SABR

Lane Field (San Diego)

This article was written by Scott Ferkovich.

Lane Field was the home of the Pacific Coast League’s San Diego Padres from 1936 to 1957. The Padres were formerly known as the Hollywood Stars, and were owned by Bill Lane, who had made his fortune in gold mining. The Stars played in Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, where they were tenants of the Los Angeles Angels, owned by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley, who also owned the Chicago Cubs. The Stars had struggled both on the field and at the gate in 1935, and after the season ended Wrigley informed Lane that he was going to double his rent to $10,000 per year. Rather than continue to play the stepchild to the Angels, Lane moved his team down the coast to San Diego.

At the time San Diego was a sleepy town of not quite 170,000 people. One of its main industries, besides the US Navy and the aircraft industry, was tuna fishing and canning. In his book Tuna: A Love Story, Richard Ellis writes that companies like Van Camp Seafood, StarKist Foods, and Bumble Bee Seafood all helped to make San Diego become known as the Tuna Capital of the World. When a contest was held to rename the town’s new baseball team, the San Diego Tunas was actually one of the entries. The name that garnered the most votes, however, was the Padres. It made sense. In 1769 Spanish friar Junipero Serra built Mission San Diego de Alcala. It was the first of the Spanish missions that dot the California coast. (In English, Diego is James.)

Lane Field was a downtown, waterfront ballpark, built at the northeast corner of Broadway and Harbor Drive, the point at which Broadway terminates at San Diego Bay. The Pacific Coast Highway was just beyond the right-field wall. Built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration, a federal jobs agency during the Depression of the ’30s) at the modest price of $25,000, it was able to seat 8,000. It took only two months to build the park. There were several reasons for this. First, the park was made entirely of wood. Second, it was built without lights for night games (although lights were soon installed). In addition, the planned grandstand roof was not yet built. It also lacked a press box. In a dangerous oversight, a protective screen was not put up behind home plate. (Within a few years, a backstop was eventually built, but it was only 31½ feet from home plate. As a result of the short distance, baserunners didn’t stand much of a chance of advancing on passed balls or wild pitches, since errant balls would quickly carom back to the catcher.) The infield dirt, more like infield dust, was perennially the worst in the league. Local sportswriter Earl Keller was less than enthusiastic about the new park. “Lane Field was falling apart the day it was finished,” he complained.1

Still, San Diegans had waited a long time for a team to call their own, and they showed up in spades for the inaugural contest at the new park on March 31, 1936. A total of 8,178 fans saw the Padres beat Seattle. A total of 178,075 paying customers passed through the turnstiles that inaugural year.

The ballpark at 906 West Broadway consisted of a single-decked infield grandstand. Smaller, separate stands extended down both lines to the foul poles. A bleacher section ran from the left-field corner to the scoreboard in center field. There was no seating in right field, just a wooden wall running parallel to the Pacific Coast Highway. The main entrance at Broadway and Harbor Drive was a beautiful Mediterranean-style stucco building of arched windows and doorways. A mock bell tower was topped with a red-tiled roof and a fluttering American flag. Stately palm trees lining Broadway and Pacific Highway lent grace to the ballpark’s exterior.

With its vast dimensions, Lane Field was a pitcher’s paradise. When it was built, it was 339 feet down the left-field line, 355 down the right-field line. Dead center was practically in the next county at 480 feet away. (Years later, these distances were shortened to 329 in left, 330 in right, and 426 in center.) The outfield wall was seven feet high all around.

The 1936 San Diego Padres finished in a tie for second place with Oakland, only a game and a half behind champion Portland. The club had several notable stars on its roster. As a Boston Red Sox affiliate, it featured future Beantown players like Gene Desautels and Vince DiMaggio (who led the Padres with 19 home runs). Future Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr played one season in San Diego, hitting .342 with 238 hits as an 18-year-old.

The great Ted Williams, however, was the biggest name to ever play at Lane Field. Williams later wrote in his memoir, “I wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. A man has to have goals – for a day, for a lifetime – and that was mine, to have people say, ‘There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.’ ”2 When the Padres signed Williams, however, he was just a local kid recently graduated from Herbert Hoover High School. The Padres signed him as a pitcher but had no intention of letting him take the mound. Writer Dennis Snelling described Williams’s first batting practice at Lane Field:

When he first joined the team, the teenager stood in front of the mirror in the Padres clubhouse, practicing different batting stances and checking out his swing, behavior that drew laughter from his new teammates. The painfully skinny kid, a splinter at 6’ 3” tall and 147 pounds, paid no mind. (Manager) Frank Shellenback was throwing batting practice one day, as the youngster stood quietly off to the side, watching. When one of the veterans started to take his turn in the batting cage, Shellenback waved him away and, pointing to the youngster, shouted, “Let the kid get in and hit a few!” Bobby Doerr was standing nearby and heard the grumbling of the veterans, who resented that their time was going to be taken up by the scrawny teenager. Then they saw what he could do with a bat. “He hit about seven balls out, and two were out of the ballpark,” remembered Doerr. “He hit shots. The guys said, ‘Good night! Who’s this guy?’ ”3

Williams got into 42 games in 1936, hitting .271 with no home runs. The next season was his final one as a Padre, as he hit .291 with 23 home runs. He would go on to forge a brilliant career in Boston, arguably the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Before the 1937 season, the roof was finally built, although it covered only the infield grandstand. Attendance increased to 216,870 that season, mostly due to the success the season before, as the Padres won the Shaughnessy Cup playoffs.

In real estate, location is everything, and that was never truer than at the corner of Broadway and Harbor Drive. Fans were learning that Lane Field was actually two ballparks. During the afternoon, its waterfront location, coupled with San Diego’s blue skies and mild temperatures, made for ideal conditions to take in a ballgame. Night games were a different story. After sunset, the temperature would quickly drop, and that waterfront location, which had seemed so idyllic only a few hours earlier, was often subject to bone-chilling winds blowing in off San Diego Bay. These winds blasted away at the wooden exterior of the park, necessitating an annual coat of green paint as a result.

One of the more memorable pitching performances at Lane Field took place in 1937, as Dick Ward pitched 12⅔ no-hit innings against Los Angeles. He settled for a one-hitter, going the distance in a 16-inning, 1-0 victory. Perhaps the most famous home run ever hit at Lane Field may be more fiction than fact. In most versions of the story, Ted Williams was at the plate. He hit a home run that landed in an open boxcar (the Santa Fe Railroad depot was just beyond left field). The boxcar traveled 120 miles to Los Angeles, where the ball was later found. Hence, the longest home run ever hit.

The Pacific Coast League during the Lane Field years was not your typical minor league. While not officially accorded major-league status, the PCL was a very strong circuit. Pay was often comparable to that in the major leagues. That, coupled with the California sunshine, made the league very desirable to play in. The Padres were a middle-of-the-pack team, especially after the death of Bill Lane in 1938. They still managed to land many big-name players through the years who would go on to major-league careers. Max West played for the Padres from 1947 to 1950, twice hitting over 40 homers. In 1949 he drove in 166 runs, while drawing 201 walks, in 189 games. (Because of the fine West Coast weather, PCL teams routinely played over 200 games a season.) Al Rosen, Dick Sisler, and Rocky Colavito also starred for the Padres.

In his lone year with San Diego (1956), Colavito took part in a reckless stunt arranged by Ralph Kiner, the recently retired former Pirate slugger who at the time was general manager of the Padres. Amazingly, Kiner wanted Colavito to attempt to break the record for throwing a baseball the farthest (443 feet 3.5 inches). Rocky, who had a cannon for an arm, stood at home plate and heaved three balls over the 426-foot center-field fence. His longest throw, 435 feet 10 inches, was impressive, but short of the mark.

Lane Field played a small part in the Jackie Robinson integration story, before the latter ever played a major-league game. John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, in his “Our Game” blog, reveals what happened. The date was October 7, 1945, two weeks before Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey formally announced the signing of Robinson to a Montreal Royals contract. (Prior to the announcement, the signing had been a closely guarded secret.) Rickey had summoned Look magazine photographer Maurice Terrell to an empty Lane Field, with instructions, in the words of Thorn, “to carry out a top-secret assignment: to surreptitiously photograph three black baseball players.”4 The players were from a California barnstorming team called the Kansas City Royals. The players would be going through various batting, running, and fielding drills in their Royals uniforms. One of the players was Jackie Robinson. Rickey was planning an exclusive feature article for the magazine, to be written by Arthur Mann, a former sportswriter who was an assistant to Rickey. The purpose of the article was to spotlight Robinson, along with other Negro League stars, and the photos were to be included. The article was ultimately never published, although a few of the photos appeared in Look on November 27, 1945, about a month after Rickey signed Robinson. In 1987 Thorn discovered the remaining unprocessed film in a previously unopened carton donated by Look to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954. Many of the pictures show Jackie in action at Lane Field.

Johnny Ritchey isn’t a name that is remembered by modern baseball fans, but he is a key figure in PCL history; he was the first African-American player in the league, joining the Padres in 1948. Other notable African-Americans to suit up for San Diego were Luke Easter, Minnie Miñoso, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, and Sam Jones, who all went on to big-league careers.

The Padres also had some notable managers in their history. Pepper Martin, formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals’ “Gas House Gang,” captained the Padres in 1945 and 1946, followed in 1947 by Ripper Collins, his old Cardinals teammate. Bucky Harris, who managed the Washington Senators and New York Yankees to World Series titles in 1924 and 1947 respectively and later was elected to the Hall of Fame, managed San Diego in 1949. The great Lefty O’Doul, who won two National League batting titles as a player and had led the PCL’s San Francisco Seals since 1937, took the helm for San Diego at the beginning of the 1951 season. In 1954 O’Doul’s Padres finished the season in a tie for first with the reborn Hollywood Stars. A single playoff game took place at Lane Field, with the Padres prevailing by 7-2. To celebrate, the players paraded down Broadway in shiny new Ford convertibles, as the city cheered them on.

By then, the Lane Field era was clearly drawing to a close. Termites had always been a problem at the wooden ballpark; by the mid-1950s, the building was literally being eaten away. To compound the problem, years of sea air were rotting the wooden boards. On Opening Day 1958 the Padres moved into Westgate Park in San Diego’s Mission Valley area. The ballpark became a crown jewel for the PCL. Lane Field, meanwhile, was taken apart bit by bit and hauled away. The city put up a parking lot in its place.

 

Photo Credit

Sohosandiego.org

Sources

Benson, Michael, Ballparks of North America (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1989).

Ellis, Richard, Tuna: A Love Story (New York: Knopf, 2008).

Snelling, Dennis, The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2011).

Swank, Bill, Baseball in San Diego: From the Padres to Petco (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia, 2004).

Williams, Ted, with John Underwood, My Turn At Bat: The Story of My Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).

Thorn, John. “Jackie Robinson's Signing: The Real Story,” Our Game, http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/04/15/jackie-robinsons-signing-the-real-..., accessed July 30, 2013.

 

Notes

1 Dennis Snelling, The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing, 2011), 165.

2 Ted Williams, with John Underwood, My Turn At Bat: The Story of My Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 7.

3 Snelling, The Greatest Minor League, 165.

4 John Thorn, “Jackie Robinson’s Signing: The Real Story,” Our Game, http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/04/15/jackie-robinsons-signing-the-real-..., accessed July 30, 2013.

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