The Little Ballpark That Could

While it isn’t Wrigley Field in Chicago, “LAWrig” had a special place in some peoples’ hearts. (via Steve Minor)

Imagine a Los Angeles baseball fan falling into a coma in the summer of 1957. Four years later he wakes up to find out that his hometown, a longtime minor league stronghold, now has two major league baseball teams, yet neither plays at a “major league” ballpark. Oh, but the Los Angeles Angels are still around! How’s that for a disorientation session?

The Dodgers’ flight from Brooklyn to L.A. has been well chronicled, as has their four-year tenure at the football-oriented Los Angeles Coliseum starting in 1958. Not so much has been written about the major league Angels’ first ballpark. In contrast to the Dodgers, they played at a baseball-only park, but they and their ballpark got no respect their initial year, 1961. The Angels (and Senators) were the first-ever expansion teams in major league baseball so they were in uncharted waters. The pundits were not expecting much, but while the Angels weren’t world-beaters, they were not doormats.

The major league Angels’ first home, Wrigley Field, was the previous home of the Pacific Coast League Angels. That Wrigley Field was built in 1925 expressly for the Angels, a charter member (1903) of the PCL. The franchise had been purchased for $150,000 by chewing gum honcho William Wrigley Jr. in 1921 but he could not persuade the city to let him install underground parking (possibly because of earthquakes?) at Washington Park, the team’s previous home located at South Main and West Washington (downtown LA today).

So Wrigley built his own ballpark roughly three miles away at 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard in South Central L.A. It was the first ballpark to bear the Wrigley Field name; the Chicago iteration, though built 10 years earlier, was known as Weeghman Field until 1926. (For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the two parks as LAWrig and ChiWrig.)

LAWrig was a minor league wonder when it opened. The $1.5 million construction cost was unprecedented for a minor league venue. The double-deck grandstand (a rarity for a minor league park) wrapped around the field from the right field corner to the left field corner. The 20,000+ capacity was a tad small compared to most major league parks then in use, but it wasn’t far behind Crosley Field in Cincinnati and League Park in Cleveland.

Since Wrigley also owned the Cubs, it was no surprise that the Angels became a minor-league affiliate of that team. Also, it was not surprising that LAWrig bore a close resemblance to ChiWrig, since Wrigley had so ordained, and both parks were designed by famed Chicago architect Zachary Taylor Davis (whose first ballpark commission was Comiskey Park in 1910).

After ChiWrig’s periodic facelifts, the resemblance between the two parks became harder to detect, but in 1925 it was much more apparent, even though LAWrig’s white façade and red roof evoked SoCal more than the Windy City. Notably, neither park had advertising signs. The most distinctive LAWrig feature was the 150-foot tall clock tower which stood on the first base side behind home plate. With the letters WRIGLEYFIELD in place of numbers, the clock had four faces and was visible from inside or outside the ballpark. Designed as a monument to World War I ballplayers/veterans (the Coliseum had also been dedicated to WWI veterans when it opened in 1921), the tower hosted team offices and even the Pacific Coast League offices for a while. The first game (a 10-8 victory over the San Francisco Seals with San Francisco’s Paul Waner hitting the park’s first home run) was played on September 29, 1925. On January 15, 1926 Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis officially dedicated the memorial.

The Angels competed in the Pacific Coast League at LAWrig every year through 1957. Before the beginning of that season, Walter O’Malley purchased the ballpark and the Angels for $3 million plus the Fort Worth Cats, another Dodgers’ affiliate, and continued to operate the Angels as a Triple-A franchise. It was probably obvious to anyone paying attention that O’Malley was setting the stage for the Dodgers’ move, even though they had won the National League pennant in 1956.

The PCL franchise had to be abandoned (it moved to Spokane) when the Dodgers hit town, but O’Malley held the LA territorial rights while the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Also, he now owned LAWrig, so he hired an architect to draw up plans to expand the capacity with additional outfield seating.

Nevertheless, O’Malley nixed LAWrig as a home for the Dodgers for the same reasons he gave up on Ebbets Field – an aging facility in a deteriorating neighborhood with a lack of parking. Instead, he chose the Coliseum (he also considered the Rose Bowl!), which was hardly suitable for baseball but the voluminous capacity (92,000+) maximized the revenue stream and resulted in a number of attendance records.

When the American League voted to expand for the 1961 season, O’Malley was not overjoyed. After all, he had shared New York with the Yankees and the Giants and he thought he had the vast L.A. market all to himself. The Angels took shape in a matter of months, not years, so they were hard-pressed to find a home for the 1961 season. What to do till then? Well, LAWrig was still standing, and O’Malley was happy to rent out his white elephant to Gene Autry, who spent $225,000 to fix up the facility for major league duty.

So that’s how major league baseball came to LAWrig. Of course, it could be argued that thanks to the quality of play in the PCL, major-league caliber baseball had been played there. After all, in the 1950s there was a movement to classify the PCL as a third major league. Spring training aside, however, no real major league team had ever called it home. Had World War II not intervened, it might have happened 20 years earlier. The St. Louis Browns were about to announce a move to Los Angeles for the 1942 season. If not for Pearl Harbor, Angelenos might be rooting for the Los Angeles Browns (and bleeding Brownie brown?) today and the Dodgers would be in…who knows?

At any rate, it came to pass that on April 27, 1961, a regular season major league game was finally played at LAWrig. Only 11,931 were on hand to witness baseball history (Twins 4, Angels 2). The Angels had begun the season on the road by shutting out the Orioles (a six-hitter by Eli Grba, the Angels’ first pick in the expansion draft). After that, they lost seven in a row, so Angelenos’ lack of enthusiasm might be understandable. Curiously, the first game at LAWrig lasted 3:13, which would be no big deal for a nine-inning game today but was unusually long in those days.

Another feature of the 1961 Angels has a distinctly contemporary ring to it. Namely, home runs. Lots of them. They finished the season with 189, only four less than the Yankees had hit the year before with a league-leading total of 193. In 1961 that total of 189 was second only to the mighty Yankees, who hit 240 with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris accounting for almost half of them. The league average was only 153.
Despite this formidable display of power, the Angels were not the stuff of headline news, perhaps because no individual hitter was anywhere close to Mantle and Maris in the home run race. Seven players were in double figures, however. The team leader was Leon Wagner with 28. That total put him in a tie for eighth place in the AL with Bill Skowron and Al Smith. Right behind him were Ken Hunt (25), Lee Thomas (24), Earl Averill (21), Steve Bilko (20), Ted Kluszewski (15), and George Thomas (13).

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Clearly, the Angels enjoyed home cooking; of their 189 home run total, only 67 were on the road. On the other hand, their pitching staff gave up only 180 home runs for the season, so they were on the plus side of the ledger for the year.

Of course, more home runs were to be expected in 1961 because the AL season was eight games longer, and the addition of two more pitching staffs meant that the major leagues had at least 20 arguably inferior pitchers who would not have been there the year before. The Angels’ power outburst, however, was more apparent at LAWrig than at other AL parks. Opponents out-homered the Angels but not by much. At season’s end the final score was American League 126 home runs, Angels 122.

Those 248 homers were a record for a major league ballpark for a season. Considering that the modern baseball era was six decades old (well, four decades if you discount the deadball era), that was a noteworthy achievement.

Fittingly, the final home run was struck by Bilko in the final game of the year on October 1. He hit a pinch-hit homer off the Indians’ Mudcat Grant with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It wasn’t a walk-off, as the Angels bowed 8-5. You can’t have everything. But for a few years in the PCL, Bilko almost did.

Bilko was an imposing figure in any league. He stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 230 pounds minimum. His fame, however, rested not on his mediocre major league stats (.249/.336/.444 with 76 homers in 10 seasons). Notably, there is a gap in his major league career from 1955 through 1957. During that time he was playing for the PCL Angels. During those three seasons, he slugged 148 home runs and drove home 428 runs, winning three consecutive MVP awards plus a triple crown in 1956. Given his popularity with LA baseball fans (unfortunately, his 1958 sojourn with the Dodgers was disappointing) and the success he had enjoyed at LAWrig, it made sense to add him to the 1961 major league squad. In 1960 he had played for the Tigers, who made him available in the expansion draft.

Bilko had hit 55 and 56 PCL homers in 1956 and 1957. He didn’t enjoy that level of success in the majors in 1961, but Mantle and Maris did (in addition, the Yankees’ total of 240 was a record). Bilko did play a part in the 1961 homer record, however.

Interesting to note that Commissioner Ford Frick was no fan of LAWrig, as he thought it would make a mockery of home run records. O’Malley, however, had refused to share the Coliseum, so Frick had no choice but to accept LAWrig as the Angels’ home. The old HR record (219 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in 1957) was eclipsed before passing 77 home games (the pre-1961 length of the home season) so if Frick was thinking of adding an asterisk to the record, it became moot. The LAWrig home run record was not surpassed till 1996, when Coors Field in Denver hosted 271 home runs.

So what was it about LAWrig that was so conducive to home runs? The foul lines (340 left and 339 right) and center field (412) were respectable. But the power alleys weren’t. Both were 345 feet, barely more than the distance to the foul poles, and the fence was 14.5 feet high (with ivy!) from left to center, and nine feet from center to right.

You might think that a 345-foot power alley would be inconceivable today, but think again.

The Dodgers’ stay in the Coliseum, albeit brief, raised concerns about field dimensions of future ballparks. So MLB set up guidelines of 325 feet as the minimum for the foul lines and 400 feet for center field. MLB was silent about the power alleys, however. At any rate, they were guidelines, not rules, subject to variances (e.g., the 315-foot left field in Minute Maid Park). So if the A’s or Rays want to design their new stadiums with more intimate outfield seating and possibly break some home run records along the way, they could do so. The biggest drawback to their doing so would not be the objections of their fellow owners or Commissioner Rob Manfred, but the difficulty of attracting good free-agent pitchers.

While the Angels home run proficiency in 1961 was a one-season wonder, they exceeded expectations in other areas. They finished ahead of the new Senators, which was not a surprise, but they also finished nine games ahead of the Kansas City Athletics, which was a surprise – especially to Charlie Finley, who had purchased the A’s before the season.

The Angels came back to earth in 1962 when they moved to Dodger Stadium (which they tactfully referred to as Chavez Ravine), hitting just 137 homers (the league average was 155), yet they finished a surprising 86-76 in third place, proving that there’s more to playing winning baseball than going yard. Meanwhile, the Dodgers, who won 102 games (but lost the pennant to the Giants after a postseason series) barely out-homered the Angels with 140 at the same venue, so the Angels’ total was hardly a disgrace.

The 1961 barrage of home runs had hardly electrified local fans. Only 603,510 (7,451 per game) paid their way into Wrigley Field. The Dodgers drew almost three times as many fans, leading the league with 1,804,250 in the Coliseum’s final season hosting baseball. In fact, the only AL team to do worse (597,287) than the Angels was the other expansion team, the new Washington Senators, who were playing in rundown Griffith Stadium. Predictably, attendance at LAWrig was at its most robust when the Yankees were in town. The biggest crowd of the season was 19,930 on August 22 (a 4-3 victory over the Yankees). And if you’re wondering, Maris and Mantle hit two home runs each at LAWrig in 1961.

LAWrig hung around for a few years after 1961, sporadically hosting soccer, boxing, or football (it should also be noted that the Hollywood Stars of the PCL also called it home from 1926 to 1938). Unlike other long-gone ballparks, LAWrig was frequently used as a location for film and TV shows, notably the 1959 Home Run Derby series. Because it was a reasonable approximation of a major league park and was close to Hollywood, it was the go-to location before Dodger Stadium was built.

Starting with Babe [Ruth] Comes Home and The Bush Leaguer, 1927 silent films, LAWrig also was used for Angels in the Outfield (1951 version), Pride of the Yankees, Fear Strikes Out, It Happens Every Spring and Damn Yankees. In addition, it was also used in a number of short subjects and TV shows. Among the latter were “The Mighty Casey” episode of The Twilight Zone in 1960, “Herman the Rookie” for The Munsters in 1965, and “To Catch a Rabbit” for Mannix in 1969. This was the year LAWrig bit the dust…or the dust bit LAWrig as it came tumbling down.

At a time when home run records are being set almost every day, it is worth pausing to flash back to another era when round-tripper totals lurched upwards, especially at LAWrig when the major league Angels took flight in the minor league Angels’ old ballpark.

Resources and References:

Ballparks Then and Now, by Eric Enders, Thunder Bay Press (San Diego, 2002)
Ballparks Yesterday & Today, by John Pastier, Michael Heatley, Marc Sandalow, Jim Sutton, and Ian Westwell, Chartwell Books (Edison, NJ, 2007)
Baseballalamanc.com
Baseballreference.com
Diamonds; the Evolution of the Ballpark From Elysian Fields to Camden Yards, by Michael Gershman, Houghton Mifflin (New York, 1995)
500 Ballparks; From Wooden Seats to Retro Classics, 2d ed., Eric and Wendy Pastore, Firefly Books (Buffalo, 2016)
Green Cathedrals, by Philip J. Lowry, Walker & Co. (New York, 2006)
Lost Ballparks; a Celebration of Baseball’s Legendary Fields, by Lawrence S. Ritter, Penguin Studio Books (New York, 1992)
MLB.com/glossary/rules/field-dimensions
Steve Bilko by Warren Corbett, sabr.org/bioproj
Take Me Out to the Ballpark, by Lowell Reidenbaugh, Sporting News Publishing Co. (St. Louis, 1983)
We Played the Game, ed. Danny Peary, Tess Press (New York, 1994)
Wikipedia.com
Wrigley Field (Los Angeles) by Jim Gordon, sabr.org/research
Zacharytaylordavis.com


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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CL1NT
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CL1NT

Great piece. Had no idea there was another Wrigley Field!

Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

Without going into a lot of revisionist history about O’Malley’s motives in 1956, there is substantial evidence that he did all within his power to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. The real culprit here was Robert Moses. Readers might want to check out Forever Blue by Michael D’Antonio. Lays out the case that O’Malley was a convenient fall guy for the nostalgia crowd that was more concerned with emotion than facts.

Artie_Fufkin
Member
Artie_Fufkin

Never forget O’Malley took the Interlocking LA cap insignia from the Angels. One slight adjustment was made from the top of the A (Angels had a small serif off the top) and the color was tweaked (The A on the Angles hats was in red). God Bless the singing cowboy.

stoutsteve56
Member
stoutsteve56

The original Angel caps in ‘61 had a halo on top. Steve Bilko saw the cap for the first time as he was in the locker room getting dressed for the team’s home opener. Normally a first baseman, Stout Steve was scheduled to start in right field. He thought someone was pulling a prank on him with the halo caps, the halo a target on top of Steve’s head.

StuShea
Member
Member
StuShea

Terrific article. One thing–the park in Chicago, built in 1914 for the Federal League’s Chicago Whales, was only known as Weeghman Park until 1919.

Following the 1919 season, Charles Weeghman sold the Cubs to Bill Wrigley, who renamed the place Cubs Park. It remained so until 1926, when Wrigley was convinced to give the park his name.

stoutsteve56
Member
stoutsteve56

I enjoyed this story on Little Wrigley, the nickname many of the players used to differentiate LA’s Wrigley Field. The dimensions were similar to Chicago’s Wrigley Field but it seated half as many people. While Little Wrigley was built after Its Windy City counterpart, it was the first to bear the Wrigley name. I devote an entire chapter to Little Wrigley in my book, The Bilko Athletic Club. The ballpark was the best in the old Pacific Coast League and its history as rich as its kin in Chicago.

rmctigerfan
Member
rmctigerfan

What’s forgotten is that the ’62 Angels were actually in first place after sweeping a doubleheader in Washington on July 4th! They played .500 ball the rest of the year, but the Yanks steamrolled everybody else again, as usual…