April 1, 2006


League of Extraordinary Men: The old Pacific Coast League still conjures up vivid memories for those who watched or played in it. (Debbie Goffa, March 30, 2006, LA Times)

Long before the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim went to court over their name, the Angels of the old PCL brought professional baseball to Los Angeles.

The league was formed in 1903 but didn't hit its stride until after World War II, growing in popularity as fast as California was growing in population. In 1947, the Angels hit a high mark in paid attendance — 622,485.

By 1919, there were the Angels, Solons, Oakland Oaks, San Francisco Seals, Seattle Indians (later Rainiers), Vernon Tigers and Portland Beavers. The Hollywood Stars joined in 1926 before moving to San Diego 10 years later to become the Padres.

The Tigers moved to San Francisco as the Mission Reds, then returned to L.A. in 1938 to become the new Hollywood Stars, who took Tinseltown by storm. On any given day at Gilmore Field, in the Fairfax district, one could find the likes of George Raft, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.

First baseman Chuck Stevens, who played for the St. Louis Browns, joined the Stars at the tail end of the 1948 season.

"When you played on the Stars," he said, "every day was lollipop day because you're liable to be walking by the batting cage and somebody would say, 'Hello, Chuck.' And you'd say to yourself, 'Gee, that voice is familiar.' And it's liable to be Groucho Marx or Phil Silvers."

But more often than not, the real stars of the PCL were the Angels, who won 12 pennants from 1903 through 1957.

Stevens, now 87, still marvels at the caliber of players, particularly the 1934 Angels.

"There were guys hitting .340, .350 — almost every one of them did that year," he said. "Pitching was phenomenal. It was a sight to see. They absolutely slaughtered the rest of the league."

Having grown up in Long Beach, watching the Angels at Wrigley Field in 1934 was a regular event for Stevens.

"It was like a dream," he said. "If you lived in Southern California, you automatically became an Angels fan."

That 1934 team was 137-50 (.733). A partial roster: Right fielder Frank Demaree, who won the PCL triple crown and most-valuable-player honors that year (45 homers, 173 runs batted in and a .383 batting average), center fielder Jigger Statz (13 triples, .324 and 61 stolen bases) and three 20-game winners.

The 1956 Angels were as good. They won the pennant with a 107-61 record. Leading them was the powerful and popular Steve Bilko. He too won the triple crown and was MVP (.360, 55 homers and 164 RBIs).

There were plenty of future major league Hall of Famers in the PCL, including Joe DiMaggio (Seals), Ted Williams (Padres), Bob Lemon (Rainiers), Bobby Doerr (Stars) and Ernie Lombardi (Oaks) — all Californians.

Why was the PCL such a lure?

"One word," said Dick Beverage, president of the Assn. of Professional Baseball Players of America. "Geography."

California historian Kevin Starr would agree.

"The Pacific Coast League — like Hollywood, like the Golden Gate Bridge, like the University of California and the Bank of America — was one of California's best ideas of itself before the 1950s," he said. "This was an era in which California came of age on its own terms, with a high degree of autonomy.

"In many ways — the loyalty of its fans, the champions it produced, the successful connections to their cities — the Pacific Coast League was more than a minor league. It was a semi-major league, paralleling the major leagues on the East Coast.

"The argument could be made that the arrival of the Dodgers and Giants … represented as much a re-colonization of California as it did an upgrading of its professional baseball culture."

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 1, 2006 6:08 AM

PCL afficianados and fans in Brooklyn both had reason to hate the advent of modern air travel.

Posted by: John at April 1, 2006 1:05 PM
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