Sparky Anderson grew up in the heart of Los Angeles, dreaming of playing professional baseball. He lived in the area of 35th and Vermont, not far from USC and Manual Arts High, but baseball so dominated his thoughts that he attended Dorsey High because of its superior program.
For Anderson and others in the years before Walter O’Malley moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958 and the American League awarded a Los Angeles franchise to Gene Autry in 1961, the dreams came with boundaries.
“The Pacific Coast League was the only league I could identify with,” Anderson recalled. “The Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels 1/8of the PCL 3/8 were major league to me.
“Sure, I was aware of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, but the players I followed were guys like Billy Schuster, Mike Sandlock, Frank Kelleher, Joe Brovia, Earl Rapp and Luke Easter. I have no real recollection of pro ball in that time except for the Pacific Coast League.”
For more than half of the 1900s, the Pacific Coast League provided the highest level of professional baseball in Southern California.
Until O’Malley came West, St. Louis was the Continental Divide on the major league map.
Anderson, who reached the distant major leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1953 and later gained national renown as manager of World Series-winning teams in Cincinnati and Detroit, got his first taste of pro ball by spending his allowance money.
He would take the D car--electric streetcars represented an early form of rapid transit on streets far less congested than now--to Wrigley Field at 42nd Street and Avalon Boulevard every Sunday the PCL Angels were home to watch the traditional doubleheader.
“The PCL was like a third major league,” said Tom Lasorda, the former Dodger manager who pitched for the minor league Angels in 1957. “Guys who played in it didn’t want to leave, even if they were called up. The caliber of play was outstanding, the travel was easy 1/8teams would spend a full week at each stop 3/8 and the cities were major league. Most of them are now.”
Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle, all former PCL cities, now boast major league teams. Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Paul and Lloyd Waner, Williams, Ernie Lombardi, Lefty O’Doul, Earl Averill, Tony Lazzeri and Babe Herman were among the players who apprenticed in the PCL, which got its start in 1903, growing out of the 1902 California State League.
Pro baseball in Los Angeles got off to an auspicious start when the home-team Angels won the PCL’s first championship in 1903 by 271/2 games, playing then in 15,000-seat Washington Park, at 8th and Hill streets. The Angels shared the facility in many of the early years with another PCL area team, the Vernon Tigers, but in 1925 the parent Chicago Cubs opened Wrigley Field--a 20,000-seat replica of their famed Chicago park, including ivy on the fences--at a cost of $1.3 million.
“It’s unquestionably the last word in baseball architecture,” league president Harry Williams said of the PCL jewel that would be home, for a season, for Autry’s Angels when they began play in 1961 and ultimately gave way to the Gilbert W. Lindsay Community Center.
A year after Wrigley opened, with commissioner Kenesaw (Mountain) Landis attending the dedication, the Salt Lake City Bees moved to Los Angeles to share Wrigley Field and be called, at various times, the Hollywood Stars or Sheiks. The dual tenancy proved unsatisfactory and the Stars-Sheiks moved to San Diego before the 1936 season, leaving the Angels as the only pro team in Los Angeles until 1938. Then the San Francisco Missions, struggling after the Vernon team had turned the Bay Area into a three-team market in 1926, moved south as the reincarnated Hollywood Stars. They played a year in Wrigley and then moved into a new park in the Beverly-Fairfax area named Gilmore Field for Earl Gilmore, who owned a large parcel of land near the Pan-Pacific Auditorium.
The 12,000-seat ballpark was built on the site of the current CBS television studios near Farmer’s Market and, at the time, between the since-demolished Pan- Pacific and Gilmore Stadium, which was used for football and auto racing.
Bob Cobb, president of the Brown Derby restaurants, bought the team from the San Francisco owners, and the Stars became a magnet to the stars. The initial stockholders included Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, George Raft, Cecil B. DeMille, Barbara Stanwyck and William Powell. Gail Patrick threw out the first ball to Joe E. Brown. Jack Benny, Al Jolson, Martha Raye and Rudy Vallee attended the opener.
Richard E. Beverage, the leading PCL historian, wrote in his history of the team: “The list of stars gave the club a Hollywood identity it would always have and created an aura of glamour that was unlike anything the PCL had previously known.”
The Stars set fashion trends under Manager Fred Haney, becoming the first team to wear shorts on the field semi-regularly in 1950. “This is no joke. We think these suits will give us more speed,” Haney said.
Then under the colorful Bobby Bragan, who followed Haney as manager, they livened the proceedings considerably. Bragan, an umpire battler, once stripped off his uniform on the field in protest of a decision.
Most important, however, the Stars gave the Angels a bitter rival. The teams brawled frequently over the years, a prelim to the introduction of the transplanted Dodger-Giant rivalry.
Ultimately, as major league baseball looked harder at the West Coast, the noose closed on the Stars and Angels.
On Feb. 1, 1957, P.K. Wrigley sold Wrigley Field and his Los Angeles franchise in the PCL to O’Malley for $2.5 million and the Dodgers’ Texas League franchise in Dallas-Fort Worth. On Oct. 8 of that year, the Dodgers announced they would be moving West. In the revamped PCL, the Angels went to Spokane and the Stars to Salt Lake City, a long way in many ways from Hollywood, closing a significant chapter in the history of pro baseball in Southern California.
Longtime area fans still talk reverently about such players as Jigger Statz, Truck Hannah and Cecil Garriott. They also recall that the PCL went out with a bang in Los Angeles. Long before Steve Garvey set a standard at first base, Angel first baseman Steve Bilko captivated the town during the PCL’s final two seasons here.
Bilko, one of the biggest names and bodies in league history, hit 55 homers, drove in 164 runs and won the PCL batting crown at .360 in 1956. He hit another 56 homers in 1957, the PCL Angels’ final season.
Bilko had brief stints with the Dodgers and major league Angels and helped provide Autry with one of his greatest thrills when he homered in an opening-day victory over Baltimore in the Angels’ 1961 debut.
Said Lasorda, a teammate with the PCL Angels, “There haven’t been many guys as strong as big Steve. I played with him in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico and it seemed like every time he went to the plate, he had a chance to hit it out. He was an absolute legend in the PCL. I’ve never seen a guy get as much attention as he did in ’57. I remember pitching an outstanding game against the Stars and the headline in The Times was something like, “Angels Beat Stars ......... Bilko Goes Hitless.’ ”
There would be bigger and bolder headlines to come, of course.
O’Malley had hoped to build baseball’s first domed stadium at his own expense at the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn but ran into political hurdles getting the land. His son, Peter, heir to the ownership, said the decision to leave Brooklyn was “a wrenching one for the family and community, but Ebbets Field was in extra innings, as far as stadium life, and there was no choice but to consider other alternatives.”
While New York interests battled to keep the Dodgers, O’Malley, a lawyer and cigar smoking Irishman who enjoyed a back-room brawl and was long considered baseball’s leading power broker, took on Los Angeles politics. He wanted a stadium built in a downtown area known as Chavez Ravine, a geographic gold mine in O’Malley’s view but home to a close-knit community of at least 1,000 Mexican Americans.
The city ultimately ceded about 300 acres in Chavez Ravine and agreed to spend $2 million in grading, street construction and other improvements. The Board of Supervisors voted $2.4 million in gasoline tax funds for access roads. The Dodgers gave Wrigley Field to the city and promised to set aside 40 acres in the ravine for a youth center.
In a two-year battle to get the contract approved, the Dodgers narrowly won a public referendum, lost a Superior Court decision, won two reversing actions by the state Supreme Court, survived the challenge of a legislative bill vetoed by Gov. Pat Brown and ultimately began construction when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the contract’s validity and sheriff’s deputies aided in the ugly eviction of the last of the Ravine residents.
Dodger Stadium opened in 1962. The $12-million, privately financed facility has remained a landmark amid baseball’s ballpark renaissance of the 1990s and proved to be the cornerstone of a downtown renaissance encompassing construction of the Music Center, Convention Center and, much later, Staples Center.
The Dodgers became the first team to draw more than 3 million in attendance, in 1978, and have done it 14 times through 1999, leading the majors in 21 of their first 42 years in Los Angeles. They won five World Series, nine National League pennants, three other division titles and often reflected the city’s widening cultural diversity through such players as Fernando Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park.
Said Peter O’Malley, “I think it’s the function of the team to reflect that diversity, and I couldn’t be prouder of how the Dodgers helped bring the city together over the years. I can’t think of one area of the community that hasn’t benefited from the Dodgers’ presence.”
O’Malley cited the beauty and durability of the stadium, the stability of the franchise through family ownership, the consistent competitiveness of the team, the relatively low ticket prices, the consistently good weather and the peerless word portraits of broadcaster Vin Scully, who put it this way:
“In a city of stars, the Dodgers have been a team of stars.”
None more important than the announcer who modestly describes himself as nothing more or less than a bridge from the past to the future.
Scully, of course, was and has been the Brooklyn bridge. He made the transistor radio as mandatory as a Dodger Dog. He put the fan in the 70th row of the Coliseum, where the team played in its first four years, on top of the action. He familiarized a new market with what he called “the rank and file” players as well as the Brooklyn superstars.
In a market of more than 500 square miles, he brought the Dodgers into living rooms from Santa Barbara to San Bernardino, providing the kind of stability on the dial that Hall of Fame managers Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda provided for 421/2 years in the dugout and Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey did for 81/2 years on the infield.
But no matter how magical the description, Scully couldn’t make it up, and the Dodgers almost always provided the announcer with something special, a different team in almost every decade.
From Wally Moon’s “Moon shots” over that 40-foot left-field fence in the odd dimensions of the Coliseum as the Dodgers came back from a seventh-place finish in 1958 to win the 1959 World Series and draw more than 92,000 for each of three Series games against the Chicago White Sox.
To the spectacular pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the ‘60s, when Tommy Davis won consecutive batting titles, besides driving in a franchise-record 153 runs in 1962, and Maury Wills touched off a baserunning revolution with a then-record 104 steals in that same year.
To the stability of the infield in the ‘70s, when the self-contained Alston was replaced by the emotional, gregarious Lasorda, and Mike Marshall became the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award, and the ’77 Dodgers became the first to have four players--Garvey, Cey, Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker--hit 30 or more home runs, and Rick Sutcliffe became the first of nine players to win the rookie-of-the-year award under Lasorda...
To the Fernandomania in 1981, when the 20-year-old Valenzuela became the first rookie to win the Cy Young Award and created what Scully described as a seemingly “religious experience in the Hispanic community. I can’t think of any one player on any team who has had the impact on one section of the community to the extent Fernando did.”
The ‘80s also produced two other dramatic events: The 1987 firing of personnel director Al Campanis for his racially insensitive remarks on national television, and the stunning performances of Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson as the overachieving 1988 team won a division title and upset the New York Mets in the league championship series and Oakland A’s in the World Series.
Hershiser lived up to his nickname of Bulldog by going 3-0 with a save in postseason play after having pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings down the stretch and breaking Drysdale’s major league record of 582/3. Gibson, who had been signed as a free agent and would win the National League’s most-valuable-player award in ’88, was expected to miss the World Series because of a leg injury but came limping off the bench in the ninth inning of Game 1 at Dodger Stadium and hit a two-run, pinch-homer off A’s relief ace Dennis Eckersley. That won the game, 5-4, and turned the Series in the Dodgers’ favor.
Gibson’s improbable homer was chosen the most memorable moment in Los Angeles sports history.
Some of the Dodgers’ popularity yielded to cynicism and skepticism in the ‘90s, when prospects such as Pedro Martinez, John Wetteland, Henry Rodriguez and Roger Cedeno were traded, only to attain stardom with other teams, and the Dodgers were perceived as underachievers while reaching the playoffs only twice. They were swept by Cincinnati after winning the division title in 1995 and by Atlanta as a wild-card team in ’96. Dodgers won five consecutive rookie-of-the- year awards, starting with Eric Karros in 1992 and followed by Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, Nomo and Todd Hollandsworth, but closed out the ‘90s by failing to win even one playoff game in the decade.
Heart problems forced Lasorda to turn over the managerial reins to Russell in 1996, and rising salaries, frequent labor problems and other considerations ultimately prompted O’Malley to sell the team, stadium and Dodgertown training facility to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group in 1998 for a record $311 million.
Fox boasted the corporate resources that O’Malley and family lacked, but there are no easy answers in an increasingly complex industry, even for a media giant.
A contract dispute with the popular Piazza, who had batted .362 with 40 home runs and 124 RBIs in 1997 and was considered a young catcher en route to the Hall of Fame, led to his being traded in a controversial 1998 deal negotiated by Fox executive Chase Carey without the knowledge of vice president Fred Claire, who had succeeded Campanis.
If it was a case of the new owner displaying financial responsibility and showing Piazza who was boss, the same owner, in the ensuing winter, agreed to sign pitcher Kevin Brown, a free agent, to a record--and industry-infuriating--$105-million contract. Then that 1999 team, with an $80-million payroll, finished a disappointing third in the National League West with a 77-85 record, a dismal debut during a tumultuous season for new General Manager Kevin Malone and new Manager Davey Johnson.
Claire and Russell had been fired during the 1998 season as the club’s renowned stability and tradition were taking a beating under the new owners, who then waved a white flag at fan and media critics after only two full years of decision making.
In October of 1999, as Dodger Stadium underwent an extensive face lift with the installation of revenue-producing luxury suites and other amenities, Fox sold 5% of its stake in the Dodgers and ceded operating authority to former Warner Bros. chairman and longtime Dodger fan Robert Daly, who promised to restore the team to its former glory.
Daly said his devotion to the Dodgers extended beyond Los Angeles to the years when the team was in Brooklyn, like Scully another bridge from the past to the future.
It is appropriate that the Angels will begin the 2000s with a new manager and general manager. The stability and continuity that so characterized the Dodgers have never been Angel strengths.
Mike Scioscia, the former Dodger catcher who was hired in November to succeed Terry Collins, will be the club’s 17th full-time manager in 39 years, counting Gene Mauch twice. In a dizzying spell between 1971 and ’79, the Angels employed seven managers. After Bill Rigney had spent 81/2 years at the helm of the expansion Angels, no other manager lasted more than three years.
Bill Stoneman, the former Montreal Expo executive who was hired in November to succeed Bill Bavasi, will be the club’s ninth general manager. At one point in the early ‘90s, the Angels employed two--Whitey Herzog and Dan O’Brien--at the same time. Former club president Richard Brown later called it “an experiment in hell.”
Is it any wonder that the Angels, who have had only 15 .500-or-better seasons and never reached the World Series while winning only three division titles and none since 1986, have never produced or stayed with a consistent philosophy?
The approach, said Brown, has often been “eclectic at best” and characterized through 36 years of Autry’s ownership as either an attempt to compete with the Dodgers on the marquee or “to win one for the Cowboy.”
The result was that mismanagement often compounded the misfortune that has haunted the Angels for decades, a series of injuries, illnesses and tragedies that has left many wondering if their stadium in Anaheim hadn’t been built on the site of an old Indian burial ground.
The Angels have changed names, from Los Angeles Angels to California Angels to Anaheim Angels. They have changed ballparks, from Wrigley Field to Dodger Stadium to Anaheim Stadium, which changed its name to Edison International Field. No matter. Seldom have they been able to shake their bad karma and inconsistent philosophy.
Nolan Ryan, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew and Don Sutton all stopped in Anaheim on their way to the Hall of Fame, lighting up the scoreboard and playing field, but unable to put a ring on Autry’s finger. His widow, Jackie Autry, acknowledged that a sense of urgency developed within the organization, leading to suspect trades and signings, but that it didn’t come from her husband.
“To my knowledge, Gene never once said, ‘Look guys, I’m not going to be around much longer, we’ve got to get it done this year,”’ she said. “Gene wanted to win for the fans and the people who worked for him in the organization, but as he aged and his health began to fail, there were times I got a sense of urgency and even panic from our baseball people that if we don’t do it this year, he may not be around next year, and that wasn’t beneficial to the organization.
“We started skewing in wrong directions. We simply mortgaged the future at times. We probably could staff two major league teams with the kids we lost from our farm system.”
The Angels almost got Autry to the World Series twice.
They took a 2-0 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the best-of-five league championship series in 1982 but failed to win the third and decisive game. Mauch juggled the rotation in mid-series and the Brewers reeled off three straight wins.
The Angels were even closer in ’86, needing only one more out and one more strike, to close out the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the best-of-seven championship series, but Mauch again made a controversial move, yanking starter Mike Witt when he needed only that one out and eventually watching reliever Donnie Moore yield a wrenching home run to Dave Henderson when he needed only that one strike.
The Angels lost the game, 7-6, in 11 innings, lost the next two games in Boston, and have not been to the postseason since. They lost a one-game playoff for the division title to the Seattle Mariners in 1995--after blowing an 11-game lead in August.
Those special moments have been few and far between. Bo Belinsky threw the club’s first no-hitter in May 1962 but became more famous for his romance with actress Mamie Van Doren than for his pitching. Alex Johnson, a disruptive force in the clubhouse but a physical force on the field--when he wanted to be--won the club’s only batting title at .329 in 1970. Don Baylor won the club’s only RBI title at 139 and its only MVP award in 1979. Reggie Jackson came from the Yankees as a free agent and won the club’s only home run title, tying Milwaukee’s Gorman Thomas, with 39 in 1982.
Then there was Ryan, probably the most popular player in Angel history with his explosive fastball. Ryan threw four no-hitters and struck out at least 329 batters four times with the Angels in the ‘70s-- he had a major league-record 383 strikeouts in ’73--but was allowed to leave as a free agent after the 1979 season in a contract and personality dispute with General Manager Buzzie Bavasi. Bavasi later said it was his worst mistake in a career spanning more than 50 years, most as the acclaimed general manager of the Dodgers in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Autry employed a succession of respected managers and general managers, but his Midas touch in show business and big business never translated to baseball, his passion.
“For sure, baseball has been the most exciting and frustrating experience of my life,” he said late in his ownership. “In the movies, I never lost a fight. In baseball, I hardly ever won one.”
Autry had been granted the American League’s Los Angeles franchise at a league meeting in St. Louis in December 1960. The league was expanding for the first time, and he and partner Robert Reynolds went to the meeting hoping only to land broadcast rights to the new team for their radio station, KMPC, after O’Malley had pulled the Dodgers off the station because he wasn’t able to pick up the signals at his summer home near Lake Arrowhead.
A group headed by Hank Greenberg and Bill Veeck was the front-runner for the Los Angeles franchise, but O’Malley--who hoped to keep the American League out of Los Angeles and definitely wasn’t interested in sharing the market with a showman such as Veeck-- demanded $450,000 in territorial indemnification. Although that would seem a modest amount, weighed against the potential of a booming Southern California market, Greenberg and Veeck weren’t interested in paying it.
Ultimately, the American League agreed to accept a 1962 expansion NL team in New York if O’Malley accepted an American League team in Los Angeles, and Autry and Reynolds were awarded the franchise when they decided to bid merely to protect their broadcast interests.
Autry and Reynolds agreed to pay $2.1 million for the 28 players they would receive in the expansion draft and $350,000 in indemnification to O’Malley for what Autry called “grazing rights” in Los Angeles.
By 1996, Jackie Autry said, the club was close to $40 million in debt and considering bankruptcy. The only viable conclusion was the same one Peter O’Malley would reach: It was impossible for a family operation to survive. The Autrys sold to the Walt Disney Co., for $140 million, and within three years, Disney--like Fox in Los Angeles--was looking to get out of the baseball business or, at least, find a partner.
Disillusionment came with the painful 70-92 record and last-place division finish in 1999 after normally conservative Disney had guaranteed free-agent slugger Mo Vaughn $80 million for six years. Vaughn literally fell victim of the Angel curse. He sprained an ankle when he slipped down the dugout steps in pursuit of a pop fly on opening night and limped through most of a season marred by injuries and internal combustion. Club President Tony Tavares eventually compared the bickering clubhouse to a day-care center, and Collins and Bill Bavasi resigned.
For the Angels and Dodgers, the last decade of the 1900s can’t end soon enough.