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PCL's historic Oaks reclaimed glory under Stengel

Charter club climbed back to top before graduating skip to Yankees
From 1903-55, Oakland gave other PCL clubs a run for their money, led by big personalities like Casey Stengel and locals such as Johnny Vergez and Billy Martin.
@JoshJacksonMiLB
January 25, 2021

By the time Casey Stengel became manager of the Oakland Oaks for the 1946 season, the franchise already had nearly a half-century of backstory. Sometimes it stood tall and strong among Pacific Coast League competitors, but often seeming overshadowed by the San Francisco Seals, whose city was about five times

By the time Casey Stengel became manager of the Oakland Oaks for the 1946 season, the franchise already had nearly a half-century of backstory. Sometimes it stood tall and strong among Pacific Coast League competitors, but often seeming overshadowed by the San Francisco Seals, whose city was about five times the size of the Oaks' town of 67,000 when the rivalry began. The Seals' story (with their five PCL titles, multiple DiMaggios and Lefty O'Doul and hit-crazed Smead Jolley) may be more commonly told, but the Oaks are every bit as much a part of baseball history.

In the PCL, Stengel made his mark on was about to be a new era -- one in which big league teams reshaped the West Coast game forever. The PCL of 1903 was entirely new. Born out of a vision to combine a late 19th-century circuit called the California League (not the same entity as today's Cal League, which dates to the 1940s) and the old Pacific Northwest League, the PCL opened with the two Bay Area clubs and franchises in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland and Seattle. Instrumental to the founding of the circuit was J. Cal Ewing, a co-owner of the Seals and the sole owner of the Oaks until he sold the team in 1929.

Ewing, a politician who at one time served as secretary of the California board of bank examiners, already had been a baseball man for years, having explored bringing a professional franchise to San Jose with Henry Harris (another soon-to-be owner of the PCL's Seals) in 1900. By 1906, he was president of the PCL, helping the league stay afloat after the San Francisco earthquake devastated the city and threatened the league's prospects for a normal season.

A hands-on owner, he objected so strenuously to a call during one game in the PCL's first season that he was ejected -- a rare feat for an owner. He slunk into the clubhouse, but according to a report in the _San Francisco Call_, "In a few minutes he returned again and sat down on the Oakland bench but wisely refrained from making any more comments." Nonetheless, he got the boot and the crowd "cheered the umpire when he ordered the noisy magnate back to the shed."

Oaks Park opened in 1913 and was renovated 30 years later. Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District

He was also a vocal racist and opponent to not only integration but exhibitions between his club and barnstorming Black teams. It's therefore one of baseball history's ironies that Jimmy Claxton broke through with the Ewing-owned Oaks in 1916 to become the first Black man to play in white professional leagues in the 20th century. A Canada-born southpaw with a multiracial background, Claxton passed as Native American to take the mound for the Oaks in two games of a doubleheader. Although his tenure was brief, he was immortalized on a Zeenut card. Within a few years, he was regularly returning to Oaks Park with a Black team called the Shasta Limited, and he continued to play ball for another three decades.

Oaks Park was the team's home from 1913 until its final season in 1955. The earliest iterations of the club, earning the nickname "the Commuters," played a majority of its home slate at San Francisco's Recreation Park off Valencia Street between 14th and 15th Streets -- concurrently the sometimes home of the Seals. A perk of Ewing being an owner of both clubs, sharing a park was simpler than it otherwise would have been. Those early Oaks teams played the rest of their home games at Freeman's Park in Oakland.

A sensational manner

It was at Recreation Park that the team won its first PCL title. Having finished second in 1910 and third the following year, the Oaks won the whole shebang in 1912. Entering the final weekend of the season, the Vernon Tigers were were neck and neck with Oakland, which had trailed the Tigers by 41 percentage points at the turn of July. On Saturday, Oct. 26, the Oaks swept a twinbill against the Los Angeles Angels and the Tigers split a doubleheader with the Portland Beavers. It gave the Oaks a one-game lead with another pair of doubleheaders on the docket for Sunday. The _Santa Barbara Morning Press_, perhaps a tad hyperbolically but not totally without justification, called it, "one of the most grueling and hard-fought pennant races in history."

The Oaks-Angels final showdown was a morning-afternoon affair, with the opener at Freeman's Park and the matinee across the Bay. The Oakland Tribune reported that 18,000 were on hand for each game, with "another big crowd at the _Tribune_'s score board [sic], on Eleventh Street, where the [Game 2] news was flashed play for play a second after it happened [in San Francisco], and when the megaphone boy said, '[Babe] Driscoll is out, [second baseman Bill] Leard to [first baseman John] Tiedemann!' there was a mighty cheer and all was over."

Bill Malarkey, a 33-year-old right-hander who'd been a member of the 1908 New York Giants pitching staff with Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard, was the victor in the second game, tossing two-hit ball in the Oaks' 6-0 blanking to claim his 20th win of the year. He finished with a 2.14 ERA, second behind the Seals' Frank Miller (2.09).

"When it comes to the real issues one must have a good word for Bill Malarkey," the Tribune noted, "for at the critical moment he came through and made it possible to win that pennant."

Down south, Vernon also swept Portland, but the Oaks finished the year 120-83, two games better than the Tigers' 118-83 mark.

"In winning the pennant this year Oakland performed in a sensational manner in the closing hours of the race," the Los Angeles Herald admitted." ... No individual can be charged with the failure of the Tigers to win the pennant. Every mother's son of them played the best ball he knew how and it would have been winning ball if the Oaks had not spurted at the eleventh hour."

At whatever hour, the Oaks were champions and demanded the respect of the league. In 1913, they began play in their new facility on the east side of the Bay in neighboring Emeryville, on the site where Pixar Studios stands today. Renovated in the '40s, it originally held around 10,000 fans, but it did not host a winning club until 1921. That club featured a budding Buzz Arlett -- the longtime Minor League home run king who had seven 20-plus-dinger seasons for the Oaks -- and was managed by Del Howard, a World Series champion with the Cubs in 1907-08. Although the '21 Oaks were 101-85, the pennant-winning Angels (108-80), the Sacramento Senators, the Seals and the Seattle Rainiers all finished ahead of them.

A former ace pitcher, Buzz Arlett became a power-hitting star for the Oaks in the 1920s. Pacific Coast League

In fact, Oakland didn't win another crown until Ivan Howard was in his fifth of seven years managing the club following brother Del's six-and-a-half-season stint. In '27, Arlett led the loop with 30 jacks and 123 RBIs while tallying 54 doubles and a .351 average, and 35-year-old righty George Buehler (22-12) was the circuit's only 20-game winner while posting a 3.10 ERA. The Oaks secured the title with decidedly less drama than the first time, cruising to a 120-75 record and leaving the second-place Seals (106-90) 14.5 games back.

Although Oaks Park saw plenty of good baseball over the next two decades, including five seasons under the management of Oakland's own Johnny Vergez, it wasn't until Casey Stengel arrived that Oakland began the climb back to the top of the PCL.

Casey at the dugout

In 1946, it would not have been senseless to assume Stengel's career as a big league manager was entirely in the past.

He'd helmed the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1934-36 and the Boston Braves from 1938-43. Since then, he'd been a Minors guy. Stengel managed the American Association's Milwaukee Brewers in 1944, while owner Bill Veeck was too preoccupied in Guadalcanal to fire Stengel. In '45, he helmed the AA's Yankees-affiliated Kansas City Blues . He'd also already earned a reputation as a "prize cutup" and "one of baseball's greatest jokers," per an Associated Press piece about his work with Milwaukee.

Hired by Oaks general manager Vic Devincenzi (also a part-owner since buying a piece of the team from Ewing in '29) in the fall of 1945 with a one-year contract for $12,000, Stengel replaced Bay Area native Billy Raimondi, a 32-year-old catcher who remained with the Oaks as a beloved player into the 1949 season.

Raimondi's popularity notwithstanding, Stengel's hiring was an instant hit, at least with the media. A United Press article that ran in area papers on Nov. 1 reported, "Casey may or may not be the world's finest manager--but it is admitted by one and all that there is never a dull moment when the former [big league] star and pilot is around."

Those were prophetic words. After finishing 89-94 the previous season, Stengel's Oaks of '46 put up a heck of a fight. They traded first place with the Seals deep into summer, and also swapped blows. In "Casey Stengel: Baseball's Greatest Character," Yankees historian Marty Appel quotes the skipper:

"We used to get in fights with the San Francisco club. ... A free-for-all would break out during a game, and our tough players would run on the field, and their tough players. It would look pretty good, so I'd run out and get into it, too. I was in my late fifties then. And every time you looked at a picture of the fight afterward ... there'd be a long arrow pointing down on the ground at the bottom of everything, and there'd be a line on it that said, 'Stengel.'"

What he lacked as a brawler in his middle age, Stengel made up for in managerial acumen. The success of his first season was tempered only by that of the rivals across the Bay. San Francisco, under O'Doul's hand, had hot prospects like righty Larry Jansen (30-6, 1.57) and hard-swatting Ferris Fain (.301/.423.431, fresh off four years of playing on the same Army team as Joe DiMaggio). It was the club to beat and everybody knew it, but per a late August AP story, "the Oaks have stuck closer to the league-leading Seals than the proverbial flea on the dog's back."

But that's where they stayed -- stuck in the rear. The first of Stengel's Oaks teams finished 111-72, four games behind the Seals. Fortunately for Oakland, the PCL had instituted playoffs, so the Seals' winning the pennant didn't mean the Oaks couldn't win the league title. Unfortunately for Oakland, after edging L.A., 4-3, in the semifinals, it fell to -- who else? -- San Francisco, 4-2, in the Finals.

In March 1948, Stengel and the Oaks faced Mel Ott's New York Giants in an exhibition in Phoenix. Getty Images

Stengel promptly re-signed for another try, and although the '47 Oaks with a veteran Vince DiMaggio just scraped into the playoffs with a fourth-place finish, they did get the pleasure of sinking the Seals, 4-1, in the semis to once again become one of the last two teams standing. This time, the Angels took the Championship Series, 4-1.

That season, disappointing as it must have been to be a repeat bridesmaid, also introduced Stengel to a player to whom he'd be forever linked. In 1947, Billy Martin was a 19-year-old Berkeley kid coming home to the East Bay after stints with Class C teams in Idaho Falls and Phoenix. The numbers from Martin's PCL debut cup of coffee aren't likely to knock anybody out -- he went 12-for-53 (.226) with three extra-base hits, all doubles -- but he showed enough promise that Stengel gave him a chance to be a key contributor the next year.

And the Oakland team of 1948 got its nickname in part from the up-and-comer: "The eight old men and the kid." It was a play on the phrase, "nine old men," which was used to describe the Supreme Court (especially in the mid-1930s when "the nine old men" were pitted against President Franklin D. Roosevelt). "The kid" obviously was Martin. He didn't wriggle into the everyday lineup until several weeks into the season, but he produced 28 doubles while posting a .277 average over 132 games.

The "eight old men" were a hodgepodge of veterans -- some plainly on their way down from the highs of the Major Leagues never to return -- who became something special under Stengel's leadership. In addition to Raimondi (35), the Oaks featured 32-year-old Dario Lodigiani, 35-year-old Cookie Lavagetto (who later coached on Stengel's Mets), 34-year-old Lee Scarsella and 40-year-old Ernie Lombardi -- all of them locally raised players. Nick Etten, 34, hit 43 homers and had 155 RBIs (156, according to newspapers of the time) while batting .313.

It was a winning combo, but the season was another bitter months-long battle between Oakland and San Francisco. As late as the third week in August, the Seals were ahead in the standings by three games. When the dust settled on the regular season at the end of September, Stengel's crew was 114-74 and the Seals were 112-76.

The Oakland Tribune reported that after the pennant was clinched, a local restaurant hung a sign reading:

"Casey Stengel is our man/
To the Seals he tied a can."

Perhaps nobody was happier with the first-place finish than Raimondi, who shouted to an Oakland Post Enquirer reporter, "I've waited 17 years to be on a pennant winner, and it sure has been great to have played with such a great bunch of guys."

But their work wasn't finished. In the playoffs, the Oaks beat the Angels, 4-2, then bested Seattle in the Finals, 4-1, finishing the job with a doubleheader sweep on Oct. 10. A huge parade followed, during which Stengel was given a $5,000 car, according to Appel's book.

“It was the biggest thing that happened in that city since the Bay Bridge was built," Appel quoted Stengel's wife, Edna. "Oakland went wild… His fame spread, his antics became legend. All these years, Casey had lived in California, but the fans and press had never known him. Now they took the prodigal to their heart. It’s ironic that he came home to find great success, because Oakland was the turning point of his baseball career. Casey was a little too famous for the Coast League to keep to itself anymore.”

And so he was. In 1949, Stengel returned to the Majors to manage the Yankees. He'd lead the Bronx Bombers to 10 American League pennants and seven World Series titles in 12 years.

After Casey

The Oaks had gas in the tank after his departure, and a parade of notables followed in Stengel's footsteps as manager in Oakland.

Charlie Dressen, skipper of "The Boys of Summer" Dodgers clubs from 1951-53, led Oakland in 1949-50. He launched himself into the Brooklyn post with a PCL pennant and championship with the Oaks in '50 -- just as Stengel had won the Yankees job with the Oaks' title in '48. Those two Dressen teams featured a historic run by Artie Wilson, who was later elected to the PCL Hall of Fame.

The '50 PCL pennant was the Oaks' last, but in 1954, Dressen returned to lead Oakland to victory in the playoffs after an 85-82 third-place finish. (In the PCL's official records, the 102-67 San Diego Padres are considered champions of that season. Fans seemed to have felt similarly. After a one-game playoff between the Padres and Hollywood Stars to determine the pennant winner drew 11,471, the semifinals were terribly attended, with a Stars-Seals matchup failing to bring 700 through the gates one game and the Padres and Oaks attracting fewer than 2,000 in their semifinal games.)

Hits of a different sort are produced on the former site of Oaks Park today. Josh Jackson/MiLB.com

In 1951, a man about to be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame took the reins for the Oaks. Mel Ott had managed the Giants from 1942-48 and had spent the last several years developing their farm system. His first year leading Oakland resulted in a losing record (80-88) and a fifth-place finish, but in his second season with the Oaks and final year managing anywhere, he guided a 104-76 ballclub, good for second place. Strong as the Oaks were, 1952 belonged to the Stars.

After Berkeley-born three-time MLB All-Star Augie Galan helmed Oakland in 1953 and Dressen came back for '54, the club was managed in its final season by none other than Lefty O'Doul. O'Doul, who'd been the Oaks' tormentor (and occasional victim) as the Seals' manager from 1935-51 -- O'Doul, who'd been a nuisance to Oakland pitchers in parts of 15 seasons as a PCL player -- led the team to a seventh-place finish in the eight-team league. Oaks fever was dying out in Oakland. They drew 141,000 fans, approximately a 30 percent drop from the previous season. By mid-September, it was public knowledge that the club would move to Vancouver for the 1956 campaign.

Along with the Dodgers move to Los Angeles, the Giants moved to San Francisco two years later, finally bringing big league baseball to the West Coast. But it took another 10 years -- until 1968 -- for Oakland, the little brother once again, to join the Major League landscape when the Athletics came to town.

Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.