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The St. Louis Browns Came West 34 Years Ago for Spring Training and Took Up Residence in a Park That Was Only a Long Home Run From Downtown Burbank : The Stadium That Time Forgot

Times Staff Writer

In small offices atop Olive Memorial Stadium in Burbank, a group of citizens works in cooperation with the police department, monitoring radios in a neighborhood-watch program.

It was in those same offices 34 years ago that Rogers Hornsby, one of the best hitters in major league baseball history, plotted the course of the 1952 St. Louis Browns of the American League.

Despite the efforts of the citizens watch group, there is still crime in Burbank today. And despite the efforts of Hornsby, the St. Louis Browns were still lousy in 1952.

Today, Olive Memorial Stadium sits as a gigantic reminder of what time and neglect can achieve. The concrete structure overlooks baseball diamonds that are as much dirt as grass. The concrete, windowless locker rooms emit a dampness that one would expect to find only much deeper in the earth.

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Fifteen rows of badly weathered, splintered wooden bleachers await the rear ends of any people with a high tolerance of pain and a handy pair of tweezers. There are empty electrical sockets that seem to have been without a light bulb since the Eisenhower Administration.

And an old disconnected speaker sits lifeless above the seats. Which is all right, because there is nothing to announce anymore at Olive Memorial Stadium.

But in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was plenty to shout about. There was Hornsby pacing in the dugout, trying to figure out a way to keep his Browns from losing again. There was the Browns’ ageless Satchel Paige, uncoiling his 6-4 frame and delivering a fastball to Willie Mays or Nellie Fox or Luke Appling or Ralph Kiner. Or Bobby Thomson, who played at Olive Memorial Stadium in an exhibition game just a few months after his “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” home run that clinched the N.L. pennant for the 1951 New York Giants.

The stadium was completed early in 1947 at the cost of $64,425. On Memorial Day of that year it was dedicated to the Burbank veterans of the armed forces who died in World War II. Designed for American Legion, high school, semipro and Babe Ruth League baseball, the new stadium seemed to fill a niche.

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But the late Dewey Kruckeberg, Burbank’s administrator of parks, playgrounds and recreation, wasn’t satisfied. He wanted more. He mailed letters to every major league club, inviting them to hold spring training in Burbank. Fifteen teams responded negatively. Some did not even laugh.

You’ve heard of towns on the move? Well, Burbank, California, in the years following World War II, was a town on the moo. As in cows. Farmland stretched in all directions. Burbank had no legends yet. There was no “Tonight Show.” If Ed McMahon had sat next to Johnny Carson on the sofa at 11:30 at night in 1948, Mr. and Mrs. Carson probably would have thrown them both out of the house. But one team, the Browns, thought Kruckeberg had a fine idea. They arrived in Burbank in 1948 and proceeded to bend and stretch and scratch their way through spring training. They played seven or eight exhibition games at Olive Stadium, and then began a long train and bus journey back East to their home field, Sportsman’s Park, playing 28 more games along the way.

Carson later made a regular practice of belittling the city of Burbank on his television show--the main tourist attraction, he says, is the Burbank Rubber Band and Trumpet Museum. Perhaps the St. Louis Browns were the forerunners of such abuse. In 1950, they lost a squeaker to the Boston Red Sox, 29-4.

“The Browns were the worst team in baseball history,” said Bill Borst, president of the Browns Fan Club in St. Louis. “In 52 seasons, they had 3,414 wins and 4,465 losses.”

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Olive Stadium, then, was their kind of place.

“The lockers were wooden and put up just for the Browns,” said Ken Wattenberger, who was Burbank’s sports supervisor at that time. “The showers weren’t adequate. They were roughing it.”

Yogi Berra, who was the 1951 American League Most Valuable Player, once commented about lagging attendance at Yankee Stadium: “If the people don’t want to come to the games, you can’t stop ‘em.” Well, in four years, the people of Burbank and other regions of Southern California wanted to see the Browns practice and play exhibition games. And no one could stop ‘em.

“Baseball fans, retirees and the lunch-time crowd would come over and watch the Browns play other big league teams,” Wattenberger recalled. “The demand was so great that the city had to rent portable bleachers, and they would have as many as 2,500 people there to see a game.”

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Wattenberger acted as a ticket-taker during the exhibition games and was also in charge of the finances.

“The teams had to have their money that day, in a span of about an hour,” he said. “Our sports office was upstairs, and we’d go up there and reconcile the ticket sales and issue checks.”

A game on March 25, 1952, generated $1,781.41 in ticket sales. Each team received $712.56 (40%) and the city took $356.29 (20%). Ticket prices were $1.80 for regular grandstand seats (90 cents for children under 12), $1.25 for the bleachers along the first- and third-base lines (60 cents for kids under 12), and 75 cents for a seat in the outfield (25 cents for kids). In 1949, the price for a child under 12 to sit in the center-field bleachers was 9 cents.

Ned Garver, a pitcher for the Browns now living in Florida, remembers Olive Stadium.

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“There was a fan near the bullpen along the left-field line,” he said. “The kid asked a policeman if he was a public servant. The policeman puffed out his chest and said, ‘Yes, I am.’ So the kid says, ‘Then bring me some water.’ ”

Garver, however, also recalls some of the bad times, specifically the treatment by Southern Californians of Paige, a former star of the old Negro leagues. Paige was not allowed to stay with the team at the Olive Manor Motel, its regular spring training headquarters, nor at the Hollywood Plaza Hotel or the Chapman Park Hotel, where the team stayed in later years.

“Satchel would have to stay in a private home somewhere that was owned by ‘colored’ people,” Garver said.

The pitcher was also prevented from riding the same bus or train with his teammates to games. The day after he missed a game in Corpus Christi, Texas, Paige was fined $500 by Hornsby.

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“Paige told me that nobody had made arrangements for his transportation,” Garver said, “and so he just stayed in the ‘colored’ section of town. He said he just stayed in the train depot until about 2 o’clock (a.m.), until a black man took him to his home.”

But mostly, Garver said, he remembers baseball in Burbank.

“It was interesting to pitch against Appling, because he was kind of a legend,” he said. “He could foul off pitches if he didn’t like them. He had amazing bat control. I had him with two strikes and a runner on first, and he sent the runner to second. He could wait until he saw which guy was going to cover the base, and he’d hit it where the guy wasn’t.”

Les Moss, a Browns’ catcher who is now a pitching coach for the Houston Astros, recalls other big moments in the history of Olive Stadium.

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“It was an ideal place to train,” he said. “The weather was great and it was before smog. We all liked it. President Reagan came by a lot. He’d come by the hotel. He got to know a lot of the guys. He played in a game once with the Hollywood Stars and the media.”

John Berardino, an infielder with the Browns in 1951, doesn’t remember seeing Reagan. But he did see one thing in Burbank that he won’t forget.

“It was when Marilyn Monroe came and took pictures with the Brownies,” he said. “She was wearing those cute little white shorts.”

The Browns were sold in 1953 and the franchise was moved to Baltimore. The Los Angeles Rams used the stadium from 1958 to 1962 as a practice field, but it never regained its former glory.

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“It’s just not designed to generate revenue,” said Daniel LaBrado, Burbank’s recreation service manager. “It’s just being used for storage right now.”

He said a proposal will be submitted to the Parks and Recreation Board in about two months suggesting that the facility either be left intact, renovated to allow the play of both baseball and softball, or torn down.

The same stadium that saw Satchel Paige’s fastball and Ralph Kiner’s home run ball may soon face another ball. A giant, steel wrecking ball.

Altadena free-lance writer Steve Lauria contributed to this story.

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