Renaissance Baseball: Lefty and Casey Collide

This article was written by Dick Dobbins

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “Northern California Baseball History,” the 1998 SABR convention journal.

 

The unveiling of the 1946 Pacific Coast League season after World War II was tantamount to exposing organized baseball’s best kept secret to the world. This minor league, the Pacific Coast League, was playing a brand of baseball that would have made any city in the U.S.A. proud. It was a renaissance of baseball.

Organized baseball had suffered through a decade-long depression during the 1930s only to be plunged into world war as the 1940s arrived. While many minor leagues couldn’t survive the pressures, the Pacific Coast League tottered, but stood its shaky ground. It was said, with a good deal of accuracy that it took each team the sale of one young prospect a year to the major leagues to keep the tide of red ink from submerging the ship. But when Johnny came marching home, baseball was saved. And possibly no section of the country benefited more than the West Coast.

During World War II, hundreds of thousands of troops from all over the country had left for the Pacific front through debarkation points in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Many had liked what they saw and returned to stay after the war. War industries along the Pacific Coast attracted many more, and at the war’s conclusion, they also remained. The result was a huge population increase on the West Coast in post-war America. These Americans had made good money during the war and had no place to spend it. When peace came they bought, and they also spent heavily entertaining themselves. Baseball was there for them.

In the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area, things were active on the baseball front. New money was injected into both local teams. Clarence “Brick” Laws and Joe Blumenfeld, two wealthy theater-chain operators, purchased the Oakland Oaks, while San Francisco’s aging owner, Charles Graham, sold a partial team ownership to wealthy financier, Paul I. Fagan.

Back in Oakland, with Laws orchestrating the changes, the Oaks Ball Park was completely renovated and expanded. Over the previous 15 years, the ballpark had been allowed to deteriorate. New lights were installed. The clubhouse was renovated, new bleachers were installed and a new coat of paint appeared throughout. But of even greater significance was the hiring of Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel to manage the Oaks in 1946. Stengel had only mediocre success in his previous managerial stints, but he came with high recommendations. Laws opened up the checkbook to him to acquire new players, and Stengel countered by pledging a championship to Oakland in three years.

Paul Fagan found the San Francisco situation in similar stages of disrepair. Beautiful Seals Stadium had become dingy and unappealing, so Fagan set out to make it the most attractive ballpark in America. The park was painted, and the unsightly but profitable advertising signs were removed from the outfield fences. Flower boxes appeared in the front office windows, and a carriage entrance was constructed for Pagan’s socially prominent friends. Attractively dressed usherettes were conspicuous by their presence, and a band played between innings. Indeed, Seals Stadium became the most beautiful ballpark in America.

On the field, Frank “Lefty” O’Doul had managed the team for a decade, but the past few seasons had been difficult. His talented players had all been in the service. But the prospects for 1946 looked good. Fagan owned a huge ranch on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, and he told Graham he would underwrite the costs of holding spring training in Hawaii. It would be a great local attraction, and the Seals could play the military teams that were still on the Islands.

His gamble was a total success, as a profit was actually made, and the team returned to San Francisco in excellent condition and relaxed. The only problem of the whole trip was getting the team back. With returning soldiers having priority for the limited travel accommodations, Seals players returned to the mainland in threes and fours.

Enthusiasm for the 1946 season was enormous. The Seals were at full strength and Seals Stadium sparkled like a diamond. O’Doul had an impressive squad, competently manned at every position. His stars included a stocky first baseman, Ferris Fain, a mercurial center fielder, Bemie “Frenchy” Uhalt, an underweight, light-hitting shortstop, Roy Nicely, and a balanced and marvelously talented pitching staff. Casey’s job in Oakland wasn’t that simple. The 1945 Oaks left little to work with. When the dust from spring training had settled, only four players from the previous season remained. But two of them were Les Scarsella, a two-time Most Valuable Player in the league, and Billy Raimondi, the perennial All- Star catcher.

Using his contacts throughout baseball, Stengel acquired veterans wherever he could. The Oakland clubhouse had a revolving door in 1946. But the team quickly became competitive. Throughout the season, the Seals and Oaks battled each other head-to-head for the league lead. As the two teams pulled away from the rest of the field, enthusiasm grew for the battle of the locals. The side-show of Casey and Lefty brought fans to the park in droves. As an experiment, the traditional Sunday doubleheader was split, with a morning game played on one side of the bay and an afternoon game played on the other. This was an immediate success.

O’Doul’s pitching staff was anchored by Larry Jansen, who had been inactive during the war. Jansen developed a slider and won 30 games, losing only 6, and established an all-time PCL ERA standard of 1.57. Pitching behind Jansen was a balanced crew of lefties Cliff Melton, Al Lien, and Bill Werle and right handers Frank Seward, Ray Harrell, and Frank Rosso. With the exception of Lien, who won eight each pitcher won at least 11, and Seward’s ERA of 3.12 was the highest.

Fain was the offensive leader of a balanced attack, leading the league in runs scored and runs batted in, and the team in home runs with 11. While no offensive statistics were spectacular, the Seals knew how to hit when it counted.

But the team won with its defense. Fain was a master at first, and the double-play combination of Hugh Luby and Nicely was dependable and flawless. Roy Nicely was a poor hitter, but nobody denied he was a major league shortstop. He made the difficult plays look routine. To this day, old timers rave about his skills. And in the outfield, veteran Frenchy Uhalt provided the experience to cover for the young crop of outfielders, Don White, Dino Restelli, Neill Sheridan and Sal Taormina. Observers have called this one of the league’s finest teams.

While the Seals and Oaks fought each other doggedly all season long, a spurt by the Seals at the end opened up a four- game lead. The Seals attracted 670,563 fans to establish a minor league attendance record that lasted almost four decades, and the Oaks, in their little bandbox, attracted 633,549. These attendance figures had to be attractive to the major leagues, as they topped the attendance of several of their major league brethren.

After the season concluded, Jansen was sold to the New York Giants and Fain and Wally Westlake of the Oaks were drafted, by Philadelphia (AL) and Pittsburgh respectively At contract time, each received an initial contract for appreciably less than they had made on the Coast in 1946. This was a problem Coast Leaguers regularly faced as they moved up to the major leagues.

In 1947, a heated race developed between the Los Angeles Angels and the Seals, with the teams ending the season in a flat- footed tie. The Angels won a single-game playoff to defeat San Francisco for the league championship. The Oaks, facing a bout of injuries to key players, slipped to fourth. While the Seals were virtually the same team as in 1946, Stengel had continued his tinkering to improve his squad. They would be stronger in 1948.

At the end of spring training, the consensus of sportswriters was that the Seals were the favorite for the pennant. Young Bob Chesnes, a phenomenal athlete, had been sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates after going 22-8 for the Seals in 1947. Along with cash, the Seals received catcher Dixie Howell, pitcher Ken Gables and outfielder Gene Woodling. Woodling had been discarded by both Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but O’Doul felt Gene could still hit. Working long hours with him, O’Doul got Woodling to go into a Musial-type crouch. This allowed Woodling to pull the ball, something lacking in his earlier trials, and he started spraying the ball to all fields.

Although Woodling broke an ankle, causing him to miss six weeks of the season, he batted .385 with 107 RBI, a league-leading 13 triples and 22 home runs, plus the Most Valuable Player trophy Woodling was so hot, he even pinch-hit with a cast on his ankle, legging out a single! But the surprise team in 1948 was Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks.

Stengel’s three-year pledge was due, and he didn’t disappoint. The race developed into a two-team race, the Oaks and the Seals, as the Angels dropped off the pace in mid-season. The joke about Casey’s Oaks was that there was one team leaving, another playing today, and a third team coming in. Not true, but Stengel kept making changes until he got what he wanted. Casey liked the veterans, especially if they were left-handed. With the right field wall being an inviting 300 feet away, he had his reasons. With Nick Etten at first, George Metkovich, Les Scarsella and Brooks Holder in the outfield, Merrill Combs at short and power hitting pitcher Will Hafey all portsiders, the Oaks had a hometown advantage.

In 1946, Lefty O’Doul had learned to juggle his pitching staff so that Cliff Melton, Al Lien, and Bill Werle got the assignments at Oakland, giving 30-game-winner Larry Jansen and the other right handers a week off. In 1948, Lien, Werle, Melton and newcomers Tommy Fine and Dewey Soriano got the duty, but some veteran right handers could also do Casey’s calling. All-star catcher Bill Raimondi and future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi handled the catching, while brash Billy Martin and veterans Cookie Lavagetto and Dario Lodigiari got most of the calls at second and third Casey Stengel’s New York Yankees were known for their platooning. It was at Oakland that Stengel polished his technique. As a sample of Stengel’s willingness to platoon, 13 pitchers recorded victories, 25 by Ralph Buxton and Floyd Speer, the designated relievers. No pitcher on the 1948 Oaks threw 200 innings. Whether it was Stengel’s uncanny sense of timing or pitching coach Johnny Babich’s knowledge of his pitching staff, the Oaks had the most effective staff in the league.

When the Oaks beat Sacramento in the first game of the final Sunday double-header to cinch the championship, the city of Oakland exploded with joy For too many years, they had taken a back-seat to their more sophisticated West Bay rivals. The parade down Broadway in Oakland was huge, and Casey was the unchallenged star.

But the glory days in the Bay Area were ending. Stengel left for New York and many of his old stars were released. In San Francisco, beloved owner Charles Graham died late in the season, bringing gloom over the whole franchise.

And the winds of change were being felt. Baseball no longer had a captive audience. People were watching the upstart San Francisco 49ers, and the major leagues were starting to use that new device, television, to extend their influence over the minor leagues. By 1954 the Seals were bankrupt, and a year later the Oaks moved to Canada. Three years later, baseball would be back—the New York Giants would be in Seals Stadium. But for purist fans, the post-War era would have to live in their memories . . . Billy Raimondi, Gene Woodling, Casey and Lefty were all gone . . . but they could never be forgotten.

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