Blair Field: Showcase for Future Big League Stars

Times Staff Writer

Blair Field, all green and full of lore and inspiration, shines like an emerald in the morning sun and beckons lost youth like only a ballpark can.

Go inside and give in to the urge to tear over the outfield grass after an imaginary fly ball that rises high above the grandstand roof.

Amid sprinklers that spit and spurt, field a make-believe grounder on the infield so many outstanding players have graced. It won't take a bad hop, thanks to a solitary figure in gray who is firming and smoothing the dirt with a long-handled tool.

Wearing a safari hat, he seems more like an aging archeologist on a dig than an old ballplayer, but the tobacco juice dripping from his lips hints that baseball has been his life's love.

He is Red Meairs and he played here long before it became a little stadium.

"This is where they all come from," he said.

They are the major-leaguers who first tasted glory here.

He can recite the names: "Bobby Grich, Jeff Burroughs, Bob Bailey, Bud Daley, Vern Stephens, Bob Lemon, Rocky Bridges, Jack Graham."

There are too many to recall them all. So Meairs resumes polishing the emerald, content to be sweating in such a hallowed place, his home.

Blair Field, built for about $500,000, was opened in 1958 by the city of Long Beach at 10th Street and Park Avenue. It replaced Recreation Park, which had an all-dirt field and a small, rickety grandstand.

It was hoped that Blair, which seats 3,200, would attract a Pacific Coast League club. But the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn spoiled that, and many people thought the place would be a white elephant. They were wrong.

Blair has long been a classy showcase for what Cal State Los Angeles Coach John Herbold calls the "best amateur baseball in the world."

Fred Strobel, 56, who pitched for the old Hollywood Stars, manages the place. "We run 345 to 350 games from February to September," he said.

These are high school, college, American Legion, Colt and Connie Mack games. Often, there are 20 a week.

And the players always know they are in a special place.

"I always felt it was like a big-league, or at least a Triple A ballpark," said Grich, the Angels' second baseman who played in the late 1960s at Wilson High School, across the street from Blair.

"You'd play on a smaller high school field most of the time, then go to Blair on Friday nights. The dimensions (347 feet down the lines, 400 to center) were big-league, the conditions top quality. You'd be under the lights, there'd be an announcer, a concession stand, locker room. It would be like one step up. It inspired you and got you up to play ball."

In 1965, the Chicago Cubs, forced off their Catalina Island field by rodents, set up their spring training headquarters at Blair.

"I'd walk over there during my lunch hour and watch Leo Durocher lead Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Glenn Beckert," Grich said Monday from Oakland. "After that, whenever I played there I always had the feeling of being on a field with big-leaguers."

"Atta baby" . . . "Get two" . . . "Good shot, Tommy."

Baseball's timeless sounds drift with the smell of hot dogs across Blair Field before an American Legion tournament game on a flawless Saturday.

Boys in white uniforms are crisply taking infield practice, their pivots perfect, their throws hard and true, the ball smacking into mitts.

"Play ball," the public address announcer says for the benefit of about 100 spectators.

Sit shirtless in the sun and watch these boys of summer. Stretch out in the grandstand that has a thick coat of recently applied green paint.

Hear the coaches shout instructions. Hear the clank of the metal bats and the players holler "up" as they track fly balls that glow white against the blue sky and invariably, in the huge expanse of outfield, become BFO's (Blair Field Outs).

Watch foul balls sail onto Park Avenue as the announcer says, "Ball over, straight back," and young boys scurry to retrieve them to earn a quarter.

Take in the unspoiled vista: eucalyptus and bamboo trees in back of the outfield walls, golfers beyond the trees, their iron clubs flashing like sabres in the sunlight.

There is a pleasant rural quality here, far from the modern concrete stadiums that keep nature out. It is a family place where alcohol is not sold and rowdiness is rare.

Move over behind the chain-link backstop, halfway up the stands, beneath the overhang, where it is cool and shady. Here sit the ball park's regulars, its "characters" and the major-league scouts, who know this is a place to discover gems.

Baseball Storyteller

One of the regulars, John Herbold, who coached at Poly and Lakewood high schools before moving to Cal State L.A., has a million Blair Field stories.

He speaks fondly of a "Suicide" (half Coke, half orange), the strongest drink sold by Merrill Smith, who has run the concession stand since the park opened and who once sold peanuts to Bob Lemon at old Recreation Park."

Herbold remembers the night the Chicken, who appears in a different city every night, performed at a high school doubleheader and says, "He said this was a better park than most he'd been in."

And recalling another visiting fowl, Herbold said, "A pheasant got on the field and ran into the wall and killed itself."

He tells of a ball that hit an outfielder's head and went over the fence, and of prodigious home runs, pointing to the top of the light tower where one hit.

Behind Herbold are a couple of Blair Field "characters."

'Best Amateur Park'

Ray Griffin, 68, a fan in a white beard, says he spends 12 hours a day here during tournaments. "It's the best amateur park I ever saw," he said. "It's comfortable and the concession stand is always open."

A player is thrown out at first.

"He won't win any medals in the 100," Griffin observed, checking his stopwatch. He seems to know all the players and their abilities.

Griffin says Tony Gwynn, now of San Diego, is the best player he's seen here.

"One season (at Poly High) he went all the way until the last game before I saw him miss a pitch," he said.

Another character is Albert (Frenchy) Guesno, who coached the St. Anthony American Legion team for 26 years.

A short man whose face is permanently browned and creased, Guesno sits on a Raggedy Ann quilt, smokes unfiltered cigarettes and keeps track of the Dodgers on his transistor radio.

With pride, he said, "I used to change the light bulbs out on the scoreboard. They knew I was pretty good at heights."

Hours later, before the evening game, the teams line up for the National Anthem.

Griffin stands with his straw hat over his heart and Frenchy stands with his old brown baseball cap over his.

But instead of the anthem, the "Stars and Stripes Forever" comes out of the loud speakers.

"Not my day," said the announcer.

Griffin and Guesno join in the laughter and sit down to watch another game.

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