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LA's Baseball Story Isn't Just The Dodgers (It's Also The Aztecas, The 1st Wrigley Field And More)

Group portrait of the Aztecas, a girl's baseball team based in Pacoima, with their manager in the 1930s. (Courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library)
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When you think of baseball in Los Angeles, you think of the Dodgers. And although the boys in blue are the town's current heavy hitters, there is much more to the story of America's pastime in the City of Angels.

Baseball in Southern California goes way back before the Dodgers even arrived here from Brooklyn.

For those who are curious about Los Angeles's hidden baseball history, the whole story is told in a new photo exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library. The wall of pictures in the Central Branch goes back to the turn of the twentieth century and highlights several eras in the city's saga with the sport.

No Crying in Baseball

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The cult classic film A League of Their Owntells a fictionalized version of the real women who played baseball in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s and '50s.

But before those women hit the field, L.A. already had female teams stepping up to the plate and paving the way.

"They were called 'bloomer girls,' that was sort of a thing back at the turn of the century," said David Davis, the curator of the library's exhibit. "Some historians in baseball would say that these women were the precursors to what we had in the '40s."

Bloomer girls enjoying a game of baseball in Echo Park playground in Los Angeles. (Courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library)

The women's uniforms were restrictive and left a lot to be desired, Davis said, but their games were exciting and showcased the early popularity of the sport.

The library's collection also features a rare photo of "The Aztecas," an all-women team from Pacoima that played ball to crowds of community fans in the 1930s.

The women were playing at a time when people of color weren't welcome in all of L.A.'s parks, Davis explained, but they didn't let that stop them.

The Original Wrigley Field

Back when Chicago's ballpark was still called Cubs Park, L.A. had its own Wrigley Field.

Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley owned the Cubs and the team's spring training camp was on Catalina Island -- which Wrigley also owned.

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In addition to the off-coast field, Wrigley built and opened a stadium in South Los Angeles in 1925, giving it his namesake. The iconic Chicago ballpark didn't take its owner's name until 1927.

The West Coast Wrigley Field was also home to the L.A. Angels (not to be confused with today's "Los Angeles" Angels of Anaheim), a minor league team in the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The PCL was a gateway to the majors for many players, Davis said, and the skill level in the league was seen as just a notch below the pros.

In Southern California, the PCL even had a major-league-level rivalry: the L.A. Angels and the Hollywood Stars.

"In PCL lore, there's a story about the biggest brawl between two teams and it was between the Hollywood Stars and the L.A. Angels," Davis said. "A lot of ejections from that game."

Steve Bilko (left), was the Angels' power hitter. Dick Stuart (right) was the Hollywood Stars' slugger. (Courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library)

The Stars' name was fitting, too, since they had big celebrities show upto watch their games. Some, like Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, and Gene Autry, were even involved in ownership and promotion of the team.

The city's love of the entertainment industry and baseball overlapped in more ways than one: for a time California's Wrigley Field was also home to a T.V. show.

Home Run Derby was on the air from 1960-61. And it was exactly what it sounds like: famous sluggers like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle trying to outdo each other with rockets over the wall.

Our Wrigley Field was demolished in 1969 and is now home to the Gilbert Lindsay Recreation Center.

'The Battle of Chavez Ravine'

Of course, L.A. did eventually get a professional team. The Dodgers arrived in 1958 and started a wave of major league teams on the West coast. Before teams hadn't moved past the Midwest.

The story of how the Dodgers made their home here isn't a simple one though. The city got the team to move West, partially by offering them land for a stadium in an area known as Chavez Ravine. The area was home to generations of families, a majority of them Mexican-American.

Dodger Stadium under construction in 1962. (Photo courtesy LAPL archive)

The land was originally set aside for public housing but that attempt failed due to changes in the local political climate years before the Dodgers arrived. City officials used eminent domain and other political tactics to take the land away from its owners.

There were protests against the decision to let the land become a stadium instead. The outrage, legal challenges and violence that came out of the ballpark controversy became known as "The Battle of Chavez Ravine."

In a famous news photo featured in the library exhibit, visitors can see police removing a family from their home in Chavez Ravine when the area was being cleared out to make way for stadium construction.

Here, L.A. County Sheriffs forcibly remove one Chavez Ravine resident who fought eviction from her home. (Courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library)

'El Toro'

The controversy over Dodger Stadium lingered, but in 1981 a new superstar came along who helped change the way some fans in the community felt: Fernando Valenzuela.

The left-handed pitcher was an instant sensation and Latino fans flocked to Dodger Stadium to watch him on the mound. "Fernandomania" hit the city and "El Toro" thanked fans for the love with a World Series championship that year.

"When [fans] saw Fernando, the first great Mexican or Mexican-American player for the Dodgers, it really changed how the Dodgers would move on," Davis said.

If you want to see all the photos for yourself and take a deeper dive into L.A.'s baseball history, the exhibit will be on display at the Central Library downtown until January 2019.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.

This story was updated at 9:05 a.m.

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