Glory Days Are Locked in the Past


Two players elected to Hall of Fame. In consecutive years. From one high school.

The hottest baseball place on the planet was hopping Tuesday as Locke High athletes filed out of the gym at 111th and San Pedro.

“Eddie Murray?” said one.

“Ozzie Smith?” said another.

Of five kids, only one of them had ever heard of Murray, the Locke alumnus who had just been elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Only two had heard of Smith, another alumnus who was inducted last season.

“Wait a minute,” said Pierre Keyes, a junior, with a confused stare. “Wasn’t Eddie Murray like, a backcatcher?”


At the now-historic baseball diamond, a place with no scoreboard, no water fountain and graffiti-stained bleachers, Coach Shannon Williams sighed.

“I can hide a lot around here,” he said. “But I can only hide so much.”

And so one of the proudest days in the history of Los Angeles inner-city baseball was just another opportunity to wonder.

What happened here?

How did the home of two Hall of Famers become a place where the sport is so poorly supported, the school owns only two bats?

How did the home of two of baseball’s most dedicated players become a place where many kids can’t even name the positions, and where the coach must recruit from campus dice games (quick releases) and cafeteria lines (strength and agility).

Murray and Smith were known for their smarts, yet last summer one of their Locke proteges refused to leave the batter’s box after striking out. He thought the rule was four strikes and three balls, not the other way around.

“I wouldn’t let anybody laugh, because a lot of kids are working from the ground up,” Williams said.


Murray and Smith were known for off-season workouts that led to long careers. Yet this fall, barred from their field by the football team, their proteges practiced with tennis balls on a blacktop court dotted with basketball goals.

“During the workouts I tell them to go hard after balls, but not too hard,” Williams said.

There has been a revitalization here in recent years, with the energetic Williams pouring his money and time into building a team that actually has uniforms and has even made the playoffs. To the Saints, he is a saint.

But a visit Tuesday revealed how even relative success here must be measured by the failure of baseball to thrive since Murray and Smith were teammates in the early 1970s.

On the day Locke became one of the only high schools to pull a double play of Hall of Famers, there was no visible sign that either had attended there. No photos, no plaques, no names, no clue.

“Baseball was real popular back in the day, but it’s lost all its attraction around here,” said Otis Harris, a guard on the Locke basketball team and one of only a few students on campus during the final days of winter holiday. “Kids want something more athletic. More running, jumping, juking. Baseball is just too boring for us.”


Just over the center-field fence here, more than 400 feet from home plate, there are tennis courts.


“I heard Eddie Murray had a lot of fun on those tennis courts,” said Williams, referring to the landing spot of many of Murray’s home runs.

When Williams took over a dying Locke baseball program in 1997, however, he might as well have been coaching tennis.

There were barely enough players to field a team. They practiced in jeans, button-down shirts and combat boots. The infield was weeds. The outfield was brown.

“It was amazing, what had happened here,” said Williams, a former graduate. “The tradition was too rich to let it die.”

Using much of his own money and fund-raising for the rest, Williams bought new uniforms instilled new rules and returned some old pride.

But there’s only so much he could do.

The players must mow their own infield with flea-market mowers before every practice. The weathered balls are used batting-practice targets donated by Murray, who also supplies cleats and gloves while Williams scrounges around for more bats.


Players learn the game by watching videos. They practice hitting by swatting tires with bats, an exercise Williams learned from reading a story about the training habits of Ozzie Smith.

Smith never actually explained it to him, because Williams has never met him.

Unlike Murray, whose brother still lives nearby, Smith hasn’t visited as long as anybody can remember.

If its famous former shortstop doesn’t even care about the program, is it any wonder that the school’s best athletes avoid it like detention?

“I have to work harder to find my players,” Williams said. “I have to get kids who aren’t doing anything.”

It used to be so different. These South-Central neighborhoods used to be the center of the baseball world.

Fremont High has still produced more major leaguers than any other high school, a list that includes Chet Lemon, Dan Ford, Bobby Tolan, Willie Crawford, Bob Watson and Eric Davis.


Davis, the last great star produced by the city, graduated 23 years ago.

“It used to be huge, the only game in town,” remembered Phil Pote, longtime Seattle Mariner scout and one of the godfathers of local baseball. “Football and basketball required college, and the athletes weren’t prepared for college. Baseball was the only sport were they could make instant money and turn pro immediately.”

But over time, the line between college and professional sports blurred.

Why sign a minor league contract and ride buses for five years when you can play two years of college basketball and become a millionaire? Why live in Class-A baseball poverty when you could be an alumni-fed, agent-backed college quarterback?

The RBI Leagues (Reviving Baseball in the Inner-City) have done well to lift the quality of play, but there are still roadblocks everywhere.

For example, Dennis Gilbert, former player and agent, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a field at L.A. Southwest College last year. But the school still refuses to field a team.

And when the Locke High team once led by Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith meets to begin spring practice next week, the first order of business will not be grounders, but garbage.

“First thing we do when we take the field,” said Williams, “is pick up the trash.”


Bill Plaschke can be reached at