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The Pride of Venice : Long Before Muscle Beach, Baseball Gave Melting-Pot Community an Identity

April 19, 1985|PAT CANNON | Times Staff Writer

Venice Beach has a reputation as Southern California's open-air asylum, a haven for biceps, bikinis, bleached blondes and the bizarre. Tourists can see more flakes there in one afternoon than in a season of blizzards back home.

A few miles from this living museum of the outrageous, though, is a more conservative monument, a cozy baseball park, tucked behind Venice High School. It is reminiscent of Wrigley Field, vines covering a portion of the outfield fence, with neighborhood homes nestled precariously close to long fly balls, especially those hurried along by strong ocean breezes.

In the late 1960s and through the middle '70s, it was the perfect place to spend a spring afternoon, watching the Venice Gondoliers, the scourge of City Section baseball, take on Crenshaw or Palisades or arch-rival Westchester. Tuesday afternoon, for a few hours at least, the memories came back.

"I believe that when most people think of Venice, they attach the stigma of crazy," baseball Coach Jeff Shimizu said. "I guess it had kind of a bad reputation. But that's not what the community as a whole is like at all. It's a very solid, community-based school and the people have always taken a great deal of pride in the baseball program.

"I grew up in this community. And when I was a little kid I would come out here and it would be packed, standing room only. To a young kid, it was so impressive, like big time. To me, it was Dodger Stadium. The only show in town.

"That's the way it was Tuesday when we played Westchester. A big crowd and some scouts."

In the '70s, under Coach Art Harris, the scouts were drawn to Venice like bees because the school truly had a honey of a program, winning the Western League title eight years in a row, and claiming a City championship in 1972. During one stretch, the Gondoliers won 35 consecutive league games.

"They had super talent here," said Shimizu, who played second base on the 1972 team. "In my junior season, we had six guys drafted off that team. Jerry Turner made it up the quickest and he played with the Padres. Lawrence Rush played several years of pro ball. Mike Hile was a City Player of the Year and he threw for three or four years before blowing out his arm.

"There were so many guys like that, not just one year, but every year. It was so competitive, you had to fight just to make the team."

To Harris, who left in 1976 to start the baseball program at West Los Angeles College, the reasons for Venice's success are as diverse as its multi-ethnic population.

"Venice is truly one of a kind," he said. "A perfect racial mix. To my knowledge, it's never had a kid bused in. The kids live and belong in the Venice district. We've got Hispanics, Orientals, Blacks and the traditional White community. They all have their roots there, a very stable environment.

"With many of the kids I coached, their parents had already gone to school there and have remained in the community now--second- and third-generation families.

"Plus, the youth programs were outstanding. Everyone was playing baseball. One of the major things that helped us was that we were able to get the best 20 kids Venice could produce and get them into a baseball uniform every year. And keep in mind we were getting 200 to 300 kids out for baseball."

At that time, Venice was a monster with an enrollment of nearly 4,000 students.

Today, the student body numbers 2,345. That drop in enrollment has affected football and basketball, which have suffered from a lack of players, but Venice baseball has remained consistently good, if not quite as luminous. Indeed, Venice has not won a Western League title since 1980, but did earn the City 3-A championship last year.

Harris believes the dropoff is symptomatic of a slight decline in City baseball generally and the rise of the Valley, whose schools have won 12 straight City 4-A titles.

"When we were winning, I don't think it was the glory years, it was the finale of the glory years," Harris said. "There were pockets of opportunity all over the city then, pockets where City baseball was marvelous.

"You can go all the way back to the days when they started keeping records. Sparky Anderson played on some great Dorsey teams in the '40s. You had the great Westchester teams in 1969-70-71, with guys like Roy Smalley and Rob Picciolo. University had Brian Kingman. It was tremendously competitive."

Shimizu has fond memories, too.

"Venice didn't have any landmark players like Darryl Strawberry at Crenshaw, although Turner was a great ballplayer," he said. "We were basically overachievers and played consistently well.

"But some of other teams had great talent. Locke had Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith. And don't forget Crenshaw with guys like Ellis Valentine or Chris Brown of the Giants, or Darrell Brown with the Twins. It was a challenge when you stepped out on the field."

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