California At-Bat: Exploring Baseball’s Past

A temporary exhibit at the California Museum shows the history of baseball in the Golden State. (via Public Domain)

When you think of the history of baseball in California, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants moving west, or the original Pacific Coast League may come to mind. But there’s more to baseball in California than the past 60 years of major league baseball or the minor league PCL before that.

A temporary exhibit at the California Museum in Sacramento (running through December 30) seeks to expand our understanding of the sport, examining everything from when baseball came to the state during the Gold Rush to the present day. Upon entering the exhibit, you see a map of California with all the professional baseball teams pinpointed on the map, along with a brief history of each of the five major league teams franchises—the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres—but that doesn’t end up being the main focus of the exhibit.

Rather, between the introduction and an exploration of the teams in Northern California during the Gold Rush, the exhibit moves into the history of marginalized groups who played baseball before integration, namely Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Black Americans.

“The California Museum’s mission is to highlight the state’s history and culture of diversity, and as a result, our exhibits and programs place an emphasis on people and stories not commonly presented elsewhere,” Amanda Meeker, the California Museum Executive Director, said in an email. “In alignment with this, a section of “California at Bat” explores the contributions of women, Mexican American, Japanese American, and African American players and recognizes their outsize role in their respective communities. Although athletes from these groups were excluded from playing in the major leagues for many years, they had tremendous talent and their stories are a crucial part of California baseball history.”

According to Meeker, “artifacts were selected based on their historic significance and on their availability to be loaned during the exhibit dates by other institutions and private collectors.” The project began in November of 2016 and was completed shortly before the exhibit opened on July 29 of this year.

“The concept of producing an exhibit on the history of baseball in California was proposed by a colleague at the State Capitol, resulting in our curatorial department moving forward with the project after determining the topic had not been widely covered or in other museum exhibits,” Meeker said.

A total of 15 people worked on the exhibit, according to Meeker, which included museum staff and an advisory group of baseball historians. Among those collaborators were Alan O’Connor, a Sacramento baseball historian who is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Pacific Coast League Historic Society, and Stephen Wong, a baseball historian and collector who has also authored baseball history books.

A sign before entering California At-Bat reads that the exhibit was sponsored by the Oakland Athletics, the Sacramento River Cats, and Entercom Sacramento; developed in collaboration with Dwight Martenia, Alan O’Connor, and Stephen Wong; with additional thanks to Darius Anderson, Richard Macaluso, and Doug McWilliams.

As Meeker said, many of the artifacts were selected due to their availability to be loaned during the exhibit dates. However, there were many more artifacts that didn’t make the cut.

“Hundreds of wonderful artifacts were offered for the exhibit, making it difficult to narrow down the items on display and fit available space in our temporary gallery,” Meeker said in an email. “A couple of notable items that were not selected include California native Billy Martin’s Berkeley High School letterman jacket from the 1940s and a great Oakland Oaks warm-up jacket from the 1940s.”

I did not expect  marginalized people in baseball to be so prominent in the exhibit.  It was a pleasant surprised . The section on the marginalized communities in baseball highlights a history that has been largely overlooked. Prior my visit to the California Museum, I thought it would be near-impossible to find history on those communities and their connections to baseball. Before driving up to Sacramento, it was very difficult to conduct research on amateur baseball in California prior to the 1950s—it either wasn’t digitized or it was lost to time. I worried about the barriers baseball historians would face in furthering their research without spending an inordinate amount of time and money to travel the state, exploring public archives.

Instead, the exhibit offers a rich alternative. Each community was given thorough and thoughtful examination. Not only did the section on Japanese American baseball go through when the Issei (the first generation of Japanese immigrants to the United States) began playing the game in the 1880s through post-World War II, but also went deep into how the game became a part of the Issei (and subsequently, the nisei—the first generation of Japanese people born to immigrants in the United States) community and how the game was played in internment camps. There were many artifacts from that community on display—from bats to gloves to some uniforms—that might otherwise have been lost.

In the section on Black American baseball players, the descriptions on the walls next to displays explained how “in response to institutionalized racism in professional baseball, African American players nationwide formed their own professional leagues and teams.” I learned the California Winter League that existed between 1910 and 1945 was the only league where Negro League stars played against major league stars. Before coming to this exhibit, I hadn’t even known it existed. I didn’t known it was the first integrated baseball league in the 20th century, or that it featured players like Ted Williams, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell. Given the characters involved, I was surprised that this league and its players weren’t better known; I am pleased the exhibit exists to rectify this gap in the story of pre-integration baseball.

The Mexican American portion of the exhibit described how the game was popular within that community and played by both women and men. “Facing housing segregation, workplace discrimination, and other challenges, Mexican American players found in baseball an activity where they could compete on a level playing field,” the signage reads. “The game helped forge bonds across communities as an elaborate network of leagues and tournaments evolved that reached even into Mexico.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

A display featured both women’s softball and women’s baseball, emphasizing the importance of both sports being played by women. Some highlights on display included an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League uniform and an Alma Ziegler trophy.

The rest of the exhibit was a combination of artifacts from legendary baseball players who were born in California, such as Ted Williams, and from the Dodgers’ and the Giants’ move out west. Williams’ uniform and high school yearbook were on display, where, notably, his only listed extracurricular activity was baseball. There is a base from Ebbets Field before the Dodgers left Brooklyn, and a pitching rubber from the 1962 season and World Series at the Giants’ Candlestick Park, highlighting the then and now.

Set apart from the rest of the exhibit, was a display on Jackie Robinson, clearly meant to afford him the prominence he so obviously deserved. And though his legacy in the game extends far beyond California’s borders, his significance to baseball here was huge: a native son, he was raised in Pasadena from the age of one and eventually played college baseball for the UCLA. The Dodgers would, of course, eventually move to Robinson’s hometown (or close enough), though two years after Robinson’s retirement. The 1949 and 1955 National League Champions pennants were on display, along with artifacts from the 1947 season, his rookie year. The significance of Robinson to major league baseball is very clear, but the California roots and ties are at overlooked, despite UCLA’s baseball field being named Jackie Robinson Stadium now.

Through the exhibit, there were current major league artifacts on display, though most were jerseys. On the Pacific Coast League side, there was a wide mix of trinkets here and there as far as teams go, but the focus was mostly on the Sacramento Solons. The museum is in Sacramento, after all.

I noticed that there was little to no mention of the California League in the exhibit, despite the fact that the league, in its current form, has existed since 1941. I asked the curatorial department what lead to that decision.

“Because California baseball is a huge topic and the exhibit was limited to available space in our temporary gallery, a decision was made to focus on the major leagues, ethnic leagues and women’s leagues,” Meeker explained in an email. “The Pacific Coast League was a top-notch league prior to the arrival of MLB in 1958, approaching the majors in talent, and came close to becoming a third major league. It was highlighted because of its place as THE dominant spectator sport in California up until the 1958 arrivals of the Giants and the Dodgers.”

The exhibit runs for about six months at the California Museum; there are no plans to make it permanent. Most of the artifacts on display are from a private collection, Meeker said in an email, and will be sent to Washington, D.C. following the end of the California At-Bat exhibit for another baseball exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum, which will open in June 2019.

In the meantime, it provides California-based baseball fans an opportunity to explore the game’s full, rich, fraught history, both close to home and much further afield.

Jen is a freelance writer. Read all of their writing on their website, and follow them on Twitter @jenmacramos.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Eric Robinson
5 years ago

Great article! I look forward to your articles Jen and can’t wait to see what you have in store for us to read next.

CC AFCmember
5 years ago

Y’all can send the Dodgers back to Brooklyn any minute now :-). Seriously, though, give da bums back.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

What about Joe Dimaggio’s 62 game hitting streak with the San Francisco Seals of the PCL? And a note on Jackie Robinson: baseball was his “worst” sport at UCLA. Track and football were first and second. In another era, he never would have played baseball but been drafted by the NFL for mega bucks.

Yehoshua Friedman
5 years ago

Baseball is a whole world. The more it gets covered, the more you want to see. Keep it up!