AS I REMEMBER IT

. . . . . . by John Gilmore

CHANGE OF VENUE

Nineteen fifty four dawned as the so called silent generation advanced toward adulthood. Army-McCarthy (Sen Joseph, R-Wis) hearings and the fall of Dien Bien Phu exposed character flaws and strategic failures to political and historical analysis. The Salk vaccine became available to attack poliomyelitis, its virus and ominous end stage infantile paralysis, though unfortunately it couldn't reverse damaged limbs and our afflicted friends courageously faced continued mobility challenges. On May 17 Chief Justice Earl Warren announced the United States Supreme Court decision in Oliver Brown, et al v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. "We conclude (9-0) that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The Constitution came alive after a prolonged delay, a safeguard of basic human rights and equality before the law.

So too did baseball's environment change in our world. Professional scouts attended winter, summer and interscholastic games at diamonds fog shrouded in the bay area, sunbaked throughout the great central valley and cooled by ocean breezes in that bucolic land south of the Tehachapi range. Some of our friends and acquaintances would play in the pros, several making the major leagues. One young man, who wrote about schoolboy games for the local newspaper, will be inducted into the writers' wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame July 2001. Former San Diego slugger Jack Graham was one of several ex-pros who hung around high school practices.

Southern California's beach culture beckoned, but failed to permanently distract those dedicated to the game, whether players with promise or fans with interest. Our lives, however, were full and trips to Pacific Coast League venues in Los Angeles or Hollywood became occasional.

Friday evening July 23, 1954 four of us left the coast in an old Ford coupe, turned onto Pacific Coast Highway, sped past Signal Hill and its humming forest of oil derricks and dinosaur head like well pumps, to either Avalon Boulevard or Figueroa Street in Wilmington for the journey north by northeast to Wrigley Field.

Gasoline cost nineteen cents, non premium hamburgers the same, therefore, expenses were kept down for sustenance and split for fuel among eighteen year old youths jabbering about the future, immediate more than long term.

The Oakland Oaks were visiting the PCL's first double decked stadium, patterned after its Chicago namesake by the same ownership. It and Seals Stadium (until Portland moved into a football arena) comprised the large Coast League ballparks, while the other six could be classified as intimate, none moreso than Oaks Park.

The Oaks wore traveling gray. LA sported navy blue caps with the city's initials in white block letters, plain white jerseys with Angels across the left chest, pants and navy stirrups.

Charlie Dressen returned as Oakland's manager after blowing Brooklyn's 1951 season to the Giants, coming back with pennants the following two years, only to drop the World Series to Casey Stengel's Yankees and temporarily interrupt his big league managing career this year by fouling up with Dodger management (read Walter O'Malley) by demanding a multiyuear contract. When last seen in an Oaks uniform, Dressen led solid teams, 1949-50, capturing the PCL pennant in the latter year. Tonight a solid Acorn club took the field.

Similar to big league stadiums, Wrigley hosted boxing matches, and became the centerpiece of several baseball movies. Generally it proved a decent, though utilitarian, place to watch baseball. Great views were lacking, like the Oakland/Berkeley hills from Oaks Park's right field bleachers or an almost regal feel of Seals Stadium, the brewery across Bryant Street behind the press box and the park southwest across l6th Street.

We took lower deck grandstand seats between home and first as houses beyond the left field wall dozed in the setting sun, their occupants perhaps bracing for attack by long homers.

The resident Angels transitioned this year having lost several steps of finesse in shortstop Gene Baker and centerfielder Bobby Talbot to the parent Cubs (along with manager Stan Hack). Stout Steve Bilko's homer barrage was not to arrive until 1955. Bill Sweeney replaced Hack. Gene Mauch, Bobby Usher, Calvin Coolidge Mc Lish, Joe Hatten, Turk Lown, Bubba Church, Bob Spicer and an aging Max West couldn"t keep the Angels above sixth place.

Oakland proved tough. Spider Jorgensen, Jim Marshall, Sam Chapman, Len Neal, Bill Howerton, Pete Milne, Gene Hermanski, Bud Rose, Ernie Broglio, Allen Gettel, Art Shallock, John Van Cuyk, Fred Besana, Don Ferrarese, Piper Davis, Art Cuitti, among others held them in contention, ultimately to finish third behind San Diego and Hollywood.

Familiar names dotted Coast League rosters: Lee Walls, Dale Long and Monty Basgall at Hollywood managed by the tempestuous Bobby Bragan (suspended during part of the season for abusive language while fleet outfielder Carlos Bernier slapped an umpire and returned home to Puerto Rico, suspended for the year); Lefty O'Doul left the Seals, landed in San Diego and produced its only PCL pennant with Dick Sisler, Milt Smith;, Buddy Peterson, Bob Kerrigan, Harry Elliott, Luke Easter, Al Lyons, Earl Rapp, Ed Erautt, Bill Wight and Walt Pocekay; Nippy Jones, Bob Dillinger and Bud Daley toiled at Sacramento; Ken Holcombe, Jim Westlake (Wally's younger brother) and Bob Di Pietro wore Seals livery; Gene Bearden, Zeke Zarilla and Tommy Byrne were at Seattle: and Ed Basinski anchored Portland's infield.

Oakland, behind Ferrarese (a bay area product like Broglio, Besana and Chapman), throttled LA, 2-1. The Angel manager and two players were ejected, electrifying a small crowd. Hermanski homered, but didn't break any windows.

Observing the game without nostalgia, we looked with critical focus, waiting for the ballet of a shortstop going deep to his right in the hole to glove/set/throw accurately to a long stretching first baseman, nipping the runner in midstride, the synchronized double play executed by three or sometimes two infielders, the grace of a centerfielder racing into the gap to make a catch on the fly or cut off extra bases, the throw from rightfiled to third or home to nail a hard charging runner with spikes high, the daring squeeze bunt, a clutch hit behind in the count, ball movement served up by a crafty pitcher, players working concert, though not always on key.

East of the Mississippi Cleveland and the Giants headed for a four game World Series. Kansas City wooed the A's.

Though it didn't seem to matter at the time, tonight marked the last game I saw the Oaks play. Next year would be their Oakland finale, packing for Vancouver, British Columbia. Looking back on ten postwar seasons, 1948 defined their place in baseball history: nine old men, a brash young kid second baseman, managed by an old fella who proved sharper than many ever imagined.

SHOWDOWN

By mid July 1950 the Pacific Coast League pennant race was all but decided in a tense, six day, seven game combat scenario featuring the defending champion Hollywood Stars and the surging Oakland Oaks at Oaks Park in Emeryville.

The old ball yard hosted 66,875 fans that series, two overflow crowds, five decisions by one run, one by two, one blowout, two extra inning affairs and double plays executed or botched determining the victor or the vanquished.

Set beneath brooding Korean War clouds ("We're taking a licking," reportedly confessed one general), this was baseball at it's competitive, imperfect best.

I had seen Hollywood play San Francisco across the bay the Saturday before and was impressed with their speed, defense and strategies of manager Fred Haney. First baseman Chuck Stevens hit well early, however, his impact as a classy glove man remains a lasting memory. Frank Kelleher remained a constant Hollywood power source throughout these seasons.

The year before Mr. Haney interrupted his career as a broadcaster of the Los Angeles Angels and Stars to resume hands on baseball, taking on a talented pennant bound Tinseltown team led by Irv Noren and Willard Ramsdell. Perhaps that was redemption for Mr. Haney as a manager having survived skippering the deep second division St. Louis Browns for three years prior to America's forced entry into World War II.

Bob Stevens, writing in the Seals program, quoted Mr. Haney's professed managerial strategy: "...a manager doesn't make a winning ball club, but a hustling ball club can make a winning manager." He was portrayed as "demanding" hard play, "...rugged, nothing given and nothing asked." Mr. Haney added to the Chronicle scribe, "Only action counts, genuine action. The hard slide, the rugged tag, the give no quarter at the plate collision, the ever ready fist and the deep rooted desire to win. Raw meat baseball, on both sides, keeps a rivalry alive and breathing."

Oaks manager Charlie Dressen, like his rival a former big league infielder of modest accomplishments, arrived in the east bay the year before after overseeing the then unsuccessful Cincinnatti Reds in the mid thirties for four years. Described as "peppery" by some, Mr. Dresssen attracted critics. Regardless, he played a significant role in assembling a powerful and deep Oaks team this year that had climbed into second place two games behind the Stars at the close of play on Sunday, July 9.

Tuesday night, July 11, treated 11,427 fans in attendance and thousands listening to Bud Foster's radio broadcast with a nail biter. Oakland drew first blood, four to three, scoring all its runs in the pivotal seventh inning off Star ace Ben Wade. The game ended with a saving nifty double play snuffing out Hollywood's ninth inning rally. George Bamberger, with relief help from Allen Gettel, strung out 11 Hollywood hits including a cycle performance from Herb Gorman subbing at first base for the injured Chuck Stevens. The Oaks made the best of six hits and benefited from a rare Gene Handley error at second base on a sure double play opportunity.

Wednesday, July 11, "Ladies Matinee", produced a one hour, forty-five minute game before 11,005 fans that could not possibly have followed any script. Oak veteran Clyde Shoun and Star Herb Karpel dueled the distance, each being touched for a mere two hits while striking six. Oakland triumphed in a "little ball", one to nothing, result. The lone score was generated by the popular Artie Wilson and an obliging Star defense. Mr. Wilson laid down a drag bunt. Mr. Karpel either bobbled the ball momentarily or no one covered first base (depending on your source of information). Mr. Wilson promptly stole second base. Cookie Lavagetto walked. Mr. Wilson took third as Earl Rapp forced Mr. Lavagetto at second on what could have been a double play. Mr. Wilson scored when the usually sure handed Murray Franklin dropped Loyd Christopher's double play ball.

Oakland and Hollywood now shared first place, the Oaks first return to that status since the final week of the historic 1948 season.

On Thursday night, July 12, the home team unleashed the long ball, powering three home runs in a nine to two rout before 10,358. Recently acquired veteran catcher Eddie Malone, rookie Bobby Hofman and veteran Roy Zimmerman hit them out as Mr. Gettel picked up the win in relief of Ernie Groth.

The Acorns presented to a 12,570 overflow crowd Friday night, July 14, as sole occupiers of first place. Former Oak and veteran Jack Salveson took the mound for the Stars with an imposing 11-1 record. Mr. Dressen countered with Earl Harrist, 8-4. Mr. Salveson gave up two runs through eight innings. Mr. Harrist, who drove in both Oaks tallies, pitched a shutout going into the ninth. The Stars rallied for two runs, tying the game. Mr. Haney relieved with Mr. Wade in the bottom of the ninth. Oakland responded. Mr. Rapp drilled a double and scored on Mr. Zimmerman's single. Oaks triumphed, three to two.

Saturday afternoon, July 15, featured another last inning victory for the home club, this one in 12 frames, fout to three. Mr. Bamberger went 11 for no decision. (b In Korea, the U. S. withdrew from Taejon, however, bombing key targets reportedly gave some hope in the face of a rumored further draft call).

Five of five in the win column for Mr. Dressen's crew confronted the Stars Sunday, July 16. Mr. Haney chose 42 year old PCL veteran "Kewpie" Dick Barrett to start the first game of a doubleheader before an overflow crowd of 13,462. Mr. Shoun, 11-3 knuckleballer, took the mound for Mr. Dressen. Mr. Barrett was knocked out of the box early as the Oaks built a five to one lead going into the ninth. Hollywood refused to surrender without a scrap. Cliff Dapper homered. Two more runs scored. The game hung in the balance. It was resolved, however, by an Oaks double play induced by Mr. Harrist pitching in relief. Oakland won, five to four, and was now up by four games, looked to sweep, a feat no one could have predicted.

Hollywood licked its wounds, fought back and prevailed in the scheduled seven inning nightcap that lasted eight, two to one. The victory went to Mr. Salveson in relief of Mr. Karpel, whose lone mistake was a home run ball to George Metkovich for Oakland's only run. Hank Behrman went the distance for his sixth loss.

The Oaks went to the bank to secure a profitable, though tough, six victory week, against a formidable foe, perhaps unparalled in Oakland history. Their three game lead was never relinquished. Oakland completed the season capturing the pennant for the fourth and last time in its storied PCL history by four games over second place San Diego and 14 ahead of the fading third place Stars.

The next week Mr. Dressen managed against Mr. Haney in the PCL All Star game. Mr. Dressen's team won. Oakland did not play Hollywood again in 1950 in the regular season, finishing 18-10 against their southland rivals.

Mr. Metkovich was the PCL's most valuable player. Mr. Kelleher took the home run crown with 40. Mr. Stevens had 33 sacrifice bunts. Mr. Rapp led the Oaks with 145 RBI's, four ahead of Mr. Metkovich and 11 behind the leader, Harry "Suitcase" Simpson of San Diego.. Mr. Gettel finished at 23-7, Mr. Harrist at 18-8, Mr. Behrman at 17-8 and Mr. Shoun at 16-10. Mr. Wade's record was 14-13. Both Mr. Dressen and Mr. Haney celebrated their 52 birthdays in 1950.

Mr. Hofman and catcher Ray Noble went to the majors in 1951 with the New York Giants and an all time pennant race against Brooklyn (managed by Mr. Dressen). Mr. Dressen continued to best Mr. Haney as the latter took the reins at Pittsburgh, finishing last for three consecutive years before going to Milwaukee where his presided over two pennants and a World Series triumph. Mr. Dressen won two pennants in Flatbush, returned to Oakland to manage in 1954 before going back to the major leagues.

As has been written, such are the fortunes of organized combat in the dugouts, from coaching boxes and between the lines. Beyond the tumult and the shouting, memories of triumphs fueled by skill, effort and perhaps luck remain. My thanks to collegues, box scores in the Berkeley Gazette and the recently reproduced Pacific Coast League news for supplementing my recollections of the above.


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Copyright 2000. William B. Shubb.