Open Classification: The Pacific Coast League's Drive to Turn Major

Article excerpt

Long before Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham booked their tickets and packed their bags, the West Coast was actively abuzz with the prospect of hosting Major League Baseball. By the 1940s the Pacific Coast League (PCL), which boasted Los Angeles and San Francisco as its prime markets, was ready and willing to declare itself the third Major League, no longer content to allow Joe DiMaggios and Ted Williamses to be surrendered to the powers back East. (1)

We now know, of course, that the PCL's attempt to achieve Major League status didn't succeed. But the effort was completely serious, and it wasn't at all obvious that it wouldn't succeed--indeed, there's a plausible scenario under which it might have. A very different Major League landscape than the one we know (and which we may assume to have been inevitable) was actively imagined, championed, and might have come to pass.

San Francisco sought a Major League team for many years. Back in 1932
John McGraw himself sat in the "tower" at Seals Stadium with Uncle
Charley Graham, owner of the Seals, and pronounced: "You'll have Major
League Baseball here someday, Charley." If someone had suggested that
McGraw's own Giants would waltz out of New York, McGraw would have died
there on the spot or poked the suggester in the nose, probably the
latter. (2)

In this vignette we're presented with three elements essential to comprehending the state of the baseball world in the 1930s (and no, John McGraw's legendary pugnacity is not among them). First was the robust vitality of the PCL, even amid the generally depressed U.S. economy. Second was the emerging recognition, based on the demonstrated success of high-level Minor League Baseball in burgeoning West Coast cities, that it was only a matter of time before the enterprise being conducted in at least a few of the most vital of these markets would reach full Major League status. And third was the utter ridiculousness that the way this Major League status would be attained would be through the uprooting of one (let alone two) of the most venerable and successful of existing big league franchises, from the nation's largest city (and biggest baseball market), and hauling them across the continent.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE

The Seals Stadium that impressed John McGraw in 1932 was a state-of-the-art showcase. "Opening on April 7, 1931, before a packed house of nearly twenty-five thousand, including Ty Cobb, who had traveled from his home in Georgia to participate in the inaugural ceremonies, the new concrete and steel park with the million dollar price tag was a beauty." (3) A gleaming, new, million-dollar ballpark was nothing more than par for the course for the San Francisco Seals, a flagship franchise in the most glamorous and prosperous Minor League in history.

Baseball had been introduced to the West Coast amid the immigration explosion that accompanied the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. (4) "The first enclosed ballpark on the Pacific Coast was built in San Francisco at 25th and Folsom Streets, and the Eagles [of San Francisco] hosted the Wide Awakes of Oakland in the inaugural game, a 37-23 victory for the home team on November 26, 1868." (5) As the populations and economies of California and other West Coast communities grew, the popularity of baseball grew with them, just as in so many other regions across the continent.

The Pacific Base Ball League, an association of four San Francisco clubs, was founded in 1878. The initial version of the California League (CL) came along just a year later. Into the 1880s various configurations of professional and semiprofessional leagues in California--primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also sometimes representing communities as far south as Fresno and Los Angeles--were launched, closed, and launched anew. (6) Clubs from the Pacific Northwest often traveled south to test themselves against the more established teams in California. …