, should not be.