SACRAMENTO, California -- Frequently referred to in the press as "little Tony Freitas" during his career, the 5-foot-8 left-hander made himself a Sacramento giant during the Pacific Coast League pennant race of 1942, when he pitched the town's Solons to a highly improbable championship.
After dropping the first two games of the season's final series -- a seven-game set against the powerhouse Los Angeles Angels -- Sacramento needed to win all of the next five to overtake LA in the standings and claim its first PCL crown.
The Solons took three straight, leaving the pennant to hinge on a Sunday doubleheader. Freitas, who'd pitched in the win on Friday, shut the door on the 7-5 victory that started the decisive twin bill. As player-manager Pepper Martin surveyed his available arms for Game 2, the southpaw stepped forward and asked to get right back onto the bump. Going the distance, he scattered four hits as the Solons won, 5-1.
Freitas' '42 heroics alone would have locked down his legendary status in Sacramento, but it was because he repeatedly proved his love of the city that it loves him back so fiercely. Over a professional career that lasted from 1928-1953, included 107 big league games and 342 Minor League wins (most for a lefty) and ended in the PCL Hall of Fame, he first played for his hometown team in 1929 and made his way back at every opportunity, suiting up for Sacramento in parts of 15 seasons.
"He's everybody's favorite around here," Sacramento baseball historian Alan O'Connor said. "Guys like Freitas -- he grew up in Mill Valley, played here in the '20s, went back and played for Philadelphia and Cincinnati, finagled a way to get traded to the Cardinals organization so he could come back and play here when we were [a Cardinals affiliate], and then he spent the rest of his life here.
"Guys wanted to stay here, because it was a baseball town."
In the beginning
Sacramento remains a baseball town today -- the only charter city of the PCL that currently has a team in the league. The Triple-A River Cats consistently draw among the biggest and most passionate crowds in the Minors, and from the team's inaugural season in 2000, local baseball history has had a place at Raley Field.
"From the get-go we definitely wanted to create our own identity -- we are the River Cats -- but also to understand that there is a rich history here and respect that," team president Jeff Savage said.
But Raley Field's Solon Club -- a covered, first-base-line bar that features a mural of former Solons as both players and older men mingling with the younger versions of themselves -- isn't the only spot around town where a visual celebration of Sacramento's PCL history can be found.
A mural at Raley Field depicts 22 former members of the Solons.
The Limelight Bar & Cafe on Alhambra Boulevard in Central Sacramento is another. Bought by Pete Mikacich in the 1970s from a man named Larry Bowa -- a relative of the former MLB player, coach and manager with the same name -- the Limelight has had baseball ties for a long time. Mikacich was a star hitter for Sacramento City College in the 1950s and played three years of professional ball. (Although he signed with the Solons, his days on the field were relegated to the Class B Northwest League.) His son who runs the bar now, John Mikacich, played high school baseball with former NBA star and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson before concentrating on football at Stanford University.
But in 2015, O'Connor -- author of the book Gold on the Diamond: 1886 to 1976 -- helped revamp The Limelight. The establishment's two front rooms have been adorned with treasures from O'Connor's baseball collection -- photographs, tickets, promotional materials, telegrams, even a bat rack and stadium seats from the Solons' Edmonds Field -- artfully arranged by Jane Mikacich, sister of John.
O'Connor went to Solons games as a boy and had catcher Nick Pesut for a neighbor. His father was friends with former big leaguer Joe Marty, who was born and buried in Sacramento and played for the Solons from 1946-1952. O'Connor had always had a sense that his hometown was a baseball "hotbed." He'd seen fans cheer the Solons in the '50s. He knew that the town's winter league, sponsored by businesses like Julius Haberdashery into the '60s, drew big leaguers. He noticed how many players graduated from local sandlots to the Majors (Stan Hack, Freitas, Marty, Bowa, Dusty Baker, Nick Johnson, Derrek Lee, others).
Alan O'Connor's artifacts have turned The Limelight into a tour of Sacramento baseball history.
"We had real baseball. We were the place everyone wanted to come, not just in the season but in the offseason," John Mikacich said. "I'm as excited about our history as a winter league town as I am about our history with the Pacific Coast League. I think all parts are what make us great."
In the 1990s, O'Connor got his hands on John E. Spalding's book, Sacramento Senators and Solons: Baseball in California's Capital, 1886-1976, and was hooked on the history. He began his own research and conceived Gold on the Diamond, which he intended as a who's-who -- almost a companion to Spalding's broad overview. Around the same time, he found himself accruing some of the objects that have made their way to The Limelight.
"I realized I had a few artifacts, some cards and things, and then I kind of went out of my way to find stuff. Before you know it, I've got game-used jerseys, all kinds of stuff," O'Connor said. "I've got, like, 50 game-used Solons bats. I've got Stan Hack, Pepper Martin, Joe Marty, [former Solons catcher and big league manager] Johnny McNamara. I went a little crazy, but it is a part of history."
Part of the reason that history is revered by O'Connor and Sacramento as a whole is how far the game dates back in the city -- even to 40 years before the PCL's first season of 1903. Alexander Cartwright traveled through town in the middle of the 19th century, possibly bringing baseball, and there are reasons to believe the Gold Rush brought frequent baseball games to the region. By the end of the 1850s, there was a "Sacramento Base Ball Club."
With the sport so firmly established, it was only natural that California's capital was part of the formation of the PCL. Playing as the Senators (1903, 1919-1935), the Sacts (1909-1913) or the Solons (1936-1960), Sacramento was a fixture of the old Coast League, when the circuit was vying for status as a third Major League up until the Giants and the Dodgers moved to California in 1958.
"In the '40s and before when people woke up to read the paper, they wanted to know if the Oaks [had beaten] the Seals," O'Connor said. "It was nice that the Yankees might have beaten somebody back East, but this was West Coast baseball."
Although the 1942 crown was the only one the Solons would win, Art Garibaldi (1937) and Ray Mueller ('42) claimed PCL MVP honors with the club, and scores of baseball greats -- from Hall of Famers like Ray Dandridge and Joe Gordon to local legends like Wally Westlake, Marty and Freitas -- played on those Sacramento clubs.
The Solons were also one of the first true "farm" teams. While the entity known today as Minor League Baseball was formed in 1901, Branch Rickey -- best remembered as the Brooklyn general manager who signed Jackie Robinson -- created the modern player development system as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals front office in the 1930s. The Cardinals purchased the Sacramento Senators and renamed them the Solons -- a slang word for "politician" derived from a statesman of Ancient Greece and a nickname long applied to the club in local papers. The affiliation lasted through the 1944 season.
The Solons' '47 program featured Johnny Rizzo (l), Joe Marty, Bill Ramsey and Tommy Thompson.
After St. Louis' sale of the team to a group of local businessmen led by Dick Edmonds, the Solons' ballpark, a wooden structure at Riverside Boulevard and Broadway in use under various names since 1910, was renamed from Cardinals Field to Doubleday Field. When Edmonds died in 1945, the park was rechristened yet again -- this time Edmonds Field.
In July 1948, a fire of unknown but still-debated provenance nearly leveled Edmonds Field. The Solons played the rest of the season on the road, and the ballpark was rebuilt for the next year and was home to the team through 1960.
By that point, with the arrival of Major League Baseball on the West Coast and the PCL taking on a Triple-A classification after years of open classification (meaning it could have officially become a third Major League, and big league clubs were limited in their rights to draw players from the PCL), the Golden Age of the circuit was over. The Solons were sold and relocated to Hawaii, where they would play as the Islanders.
"It was crushing for everybody [in Sacramento]," O'Connor said. "It was just basic demographic factors. I got to know the owner of the Solons, a guy named Fred David. Fred was fighting to keep our status as the West Coast league. They considered themselves the third Major League. Fred went down fighting. He was still mad -- he just died in 2009 at the age of 100."
Although a Target store now stands at the site that hosted so much PCL history, even there Sacramento honors its past: a plaque commemorating Edmonds Field can be found in the parking lot.
From the ashes
When Jim Jenkins showed up to work one day about six weeks into the 1974 season, he noticed that the team he covered for the Sacramento Union
had switched dugouts at their home of Charles C. Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College.
An arena for track and football, Hughes Stadium was the awkward home of a new PCL Solons team. An affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers had relocated from Eugene, Oregon, for the '74 season -- the first time Sacramento had pro baseball since the departure of the previous PCL team in 1960.
Hughes Stadium, nicknamed "The House of Horrors" during the Solons' occupancy, was a pitcher's nightmare. The fence in left field was an average fly ball away, with a screen turning lineouts into hits and flyouts into homers.
There were other quirks to Hughes as a baseball facility, too, and Jenkins could think of a number among them that might have motivated Solons manager Bob Lemon to switch the home dugout from the first-base side to the third-base side. For starters, "dugout" was a generous word for Hughes' wooden benches covered with a makeshift roof, which allowed dust to blow in at the players and coaches -- especially on the first-base side.
Jenkins remembers approaching Lemon, who would be inducted to the Hall of Fame two years later, and saying, "I see you finally wised up and took the dugout with the grassy area behind it so the dust wouldn't get in your face as much."
"No, that wasn't why," Lemon replied.
"Oh, so it was because you wanted to get closer to the clubhouse," Jenkins guessed.
"No, that wasn't it, either," the manager said.
Jenkins pressed, and Lemon admitted to switching dugouts because of a fan. Every time a Solons pitcher gave up a couple home runs -- which was often -- a woman who sat behind first base would yell at Lemon to get somebody warmed up.
"I couldn't take it anymore," he told Jenkins.
Although Sacramento pitchers did indeed watch a lot of balls leave the yard, the Solons also hit plenty. First baseman Bill McNulty led all of the Minors with 55 long balls that first year. Gorman Thomas, another Solons player, was second with 51. In fact, five of the Minors' top eight home run hitters in 1974 were Sacramento players. By Jenkins' records, Hughes Stadium saw 493 home runs (about seven per game) that season compared to one triple, by center fielder Sixto Lezcano.
The fence in left was, according to the front office, over 250 feet from home plate. Although a 250-foot line in left field would still make any ballpark a hitter's paradise, a group of reporters -- including Jenkins -- suspected it wasn't even that far. One night, they snuck onto the field and measured. They found the wall was only 232 feet from the plate. When word got out, the team realigned the foul lines and the bases, tilting the angle of home plate to bring the field to the dimensions the front office had promised.
"The home runs still came," Jenkins said. "It didn't make much of a difference."
It wasn't a venue where any organization wanted its Triple-A club playing. The Brewers abandoned Sacramento after the 1975 season, and the Rangers could only bare one year of partnership with a team there. The 1976 campaign was the final one for the Solons, as the franchise moved to San Jose. Hughes Stadium is still in use -- but not for baseball.
The living past
For the last quarter of the 20th century, one of America's great baseball cities was without a professional team. This fact wasn't lost on Art Savage. A businessman who was the president and CEO of hockey's San Jose Sharks in the '90s, he bought the Triple-A Vancouver Canadians in 1998 and in 2000 moved them to brand-new Raley Field in West Sacramento, where he remained owner of the River Cats until he passed away at age 58 in 2009.
"When my father was alive, he had identified this marketplace as somewhere that was not being served by a Minor League Baseball team," Jeff Savage said. "In fact, I think at the time, it was the largest market without an affiliated baseball team. It became then one of the largest Triple-A [markets]. That might not be now, but it was at the time.
"It was even more obvious to bring a team here because there was such a rich baseball history, and so many baseball players grew up here. It seemed like a no-brainer."
The River Cats reeled off PCL titles as an A's affiliate in 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008. They've had four PCL MVPs. They became a Giants affiliate in 2015, and they continue to draw a passionate Sacramento fan base and to honor the city's rich baseball history.
"A couple years ago, we actually wore Solons jerseys on Mondays," Savage said, noting that Solons T-shirts still sell well in the team store. "It was our 'Throwback Mondays.' We only played organ music, and we wore the Solons jerseys and we had the players' pictures in black and white up on the screen. I think there was a segment of our fans who really loved that promotion. The players did not."
For many fans, like Limelight operator John Mikacich, throwback uniforms aren't required to see the link to the past.
"I think that's part of the beauty of the game," he said. "We can watch footage from way back or we can watch a kid just learning to get his first hit, and it's all exciting."
"The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball," by Kevin Nelson
"Gold on the Diamond: 1886-1976," by Alan O'Connor
"Sacramento Senatorsand Solons: Basebal in California's Capital, 1886-1976"
"The Golden Game: Baseball in Sacramento"
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.