Baseball Fan Rekindles the Glory Days of Old Pacific Coast League
Every serious baseball fan can recite a list of favorite players from the past.
Such lists usually include familiar names--Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente--men who played in New York, Boston or Pittsburgh and who are still remembered by millions.
Richard Beverage of Placentia has such a list, but it includes Ray French, Carl Dittmar and Arnold (Jigger) Statz, who played half a century ago or longer for teams that no longer exist.
Beverage may be the nation’s leading authority on the old Pacific Coast League--specifically as it existed from about 1920 until 1957, the year before the Dodgers and Giants moved from New York and forced the league out of Los Angeles and San Francisco and into smaller cities.
The PCL still exists in such places as Tucson, Vancouver, Albuquerque and Tacoma, but the league Beverage knows--and has written two books about--once played in Seattle, Portland, Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Hollywood and San Diego.
It is a league he has studied for 42 of his 52 years. He can discuss the careers of people who played in the 1920s the way a fan today might talk about Wally Joyner, Don Mattingly or Mike Schmidt.
Two years ago, Beverage formed the Pacific Coast League Historical Society, of which he is president. He started the group because he thought “something ought to be done. These people had good careers, and they deserved to be recognized. There was nothing like it anywhere else.”
Beverage is not a baseball recluse, living only in the past. He watches the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves on cable TV and attends “maybe 10" games a year of the California Angels--whom he calls “the Impostors” because they are not the Los Angeles Angels, who played in the PCL. He even admits to liking the American League’s designated hitter rule, because it “allows me to see some great hitters who are over the hill but can still swing the bat.”
Still, he says, “I look back more than I look forward.” Besides, he finds today’s games “awfully slow. They used to start games at 8:15 and be done by 10. Now they keep moving back the starting time--8, 7:30--and still don’t finish until 10:30.”
Beverage describes his wife, Tustin librarian Rae Beverage, as “tolerant” of his zeal. “She likes baseball, but she’s not a fanatic,” he says. Their daughter, Stephanie, is a Los Angeles librarian with degrees from UCLA and Georgetown University, and their son, Jerry--a student at California State University, Fullerton--"likes the ‘Impostors.’ ”
How did it happen? Why would the chief financial officer of a plastics injection molding firm in the City of Industry virtually devote his life (and a great number of bookshelves) to such an esoteric pursuit?
For Beverage, it began in 1946 when he and his family moved briefly from his native Nebraska to Oakland. He was 10 years old.
“I got absolutely hooked on the Oakland Oaks and everybody they played,” he says. “I can remember the players as though it were yesterday, and I can still hear the public address announcer at Oak Park,” his favorite of the old ballparks.
But the family returned to Nebraska after the baseball season, a time Beverage calls “my exile years.” He briefly attended the University of Nebraska, then graduated from Colgate University with a bachelor’s degree in history. For more than a decade, he followed the progress of the PCL by reading the Sporting News, the weekly newspaper that at the time printed box scores of all major and minor league games.
During his “exile,” Beverage became a fan of the Cubs, who broadcast their games throughout the Midwest. “I was 12 or 13, and on summer afternoons I’d listen every day. At night, you could usually pick up the (St. Louis) Cardinals games.”
While at Colgate, in Hamilton, N.Y., he spent his winters “reading old newspapers. I worked in a library that had some West Coast papers. I’d read the box scores from the PCL going back into the 1930s. I was in the East, but I never forgot (the PCL).”
In 1958, newly married, Beverage returned to the San Francisco area, stopping long enough in Sacramento “to see a double-header between the (Seattle) Rainiers and (Sacramento) Solons.” The San Francisco Seals had already been evicted by the Giants, but Sacramento kept its PCL franchise through 1960.
In part because Los Angeles had been a minor league affiliate of the Cubs, Beverage had become an L.A. Angels fan. The Angels had been in the league from its start in 1903 until 1957, when the Dodgers’ move west banished the franchise to Spokane.
Beverage enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, to work on a doctorate degree. He never received it. “I spent more time looking at microfilm of old box scores than I did working on the doctorate,” he says. “I should have done my dissertation project on the history of the PCL.”
In a way, he later did. He and his family moved to Southern California in 1968, and he continued to add to his collection of baseball books, which now numbers about 600. One, a history of the Newark Bears of the International League, led to Beverage’s own writing career. “Rae bought the book for me about 1975, and we both read it and she said, ‘Why don’t you do something like that on the Angels?’ ”
He did. In 1978 he began two years of research on the early days of the PCL, comforted by the fact that “I was fortunate enough to live close to Cal State Fullerton and its library, which has the (Los Angeles) Times going back to Day One, along with the (San Francisco) Chronicle and the (Sacramento) Bee.”
The research, he says, “was fun. The writing was the hard part.”
Nevertheless, the result was “The Angels--Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League, 1919-1957,” a 286-page study that was completed in 1980, sold out its initial press run of 1,000 copies and is considered a “must have” for any student of the PCL.
Beverage had joined the Society for American Baseball Research and was working on a second book, which in 1984 became “The Hollywood Stars--Baseball in Movieland, 1926-1957.” Along the way, he examined more than 6,000 box scores, every game played by the Stars, to determine batting and pitching records.
“By this time, it all connected,” Beverage says. “You read one box score and it brings you to another. You read that and it gives you still another idea.”
Beverage met with about 25 former PCL players for the books and interviewed dozens more by telephone. He has met more than 100 men who played in the PCL, going back as far as Arnold (Jigger) Statz, now 89, who owns virtually every Angels hitting record and who first played with the club in 1920.
His next book project will examine San Francisco’s Mission ballclub, which shared the city with the better-known Seals during the 1926-37 period.
His research has turned up some items that are interesting aside from their baseball connection. For example, he learned that the Hollywood Stars were the first baseball team--major or minor league--ever to fly from one city to another. That flight, in July, 1928, was the result of a scheduling mix-up. The team was in Seattle, then realized that there was no way to make train connections to Portland for a trip south. So the team flew from Seattle to Portland without incident and caught its train.
Two years later, the PCL had another first. Five years before night baseball came to the major leagues, it began in Sacramento in May, 1930. Two months later, a similar lighting system made its debut at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.
Beverage also discovered that San Francisco’s Seals Stadium had a feature that did not always endear itself to fans. Club officials thought an unbreakable glass backstop would provide better visibility than the conventional screen. They apparently forgot about San Francisco’s fog, though, because many night games were delayed while groundskeepers with towels and sponges wiped the mist off the glass so fans behind home plate could see the action.
Then there was the Vernon Tigers, based in that Los Angeles industrial suburb. In 1913 the Tigers moved across the city, to Venice. What made this unusual was that the team dismantled its ballpark--stands, fences and clubhouse--and took it along. Two years later, they trucked everything back.
Beverage also learned that the Angels were regularly broadcasting their games on radio by 1937, on now-classical music station KFAC, and that the Stars were the first team in the league to televise their games, beginning in 1947.
The PCL was also home to some odd characters. In the 1950s, one of the stars of the league was Chet Johnson, a Sacramento pitcher known for his strange sense of humor as much as his success on the field. At various times, Johnson:
Wore a Davy Crockett hat while pitching.
Called time out while on the mound and pulled a notebook from his pocket. When the umpire ordered him to resume play, Johnson, looking at the book, complained he had forgotten how to pitch to the next batter.
Tried to start a game while wearing a T-shirt featuring dark sleeves covered with white baseball-size circles. The umpire, suspecting Johnson was hoping to confuse hitters, thumbed the shirt.
Beverage believes one of the major differences in the game in the past half-century is the newspaper coverage. From the 1930s through the 1950s, newspapers concentrated on the game. “They told you what they saw. They would go through a rally, play by play, explaining how the runs were scored.” Primarily, he thinks, this was because radio and TV coverage were not nearly as widespread as today.
Also, as a result, players “had a mystique. There were no warts showing them as there are now. We didn’t know who the drunkards or the philanderers were.” Also, drug problems were unknown, and contract disputes, now common, were rare.
Beverage recognizes that baseball has advanced technically. “The fielding today is superb,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Something, however, is missing. Beverage believes the game has lost some of its intimacy. “It’s more of a spectacle now than it is a ballgame, and I don’t like that. When I was a boy, you could hear the players whistling in the infield. I don’t think they do that anymore. If they do, you can’t hear it.”
Still, he thinks the game is basically unchanged, despite rule changes, larger gloves, artificial surfaces, league expansion and other factors. “You still have to see the ball, you have to be able to run and the fielders have to catch it.”
Beverage doesn’t understand those who say they don’t like the game. “I have trouble with that,” he says. “I have a tendency to walk away from it. Baseball is very interesting to me, and that’s all that counts. It’s a misnomer to say you love baseball, however. It’s like your right or left arm--it’s just there.”
He believes the most talented player in the history of the PCL was Joe DiMaggio, who starred with San Francisco in 1934-35 before going on to the New York Yankees. The last major star before major league expansion changed the structure of the league was the late Steve Bilko. The big first baseman hit 148 home runs for the Angels in 1955-57 and drove in 428 runs.
The Seals, Angels, Stars and Oaks are gone, and so are their parks. Beverage likes to point out that the movie “Damn Yankees,” usually relegated to late-show status, was filmed at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.
“If you let your mind wander a bit,” he says, “you’ll see Jigger Statz making a spectacular catch in center field, or a gigantic home run off Steve Bilko’s bat. All it takes is a little bit of imagination, and you’ll be right back there in a time when life was a little less complex.”