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In the Pipeline: A baseball league to remember

Before heading off to Angel Stadium on Saturday to create new baseball memories, I spent the day enjoying baseball history thanks to a gathering of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society at Central Library in Huntington Beach.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Pacific Coast League was a premier collection of West Coast baseball teams, including the Hollywood stars, the Los Angeles Angels, the San Francisco Seals, the San Diego Padres, the Sacramento Solons and the Seattle Rainiers.

Future Major League stars such as Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams all came up through the PCL ranks. But by the late 1950s, once Major League teams like the Dodgers and Giants had migrated west, the PCL, for all intents and purposes, was done.

But its spirit is kept alive by one Richard Beverage, founder and president of the historical society dedicated to this charming and colorful baseball league. For the second year in a row, he has staged the society's annual get-together in Huntington Beach. Not coincidentally, Beverage's daughter is Stephanie Beverage, director of library services at the Central Library

I have attended these get-togethers before and never tire of them. Historians and fans bring their memorabilia to display and sell and their books to be signed, photo albums burst with old baseball cards and pictures, and players typically make an appearance.

But as Richard Beverage told me, there just aren't that many players left.

"The youngest guy playing when the league, as we knew it, stopped in 1957 is 75 years old today," he said. "So it gets harder to find guys. But the ones that do appear really have a great time sharing stories and meeting old fans like me."

Beverage grew up near Oakland and would see the Oakland Oaks play in Emeryville. As he described it, the scheduling of the games was quite unique.

"Teams would play a seven-game series each week. They would travel on Monday, play games Tuesday through Saturday and then a doubleheader on Sunday. They thought in terms of winning a series as opposed to winning individual games. And as a kid it was great, because you really got to know the teams well seeing them play over and over each week."

The PCL also featured some marvelously intimate and interesting ballparks, like the original Wrigley Field in Los Angeles and Gilmore Field in Hollywood. And the uniforms had an elegance and classic feel that still seems unrivaled.

Sacramento native Alan O'Connor, who wrote a wonderful book about baseball near his hometown, "Gold on the Diamond," was also in attendance. His collection of Sacramento Solon's memorabilia is legendary, and the jerseys he had on display represented just how special the designs were.

"People always wonder about the heart-shaped logos on Solon jerseys," he told me. "That's because from World War I till about 1960, the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce had named our city 'The Heart of California.' That logo existed everywhere including our baseball uniforms."

O'Connor recalled how sad it was after his team left.

"I was only 11 years old and so the transition was tough. Sure, the Giants came out from New York and I eventually became a fan of theirs. But watching our ballpark get torn down in 1964 was very hard. The Solons were part of our community."

Community was key with the PCL. Sure, the teams were based primarily in major cities. But still the league had an intimacy and small-town feel that made it beloved by families but also celebrities.

"This was big-time baseball with big-name players. Many of them could have played in the majors but didn't for one reason or another. They became the stars that we grew up with," Beverage said.

Just before I left, a couple of players began fondly recounting an umpire named Emmett Ashford. Ashford had served in the Navy during World War II, and one night while stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, he heard an announcement on the radio that Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in Major League baseball.

Inspired by Robinson, Ashford decided then and there that he was going to train to become the very first black umpire in pro baseball. And so that's what he did, joining the PCL in 1954. By the mid-1960s, Ashford would be promoted to the Major Leagues. But it was in the PCL where he first made his mark, officially breaking the color barrier for umpires in pro ball.

Such are the stories you hear when old baseball players and fans get together, to replay glory days on all-but-forgotten fields of dreams. But they'll always be remembered by the faithful, the old men who become like young boys again when they talk about the games, all those glorious games they experienced up and down the coast thanks to a classic, classy league called the PCL.

I hope they come back next year.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.

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