A League of the West Coast's Own
The golden days of the Pacific Coast League are relived at an Oakland, Calif., exhibition
OAKLAND, CALIF. — THE 1937 letter from Ed Barrow, a New York Yankee scout, to his boss hints at the difficulty of getting a promising 17-year-old baseball player named Ted Williams from the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League (PCL).
``The San Diego club,'' wrote the scout, ``has the inside with [Williams's] mother. She favors the Yankees in a way, but would not let her boy go away from home.'' Barrow continued, ``Williams is a very slow lad ... shows promise as a hitter, but good pitching so far has stopped him cold.'' Barrow suggested that a better prospect was a player named Walt Judnich.
This historic letter is on display in ``Runs, Hits and an Era: The Pacific Coast League, 1903-1958,'' a splendid exhibition now at the Oakland Museum. Although a ``minor'' baseball league, the PCL acted like a major league, was far more colorful, drew big West Coast crowds, and in fact tried to become a third major league.
Williams's mother did let her boy go East; good pitching anywhere did not stop him cold. He went on to play for the Boston Red Sox and became the last player in the majors to hit over .400 during a season. Judnich didn't fare too badly, either, playing in the American League for six years with a lifetime batting average of .281.
It was the PCL that proved to be the spawning ground for some of the greatest and most memorable players and coaches in baseball. The DiMaggio brothers - Joe, Vince, and Dom - started with the San Francisco Seals. Casey Stengel coached the Oakland Oaks, then went on to win the World Series for the New York Yankees. Billy Martin played in the infield for Stengel in Oakland. And famous baseball names such as Larry Jansen, Willie McCovey, Ernie Lombardi, Bobby Bragan, Luke Easter, Frank Crosetti, Lefty O'Doul, Minnie Minoso, Fred Haney, Johnny Lindell, Steve Bilko, and dozens of others first gained prominence in the PCL.
With old black-and-white photos, newsreels, old mitts and bats, baseball cards, letters, bulky wool uniforms, even a folding seat from Gilmore Field where the Hollywood Stars played, the Oakland Museum exhibition indicates how beloved was the PCL.
The West Coast's first baseball game on an enclosed field was in November 1868. A team from San Francisco named the Eagle Club battled the Wide Awakes of Oakland before 3,000 people. The score? Thirty-seven to 23, with the Eagles as victor.
In 1929, Oakland's Roy Carlyle hit the longest home run in baseball, a blast that measured 618 feet from home plate. Iron-armed pitchers in the old days of the PCL, like Vean Gregg, had win-loss records of 32 and 18. Gene (Ribbon) Krapp won 29, lost 16.
After World War II, attendance at PCL games boomed. In 1947, the eight teams in the league drew a total of 4,068,432 fans. Players stayed in first-class hotels and traveled on trains instead of buses. They were well paid and played in well-groomed ballparks before rabid fans.
The PCL owners, knowing the caliber of the league was high, wanted all eight teams to become part of a new major league. They petitioned the major league owners but were turned down. Eventually the PCL was classified as the only AAAA league, a backhanded compliment.
The handwriting was on the wall. As major-league attendance in the East waned, and ballparks there were crumbling, owners looked to the West with dollar signs in their eyes.
In 1958, Walter O'Malley stunned the baseball world when he moved the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, effectively rendering the PCL a minor league again.
Today the PCL, with teams in Vancouver, British Columbia, Phoenix, and other Western cities, is a kind of static Triple-A league, feeding players into the majors. Missing is the color and excitement of the golden days of the league, as the Oakland Museum has captured so well. The exhibition ends July 31.