LAistory: Baseball's First Wrigley Field Was in LA

LAistory is a series that takes us on a journey to what came before to help us understand where we are today. So far we've been to Val Verde, Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe, a house in Beverly Hills, Echo Park's Bonnie Brae House, Marineland of the Pacific, and Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale. Now we're going to take you out to the ballgame, some decades back...

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The arrival of the Dodgers in Los Angeles in 1958 isn't where the story of baseball in the City of Angels begins. Although we didn't boast a Major League team until then, fans of the great American pastime in LA could still head out to their local stadiums to catch Minor League play in the first half of the 20th Century, and oftentimes their destination was Wrigley Field.

But we're not talking about Wrigley Field in Chicago—we're talking about Los Angeles' own Wrigley Field, the first stadium in the country to bear the name. Once upon a time it was home to the Los Angeles Angels, before they went to the big league (although they still can't settle on a name it seems), and for a brief period of time it was also home field for the Hollywood Stars and and for one season of Major League play for the Angels.

If You Build It...
Located on 10 acres of land between San Pedro Street (on the West) and Avalon Boulevard (to the East) and E 41st Place (to the North) and E 42nd Place (to the South), "construction on Wrigley Field began in 1924, and the million-dollar park opened on September 29, 1925" (Ballpark Tour). The stadium was named for the owner of the Los Angeles Angels, businessman and tycoon William Wrigley, Jr, who had purchased the team in 1921.


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At the time of Wrigley's purchase of the franchise, the Angels had been playing at Washington Park (at Washington and Hill Streets) since 1912 and had previously played at a field on the north end of Chutes Park as part of the California League, which was located between Grand Avenue (west), Main Street (east), Washington Boulevard (north) and 21st Street (south). (What was once Chutes Park is now the LA Mart; but that's another story, right?)

The City of Los Angeles wasn't interested in making improvements to Washington Park, so Wrigley decided to build his team a new home, and thus the land in South Los Angeles was purchased and purposed (Wikipedia: LA Angels). The ballpark was designed after the home of the Chicago Cubs, which was then known as Cubs Park, renamed from Weegham Park in 1920, but not christened as Wrigley Field until 1926, making the stadium in LA the first in the country to be called Wrigley Field. (A ballfied on Catalina Island, where Wrigley trained the Cubs, was also known as Wrigley Field, but it was not an actual stadium). According to Wikipedia, we may also brag that South LA's Wrigley Field "had more on-site parking than the Chicago version did (or does now)."


LA_Wrigley_colorized.jpgAs the stadium was being built in the summer of 1925, so was the excitement in the city for the new ballpark, or "plant" as they called it. A July 26, 1925 LA Times article shows a grinning Wrigley in front of his growing structure. The article also mentions some of the "novel" features of the stadium, including the fact that "instead of the customary wooden fence filled with signs, a brick wall will be seen instead. There will not be an advertisement in the park." This lack of commercialization was at Wrigley's insistence, who did not seem to be interested in the additional revenue such advertising offered owners. In addition, "another novel feature is that the park will boast of a 187-foot tower at the main entrance." Los Angeles had never seen such a venue, which is probably why the uncredited author ended his short preview piece with: "Yes, brothers, its' going to be some plant" ("Take a Look").

The brand new $1 million ballpark had what was hailed as a Gala Opening by the local press. Mayor George Cryer threw the first pitch, despite woes about arm trouble; Cryer had also thrown out the first pitch of the Angels' season that April ("Gala").

During the inaugural game on September 29th, 1925, a lot of the honors for "firsts" went to players for the San Francisco Seals, although Angel "Arnold Statz was the first player to hit the ball out of the park, his drive clearing the left-center field wall and dropping somewhere on Thirty-ninth Street" ("Here Are").

One of the biggest woes associated with Wrigley Field was that it had been built in a residential area. Homes near the stadium were constantly being pelted with balls sailing over the walls. In 1960, when the newly established American League Angels were looking for a permanent home in Los Angeles, Wrigley Field was considered an option, but an option shunned by many for this reason, among others. A 1960 LA Times article points out that at the time there was "a white house on 41st Street back of those left field bricks which over the years has been bombarded day and night by [many] sluggers" and "homers rained on this home like buzz bombs in the war-time blitz" (Dyer).

Playing the Field
WFST.jpgSo what was it like to play the game at Wrigley Field? From Ballpark Tour:

The double-decked grandstand extended from the left field foul pole to home plate, and around to the right field foul pole. Bleachers and a scoreboard were located in right field. There was no seating in left field -- just a 15-foot high concrete wall, with ivy growing on it in later years. Batted balls on occasion lodged in the ivy, and were ruled doubles during games. The bottom of a light tower in left center field was in play. Any ball that hit the standard above a painted white line (parallel with the top of the wall) was ruled to be a home run.

Wrigley Field hosted the minor league Los Angeles Angels from 1925 to 1957, suring which time they thrived, in fact they "were probably the most successful franchise in the history of the league" (Ballpark Tour). However, "a year after the Angels inauguration, the Hollywood Stars were looking for a place to call home [and] the Stars began to share the stadium with the Angels during the 1926 season" (Pastore). Some believe that the Stars weren't as popular as the Angels because they "weren't the star of the show here and just tenants" (Pastore). Eventually, the Stars moved to another stadium in town called Gilmore Field, where they played from 1939-1957. (Gilmore Field was abandoned in 1957 and was where CBS Television City is today). Things got a little dicey between Wrigley and the Stars in the mid-thirties (including when "Wrigley tried to double their rent to $10,000 a month"), prompting the team to pack up and move to San Diego to become the Padres (Ballpark Tour). The team that set up at Wrigley in '38 and that moved to Gilmore Field the next year was a second incarnation of the Stars, actually.

PrideoftheYankees.jpgThe installation of lights on the field allowed night games to be played (another first for this Wrigley Field) starting in 1930 (some sources say 1931). Another interesting fact for those who like a little brew with their ballgame: In 1933 Los Angeles' Wrigley Field stood out among its Minor and Major league contemporaries for serving draught beer "whenever the law allow[ed]" ("Drinks"). Cheers!

Because this is an industry town, Wrigley Field had a few opportunities to get its requisite star turn in the movies. Many motion pictures focused on baseball were filmed there, including The Pride of the Yankees, It Happens Every Spring, and parts of Damn Yankess, along with other television shows of the 50s and early 60s.

Other events, like pro wrestling and boxing matches, were held at Wrigley Field.

Make Way for the Dodgers...
In February of 1957, Phil Wrigley, then owner of the Los Angeles Angels minor league franchise and our Wrigley Field, sold the team and stadium to Walter O'Malley. O'Malley shelled out $3 million along with "the rights to the Dodgers' Texas League franchise in Fort Worth" (Ballparks.com). O'Malley had his eyes on Los Angeles to be the new home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and this deal gave him the "territorial rights" needed (Ballparks.com). Baseball (and real estate) in the city would never be the same.

Aside from the overall contention the move inspired at the time, which was plentiful, O'Malley's decision to bring the Dodgers west had a major impact on this piece of land in South L.A. For months locals and pundits and baseball bigwigs speculated on where in the city the Dodgers would set up shop. A prime concern was seating capacity, and at approximately 21,000, Wrigley Field wasn't ideal for the expected hordes of fans of big league action.

Adapting Wrigley Field for the Dodgers was a hard sell, but one that was tried nonetheless, despite rampant objections from folks inside and out of pro baseball. "An architect's 1957 drawing envisioned enclosing the field for use by the Dodgers, with double-decked stands in left and right, and center field bleachers, very much like the Polo Grounds," explains Ballparks.com. But pictures of potential glory didn't move critics, including baseball commissioner Ford Frick, who went on record in January 1958 as believing Wrigley Field was no more than a "cow pasture" and that O'Malley had made a foolish decision ("Frick Says"). Less reported, but also a bit unsavory was the rumor that O'Malley "was upset about a whorehouse that was running across the street from the stadium," (Ballparks.com). In any case, the fate of Wrigley Field didn't seem to include the Dodgers.

WrigleyPostcardAmazon.jpgWrigley Field was soon abandoned as an option to host the Dodgers and then became part of the purchase package for the Chavez Ravine-area land that O'Malley soon favored. What to do with the Dodgers was partially a decision to be made by the people of Los Angeles, which created the notorious "Proposition B" on the ballot, that mentions one aspect of the deal that seemed both fiscally and geographically unbalanced: "The City does get 10-acre WRIGLEY FIELD, assessed by the County Assessor at $362,000. This in trade for 315 acres of land worth TENS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS!" (For more on this historical struggle, check out Bob Timmermann's work on Baseball Toaster/The Griddle).

In April 1958, LA City Councilman McGee called the Chavez Ravine Plan "stupid" "misleading," and "immoral," and, moreover, called Wrigley Field "a white elephant" and a "liability" implying that its inclusion in the deal was superfluous ("Dodger Land").

But the deal went through, and when the team from Brooklyn arrived in our city, they "set up shop in the Los Angeles Coliseum (which had a 251-foot foul line) while awaiting construction of Dodger Stadium" (Ballpark Tour). Meanwhile, the Pacific Coast League Angels had packed up and headed out of Dodge...or, rather, Dodger territory. "The last PCL game at Wrigley Field was played on September 15, 1957."

A Stadium Without a Team...Sort Of
So the Angels were out, the Dodgers were cozy in the Coliseum until their new stadium opened in Chavez Ravine, and Wrigley Field had no home team. This was when a lot of movie and television shows used the stadium, but the last breath had not quite been drawn for the ailing former grand-dame of minor league baseball.

According to Wikipedia:

In 1961, a new L.A. Angels club joined the American League as an expansion team and took residence at Wrigley for just the one season. The team set a still-standing first-season expansion-team record with 71 wins. Thanks to its cozy power alleys, the park became the setting for a real-life version of Home Run Derby, setting another record by yielding 248 home runs. That 248 mark would stand for over 30 years. After the 1961 season, the team moved to Dodger Stadium, or Chavez Ravine as it was known for Angels games. The new Dodger Stadium also "took over" for Wrigley Field, as the site of choice for Hollywood filming that required a ballpark setting.

So long, Wrigley Field
After the American League's Angels left, there wasn't much left to do with Wrigley Field. As early as 1958, plans to use the site as a Sports and Recreation center had been circling, particularly when the O'Malley deal granted the land to the city. In May of 1958 Mayor Poulson announced "that George Hjelte, general manager of the Recreation and Parks Department, had outlined to him 'a tremendous program of municipal sports activities'" that would make Wrigley Field "an ideal location for high school and junior college football games, national and international soccer championships, track and field meets, men's and women's softball play-offs, Little League baseball, and more than 35 events" that were covered by Parks and Rec ("City Plans"). A lot of this talk was thought to be rhetoric used in convincing the public to vote for Proposition B, but, curiously enough, although perhaps not as broad in reach, the eventual use of the land wound up to be along those lines.

Wrigley_Demolition.jpg

Wrigley Field was demolished in 1966, and was turned into what is now known as Gilbert Lindsay Park (although sometimes called Teresa Lindsay Park). There is a ballfield on the land, which is used by the Wrigley Little League. "The original site of the Wrigley diamond and grandstand is occupied by buildings and a parking lot" (Wikipedia). The park is a haven for present-day punk rockers and for the Crips, who have been known to use the park to pick up "personnel," (Streetgangs.com).

Some vital stats about Los Angeles' Wrigley Field:

Seating: Reports vary from 20,500-22,000
Playing surface: Grass
Bases' locations in relation to streets: First base (S), 42nd Place; right field (E), Avalon Boulevard; left field (N), 41st Place; third base (W), San Pedro Street. (Ballparks.com)
Dimensions: Left field 340 ft..; power alleys: 345 ft.; center field: 412 ft.; right field: 338.5 ft.; backstop: 56 ft. (Ballparks.com)
Fences: Left field to center field: 14.5 ft.; center field to right field: 9 ft. (6 ft. wire above 3 ft. concrete) (Ballparks.com)
First Game: September 29, 1925
First Night Game: July 23, 1930
Last PCL/LA Angels game: September 15, 1957
First Major League Angels game: April 27, 1961
Last Major League Angels game: October 1, 1961
Demolished: 1966

Photo Credits:
Aerial view of Wrigley Field, Opening Day, 1925. SPNB Collection

Small (colorized) image of Wrigley Field (found in many places online, including Wikipedia).

Demoliton of Wrigley Field from Ballpark Tour.

B&W Postcard from Amazon.com

LA Angels at Wrigley Field vintage logo (available on a T Shirt) as seen on Distant Replays.

What the stadium would look like if they'd renovated it (artist's rendering, 1957) from The Griddle/Baseball Toaster

References:

Ballpark Tour: Former Los Angeles Ballparks. (online)

Ballparks.com: Wrigley Field in Los Angeles (online)

Chicago Cubs' Official MLB Site. Ballpark History. (online)

"City Plans to Use Wrigley Field as Huge Sports, Recreation Center." Los Angeles Times. 4 May 1958. Page B1.

"Dodger Land Contract Assailed as 'Giveaway'." Los Angeles Times. 13 April 1958. Page 2.

"Drinks Barred in the Stands." Los Angeles Times. 31 March 1933. Page A9.

Dyer, Braven. "Angels Out to Disprove Veeck's Alarming View of Wrigley Field." Los Angeles Times. 14 Dec. 1960. Page C6.

"Frick Says--Wrigley Field 'a Cow Pasture!'" Los Angeles Times. 12 Jan 1958. Page C1.

"Gala Opening for New Park." Los Angeles Times. 20 September 1925. Page A7.

"Here are First Facts About New Wrigley Field." Los Angeles Times. 30 September 1925. Page 13.

Pastore, Eric & Wendy. Wrigley Field II-Los Angeles, California. www.DigitalBallparks.com. (online)

Streetgangs.com: "Judge Bars 3 Gangs Around South L.A. Park." (online).

"Take a Look at Wrigley Field." Los Angeles Times. 26 July 1925. Page A6.

Wikipedia: Wrigley Field (Los Angeles) (online)