Minor league ball’s SoCal dilemmaby Steven Booth
July 14, 2011
To those not familiar with the west coast, Santa Barbara is the quintessential California coastal city. It has beautiful beaches, beautiful mountains behind it and lots of great restaurants and museums. The population is 88,000, people who enjoy life on the coast without the urban sprawl of the Los Angeles or San Diego areas.
It is also home to UC Santa Barbara, one of the finest universities on the west coast and also a legendary party school (the Halloween party at least used to be like none other). Its baseball team has included the likes of Michael Young, Barry Zito, Skip Schumaker and Ryan Spilborghs at different times.
For awhile, it was a pretty good minor league baseball town, too. For most of the years between 1940 and the late 1960s, it was home to the Dodgers’ Single-A affiliate. For many years, they were one of the stronger teams in the California League, and even when they weren’t so dominant, they helped produce many players who went on to have fine major league careers.
The team was with the Brooklyn Dodgers through World War II and the 1950s, served as a Mets affiliate for their notorious inaugural 1962 season, then had roughly a half decade more of being in the Dodgers system.
The teams played on the late and lamented Laguna Field (perhaps not that lamented; it was hard finding good information on the park). While it seated only 2,083, it had dimensions of a major league park, with the centerfield fence at 440 feet.
The ballpark also had its quirks. It’s proximity to the coast led to several games being called due to excessive fog, and its low altitude and proximity to the coast led to occasional flooding. The home runs hit over the short right field fence would drop in front of Mom’s Italian restaurant, once a famous local eatery.
While there was an obscure D-level minor league team known as the Santa Barbara Barbareans (originally the Pasadena Millionaires) in 1913, the first major league affiliated team played in 1941. That team was the Saints, and it was the C-level farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The 1941 squad was probably the most successful one to ever play there. Player/manager Bud Clancy played dual roles, leading the league with a .363 batting average and coaching the team to a championship. The batting average was no coincidence; he had a long, successful major league career, and at age 40 could still feast on minor league pitching.
Another standout on the team was Manuel Perez, who won 21 games and had a 1.68 ERA (split with a San Bernardino team that disbanded midseason). League MVP Spider Jorgensen was also on the team, hitting .332. They finished the regular season in third place but defeated Bakersfield in the first round before toppling Fresno in the championship.
Perhaps the greatest contributor the team had didn’t produce much of a playing career. Branch Rickey saw potential in Bob Fontaine, who didn’t last long as a pitching prospect but went to work for Rickey after the season and eventually became quite an executive himself. While working with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Fontaine signed Willie Stargell. Later, with the San Diego Padres, he signed Dave Winfield and Ozzie Smith.
Due to World War II, the California League suspended operations in 1942, cutting the season short. The Saints were the dominant team that year, standing in first when the season was halted. Ed Nulty led the league with ten homers, while Chuck Sylvester paced the circuit with 88 RBI. Another league leader was Vic Lombardi, with 114 strikeouts in 120 IP.
It wasn’t until 1946 that the team and the league resumed operations. They returned that season as the Santa Barbara Dodgers. It was another fine year, where they finished second out of six teams.
The big star was Irv Noren, who hit .363 and led the league in hits with 188, doubles with 33, triples with 14, and RBIs with 129. He also stole 28 bases. Noren eventually would go on to an 11-year major league career, highlighted by his 1954 season, when he hit .319/.377/.481/.859 and was selected to the all star team. Santa Barbara made it to the playoffs but lost in the first round to Modesto.
In 1947, they finished fourth but still made it to the championship, which they lost to Stockton. Their leader both on and off the field was 30-year-old Ray Hathaway, who both coached the team and won 18 games with a 2.39 ERA.
That season also saw the professional debut of Dick Williams, who would go on not only to have a thirteen-year playing career in the majors, but also serve as the manager of the world champion Oakland A’s teams of 1972 and '73, along with playoff teams for the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres.
In 1948, Santa Barbara won the championship, defeating Stockton four games to three. Williams came into his own, hitting .335 with 16 HR, 90 RBI and 16 SB in 97 games. The strength of the team, however, was in the pitching. Walter Olsen won 17 games with a 2.16 ERA, while Frank Meagher won 18 games (leading the league) with a 3.08 ERA.
At least by their standards, 1949 was a down year. The team finished 75-65 but was in fourth place and did not have any players that had long major league careers. Louis Damman led the offense with 21 HR and a .303 BA, while player/manager Chet Kehn won 16 games with a 2.93 ERA and also hit .312 (talk about doing it all).
Their first truly bad year was 1950, when they went 53-88. However, in 1951, Santa Barbara came back with a vengeance, taking first place and winning the championship. They were led by player/manager Bill Hart, a member of the Clancy/Kehn/Hathaway “do it all” school, hitting .282 with 22 home runs.
In 1952, they finished in third, losing in the first round of the playoffs. The highlights were the season of pitcher Jake Abbott, who won 23 games with a 2.19 ERA and pitched 275 innings—before pretty much falling off the map after that.
That season was also the debut of Jim Gentile, one of the top first basemen in the majors during the early 1960s. His big year was in 1961, when he hit 46 HR with 141 RBI, and had a line of .302/.423/.646/1.069 for the Baltimore Orioles.
The 1953 season would be the last year of minor league baseball in Santa Barbara for awhile. The Dodgers reduced the number of C-level affiliates after the season. That year was most memorable for the emergence of Sparky Anderson, who played in all 141 games for the Dodgers, scoring 98 runs and stealing 13 bases.
Of course, Anderson would go on to be the first manager to win a World Series in both leagues, with the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and 1976, and the Detroit Tigers in 1984. That season was also the debut of Larry Sherry, who would go on to be the 1959 World Series MVP for the Dodgers.
In 1962, the California League, still a C-level league, returned to Santa Barbara and Laguna Field with the Rancheros, a Mets affiliate. While the Rancheros fared better than the Mets that year (it was the notorious inaugural 49-123 team), they were in the middle of the pack in the Cal league.
Most noteworthy was the debut of Paul Blair, who would have a long and successful career, winning eight Gold Gloves and being selected to two All-Star games. The Mets would move to Salinas after the season.
In 1963, the Ponderosas came back for another season, once again as a (now Los Angeles) Dodgers affiliate, and now considered Class A. Apparently, the Dodgers were lured by the $1.00 per year rent and offered to revamp the aging field. They finished in sixth place, but saw the debut of Wes Parker, the first baseman who won six Gold Ggloves in a nine-year career for the Dodgers.
While 1964 was another mediocre year as far as wins and losses, two more stars began their careers on the team. Jack Billingham went on to be one of the horses for the 1970s Big Red Machine, winning in double figures ten times in thirteen seasons. Also debuting was seventeen-year old Willie Crawford, who would become a fixture in right field for the Dodgers in the 1970s.
The '65 campaign was even worse. The team finished in last place, but also featured the debut of Don Sutton, who showed greatness in going 8-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 101 strikeouts in only 84 innings. This performance told of what was to come, as Sutton won 324 games and struck out 3,574 batters in a 24-year major league career.
Another standout on an otherwise bad team was Tom Hutton, who would hit .294 with 20 home runs and go on to have a fine 12-year career in the majors, mostly with the Phillies.
It was a so-so year in 1966, with the most notable achievement being the emergence of Bill Sudakis, who played infield for Santa Barbara but went on primarily to be a catcher in the majors.
The 1967 season was the final one for minor league baseball in Santa Barbara. The Dodgers said they had lost $100,000 on the team, and the crowds only averaged 225 despite the future marquee talent that played there. Still, Billy Grabarkewitz emerged, hitting 24 long ball, stealing 39 bases and batting .287/.433/.492/.924. He went on to an eight-year major league career, including an All-Star appearance in 1970.
Charlie Hough also pitched that year, going 14-4 with a 2.24 ERA before going on a 25-year major league career. Von Joshua also played part of his first season there before embarking on a ten-year major league career.
The Dodgers moved to Bakersfield the next year, and minor league baseball went away perhaps to stay. Despite local resistance, Laguna Field was torn down in 1970 in favor of an equipment yard, and it was a further example of minor league baseball’s failure in coastal Southern California.
The Dodgers pulled out of Santa Barbara originally perhaps to consolidate their low minor teams, but also in possible anticipation of moving out west. The Brooklyn Dodgers moving to the west coast was not a whimsical move on Walter O’Malley’s part, and he probably knew that minor league baseball surviving anywhere near a large metropolitan area with a major league team was a longshot.
It could have also been a business decision, or a desire t play in better conditions. Coastal areas in Southern California do often get hit by fog and blustery weather, even in summer time.
The second departure was all about business. The team wasn’t drawing crowds despite Santa Barbara being a Dodger town and the possibility of seeing phenoms like Sutton, Parker or Grabarkewitz. It was an old field, and perhaps the local fans preferred seeing the major league version of the team a two-hour drive away.
Television also played a role. With more games on television, it was easier for casual fans to watch the major leagues in their living rooms for free than it was to make the trek to see a Single-A game.
Any attempt to return a team, if there was one, probably would have meet huge resistance from the locals. The increasingly affluent coastal cities did not want the tax hikes and the increased local congestion a minor league team and stadium would bring.
The owners of the Ventura County Gulls ran into that problem in 1987 and were forced to move the team after only one season. Even blue-collar Oxnard had trouble finding a stadium for their independent team in the 1990s.
So much for minor league baseball in the Southern California coastal cities. At the same time, it thrives in the Inland Empire of California, where teams play in newer stadiums and regularly hit attendance figures well into the six figures every year. Rancho Cucamonga, the current Dodger Single-A affiliate, had 447,000 fans show up in 1995, while Santa Barbara never even reached six figures in attendance.
The fans in that area are more apt to go to the local park than make the long trek to a major league park, while the growth-oriented city governments are much more open-minded to new stadiums. The sport also does well in inland central California cities like Stockton or Bakersfield, where there are sizable markets that are far away from the larger markets that house the major league teams.
References and Resources
If you’re a baseball fan, you can find a San Diego calendar of events that includes special sports events as well.