Cal North carries rich history into new year

Division's four teams all date to circuit's 1940s, '50s beginnings

Merced's Billy Hebert (l), Wally Westlake and Tony Ferrera played in the Cal League's first All-Star Game. (Courtesy of Michael Rinehart)

By Josh Jackson / MiLB.com | January 28, 2019 10:00 AM

On Memorial Day 1943, with war raging in Europe and Asia and California League baseball on hold, a small crowd assembled at Stockton's Oak Park. A military band played as a flag in center field was raised to half mast and a bronze plaque was unveiled in a ceremony honoring Billy Hebert, the first professional ballplayer killed in World War II.

Hebert was a Stockton native who played for the Merced Bears in the Cal League's inaugural year of 1941, making the first All-Star team and batting .328 in 130 games at the age of 21. At season's end -- more than two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor -- he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve to serve as an aviation metalsmith. Sent to Guadalcanal near the end of the summer of '42, Hebert was wounded in the Japanese bombing of an airstrip in mid-October. He died by the end of the month.

"Had Bill been crippled in the line of duty he wouldn't have been able to stand it," his mother wrote in a letter to a newspaper in Ogden, Utah, where Hebert played for the Pioneer League's Reds in 1939. "He was as active in the Navy as he was in athletics."

A strong hitter and solid second baseman, Hebert was known for the juxtaposition of his filthy uniform -- which he smeared with tobacco juice -- and his fastidious appearance off the field. In 1941, The Sporting News polled fans and named him the Bears' most popular player. The Utah press called him "one of the most likeable players ever to don an Ogden uniform."

His sacrifice was covered nationally and commemorated in lasting fashion. In 1950, the 60-year-old baseball grounds at Oak Park were officially renamed Billy Hebert Field.

The Cal League was still young, and its early years were defined by the war and its aftermath. Despite dramatic changes to the game and the state, that legacy lives on in half of today's Cal League teams.

When Visalia's Recreation Park hosts the 2019 season opener between the Rawhide and the San Jose Giants on April 4, it will mark the 73rd year since that facility first hosted California League play. It also will begin a new chapter in the long history of the four teams that comprise the North Division. Modesto, San Jose, Stockton and Visalia all joined the Cal League in the 1940s and have consistently (although not continuously) fielded teams since. In three of the four cities, a fan can visit the same park where a player's grandparents might well have seen Cal League games. The fourth -- Stockton -- has one of the oldest names in the Minors. (The club debuted as the Fliers in 1941, adopted the Ports moniker in 1946 and, with the exception of 1978 and 2000-01, has had it ever since.)

Getting started

Launched as an eight-team Class C circuit, the Cal League shrank to four teams in its second season, 1942, and ground to a halt that summer.

"Poor attendance attributed to wartime conditions had caused directors to order the premature disbanding of the circuit," the United Press reported in June.

It was bad news for Sal Taormina, a San Jose High School graduate who was batting .357 in 68 games with his hometown's Owls in his first professional season. Taormina was named Cal League MVP for the abbreviated campaign and finished the year in the Western International League. (After that, he entered the military and was shipped to Europe. Taormina met his wife, Maria, while he was serving in Italy, returned home to play 15 more years of pro ball -- including more than 800 games with the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals -- and coached the Santa Clara University team from 1965 until his death in 1979.) The Owls were 35-32, eight games behind the first-place Santa Barbara Saints (43-24) when the season was called.

League historian and former San Jose Giants chief operating officer Chris Lampe isn't convinced the fledgling circuit's troubles in 1942 can be pinned entirely on the war. As it impacted American life over the next three years, however, the league remained dark.

"The original suspension, in my opinion, was more because [of financial concerns], and then as the war went on, more young guys were getting called into the service. But [the '42 season] ended because attendance was so poor," he said. "They were down to four teams and only one was making money -- the Fresno Cardinals."


Sal Taormina (center) had reason to smile with the San Jose Owls. (Courtesy of Michael Rinehart)

That changed dramatically in the years immediately after the war, when fans came in droves. In 1946, the California League resumed with six clubs (including Visalia, Modesto and Stockton). The following year, it expanded to eight, with all of the current North Division cities fielding teams in the same season for the first time.

"The late '40s was boom time in the California League. In the late '40s, four teams out of eight drew over 100,000. In the early '50s, it was still going strong," Lampe said. "There was such optimism in this country after World War II, especially out here in California. People who had trained in the service here were returning, and that's when California really started to see some unbelievable growth.

"Two things set Minor League ball back in the '50s: television and air conditioning. But from 1946 to about 1951, the Cal League was in boom times, and those were really great years in the league."

Stockton vs. the world

During the boom, it took no time at all for the Ports, playing their home games in front of the Billy Hebert memorial plaque in Oak Park, to establish themselves as a juggernaut. They won back-to-back titles in 1946-47. Infielder Eddie Samcoff, who died last March at the age of 93, played 240 games for the Ports over those two seasons and took MVP honors in '47. Historians Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright named that '47 team one of the best 100 Minor League squads of the 20th century, and Lampe considers it the best Cal League team ever. Starting in June, the team set a circuit record by reeling off a 26-game winning streak.

Affiliated with the PCL's Oakland Oaks -- who were headlined by Vince DiMaggio and managed by Casey Stengel -- Stockton had a winning percentage (.679) more than 100 points better than any other team in the league. Samcoff was one of five on the club to make the All-Star team, and trio of left-handers combined for 60 victories, with Donald Belton (21-6) posting a 3.79 ERA, Eugene Chelli (19-12) putting up a 3.13 mark and Lloyd Hittle (20-6) logging the league's best ERA at 2.24.

Samcoff, a Sacramento native who hit .315 with 41 doubles that year, remembered spending a little cash to bust out of a skid.

"While we were on our 26 straight wins, we were in Bakersfield," he recalled in a team questionnaire about alumni memories. "[A boyhood friend] and I were walking the main street. ... I was in a batting slump and [we stopped] in front of a Walgreens store. I went in and bought a black bat for $1.50, and that night I had [five] hits at [five] times at-bat. The bat broke during my fifth hit and my slump was broken."

Whatever talismans were involved, the Ports were nearly unbeatable. They finished 95-45, won the division by 16 games, swept past the San Jose Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs and edged the Santa Barbara Dodgers in seven games for the championship. It was not only great baseball, it was great business in a league that had all but gone under five years earlier. That season, Stockton drew 154,547.

"They set an all-time attendance record that stood for 40 years until San Bernardino broke it in '87," Lampe said.

The Ports also reached the Finals in 1948 and four times in the '50s. They led the league in attendance from 1946-48 and again in 1950 and 1955.

The birth of the ballparks

If World War II shaped the league's beginnings, the Great Depression indirectly led to the construction of San Jose's Municipal Stadium, which is the oldest active park in the league. A project of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration proposed with a request of $175,000 in 1940, the ballpark was described in newspapers as the "$80,000 baseball stadium" (San Jose Mercury Herald) and "the new $85,000 Municipal Stadium" (Los Angeles Times) when it hosted the PCL's Portland Beavers for Spring Training in 1942. On March 7, the fan-favorite Seals beat the Beavers, 15-8, in front of a crowd of more than 2,000 in the park's first game.

"What are all these people doing here?" Portland outfielder Tommy "Rupe" Thompson asked the Mercury Herald. "This is only an exhibition game."

In the city's first Cal League game, on April 24, San Joseans saw their Owls whoop the Cardinals, 13-1. They enjoyed Taormina's heroics for two months before that season's early ending. When Cal League baseball returned to the city in 1947, it was there to stay until the Giants' move to San Francisco pushed San Jose's franchise to Las Vegas in 1958. The San Jose Bees were established in 1962 and, except for 1977-78, Municipal Stadium has hosted Cal League baseball every season since.

The Modesto Nuts play their games today at John Thurman Field, a city-owned facility that's on the same site where the Modesto Reds began in 1946. The park was remodeled and renamed Del Webb Field in 1955 to honor the Yankees owner and real estate tycoon who played semi-pro ball in Modesto as a young man.

On July 14, 1957, a fire -- the second to affect the park in three years -- burned through the grandstand and did a reported $50,000 in damage. Repairs brought it up to a high enough standard that when the playing surface of San Francisco's Candlestick Park flooded after a three-day rainstorm during the 1962 World Series, it hosted workouts for Mickey Mantle's Yankees and Willie Mays' Giants.

The facility was renamed for state assemblyman John Thurman in 1983. Nearly $4 million of renovations provided a major upgrade in 1997.

Visalia's Recreation Park dates back just as far, although it, too, has undergone extensive renovations to stay up-to-date. Still, its history is apparent in its wooden boxes and displays installed by the Rawhide.

"It is a real pleasure to go there and see a game," Lampe said. "They've done a fabulous renovation."


Recreation Park in Visalia has an intimate, classic feel. (Josh Jackson/MiLB.com)

The Ports moved into state-of-the-art Banner Island Ballpark on the banks of the San Joaquin River in 2005, but Billy Hebert Field is still used for baseball not three miles away.

Greatness on the field

Although Stockton dominated the circuit in 1946-47, the Cal League's next decade saw other teams and players reach heights that remain unsurpassed.

"The late '40s and '50s, those were very exciting times," Lampe said. "You had a mixture of players on their way up and on their way down."

Among the Major Leaguers "on their way down" that Lampe pointed to were Vince DiMaggio, Tony Freitas and Al Gionfriddo.

At the age of 35, DiMaggio managed the runner-up 1948 Ports while leading the league with 30 home runs. Freitas, the legendary PCL hurler who set a Minor League record with 348 wins as a left-hander, picked up his final 85 between Modesto and Stockton from 1950-53. In his last year, at age 45, he went 22-9 with a 2.39 ERA for the Ports. Gionfriddo -- famous for his catch for the Dodgers that robbed Joe DiMaggio of extra bases in Game 6 of the 1947 World Series -- spent his last three years of pro ball in the Cal League, batting .332 for Channel Cities in 1954 and.368 and .354 for Visalia in 1955 and 1956, respectively.

Among those "on their way up" were Charlie Beamon, Larry Jackson and Reds great Vada Pinson.

Beamon had one of the most remarkable Major League debuts of all-time, beating Whitey Ford and fanning nine Yankees in a four-hit shutout for the Orioles on Sept. 26, 1956. The year before, though, he set a Cal League record that still stands, going 16-0 for the Ports. His ERA was 1.36.

"That may be the best year for any pitcher in Minor League history," Lampe said.

One could say Jackson's MVP season of 1952 gives it a run for its money.

"Larry Jackson, with the Fresno Cardinals, was 28-4, which is a great record, but the really impressive thing is he had 351 strikeouts in 300 innings," Lampe said.

The right-hander was 194-183 with a 3.40 ERA in 14 big league seasons, leading the Majors with 24 wins for the Cubs in 1964.

Pinson was in the Cal League for one year, but it earned him a spot in the circuit's Hall of Fame. At 18, he batted .367 with 20 homers, 20 triples and 40 doubles for Visalia in 1957.

That incredible campaign came a year after another Visalia player won what Lampe called "the greatest home run race in the history of the Cal League."

Bud Heslet was a 36-year-old catcher and outfielder who'd served in the Navy during the war but gave the rest of his youth to baseball. It never got him to the Majors, but the game took him from his native Kansas to Binghamton in the Eastern League and Newark and Toronto in the International League, San Antonio and Shreveport in the Texas League.


Bud Heslet totaled 314 homers over 14 Minor League seasons. (Courtesy of Michael Rinehart)

Dick Greco was six years younger than Heslet, but he also was a journeyman who'd reached Triple-A. As a player-manager for the '56 Modesto Reds, the outfielder thrilled the hometown fans. The local paper ran a "Greco-meter," while he and Heslet went dinger for dinger all summer. Greco batted .356 with 39 doubles and a whopping 44 homers in 140 games.

But Heslet outdid him. The 51 long balls he belted (also in 140 games) remain a single-season Cal League record, as do his 172 RBIs -- 32 of which came over the final 20 games. He also led the loop with 147 runs scored while batting .334. Those numbers committed to history and a 2-year-old son at home, Heslet called it a career and joined the Visalia fire department, where he worked for 19 years. He died in 2012 at the age of 92.

"I just thought I made the right decision about quitting," he told MiLB.com in 2008. "I really enjoyed that year, and I was real popular in Visalia. I was a happy camper and I could stick my chest out about it."

The same could be said of many of those who played in the circuit's early days.

"You had players setting some of the greatest records that, in my opinion, will never be touched," Lampe said. "It was a great time in the Cal League."

It still is.

The Visalia, Modesto, San Jose and Stockton clubs are all there, counting down to another Opening Day.

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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