Playing Ball with the Choir Invisible

Pacific Coast League hall of famer Truck Hannah, at age 44, was a member of the 1934 Los Angeles Angels team that won 134 games.(via Library of Congress)

In angelology (yes, there is such a word), a seraph is the highest order of angel. The name was first used as a baseball nickname by a Los Angeles-based team in the short-lived California League in 1892. After that, Los Angeles teams were sans-Seraph. The Angels nickname took hold when the Pacific Coast League was founded and remained the nickname of choice through 1957, after which major league ball arrived in Los Angeles in the form of the Dodgers. The Angels nickname resurfaced in 1961 when the American League was granted an expansion franchise.

One can see why calling your team Seraphs a risky proposition. If your team wins a championship every year, great. If not …well, you’re asking for hoots and hollers from opposing fans. Better to just go with Angels, which covers you no matter where you rank in the league standings or the celestial pecking order.

In 1934, however, the Angels would have been justified in adopting the moniker Seraphs. That season the Angels were not only a team of the highest order in the Pacific Coast League, they were arguably the franchise of the highest order in all of minor league history. The team’s slogan for the 1934 campaign could have been “There’s a new Seraph in town.”

The Angels won 137 games (a minor league record) in 1934. That would enhance the reputation of any team in any league. To be fair, the PCL played a longer schedule than other leagues. Nevertheless, the Angels’ 137-50 record left them with a .733 winning percentage. This too would be impressive in any league, no matter how long the schedule (mention should be made of the 1937 Salisbury Indians of the Eastern Shore League; that team went 80-16, good for a winning percentage of .833).  The ’34 Angels led the league in runs (1,118), hits (1,935), doubles (326), home runs (127), RBIs (991), stolen bases (195) and batting average (.299).

Are 137 victories and a .733 winning percentage enough to close the case in favor of the ’34 Angels? If you’re talking about one season, maybe. But what about sustained excellence? Consider that the International League featured outstanding editions of the Baltimore Orioles from 1919 through 1925, all of which won at least 100. Four of those Baltimore teams featured future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove, who remained in the minors despite averaging 24 wins a year. They were league champions every year. Given that seven-year run, could we say that they were perhaps the greatest minor league team?

While the Orioles were tearing it up in the International League the Fort Worth Panthers were doing likewise in the Texas League over the same period, with more than 100 wins all but one season. Like the Orioles, they were league champions every season, and like the Orioles, they were an independent team not subject to major league call-ups.

As good as these teams were, as impressive as their records were, neither the Panthers nor the Orioles had as impressive a season as the 1934 Angels did. In fact, at the beginning of this century, Minor League Baseball commissioned a study to determine the best minor league teams of the past 100 years. At the top were those ’34 Angels.

The Angels were so dominant they opened up a lead of 18½ games by mid-June.  The PCL decided to adopt a split-season format in the hopes of igniting a pennant race (and probably hoping to boost attendance during a Depression year). The Angels never wavered, so after the season, the Angels played a postseason series against a team of all-stars from the other seven PCL teams. They won, four games to two. Remember, this was the Depression, so the winning payout was just $210 per man.

William Wrigley, then principal owner of the Chicago Cubs, bought the Angels PCL franchise in 1921. He built a new ballpark for the team in 1925 and dubbed it Wrigley Field. Notably, this was the first facility with that moniker, as its major league namesake was not so dubbed till two years later. The Angels officially became an affiliate of the Cubs in 1932. I suppose visiting PCL teams could have referred to the LA franchise as their heavenly host.

Obviously, there was talent on the 1934 juggernaut. The Angels did not have anyone with the star power of Grove, but their number of players with big league experience, either before or after the 1934 season, is impressive. Some of the veterans had been there and had a track record, while some of the younger players would go on to the big leagues after 1934.

Did any enjoy success in the majors comparable to what they did in the PCL?  Were any of them destined for stardom?

Well, no one on the roster took up residence in Cooperstown. In fact, only one player enjoyed an All-Star season at the major league level (of course, the major league All-Star Game was not instituted till 1933, so the older players on the Angels never had a shot at All-Star status). Nevertheless, some ’34 Angels carved out distinctive careers even if they did not have outstanding major league careers.  Consider that the team contributed seven men (Frank Demaree, Marv Gudat, Truck Hannah, Jimmie Reese, Jigger Statz, Fay Thomas and manager Jack Lelivelt) to the PCL Hall of Fame.

The big stud on the Angels roster was right fielder Demaree, who got his feet wet with the Cubs in 1932, homered in the World Series, and followed it up with a decent rookie season (.272/304/.377) in 1933.  It would seem his place on the 1934 Cubs was secure, but management felt otherwise, so he spent the entire 1934 season in Los Angeles.

Of all the players on the ‘34 Angels roster, Demaree had the best major league career. He spent 12 years with the Cubs, Giants, Braves, Cardinals and Browns, accrued 1,241 hits (.299/.357/.415), and was a member of the NL All-Star squads in 1936 and 1937. He played in three World Series with the Cubs and one with the Cardinals. Curiously, he was named to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, even though his Italian heritage remains in doubt.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

His stellar season with the Angels in 1934 resulted in a Triple Crown (.383 average, 45 homers, 173 RBIs) and an MVP award. He was voted into the PCL Hall of Fame in 2009. The web site Bleed Cubbie Blue/a> placed him at No. 56 on the Cubs’ Top 100 list.

Marv Gudat, a left-hander out of UCLA, had had two brief stints in the majors (the Reds in 1929 and the Cubs in 1932). With the latter team, he also got a couple of plate appearances in the World Series. He was primarily a pitcher with the Reds, but he went back to the minors and reinvented himself as an outfielder and first baseman.

He was 30 years old when he played for the 1934 Angels but his PCL career was just getting started. He would play with the Angels till 1938, when he moved on to Oakland for four seasons. He played for San Diego and Hollywood through 1945, and retired as a player at the age of 41. The lion’s share of his 2,043 minor league hits were with PCL teams – hence his enshrinement, albeit belated, in the PCL Hall of Fame in 2018.

Catcher Truck Hannah became a West Coast baseball legend, unlikely as that might have seemed in the early stages of his career. Born in North Dakota in 1889, he was a 29-year-old rookie with the Yankees in 1918. His major league career as a part-time catcher ended after three seasons, but his PCL career was just getting revved up.

After stops in Vernon and Portland, he was traded to the Angels, who paid his salary for the next 13 seasons. Named a player-coach in 1929, he was 45 years old when he played with the 1934 Angels. From 1937 to 1939 he managed the team. He is one of a few players to record a hit in five separate decades of pro ball (from 1909 with Tacoma to Memphis in 1940 when he was 51 years old).

A member of the inaugural (1943) class of the PCL Hall of Fame, he once estimated he caught 2,700 pro games. When the Angels went big league in 1961, Hannah was selected to catch the ceremonial first pitch at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, where the Angels played their inaugural season. A longtime resident of Southern California, he died in 1982 at the age of 92.

Jack Lelivelt, the manager of the 1934 Angels, hit .301 as a deadball era part-timer (mostly as an outfielder) in the American League (Washington 1909-1911, New York 1912-1913, and Cleveland 1914). He continued his career as a player-manager in the minor leagues through 1925. As a player, he accumulated more than 3,000 hits in pro ball; as a manager he had a .564 winning percentage in 20 seasons.

He managed the Angels from 1929 to 1937 and later managed the Seattle Rainiers. His record in the PCL was good enough to gain him posthumous (he died in 1941) induction into the league’s Hall of Fame with its 1943 inaugural class. He is one of only six major league players (his brother Bill was another) born in Amsterdam.  (If you knew that Didi Gregorius is the only active player born there, give yourself a gold star.)

Like Hannah, second baseman Jimmie Reese was a long-living legend. Though he had an abbreviated major league playing career (he debuted with the Yankees at age 28 in 1930 and finished up with the Cardinals in 1932), he may be the most recognizable name on the roster.

Having grown up in Southern California, he looms large in the state’s baseball history. He started as batboy with the Angels in 1913, played in the PCL with the Oakland Oaks (1924-1928) and the Angels (1933-1936 plus a brief appearance in 1940), and finished his lengthy career with the major league Angels, signing on as a coach at age 71 in 1972 and still drawing a paycheck from them when he died in 1994. Serving as Babe Ruth’s roommate certainly enhanced his name recognition. He was a key member of the 1934 Angels, as he collected 228 hits. He was voted into the PCL Hall of Fame in 2003.

Perhaps the most remarkable career of any player on the squad was that of center fielder Jigger Statz. His major league career with the Giants, Red Sox, Cub, and Dodgers was decent (eight seasons, 737 hits, .285/.337/.373), but his fame rests on his post-major league career. He spent 1932 through 1942 with the Angels and accrued 1,954 hits, enabling him to enter the charmed circle of players with more than 4,000 hits in pro ball. (I explored his career in detail in 2013.) When he died at age 90 in 1988, his Los Angeles Times obit read “The Grandest Angel of Them All.” Of his 1,954 hits with the Angels, 246 came during the 1934 season  Several years later he succeeded Hannah as the Angels manager. He did not retire as a player till age 44. Like Truck Hannah and Jack Lelivelt, he was among the first batch of players named to the PCL Hall of Fame in 1943.

Right-handed pitcher Fay Thomas played college ball at USC, where Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne, was one of his teammates on the football team. His major league career was uneventful: four seasons (1927, 1931, 1932, 1935), four teams (Giants, Indians, Dodgers, Browns), a 9-20 record, and a 4.95 ERA. His real distinction was his career with the Angels. He was a bellwether of the 1934 Angels as he went 28-4 with a 2.59 ERA in 295 innings. He won 137 games for the franchise in eight seasons.  He was posthumously inducted into PCL HOF in 2004.

A few ’34 Angels who are not in the PCL Hall also bear mention.

Standing 5-foot-7, utility infielder Mike Gazella was a utility infielder whom I wrote about last year in a Hardball Times article about the 1927 Yankees His major league career was brief but he could boast of hitting .278/.403/.417 with a 119wRC+ for the ’27 Yanks. Move over, Babe!

The name Bobby Mattick might ring a bell, likely because he was a manager of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1980 and 1981. His major league managerial record (104-164) was nothing to write home about but neither was his playing record. With the Angels in 1934 he was an 18-year-old rookie and part time shortstop  He remained with them through 1938, after which the Cubs called him up. After five years with the Cubs and Reds (and their minor league affiliates), he had 161 hits and no home runs. He began his managerial career in 1944, embarking on a long odyssey as a minor league manager and scout, culminating in his Blue Jays’ managerial gig. At age 64 he was the oldest Opening Day rookie manager.

Dee Moore was a 20-year-old utility player with the Angels in 1934. Two years later he made his major league debut with the Reds as a late-season call-up. He logged four seasons altogether, appearing with the Reds again in 1937, with the Dodgers in 1943, and the Phillies in 1943 and 1946. His career stats are not noteworthy, but he deserves mention for his feat of September 27, 1936 when he started the last game of the season for the Reds against the Pirates at Forbes Field. After throwing two innings of shutout ball, he gave way to Whitey Moore (no relation), who pitched five innings for his first major league victory– with Dee Moore catching.

Consequently, Dee Moore is one of a select few players to occupy both ends of the battery in the same game. The “p, c.” following his name in the box score is definitely a rarity. For good measure, he got three hits (two doubles) and scored three runs.

Right-handed pitcher Ted Pillette appeared just briefly with the ’34 Angels, but basks in reflected glory as the younger brother of PCL Hall of Fame member Herman Pillette, whose “Old Folks” nickname was a reflection of his 23-year minor league career (His big league service limited to 1917 with the Reds and 1922-1924 with the Tigers). Herman was the father (hence Ted was the uncle) of pitcher Duane Pillette, born in 1922, his father’s rookie year with the Tigers.

Duane somehow managed to last eight seasons (1949-1956) in the majors despite a record of 38-66 and a 4.40 ERA. Ted and Duane remain the only father-son combo to lead a major league in losses during a season (as a Tiger, Ted led the AL with 19 losses in 1923; Duane’s moment in the sun was 1951 when he lost 14 games with the Browns).

An additional 13 members of the ’34 Angels played in the big leagues both before and after their stint with the 1934 Angels. They are: Louis Garland, Gilly Campbell, Mike Meola, Roy Henshaw, Oscar Judd, Newt Kimball, Gene Lillard, Bob Loane, Steve Mesner, Emmett Nelson, Jim Oglesby, Ken Richardson and Dick Ward.

Those who played in the majors during World War II likely benefited from the player shortage created by the draft; nevertheless, if you’re keeping score, 23 of the players who appeared on the 1934 Angels roster also appeared on big league rosters, even if for a cup of weak coffee with no refills.

That distinction alone might not be enough to end the debate about the greatest minor league team of all time.

But it is a pretty good place to start it.

References and Resources:

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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87 Cards
5 years ago

I read of Frank Demaree in 2014 when Joc Pederson was burning through the PCL during a 30/30 HR/SB season. SB Nation reported that Demaree, along side of those 45 homers and his 1934 Triple Crown, also stole 45 bases in 186 games.

His 45 SBs are not recorded on; I want to think Demaree swiped that many. .

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

Fun article! I knew some of the individual PCL legends like Jigger Statz, but really nothing about the teams.