The Pacific Coast League Ballparks of Los Angeles
This article was published in the 2011 The National Pastime.
After the Pacific Coast League (PCL) began operations in 1903, it would operate as a virtually independent entity for most of its first 55 years of existence. During that era, the league had at least one and, in most seasons, two franchises in the Los Angeles area that occupied eight different ballparks.
CHUTES PARK (WASHINGTON GARDENS)
Chutes Park was located in a mixed residential area about three miles south of downtown Los Angeles on Washington Boulevard between Grand Avenue and Main Street. Several electric trolley lines served the ballpark, as the site had hosted various amusements, including a beer garden, theater, zoo, and traveling circuses since 1876. The ballpark derived its name from the previous tenant’s Chute-the-Chutes thrill ride, though it was also known as Washington Gardens, and the two names were used interchangeably. In December 1900, a simple wooden sports facility was built for baseball and football games. That month a California Winter League game was played, the park’s first use for baseball. The Los Angeles franchise of the California League (a predecessor of the PCL) played here during the 1901 and 1902 seasons. Starting in 1903, Chutes Park served as the home field of the PCL’s Los Angeles Angels for eight seasons.
The ballpark had several unique characteristics. In the wooden grandstand, only the diagonal section behind home plate and the third base section were roofed, while the first base section was uncovered. A standing-room-only catwalk stood behind the left-field fence and, unlike previous Los Angeles ballparks, Chutes Field had an infield of grass. In 1905 bleachers were added down both foul lines, raising the seating capacity to about 6,000. When the PCL expanded from four to six teams in 1909, one of the new clubs was the Vernon Tigers, which shared Chutes Park during the 1909 and 1910 seasons. Late in 1910, Chutes Park was dismantled and construction was begun for a larger ballpark to be known as Washington Park.
Washington Park opened on March 28, 1911 and would become the best-known ballpark in Los Angeles over the next 15 years. Located at Hill Street and Washington Boulevard, Washington Park occupied most of the former site of Chutes Park. The Los Angeles Angels and the Vernon Tigers jointly owned the ballpark, using it as their primary home field.
Washington Park initially seated about 8,000, and consisted of a single-deck roofed grandstand that extended beyond both first and third bases, and wooden bleachers adjacent to the grandstand, down the first and third base lines. The grandstand and home plate were located in the northwest corner of the park, making left field the sun field for afternoon games. After the 1911 season, both foul line bleachers were extended and a section of wooden bleachers added beyond fair right field that connected to the first base bleachers, which increased capacity to about 12,000.
Washington Park’s dimensions were, for its time, generous: Left field was 350 feet from home plate and center field was 460, although the right-field distance was 335. To make the pitchers even happier, the left-field and center-field fences were 20 feet high. Sometime between 1911 and 1920, however, the leftfield distance from home plate was increased to 375 feet. The first home run over the left-field fence was not hit until October 12, 1920 (by Pete Schneider). No one ever hit a ball over the distant center-field fence. As one would suspect, Washington Park’s dimensions made it a poor hitters park. The available data (for the 1918 and 1921–25 seasons) show that Washington Park was last in the PCL in home runs and batting average. The home run park factor was 45, which means that home runs at Washington Park were less than half of the average PCL ballpark.
In late September 1925, Wrigley Field in Los Angeles opened. The Los Angeles Angels’ new ballpark was, for its time, a modern marvel, far larger and more fan friendly than Washington Park. The Vernon Tigers did not move to Wrigley Field as their 1925 home season had ended, and by the 1926 season, the Tigers had moved to San Francisco, reborn as the Mission Reds.
Shortly after Washington Park’s last ballgame was played on September 27, 1925, it was demolished. (The full history of Wrigley Field is covered in this journal by a separate article by Jim Gordon.)
VERNON PARK I
As mentioned above, when the Vernon Tigers joined the PCL in 1909, they built a new ballpark in an industrial suburb four miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Located at East 38th Street and Santa Fe Avenue in the city of Vernon, the wooden ballpark had a capacity of only about 4,000, and was not the regular home park of either the Tigers or the Angels. Instead, during the 1909 and 1910 seasons, the two clubs used Vernon Park I for one weekday home game and for the morning game of Sunday/holiday doubleheaders. For the 1911 and 1912 seasons, the weekday games were eliminated. The rationale for this complicated arrangement is not clear, but it may have been due to Vernon’s more lenient laws on the consumption of alcohol.
The exact dimensions of Vernon Park I are not known; however, home run data provides insight into the park’s approximate dimensions. With home runs averaging 1.03 per game in the 192 games played at the park over five plus seasons, Vernon Park I was the Coors Field of its time. By contrast, home runs at the other seven PCL ballparks averaged much less: 0.34 per game. Based on the home run data, ballpark researcher Larry Zuckerman has estimated the left-field dimension to be 290 feet, perhaps less, center field 440 feet, and right field 330 feet.
A squabble with the City of Vernon moved the Tigers (and the Angels) to a nearby community for the 1913 season, and Vernon Park I sat idle for the next two seasons. On July 9, 1915, the Tigers returned, sharing the ballpark with the Angels for the remainder of the season, after which Vernon Park I was dismantled.
After the close of the 1912 season, the Vernon Tigers moved 20 miles west to the seaside community of Venice (California, not Italy). Renamed the Venice Tigers, the club shared its new ballpark with the Angels, playing the morning games of split-site Sunday/holiday doubleheaders just as they had at Vernon Park I during the two previous seasons. Venice Park, located at Washington Boulevard (now Abbot Kinney) and Virginia Avenue (now Venice Boulevard), consisted of a grandstand that seated 3,000 and bleachers that seated 4,000.
The ballpark’s configuration would be familiar to those who have attended Little League games. All of the curved outfield fences were the same distance from home plate, 325 feet, according to the Los Angeles Times. The outfield fences were three feet high, topped by a six-foot wire screen. This screen permitted fans who drove to the ballpark to view the game from the comfort of their automobiles, which could be parked just outside the left-field and right-field fences. As access was controlled, they must have been charged for the privilege.
Venice Park proved to be far below average as a hitters park. The batting park factors for the 78 PCL games played there between 1913 and 1915 were as follows:
- Batting Average, 87
- Slugging, 89
- Doubles/AB, 107
- Triples/AB, 81
- Home Runs/AB, 64
If all of the outfield fences at Venice Park were actually 325 feet from home plate, however, these batting park factors are unbelievable. How could the smallest park in the PCL be far below average in both batting average and home runs? If there was no point in the ballpark farther than 325 feet, how could the triples park factor be as high as 81? Could the actual dimensions have been greater than the 325 feet reported in the Times? A study was made of the ballpark and its site. The accompanying diagram, by Larry Zuckerman, using 325 feet as the outfield distance, shows 25 to 30 feet available between the center-field fence and the southern limit of the property, the tracks of the Pacific Electric Railway. Note that center field was the limiting condition for the size of the ballpark. Based on the batting data for the park and by moving home plate five feet closer to the backstop, the estimated outfield dimensions become 355 feet to all fields. Such dimensions are far more compatible with the batting park factors than the reported 325 feet to all fields.
Poor attendance at Venice Park prompted the Tigers and Angels to return to Vernon in July 1915.
VERNON PARK II
Vernon Park II was ready for the Tigers and the Angels in time for the 1916 season. The new wooden ballpark included a grandstand salvaged from Venice Park and seated about 10,000. Also known as Maier Park, for Tigers owner Eddie Maier, Vernon Park II was used by the Tigers and Angels for five seasons. As at Venice Park, only the morning games of Sunday and holiday doubleheaders were played here. The estimated dimensions were left field 372 feet, center field 395 feet, and right field 315 feet. The right field dimension seems reachable until one considers that the 10-foot wooden fence was topped with a 20-foot wire screen. Whereas Vernon Park I was the Coors Field of its time, Vernon Park II was a pitchers’ paradise. In the 110 games played there, only six home runs were ever hit. Over the 1916–19 seasons, Vernon Park II shows an average of 0.05 home runs per game compared to the average of the rest of the PCL ballparks’ 0.39 home runs per game.
Midway through the 1920 season, with attendance poor, the Angels and Tigers decided to discontinue using Vernon Park II as a secondary ballpark and thereafter played all of their home games at Washington Park. Through 1925, the Tigers continued to use the Vernon ballpark for spring training. Vernon Park II was torn down sometime in the 1930s, and the site is now occupied by Hannibal Industries, Inc.
In 1938, the PCL’s San Francisco Mission Reds franchise was purchased by Hollywood interests headed by restaurateur Bob Cobb, and the team, to be called the Hollywood Stars, moved to Los Angeles. The Stars arranged to share the Angels’ iconic ballpark, Wrigley Field, for the 1938 season, anticipating that their new ballpark in Hollywood, Gilmore Field, (named for Earl B. Gilmore, the owner of Gilmore Oil, Gilmore Stadium, and the site of Gilmore Field) would be ready in time for the following season.
By April 1939, however, construction was not quite finished. Fortunately, close by was Gilmore Stadium, a football and midget auto racing venue. Gilmore Stadium, an oval steel-and-concrete structure with a capacity of 18,500, was quickly modified for baseball in time for the Stars’ first home games. A wire screen was erected behind home plate to serve as the backstop. There were no dugouts. The playing field was laid out with the left-field foul line roughly parallel with the western sideline of the gridiron, producing a left-field dimension of 350 feet. The right-field dimension was a rather short 270 feet, and the right-field power alley (22.5 degrees) 300 feet. To prevent cheap home runs, a pole was placed behind the fence in right center (325 feet from home plate). Any ball hit into the stands to the right of that pole was a ground-rule double. Because of the stadium’s oval shape, the left-field distances increased rapidly away from the foul line. All in all, it was an oddly shaped playing field for baseball; left field, with an average distance of 393 feet, was deeper than center field (380 feet) and the right-field average distance was quite short (291 feet).
The Stars hosted the Portland Beavers for a seven-game series, winning four of the seven games, the only baseball played at Gilmore Stadium. The games provided interesting results, the stadium proving quite popular with the hitters. The Stars posted a team batting average of .333, while Portland hit .317. Fifteen home runs were hit over the seven games, a high number for the PCL of 1939. Overall the batting park factors at Gilmore Stadium were impressive:
- Batting Average, 112
- On-Base, 112
- Slugging, 131
- Doubles, 174
- Triples, 119
- Home Runs, 211
The majority owner of the Stars was Bob Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood and namesake of the Cobb salad. Several movie stars were shareholders, among them Gene Autry, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope. When Gilmore Field opened on May 2, 1939, some four weeks into the season, many movie stars attended the game to much fanfare. Cobb’s wife, actress Gail Patrick, threw out the first pitch.
The ballpark was located on Fairfax Avenue on the west (500 feet west of Gilmore’s Farmers Market), between Beverly Boulevard and Third Street. Gilmore Field, seating about 12,000, was an intimate ballpark. Its backstop was only 34 feet behind home plate and the distance from first/third base to the grandstand was 24 feet. No surprise, the foul area was very small. Gilmore Field, one of the first ballparks to be built with lights, consisted of a roofed steel frame and wood single-deck grandstand and open bleachers down both foul lines that reached nearly to the left-field and right-field corners. The playing field was almost exactly symmetrical with left-field/right-field dimensions of 335 feet, left-center/right-center 387, and a center-field dimension of 407. The leftfield and right-field fences were wood, 10 feet high, and aligned at 90 degrees to the foul lines. There was a 10-foot high center-field diagonal fence with an 18-foot scoreboard. The average size of left field/right field was 352 and center field was 403. The overall park size of Gilmore Field was 369; by comparison Wrigley Field, the top PCL ballpark for home runs, was 358, and the league average was 362.
Gilmore Field in 1939 was not a good ballpark for hitters. The Stars and their opponents combined for 8.8 runs per game at home vs. 10.8 runs/game on the road. The batting park factors for 1939 were:
- Runs/G, 84
- Batting Average,92
- On-Base, 89
- Slugging, 101
- Home Runs*,124
- BB/Game, 71
* Per AB; batting data compiled from box scores in the Los Angeles Times
This is a curious result: The park factors for all categories of extra base hits and slugging were above 100, yet runs, batting average, and on-base were markedly below average. All this for a ballpark that had very little foul area, and had the same park size as today’s major league ballparks. Two factors contributed to this outcome. First, in 1939 Gilmore Field was the second largest ballpark in the PCL—only Seals Stadium in San Francisco was larger. Second, the billboards mounted on the left-field and right-field fences were very light in color. (They appear to be nearly white in black and white photos.) The billboards extended from the left-field line to nearly dead center, providing a very poor background against right-handed pitchers. This is likely the reason that walks per game were 40 percent higher in road games than in games at Gilmore Field. Gilmore Field was home to the Stars through the 1957 season, when Major League Baseball came to Los Angeles. It was demolished in 1958 and is now the site for part of CBS Television City.
The PCL’s tradition of one, and typically two, franchises in the Los Angeles area ended when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to town after the 1957 season, but not before the league’s ballparks had initiated generations of fans to competitive baseball.
RON SELTER is a retired economist, formerly with the Air Force Space Program. A SABR member since 1989 and a member of the Ballparks, Minor League, Statistical, and Deadball Committees, his area of expertise is twentieth-century major-league ballparks. A frequent presenter at SABR regional meetings and national conventions, Selter has a particular interest with ballparks and their effect upon batting, he served as text editor for "Green Cathedrals" (2006 edition, SABR) and as a contributor to "Forbes Field" (McFarland, 2007). He is the author of "Ballparks of the Deadball Era" (McFarland, 2008).
- "Ballparks of Los Angeles, And Some of The History Surrounding Them", by Lauren Ted Zuckerman, 1996, in SABR Minor League History Research Journal, Volume I, August 1996.
- Los Angeles Times box scores for games played at Venice Park for 1913–15.
- Lawrence S. Ritter, Lost Ballparks, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1992.