by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The 2018 major league baseball season is coming to a close with the Dodgers, seemingly poised a week ago to win its sixth straight West Division crown, a game out from the title but looking like it will at least secure a wild-card spot for the National League playoffs. Meanwhile, the Angels remain stuck in average at two games under .500 and speculation about longtime manager Mike Scoscia’s future. Out in Chicago, the Cubs, which got very hot during much of the summer and looked to cruise to another Central Division title, maintains a one-game lead over the streaking Milwaukee Brewers.
It’s obvious why this post brings up the local teams, but why the Cubs? Well, today’s “Games People Play” post highlights a series of snapshots taken on this day in 1925 when Wrigley Field opened in Los Angeles. Wait, Wrigley Field? Isn’t that in Chicago? Didn’t major league baseball arrive in this area in 1958 when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn?
Taking a step back, let’s start with the fact that there was professional baseball in Los Angeles from 1903 when the Los Angeles Angels formed and played in the Pacific Coast League, a “near major” league system that included squads in California, Oregon and Washington.
For its first several years, the Angels played at Chutes Park (formerly Washington Gardens), an amusement park south of downtown and bounded by Main Street, Washington Boulevard, Grand Avenue and 21st Street. In 1911, the Angels began playing in a new stadium built in the same Chutes Park property, which was gradually shuttered, and Washington Park, which had Hill Street opened through the old Chutes site and forming the western border of the stadium, was the Angels’ home until the team played its last game there on 27 September 1925.
Meanwhile, Chicago chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. came west in 1919 and purchased Santa Catalina Island (where William Workman and F.P.F. Temple had mining interests in the 1860s) from the Banning family. Wrigley was owner of the Chicago Cubs (buying a minority interest in 1916 and acquiring the team outright five years later) and brought his team out for spring training starting in 1921 when he was full owner. That year, he purchased the Los Angeles Angels, which became something of a farm team for the Cubs.
Wrigley wanted to enlarge and improve Washington Park but could not get approval from the City of Los Angeles, so he acquired land at what was then South Park Boulevard (now Avalon) between 39th and 41st streets to build his own stadium. The result, after well over $1 million in investment, was Wrigley Field, which was actually the first of that name. The Chicago Cubs home stadium was still called Cubs Park until the name was changed to Wrigley Field in 1927.
Opening day at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field was on 29 September 1925 for a contest against the San Francisco Seals, who were cruising to a league title and it was assumed that the Angels would suffer the indignity of a loss on their home field’s opening day. Yet, the Seraphs, as they were frequently called, jumped out to an early 9-2 lead after the first few innings and hung on for a 10-8 victory in front of a capacity crowd of about 22,000.
While the Seals had three home runs, including by Paul Waner, who was called up to the majors in 1926 and went on, as “Big Poison,” to a Hall of Fame career of twenty seasons, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Angels were led by Arnold “Jigger” Statz, an unknown name now. Statz, however, played 26 years of professional ball, including eight in the majors, but was a legend with the Angels. In his career, he amassed almost 4,100 hits, was known for his speed, and was an excellent center fielder. He was player-manager for a few years with the Angels in the late Thirties and early Forties.
The Homestead collection has a dozen snapshots taken from the seats behind home plate before the contest showing warm-ups and what appear to be part of the festivities held before the start of the contest, including team photos and a group of people holding up letters that read “SUCCESS.” Notably, there is, in the coverage of the stadium opening in the Los Angeles Times, a pres photo of that same “SUCCESS”ful element to the ceremonies!
There is a particularly snappy description of the new ballpark that deserves some lengthy quoting. Bill Henry typed out some catchy lines in his paean to what he called “the finest minor league park in the country” and here are some samples:
It was opened with a parade around the field, and the ball players liked the idea so much that they just kept parading around the bases all the rest of the afternoon.
The architect has thoughtfully dispensed with stairs, and has built ramps to and from all the floors, probably foreseeing the day when all the boys will be equipped with motor roller skates and will want to drive right up to their reserved seats.
There isn’t enough wood [the stadium was concrete and steel] in the whole building to make an umpire’s head.
[With a great view of the city] those who don’t like the game can get their money’s worth of our matchless climate inhaled through the nose and at the same time can absorb some swell scenery through the optics.
At the outer edge of the field is a tall red brick wall, which will bring back poignant recollections of college days to the San Quentin [Prison] alumni among the fans.
Far in the distance are the skyscrapers of Los Angeles, beneath whose towering roofs are thousands and thousands of stenographers busily chewing more gum to build better ball parks.
The only criticism of the place that we could find was in the boy’s size wire netting which was stuck up back of the home plate like a wind shield of a stripped-down Ford. There was a continuous bombardment of foul pop flies bubbling over the top of it and descending on the cash customers below, until some of them thought that the Chamber of Commerce had thoughtfully arranged a baseball shower in commemoration of the great day. Beginning today, trench helmets will be given out with all grand-stand tickets.
It was highly successful opening day, baseball showers notwithstanding, though the Angels finished fourth in the league with a record of 105-93 (yup, 200-game seasons were common in those days) a full 34 1/2 games behind the Seals (whose Waner led the league in hitting with a .401 average, while Tony Lazzeri, another future major league star, belted 60 home runs–two years before Babe Ruth set the major league record with that number in almost 50 fewer games).
In 1926, however, the first full season played by the Angels at Wrigley Field, the team, having acquired several new players, took the pennant with a record of 121-81 and a 9 1/2 game margin over the Oakland Oaks (without Waner and others, San Francisco had an abrupt fall from grace winning 44 fewer games.) Over the years, the Angels won several more pennants, including the 1934 season where the Seraphs rolled up a record of 137-50 and were so dominant that the championship series was against an all-star team from all the other squads in the league.
As major league baseball became televised in the post-World War II period and then the Dodgers moved west to Los Angeles, the old league faded away. The Angels and Wrigley Field were acquired by Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers’ owner when he made the decision to come to the city. The Angels were relocated to Spokane, Washington and became the Indians.
O’Malley briefly considered trying to upgrade and expand Wrigley, but his goal was to build a state-of-the art facility and the City of Los Angeles offered Chavez Ravine, north of downtown. As detailed in an excellent recent book, City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles by Jerald Podair, the saga of the project to build O’Malley’s park was fraught with social and political drama, but the idea prevailed, after significant controversy, and the stadium was completed for the 1962 season (the Dodgers played for several seasons in a very strange configuration at the Coliseum.)
Meanwhile, cowboy singer and actor Gene Autry and a partner received an American League franchise, which was named the Los Angeles Angels, after Autry bought the rights to the name from O’Malley. For the inaugural season of 1961, the Angels played in Wrigley Field. When Dodger Stadium was opened, the Angels played there for a few seasons until Autry completed Angels Stadium in Anaheim in time for the 1966 campaign, by which time the team name was changed to the California Angels (it is officially the unwieldy and strange Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim now.)
As for little, outdated Wrigley Field, it was used largely for boxing (notably, opening day in 1925 was originally going to be a boxing match until a late change was made for the Angels-Seals contest) and the occasional sports contest. Filming for television and movies also was done from time-to-time, but there was no regular tenant after the major league Angels headed for Dodger Stadium.
Transferred by O’Malley to the city, the stadium hosted a civil rights speech in 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr., whose namesake street is just north of the site. When the city decided to create a community center in honor of pioneering black politician Gilbert Lindsay, the stadium was demolished in 1969. The Gilbert Lindsay Community Center occupies much of the site today and there is a little-league park called Wrigley Field today.