Oakland's Pacific Coast League entry endured a horrible first week of the 1947 season, dropping six of seven games at San Diego, four in extra innings. Bordertown slugger Max West pounded Pacific Coast Highway with three long ones over Lane Field's right field wall, driving in seven runs while batting a torrid .576. Limping north to Los Angeles, the Oaks lost four of seven, not enough to elevate them from last place.
Rosters were expanded and unsettled during the first month, waiting for major league teams to release, assign as part of player transactions or otherwise option players to PCL clubs. Not only did the Oaks sneak back into town after their southern disaster, uncertainty must have hung over the team as in who would be around come May first.
Sacramento traveled down Highway 40 to open the home season. Oakland responded, taking four games to three. Players came and went. By Sunday the Oaks acquired outfielder Vince DiMaggio, reportedly a good fielder who struck out more than he hit safely. Remaining in, hopefully not relegated to, the cellar, Oakland had to act by the last week of April in a predicted promising year. Next up a challenge for revenge. San Diego came to the East Bay.
Saturday April 26, 1947 was somebody's birthday party, celebrated by six of us at the ball park. Accompanied by an adult for crowd control and financial services, we occupied seats down the right field line above the aisle, near the Oaks' bullpen. Most brought mitts. Mine bore the facsimile signature of Bill Doak, identity unknown until years later when I looked him up in a Baseball Encyclopedia, discovering Doak pitched in the majors over 15 years.
Someone claimed to have seen our classmate Judy with her father taking seats near the field well below us. She had a better mitt, saw more games, played baseball well, knew more about the game, was an excellent student and nicer than any of us. (For more about Judy see Dobbins, The Grand Minor League, pp 308-9.)
Mr. West in the last two weeks cooled off to .500 as Padre manager James "Rip" Collins took a turn watching his team's lead shrink. Tuesday night Mr. DiMaggio struck out pinch hitting. The Oaks lost 12-2. By Saturday, however, sunshine bathed Oaks Park. Oakland took three straight going into the weekend. Les Scarsella homered Wednesday and Friday nights to overtake West. DiMaggio went four for four Wednesday and one out of four Thursday night. Maybe the Oaks didn't face banishment to Emeryville's odorous mud flats.
Our day, Saturday, promised hits and possibly homers. Brooks Holder, Herschel Martin and Maurice VanRobays started in the outfield. Gene Lillard, Ray Hamrick, Glen Crawford and Scarsella comprised the inner defense while Billy Raimondi caught and Damon Hayes took the mound. Oakland won 5-3. There were doubles though no homers. DiMaggio came into the game off the bench to play center. He singled and scored in one appearance at the plate. West went three for four. That wasn't enough.
We thoroughly enjoyed the game, its cuisine including hot dogs, peanuts, sodas and ice cream bars, the usual pushing and shoving that occurs among young males, were wowed by some plays and not by others (VanRobays dropped a fly in front of us), yet each one of us saw the on field events differently as we processed raw data of what we observed. We were learning baseball's nuances.
Perhaps what separates great from good of those who describe the game for a living, writers and broadcasters, is an ability to sense and primarily appeal to the common denominator of their audience, describing with an entertaining style what is and has happened while educating both casual and intense followers of the game. That day baseball entertained us. It always has.
Los Angeles took the PCL pennant in 1947 via a one game playoff victory over San Francisco. Oakland finished fourth, a game behind Portland. Though West led in homers and rbi's, San Diego permanently occupied the cellar.
Three weeks before our game, Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher received a one year suspension from the game due to conduct "unbecoming" to baseball. Oaks' future Oaks manager Chuck Dressen was suspended 30 days for unrelated matters, we heard. Dodger infielder Harry "Cookie" Lavagetto ended his major league playing career with a memorable double to break up Yankee pitcher Bill Bevens' bid for baseball immortality working on a World Series no hitter. Lavagetto came home to Oakland the next year to play and mentor Billy Martin who tore up a class C league (one of over 50 minor leagues operating that year) at Phoenix (.392, many hits, doubles, rbi's and steals) earning a big promotion, fighting his way to the top. By late April Jack Jensen was hitting .412 as pitcher/outfielder for the College World Series bound Cal nine. That fall the Bears, guided by new and legendary coach Pappy Waldorf, reversed their football fortunes, winning nine of ten. Fullback Jensen, and others, graced Strawberry Canyon's storied Memorial Stadium, running, passing, punting, blocking and defending well. They were a season away from the Pacific Coast Conference championship and a Rose Bowl appearance. Jensen joined the Oaks and Martin in 1949. The following season both played for the Yankees in a World Series sweep of the Phillies. For Jensen, "the Golden Boy", it marked his one and only time in the fall classic. Martin, on the other hand, was on a path that began at Berkeley's James Kenney Park...to be continued.
Oakland's immediate northwest neighbor Emeryville, a small industrial city named for an architect, with few residents, no churches, hospitals, theaters or cemeteries, hosted the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League at an old dark green wooden ballpark on Park Avenue off San Pablo, a venue we youths entering our teen age years considered significant. So did the Oaks. They became an integral part of Oakland's "there" many years before and by now were well woven into the diverse tapestry that was the East Bay. Now clad in home white with royal blue caps, script "Oaks" across their chests and blue stirrups, they came to play. Insults such as "after all the bridge had to end somewhere" applied neither to the bustling area nor the team, particularly in 1950 when those who took the field performed well.
William Jennings Bryan "Billy" Herman left retirement at age 41. West Berkeley's Augie Galan (37) returned home following a fine major league career. Both hit over .300 as did many of the regulars on this powerhouse club.
Last year's batting champion the popular Artie Wilson, he of the consistent opposite field slap hit from the left side, stayed on to lead off, creating havoc for the opposition. Herman, Galan and Cookie Lavagetto traded off at third. The pride of Angels Camp George "Catfish" Metkovich, Earl (of) Rapp and Loyd Christopher shouldered long ball duties and outfield patrol. Roy Zimmerman bade adios to his Mexican League rebellion to split first base with Galan while Don Padgett and Rafael "Ray" Noble (pronounced Noblay) caught.
Manager Chuck Dressen could field a position player lineup of six left hand batters against it didn't seem to matter. Acorn pitching produced credible results, five winning in double figures. Allen "Two Gun" Gettel fanned 128 while posting a 23-7 mark and an ERA of 3.62. He started, relieved and hit ..348.
Five Oaks (pitcher George Bamberger, Noble, Metkovich, Rapp and Wilson) made the PCL All-Star team; north (Seattle, Portland, Sacramento and Oakland) vs south (San Diego, Los Angeles, Hollywood and San Francisco), a game played July 17 at Sacramento's Edmonds Field won by the north.
By mid August Oakland firmly occupied first place, having overtaken a fast Hollywood team the first week of July, winning six of seven games at home. With the veteran Seattle Rainiers in town, the Oaks towered nine games above the pack led by San Diego. Fred Haney's Stars slipped to third, ahead of the fourth standing Rainiers.
Baseball, however, took a back seat to the Korean War. Strange names in far away places, ominous news reports, callups of reservists and the draft became facts of American life. Command was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur about the time the Oaks dimmed the Stars before the season's largest crowds. Arrows on maps kept pointing to the Pusan peninsula. Routs, retreats and a few counter attacks dominated headlines. Would this be our Dunkirk? Boeing B-29's started bombing targets in the north. Perhaps not.
Familiar names arrived in Emeryville that week. Billy Schuster, George Vico, Bill Ramsey, Marv Rackley, Al Lyons, Walt Judnich, Bill Salkeld and Tony York populated Seattle's lineup. Oakland, however, prevailed in the first three games before the Suds won Friday night.
Four of us showed up Saturday. Occupying the usual cheap bleacher seats in right field, we witnessed a debacle, for Oakland. The redoubtable "Grumpy" Guy Fletcher pitched an eight to three win, cutting through the Oaks lineup that included three of the PCL's top ten hitters (Rapp, Wilson and Metkovich).
With the final out we hustled out of the ball yard to meet the Key System's F train at 40th and San Pablo, bound for Berkeley. Headlines on the afternoon papers weren't good, diverting our attention. Depositing tokens in the fare box, we slumped in adjustable wicker covered seats. The train departed. This would be my last time after a game at Oaks Park because of a family move the next winter. That left five years of memorable baseball, two pennants-1950 being the last, visions and thoughts of teams that belonged in that old place.
Planted in the right field bench bleacher seats at Seals Stadium, my father and I wondered what would next spew forth from the vociferous mouth of a boisterous fan several rows in front of us.
The relative quiet between games of a Sunday doubleheader between Sacramento and San Francisco was interrupted as the fan resumed heckling Seals' right fielder Joe Brovia, having started when Mr. Brovia came into the first game about midway through to contribute several hits as the hometown nine triumphed in a seesaw battle, 11-8, that only took two hours and around thirty minutes to complete.
Brovia, a big man who was not the picture of sartorial splendor in his pinstriped uniform, joined Gene Woodling and Dino Restelli in the Seals' outfield that provided punch and power to a potential pennant winner (Woodling and Restelli homered in the first game, Restelli twice).
Brovia's pants were worn well below the knees in an era when most players tucked their trousers under the knees like knickers. The fan accused him of being a "sissy", and one who advocated the "new look" that dictated women's skirt lengths to mid calf or below. There were other remarks not suitable for publication. Whether this perverse recognition got under Brovia's skin wasn't apparent .
Batting cleanup the right fielder took aim at his tormentor in the bottom of the first inning of the second game and , with a man on base, shot a homer into those bleachers reaching a noisy end clattering around the bleachers slightly to the fan's left. Revenge? Perhaps.
Though he froze as the bomb descended, threatening injury had it landed a few feet to the right, the fan continued heckling. Others in attendance became restless with his negative comments about the man Seals' broadcaster nicknamed the "Davenport Demon."
In the fourth inning Brovia hit another one, longer and more toward center, but near enough to the fan to place the latter in a zone of danger. Both homers came off Jack Salveson, probably Solon manager Joe Orengo's best pitcher.
The fan, silenced by a fine performance from the target of his insults, sat alone for perhaps another inning. Then he left, inadvertently having provided kids a lesson in how to respond when criticism is unwarranted.
The Seals won, four to three. Mr. Brovia drove in three runs and scored two. We gave him a standing ovation.
That April 25th, 1948 became a fine day in the City. It took less than an hour each way to travel from north Berkeley to 16th and Bryant Streets and back via Key System train and streetcar. Dad paid 75 cents for his seat and nine cents for me, a good investment.
The next evening I read about the day's games in our local paper. Oakland took two in Portland and was now tied with Los Angeles for second place one and one half games back of front running San Francisco. The pennant race was joined, to extend all the way to the last day of that wonderful season none of us will forget.
Playing in a ballpark located near the bluff overlooking the Tuolumne River, surrounded by trees on three sides, the Class C California League Modesto Reds appeared before appreciative crowds numbering five to ten percent of that city's approximate 25,000 population. Warm summer evenings like Thursday July 26, 1951 defined the ambience that was Central Valley baseball.
CL rosters, limited to five veterans per team, listed familiar names. Managers of seven of eight teams also played, most of then well. The eldest at 43 years, Pacific Coast League and major league veteran lefthander Tony Frietas, skippered the home town nine. "Fireball" Frankie Dasso, the league's strikeout leader, some nine years Frietas' junior, and two twenty year olds made up the Reds starting rotation. All team pilots were PCL vets: former Oakland Oaks Bill Hart (Santa Barbara), Gene Lillard (Ventura) and Larry Barton (Fresno); ex-Los Angeles Angels Cecil Garriott (Visalia), Wellington "Wimpy" Quinn (Bakersfield) and Barton, the latter also spending seasons at Sacramento and Portland; Harry Clement (Stockton) once wore Hollywood Stars' livery; and Marv Owen (San Jose) managed and played in the majors and at Portland. Only Owen was beyond his playing days.
Major league teams had working or other agreements with CL clubs, some with connections through the PCL such as Pittsburgh and Hollywood supplying a few players to Modesto. Lee Walls started here as did the recently signed Dick Stuart. Dick Wilson at 27, old to move up, nonetheless did rise to the Stars. Only the Reds and Stockton Ports didn't big league affiliate nicknames such as Fresno Cardinals, Santa Barbara Dodgers, Ventura Braves, San Jose Red Sox, Visalia Cubs and Bakersfield Indians.
Ex-Oaks Mickey Burnett played infield for Visalia and catcher Eddie Fernandes toiled at Stockton. Former San Francisco Seals infielder Hugh Luby and future Seals outfielder Sal Taormina made the Bakersfield club. Rookie Bud Daley, to be a Solon and major league chucker, got his professional baptism in Bakersfield. Former Solon outfielder Al Heist played for the Ports.
Historically, the league fed its big brother PCL. For example Lloyd Hittle pitched with Eddie Samcoff in the Stockton infield for manager Johnny Babich in l947 before going on to Oakland. Vince DiMaggio held the Ports' skipper's reins the following season, Babich taking on coaching duties with the Oaks.
In these lower minors, the road to the top being much longer than today, Wilson hit well, in the high .360's. with 24 homers going into tonight's game against the visiting first place Ports. He could play first, third and the outfield, this evening first base.
The Reds took the Modesto Ball Park field for an 8:15 PM first pitch clad in red caps and socks, "Reds" across their left chests with red piping on white jerseys and pants.
Wilson stroked two hits, Walls one and Stuart none as a pinchhitter. Dasso started and, though second on the staff with 14 wins (Frietas had 17), Fireball got snuffed, 9-6.
Sure the lights weren't as bright, the outfield sloped downward, crowds were not as large and play was below that of the PCL. This was, nonetheless, as good a place as any to start or end a career, especially for hitters if the prevailing breezes were blowing out.
We left well satisfied, traveled down Highway 99 along the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks loaded with refrigerated trains this time of year, returning home to a cricket symphony welcome under a canopy of stars, down on the farm.
On January 29,1952 Modesto's business manager signed a document entitled "Official Notice of Disposition of Player's Contract and Services" notifying Antonio Frietas, "You are released outright and unconditionally." After compiling a two year won-loss record of 48-11 for the Reds during which time home attendance(also around the league when he pitched)boomed to the point where the Modesto Bee reported a significant team debt could be retired, Frietas and his curveball hooked on with arch rival Stockton about 30 miles north on Highway 99. His playing career ended two years and 40 victories later at age 45.
Over the seasons certain participants became symbols of the comunities where they played and managed. Frietas and Joe Marty symbolized Sacramento professional baseball. So did Billy Raimondi, Artie Wilson, Casey Stengel and Billy Martin for Oakland while Lefty O'Doul was San Francisco. It just took Frietas longer to reach retirement as a player (though at a rumored high four figure salary, why quit).