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Arts and Entertainment

When L.A. Was Home To The First Wrigley Field

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L.A. and Chicago may be building up to a bona fide rivalry; this is the second consecutive year that the Dodgers have encountered the Cubs in the National League Championship Series. Last year, the fervor was enough to ignite a bitter war between humble hot dog stands, and resulted in Pink’s footing the bill for 108 dogs out in Chicago. But even if the Dodgers hadn't beaten the Cubs last night, there would still always be one thing that L.A. can hold over Chicago: we were home to the first Wrigley Field.

The story has its beginnings in the 1920s, when William K. Wrigley Jr. (you know him from his chewing gum) purchased the Los Angeles Angels, a minor league team with the Pacific Coast League. Wrigley was also the owner of the Chicago Cubs, who at that time were playing in a stadium called Cubs Park (previously known as Weeghman Park).

Wrigley Jr. would provide his Angels’ with a new home and christen it as Wrigley Field. It was built in 1925 in South L.A. by the intersection of Avalon Boulevard and 42nd Place, and was designed by architect Zachary Taylor Davis (who, not coincidentally, also designed Weeghman Park, which would later become the modern-day Wrigley Field in 1927 after dropping the “Cubs Park” badge). Adding to the confusion over "Wrigley Field," Wrigley Jr. was also instrumental in developing Avalon in Catalina Island, and had his Cubs train on a field there that was unofficially dubbed "Wrigley Field."
As noted by Christopher Hawthorne, the L.A. Times’ architecture critic extraordinaire, South L.A.’s Wrigley Field was “grand by the standards of minor-league parks then or now” and, like much of L.A.’s civic architecture at the time, “aimed for handsomeness and stature instead of embracing the ruthless economy of modernism.” As such, it was marked with Spanish and Mission-style motifs, and relied “on a largely mythologized sense of regional history and architectural lineage.” The facade was capped with a looming clock tower. LA Mag touched on the stadium’s more utilitarian flourishes, noting that it used recent innovations like elevators and ramps instead of relying on stairways. And, having a capacity of more than 20,000, it was then the biggest ballpark west of Chicago—its size would garner it the moniker “Wrigley’s Million Dollar Palace.”

“It was a beautiful ballpark,” Dick Beverage, a historian of the Pacific Coast League, told the New York Times in 2016. “At the time it was built, next to Yankee Stadium it was probably the best ballpark in the country.”

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As told by The National Pastime, the Cubs (a major league team) dropped by to play the Angels on March 5 during the stadium’s first full season in operation. LA Mag notes that this means the first time the Cubs ever played a game on Wrigley Field was in South L.A., which is kind of a trip for us denizens of the present day (the Angels won that matchup by a score of 5-2, by the way). In 1926, Wrigley Field would also come to house the Hollywood Stars—another minor league team of the PCL. The Stars, formerly known as the Salt Lake City Bees, would be tenants alongside the Angels until 1935.

Outside of baseball, Wrigley Field also hosted the first ever Pro Bowl on January 15, 1939, where the New York Giants beat the the All-American Stars in front of a crowd of 20,000. The stadium also played host to a number of fights; Joe Louis fought twice here, besting Lee Ramage in 1935 and knocking out Jack Roper in 1939. A couple decades later, Sugar Ray Robinson would hammer Bobo Olson to retain the Middleweight title in 1956. And since this was Los Angeles, Wrigley Field also found its way into the movies. Its credits included parts of 1951’s Angels in the Outfield and 1958’s Damn Yankees.

While the Angels turned in valiant performances (the team won the PCL pennant in the stadium’s inaugural season), they would face their run of struggles. The Depression caused a steep decline in attendance for both the Angels and the Stars, the latter of which would relocate to San Diego in 1935. Hawthorne also notes that televised baseball had begun to eat away at attendance.

In the late 1950s, sports executive Walter O’Malley (owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers) made his intentions clear to bring Major League Baseball to Los Angeles—to pave the way he would buy out Wrigley Field and the Angels in 1957. Wrigley was named as a possible home for O’Malley’s Dodgers, as were the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum. But, as we all know by now, he would turn his eye towards Chavez Ravine for Dodger Stadium, uprooting residents as plans for the ballpark took shape.

While it seemed that Wrigley and the Angels would be stuffed in O’Malley’s pocket forever, to remain in obscurity for eternity, cowboy crooner Gene Autry would swoop in in 1960 to buy the Angels’ rights and parlay that into a Major League team that would become the Angels we know today.

By then Wrigley had fallen in stature, however. It simply wasn’t big enough to house to a Major League team, and was derided for being “an obsolete concrete shack” and a “cow pasture” by various critics, according to The National Pastime. Thus, the plan was for the Angels to spend only their inaugural season at Wrigley Field (they would play the next four at Dodger Stadium, until their own ballpark was completed in 1966 in Anaheim). In spite of the bad press, Wrigley Field was still one for fanfare, as it was always regarded as a hitter’s paradise (the outfield seats angled towards home plate, making for very generous "power alleys"). In the Angels’ first season the ballpark yielded 248 homers, a record that would stand for more than three decades.

As planned, the Angels moved on from Wrigley Field, and it was all but certain that the ballpark was on the outs. It would be demolished in 1969.

One the ballparks’ last hurrahs came on May 26, 1963, when it hosted a rally that saw Martin Luther King Jr. address a sprawling crowd. "We want to be free whether we're in Birmingham or in Los Angeles,” said King. More than 30,000 reportedly took to Wrigley Field that day to see him speak.