How it was...by Hollywood Stars great Chuck Stevens
|HOW IT WAS...BY HOLLYWOOD STARS GREAT CHUCK STEVENS|
|November 16, 2004 - This article originally appears in the new book, The Early Coast League Statistical Record 1903-1957 compiled by renowned Coast League historian Carlos Bauer.
My first viewing of the Pacific Coast League took place when I was about eight or nine years old in the late 1920s. We lived in Long Beach, which was not all that far from old Wrigley Field. My grandfather on my mother's side was a big sports fan, and on weekends we would catch the Red Car in Long Beach and take it into Los Angeles, where we would then transfer to the streetcar that took us back West to the ballpark. Then we would spend the day watching a doubleheader.
When I was growing up, the reputation of the major league didn't all that much. We heard about the World Series only in the newspapers. Sometimes we went down to the newspaper office to see the World Series played out on a magnetic board, but the majors were far away, and so we cared much more about the Coast League.
I especially remember that great 1934 Angel club with Frank Demaree, Jigger Statz, and - my favorite - Jimmie Reese. Reese was my favorite as a player, and then became a friend, and one of the best people I have ever met in my life. Jimmie Reese was a real gentleman in every sense of the word. While I was a fan of the Angels and the Stars, all the kids were mesmerized by Joe DiMaggio when he played in the Coast League, and then followed his career in the majors. Gussie Suhr was another player who had been a hero when I was growing up, and it was nice to later become a friend of his. I used to kid him that he was my hero when I was growing up- even though he was only about ten years older. Whenever I would say that, it would embarrass him.
But I also followed the Hollywood Stars in those years. I remember in 1933 the Hollywood Stars held their spring training over at the Shell Oil Company field in Signal Hill, and we would go over there to watch them practice. I was there the day of that horrendous earthquake that March.
The Angels had been my favorite team when growing up, but the Angels became my prime enemy when I became a player for the Stars. We just hated the airs of superiority of the Angels and their fans. But we never lost to them during my tenure with Hollywood. I think that might have gone back to the manager, and then filtered down to the ball club. Fred Haney had been a player with Hollywood, and the teams he had been on had been pretty well trounced by the Angels. As a manager he was not going to let that happen, nor were we.
Every time we played them, the stands would be filled to overflowing. The cross-town rivalry was humongous, and so heated that it spilled out on the field with that horrendous fight at Gilmore Field in August of 1953.
Let me explain how it was in those years for me and for many of the other players from California: I grew up with the Coast League, and as a kid I was a fan of the Coast League; then, when I was fortunate enough to play for the Hollywood Stars, I still remained a fan of the league.
In those years there wasn't that much difference between the major leagues and the Coast League. It stayed that way up until the early fifties. Then, I believe, the superiority of the league broke down, primarily because of all the working agreements. I maintain that the Coast League was superior to American Association and the International League. I played in the Association prior to coming to the Coast League, and I know it was not as good a league. And it was a ghastly league compared to the Coast League in some respects. Road trips in the American Association really drained a player.
Much has been made of the Coast League becoming Open Classification in 1952. I was there when it happened in 1952, and I can assure readers that it made absolutely no difference on the field.
The league at that time had a lot of veterans, especially pitchers. In baseball there are two categories - pitchers and throwers. In the Coast League of those years we had very few throwers. We had pitchers like Jesse Flores, Tony Freitas, Chet Johnson, Jack Salveson.
To give an example, my roommate Gordon Malzberger was our relief pitcher on the Stars. I called him "Dad," though he was only a five or six years older than me. Well, he would come into the game, and call me over, and say something like, "I'm going to pitch him down and in - don't give him the line." That's what I mean by a pitcher.
The parks in the league, for the most part, were old. That Oakland ballpark was unique. The configuration of the ballpark was like Fenway Park, only in reverse. The infield was great, but it was a terrible ballpark. It was almost as bad and rundown as that old ballpark up in Portland. But it was history, and I could visualize all of those great ballplayers who preceded me on that field there.
Lane Field was another old park: Yes, it was bad, it was horrible, and the clubhouse was just atrocious. But I felt the same thing there.
Players found those old parks embarrassing. We saw how old and rundown they were, but we also realized that those parks formed part of the history of the Coast League, and we were proud to stand on those fields.
The managers, when I came into the league, were mostly experienced. Casey Stengel had that great veteran ball club in Oakland in 1948. Lefty O'Doul, of course, was a legend. He was a great manager, and a great guy. He always got along well with his players. He and Tommy Heath, another great manger, never got shots at managing in the majors.
Two of my managers at Hollywood were Fred Haney and Bobby Bragan. Both were completely different. Haney was defense oriented, and speed oriented. He was also very kind to his pitching staff. Bragan was completely different. When he joined the Stars, he was very young. And he was abrasive- until you got to know him. He tended to get experienced players on the club. He was also very tough on pitchers, which he probably picked up from Durocher when he was with the Dodgers.
One of the interesting sidelights of the league then was that road games were recreated for the radio rather than broadcasting from the road park. One time when we were in Sacramento, and I was out hurt, I spent the whole nine innings on the phone with either Mark Scott or Sam Walters, announcers for the Stars, who would then do the recreation over the air.
After World War Two, my first year back in the majors, I knew I was not ready to play at that level. It took me a long time to get back to that level of play I had been at before I went into the service. I don't know, to tell the truth, if I ever got completely back. The Coast League gave us returning vets the chance to play at almost the same level as the majors.
When I joined the Coast League, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was so glad to get away from that very bad ball club we had in St. Louis, and its very even worse Browns' management. With the Hollywood Stars, I got a two-year contract that paid me more than I made in the majors. You heard that a lot from players then. Many players would wind up making more in the Coast League than in the majors in those years. The reason for that was simple. When I first came into the Coast League in 1949, we were drawing 600,000-700,000 a season. At that time, a number of major league franchises drew half that number. Even a mid-level club like the Chicago White Sox drew less than 400,000. It didn't take a Wiz Kid to figure out that the Coast League had money to spend. And the Coast League always went first class. We always stayed at the best hotels, and we traveled by air. Never once did I ever step onto an airplane as a major league player.
One of the things that really appealed to ballplayers about the Coast League was the fact that, on road trips, you went into a town and spent the whole week there. Travel was so much less strenuous in the PCL. Monday was always a travel day, and if you were on a home stand, you took the day off, and spent it with your family. Fans don't realize how much something like that means to a ballplayer, both mentally and physically. Also, on the West Coast the weather was not an issue. The only hot town in the league was Sacramento, and there we played at night, so that didn't drain a player. The heat and humidity of day games in the East takes a lot out of a player.
Playing in the East had been completely different. People don't realize what it was like for a player to spend two days on a train-going from St. Louis to Boston, for instance-then go directly to the ballpark and play a game. For me, playing at home was also important, not only because I had a home in Long Beach, and could commute everyday, but because of the financial drain of maintaining two homes, and the cost of transporting families back and forth while I played for the Browns. Seven out of ten players chose to play in the Coast League because they could play at home.
In summing up, players of my generation loved the game. We were all fans first, before we became players. Ball players of that era knew about baseball's past, and we did everything we could to perpetuate the history of the game. We knew about the great players of the past. This has all changed. Some years ago- when I was much more active in the Association of Professional Ball Players of America- I was in the clubhouse at Bakersfield after Bob Feller had just pitched batting practice. One of the players asked another, "Who's this Bob Feller guy?" At that, I had to jump in and tell them: "If you had ever batted against him, it would have been indelibly stamped on you!"
On behalf of we old PCL players, I wish to thank Carlos Bauer for his hard work to preserve the statistical record of the Pacific Coast League. His work is deeply appreciated, and gives us a chance and great pleasure to reminisce about those years.
The Early Coast League Statistical Record, 1903-1957, introduced by Chuck Stevens & Roger Osenbaugh
A complete Pacific Coast League encyclopedia, for years 1903-1957. Major essays on how it was to be a player, by former Coast League players Chuck Stevens & Roger Osenbaugh. Complete stats for every player in the league, presented in year-by-year, team-by-team format, with 13 batting categories and 15 for pitchers. Also included leader boards, season and lifetime record holders, league officials, playoff records and attendance figures for the 1919-1957 period by club. Many of the statistics have never been published before. 310 pages. $39.95 from Baseball Press Books
All books are shipped Media Mail, and shipping & handling is $5.00 per book (Canada $7.50 per book). All orders must be in U.S. Funds. California residents must include 8% sales tax.
Make all checks or money orders out to Baseball Press Books & send to:
Baseball Press Books
P.O. Box 22493
San Diego, CA 92192-2493
Photo Courtesy: Chuck Stevens