The Ballpark That Got No Respect

It was the first ballpark to be named Wrigley Field but, if remembered at all, it’s usually as “the other Wrigley Field.” That’s fitting because the original Wrigley Field in Los Angeles was always overshadowed by the one in Chicago.

Wrigley Field was home to the PCL Angels from 1925-57 and the big league Angels in 1961. (Courtesy Dave Hillman)

Wrigley Field was home to the PCL Angels from 1925-57 and the big league Angels in 1961. (Courtesy Dave Hillman)

The L.A. Wrigley was called the “finest baseball park in the universe” when it was opened in 1925 by William K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and owner of both the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

“Wrigley put no limit on the expense in building it,” the Sporting News observed. “It was not his desire, however, to make it a better plant than the one the Cubs, his other club, use in Chicago but that has been done. Cub park is an excellent one, but the Angels have a better one.”

The lavish praise didn’t last as L.A.’s Wrigley Field wound up being put down and passed over more times than any minor leaguer that played there.  It was demolished in 1969 and if ballparks could talk, its last words would’ve been Rodney Dangerfield’s catchphrase: “I don’t get no respect.”

The same architect who created Cubs Park and the White Sox’ Comiskey Park in Chicago designed Wrigley Field in L.A. On instructions from Wrigley, Zachary Taylor Davis made the L.A. park like the one in Chicago both as it existed in 1925 and how Wrigley wanted it to be. Cubs Park was renamed Wrigley Field the next year and eventually expanded to its current seating capacity of 41,159. Lights were added in L.A. in 1930 and night baseball was played there 58 years before Chicago’s Wrigley.

A Los Angeles Daily Times story titled, NEW DIAMOND, BUILT BY GUM, IS PERFECT, paints a vivid picture of L.A’s Wrigley:

Wrigley Field’s clock tower was featured on the cover of the ’57 Angels Yearbook. (Author’s collection)

Wrigley Field’s clock tower was featured on the cover of the ’57 Angels Yearbook. (Author’s collection)

“The new park has a nine-story tower in one corner that looks like a package of gum standing on end, while the stands spread out on either side…”

“From the top deck of the stand on the right-field foul line, some 60 feet above the field and far above the fragrant aroma of the hot dogs, one gets a splendid view, not only of the ball game, but also of the city…

“Far in the distance are the skyscrapers of Los Angeles, beneath whose towering roofs are thousands of stenographers busily chewing more gum to build better ballparks.”

The grandstand seated 18,500 fans and the right field bleachers 2,000 for a capacity of 20,500.

“The playing field is one of the largest in the country measuring 345 feet from the home plate down each foul line to the fence and 427 feet to a point in centerfield,” the Sporting News reported. “Home runs have been made in the park since the Angels started to play in it, but those making them earned and were entitled to them.”

Wrigley Field_ivy_1961

The ivy on Wrigley Field’s left-field brick wall was removed for the ballpark’s big league debut in 1961. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/60838/rec/9 )

The brick wall in left field was nearly 15 feet high and in later years was covered with ivy to emulate Chicago’s Wrigley Field. A wire screen, nine feet in height, ran parallel to the right-field bleachers.

Four home runs were hit in the first game and three in the second prompting one writer to comment:  “Wrigley Field, the home of the Angels and home runs. That’s the way the official stationery will have to read if the pace set in the last two days at the immense new enclosure is maintained.”

By the time the 1956 season rolled around, the ballpark was being called “Little Wrigley” by players familiar with both.  It was widely known as a home run haven. Steve Bilko was the home pro.

If ever a player and ballpark were made for each other, it was Stout Steve and Little Wrigley.

“His years with the Angels were an ideal marriage of ballplayer to ballpark,” observed Chuck Stevens, a first baseman for the Hollywood Stars from 1948-54 and the San Francisco Seals in 1955 when Bilko entered the PCL.  “Bilko played in a lot of other ballparks and a lot of other leagues, but in L.A. it was inevitable. When I heard Steve was coming to the Angels, I said he’s going to put some numbers up.”

And he did just that – 37 in ‘55; 55 in ‘56; and 56 in ‘57.  Of the 148 home runs Bilko walloped for the Angels, 98 were at Little Wrigley.

“It was more-or-less on the same order as Wrigley Field in Chicago,” explained Bilko. “Most of the minor league parks then were built the same as the major league parks. Rochester was the same as Sportsman’s Park. Montreal, at that time, was the same dimensions as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. They figured if a guy can play in this park he could come up to play in the major league park. After I got out to California and I hit a lot of home runs, I always wondered how I would do if I played a full year in Chicago.”

With the power-packed ’56 Angels lineup, teams couldn’t pitch around Bilko. “If you tried, other guys would sting you,” Stevens said.  The Angels slammed 202 homers – two shy of the league record. Bilko accounted for 36 of the 136 the team belted at Little Wrigley.

“Bilko’s home runs were home runs,” said Angel centerfielder Gale Wade.  “He didn’t hit these cheap fly balls.  He hit line drives and semi-line drives.”

Six Angels hit 20 or more homers, including Wade and Gene Mauch. “There’s one guy that hit 20 home runs that wouldn’t have in an ordinary park and that was me,” Mauch said. “But we would’ve won just as many games.”

Stevens disagreed, saying the outcome would’ve been different if his beloved Hollywood Stars played “The Bilko Athletic Company” at a neutral site in San Francisco. “Get the ’56 Angels out of Wrigley Field and put the Stars and the Angels in Seals Stadium and we would beat their brains out.

“I can’t get over Chuck saying that,” Mauch fumed.  “It irritates the hell out of me.”

Little Wrigley sparked the same kind of debate every time there was talk about the PCL becoming a third major league or one of the 16 teams in the majors moving to the West Coast. The ballpark’s shortcomings were magnified. Its location in the deteriorating Watts area of L.A. was strike one; parking for only 800 cars a second strike; and the short power alleys that made home runs of routine fly balls a swinging strike three.

In 1954 Bill Veeck, a former owner and baseball maverick, was hired by P.K. Wrigley, son of William and then owner of the Cubs and Angels, to come up with a plan that would make the ballpark acceptable to the majors.

Veeck proposed enlarging the playing field and extending the double deck grandstand along the base lines to completely enclose the park and seat up to 55,000 people. There would be parking for 10,000 cars.

The future Wrigley Field envisioned by Bill Veeck in 1954. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

The future Wrigley Field envisioned by Bill Veeck in 1954. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

Veeck presented an artist’s conception of this future Wrigley Field. “The new Wrigley Field should be baseball’s most modern park,” he said, “with every convenience for the fans – escalators, nurseries, snack bars, powder room facilities and restaurants. It should have all these features plus many others.”

“Bill talked to all the important people, collected the facts, evolved a working plan and lined up capital,” P.K. said. “Now it’s up to somebody to do something.”

Nobody did until early 1958 when the Dodgers relocated from Brooklyn to L.A. The Dodgers paid lip service to playing at Little Wrigley while exploring the use of the L.A. Coliseum and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

At the same time, baseball commissioner Ford Frick criticized Little Wrigley on national television by saying he didn’t “want to see Babe Ruth’s home-run record broken by playing in a cow pasture….”

He added: “The foul lines aren’t bad and left field is about the same distance as right field, but how about some of those hitters like [Willie] Mays pulling one? They will hit it into the next county.”

The Dodgers briefly defended Little Wrigley, proposing moving the centerfield bleachers further away from home plate and adding a 12-foot arching screen atop the brick wall in left center – “a favorite target for Steve Bilko and other power hitters.”

The Dodgers waffled between Little Wrigley and the Coliseum.

“I’m not going to burn my bridges, but as of now my feeling is that the Dodgers will use Wrigley Field in 1958,” Dodgers president Walter O’Malley said.  The Dodgers quickly changed course, agreeing to play in the Coliseum until a new stadium was ready.

Over the next four years the Dodgers played in the Coliseum, site of the 1932 Olympic Games and primarily a football and track facility. Distances down the foul lines were a joke – 251 feet in left and 300 feet in right. To make it semi-serious for baseball, a 40-foot net was erected in left, with both fields angling sharply to centerfield, 440 feet from home plate. “We don’t want to acquire a reputation for Chinese home runs,” O’Malley wisecracked.

Little Wrigley was a “cow pasture” but the Coliseum’s left-field fence that became known as the “Chinese Wall” was no problem. “I don’t think Babe Ruth’s record is in particular danger,” Frick said. “Foul lines are not especially important where home runs are concerned. The rest of the wall in right center, left center and dead center determine whether you’ll get a lot of homers.”

After 33 years and some 4,000 minor-league games, Little Wrigley was snubbed by the majors in favor of a football stadium – the ultimate insult.

The ballpark continued to host championship boxing matches. Soccer made its debut. The Home Run Derby television series that emerged again in the 1990s on ESPN Classic was filmed there.  A popular movie set throughout its history, Little Wrigley was used in 1958 for the cinema version of the musical, Damn Yankees.  In late 1960, L.A.’s mayor proposed a name change to George Washington Carver Park.

Baseball was out and boxing was in at Little Wrigley in 1958 with Carmen Basilio (dark trunks) mixing it up with Art Aragon.  (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/52134/rec/7)

Baseball was out and boxing was in at Little Wrigley in 1958 with Carmen Basilio (dark trunks) mixing it up with Art Aragon.
(Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/52134/rec/7)

In 1961, the American League expanded from eight to 10 teams, adding the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators.  The Angels announced they would play at Little Wrigley and used their last pick in the expansion draft to select Bilko.

“He’d be excellent box-office if he can somehow fit himself with a pair of wings powerful enough to keep his heavier-than-air machine flying,” wrote Morton Moss, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Examiner. “He still has a considerable rooting section. He even inspires people to poetry.”

One fan obliged:

Just read your lines on Bilko’s torso

Still feel your forte is sports – but more so!

“Big Steve was a big star in L.A.,” said Irv Kaze, public relations director for the Angels in 1961. “When the major-league Angels came into being, the Coast League was already four years gone. But Steve’s star transcended those four years.”

Steve signed for $12,500 – less than he made with the Angels in the PCL. “This could very well be my last chance,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a better place to make a last stand than Wrigley Field.”

The Dodgers snubbed Wrigley Field in 1958 for a football stadium – the Los Angeles Coliseum. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

The Dodgers snubbed Wrigley Field in 1958 for a football stadium – the Los Angeles Coliseum. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

It was also the last stand for Little Wrigley.  The Angels planned to move in with the Dodgers at their new stadium in Chavez Ravine the next year.

“You can quote me as saying Wrigley Field will be a hitting park,” Joe DiMaggio predicted.

DiMaggio was ending his illustrious career with the New York Yankees in 1951 when a 19-year-old named Mickey Mantle hammered a homer at Little Wrigley in a spring exhibition game. The ball soared so high that the centerfielder “lost sight of it and so far that it cleared the most remote seats in the bleachers, then bounced over the wall.”

The 420-foot shot helped propel Mantle from Class C in the minors to the Yankees and stardom.

What would Mantle and other big-time sluggers do at Little Wrigley in regular-season games that counted? Surely baseball’s most coveted record, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a single season, was in jeopardy of being broken by a shower of cheap fly balls. The irony is that the mark was broken in 1961 by the Yankees’ Roger Maris with only two of his 61 homers coming at Little Wrigley. Mantle batted a measly .206 and hit just two of his 54 homers in L.A. The Bronx Bombers managed a mere 13 home runs, losing six of nine games.

Little Wrigley produced a single-season record of 248 homers, 122 by the Angels. “I needed a three-dollar seat to catch some of the balls that Mantle hit,” Angels centerfielder Albie Pearson recalled. “I mean, they were rockets. It was amazing the way the league kind of dwarfed that park.”

Bilko popped 12 of his 20 home runs at Little Wrigley. Altogether, the Angels parked 189 – second in the league behind the world champion Yankees’ 240.

The clock tower was the last identifying mark when the wrecker’s ball leveled L.A.’s Wrigley Field in March 1969.  (Courtesy UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives)

The clock tower was the last identifying mark when the wrecker’s ball leveled L.A.’s Wrigley Field in March 1969. (Courtesy UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives)

One of the Angels’ batboys was Scotty Keane. He was 10 years old when he got hooked on the ’56 Angels. Bilko became his hero.

“They say Yankee Stadium was a cathedral,” Scotty said. “Wrigley was the cathedral of minor league ballparks. It looked super. The fans were right on top of the action. The dugouts were small. Going up and down the stairs to the clubhouse, people could see you. I remember the accessibility of the players. Whether they stopped or not, you could see them coming in and out of the dugout.”

Scotty was kneeling in the on-deck circle when Bilko hit the last home run at Little Wrigley – a 400-foot blast over the brick wall in left field.  It came with two outs in the ninth inning of the last game of the season.  “The fact that he hit the last home run is just unbelievable.”

Dean Chance, a future Cy Young Award winner, was a 20-year-old rookie pitcher for the Angels at the time. “He hits a ball that had to be a foot over his head and hit it into outer space for a home run.  Believe me, it was unreal. What could be more fitting for that ballpark than Bilko hit a home run in the last game ever played there?”

The scene inspired a Long Beach Press-Telegram headline reading: BILKO BRINGS TEARS FROM FINALE FANS. “The tears just rolled down my face,” one fan said. “I couldn’t help it. It was so wonderful.”

The Angels left for Chavez Ravine in 1962, Bilko was back in the minors in 1963 and the ballpark once acclaimed as “a monument to the national game” was leveled by the wrecking ball in 1969.  Not even the office tower built as a memorial to veterans of World War I was preserved.  At least it was the last part to come tumbling down.

******************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

2 thoughts on “The Ballpark That Got No Respect