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World Series

Park Place

Wrigley Field's friendly confines in L.A. gave the Angels of another era a chance to reign as Pacific Coast League's best

October 27, 2002|Lance Pugmire and David Wharton | Times Staff Writers

The memories are sweet and plentiful, just like the perfectly plump oranges that used to dangle from the trees blanketing Los Angeles in the days when the only baseball circuit that mattered was the Pacific Coast League, and the team of choice was the L.A. Angels. For those who remember it best, the opportunity to pick a favorite story is too juicy to resist.

"Today, Los Angeles is like Mars, but it was so far different then," said John Schulian, a television writer and former sportswriter raised in the city and its since-demolished ballparks -- the Angels' Wrigley Field and the Hollywood Stars' Gilmore Field. "It used to be like a small town, with the orange groves, a streetcar system that worked, and a real nice section that was Hollywood. My mother didn't drive. She went everywhere in town on buses. Can you imagine that?"

So much from that period does seem unfathomable now, especially this notion that minor league baseball could so effectively grip the attention of a market that was growing so large, sophisticated and major league.

"You have to remember," said veteran broadcaster Stu Nahan, "these were the days before coaxial cable."

Those were also the days before the Dodgers' 1958 arrival and the 1961 major league debut of Gene Autry's expansion Angels. Certainly, football was king in the city -- with the Rams, USC and UCLA -- but for more than 30 years there were no more important baseball games in the Western United States than those being played at Wrigley, located in South Central Los Angeles on the corner of 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard.

The Angels debuted when the Pacific Coast League started in 1903, led by a 41-year-old deaf mute center fielder named William "Dummy" Hoy who stole 48 bases and scored a league-best 157 runs. Baseball legend has it that umpires first used signs for balls and strikes because of Hoy. The franchise won five league titles before being purchased for $125,000 by chewing gum magnate and Chicago Cub owner William K. Wrigley Jr. in 1921. The Angels relocated from a downtown park in 1925 to 20,500-seat Wrigley Field, a $1.3-million ballpark designed to look like Chicago's famed field -- with some notable exceptions.

The exterior was California-style -- red-roofed with a white facade. The power alleys were a hitter's dream -- 345 feet. There was a 15-foot high wall in left field with no seating. A 12-story office tower was placed at the entrance. And, in 1931, lights were installed.

"A beautiful park, a monstrous hitter's park," said Dick Beverage, president of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society. "The problem with it was the plot of land it was on. The fences couldn't [connect] in a semicircle. Across the street there [beyond left field] was a bunch of houses. The balls just rained on this one house in the power alley. The window on the top story would be broken, and there were dents on the boards."

Wrigley's brightest star was center fielder Jigger Statz, who spent a record 18 minor league seasons with the Angels. Statz carved the palm out of his glove to get a better feel for the ball and roamed the outfield so effectively that when someone once asked native Californian and Brooklyn Dodger Duke Snider who was the best center fielder he ever saw, he bypassed fellow New Yorkers Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays to note Statz.

Statz, making $10,000 a year, was on the 1934 Angel team that the National Assn. of Professional Baseball named the best minor league team of all time. League most valuable player Frank Demaree won the triple crown, batting .383 with 45 home runs and 173 runs batted in.

Most impressive, the 1934 Angels were so dominant (137-50 in the regular season) that the league made them play a collection of all-stars from other teams in the league championship series. The Angels won the series and finished the 1930s with three titles and more than 1,000 wins. Lou "The Mad Russian" Novikoff became another triple crown winner in 1940, hitting .343 with 41 homers and 171 RBIs while his wife, Esther, occasionally verbally abused him from the seats.

"He'd strike out and she'd curse him," Beverage said. "[Fans] were closer to the players. You could hear the players. The players could relate to the fans. There was a lot of what they called bench jockeying. The guys on the bench would yell at opposing players. All the players knew each other's weaknesses. That's why the memories are so pleasant. You could really see that the players were people."

Beverage dismissed the rumor that dogged Novikoff during his playing days. He was such a terrible outfielder it was said he suffered from an incurable fear of vines, a devastating phobia given that Wrigley's left-field wall was covered with ivy. The theory gained momentum because Novikoff would let balls sail over his head and carom off the wall. He later said the problem was a crooked left-field line.

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