Memories of the Game
S.F. Baseball —- A Walk Down Memory Lane
For Those Who Played The Game.
If you were lucky enough to grow up in San Francisco during the depression or post-depression years, you may not have had much (materially) but one of the things that many of us did have (treasured) was playing baseball on the sandlots and parks of the city. We were blessed with plenty of both, and you could always find one. If you couldn’t’t find one in your immediate neighborhood, you made one…..
The origin of a Sandlot for me was finding a vacant lot big enough to play baseball. Some lots, indeed, had a base of sand or a huge field with dirt, tall grass and weeds or simply a rocky dirt lot or a combination of all the above. My first recollection of such a lot was between 3rd St & Old Bayshore Blvd. below Wilde Ave. It was a grassy field on which we teamed up to pull up the high grass & weeds by hand & whatever tools we could acquire from our collective garages. That field became our hangout after school or parts of the weekend. We would choose teams by going hand over hand on the bat -- remember that --? That lot provided us with many happy hours & days.
Another lot I remember was around Candlestick Point at the war-time housing projects. It was an open dirt (mostly rocks) lot that we made into a field. I say we because it was a team effort with kids, big brothers, neighbors and dads clearing away the rocks (we couldn’t’t get them all) but, it was good enough to play ball and one clever dad put the finishing touch on it by building a makeshift backstop. I did live near a grass-filled city playground (Gilman Park) you can still see today from Candlestick Park, but they didn’t’t allow hardball thus the birth of a Candlestick project sandlot field which led to a mini rivalry between the “Gilman “kids and the “Candlestick Project”kids. Not in our wildest dreams did we imagine that we were playing a stone’s throw from a future major league field (Candlestick Park). I couldn’t’t believe it when the Giants began playing at the “Point”in 1960. We thought it was a baseball palace. From the sandlots many of us graduated to city parks, and it seemed that every neighborhood had one…..
THE CITY PARKS
San Francisco had maintained numerous playgrounds throughout the City many of which had baseball fields. Many of the fields were pretty nice to play on, but some offered a challenge. I can remember taking a few bad hops where they hurt, or acquiring “strawberries”on my legs by sliding on some of the hard fields. But, you know what? We enjoyed every minute of those happy times that we spent on those fields. For many of us baseball engulfed our young lives, and we were richly blessed to learn teamwork, sportsmanship, and working toward a common goal as we enjoyed the game. Much of what we learned we carried through life.
The City afforded us the opportunity to play ball in a more organized way, with not only fields, but park recreation directors (many of whom became our coaches) and the birth of recreation leagues between parks throughout the city. My first experience with “Park Ball”was at Bayview Park on 3rd St. near Egbert Ave. (which bordered lettuce and carrot fields). I first played for Bayview Park & park director, the affable Jack Mooney. I can remember going to play other recreation teams at such places as Jackson Park (I can still smell the nearby coffee factory), Rolph Park, Potrero Hill, and Ocean View to name a few. My first out of town road trip is indelible in my memory. We walked several blocks, took a bus to Mission St. and then took the 40 street car all the way to San Mateo, where we played on a “Skin”field and a raised mound. I thought I was in baseball heaven! But there was plenty of baseball left in my life.
By then it was on to Jr. High. I was fortunate to play for a very impressionable coach (Joe Oeschger) an ex-major league pitcher who happened to pitch the longest game in baseball history. His unbelievable 26 inning record performance for the Boston Braves still stands. How many kids got to play for a major leaguer? Maybe it was just the kids from Portola Jr. High? Another impressionable coach that I got to play for about the time I started junior high was the well known and highly respected Joe Gaggero Sr. , at Portola Park (now named Joe Gaggero Sr. field). Joe was an icon in San Francisco baseball as a great coach, motivator and umpire.
During our early teens our attention was diverted somewhat, but not totally, by our new found interest in chasing young girls in addition to fly balls. Sure, we made time for them, but baseball still consumed a big part of our life…..
CONSUMED BY THE GAME
To many young boys City baseball was the consummate diversion that cultivated an interest and love that many of us shared during those times. I’m sure that many can recall the energy and enthusiasm with which we played. We learned to hustle and “chatter”(hey, batter batter!) shouting encouragement to our teammates during games. I can still hear those “Humm Babies”. That enthusiasm made us look forward to every game, every practice, and every day at the park.
It was habitual during summers and weekends getting up bright and early, packing a bag lunch and going to play ball at the park. We would hang out there all day long playing catch, playing pepper and choosing up sides to play games. Sometimes the park directors would umpire for us, and often pitched BP and instructed us. After games we would play more games like “pickle”and “college”. I spent so much time there that in the summer I would get a very brown suntan. One park director Bob (Lefty Arata) gave me a nickname that stuck with me for life -- “Little Bear”.
After spending the day at the park, what would we do when we got home? You guessed it! In the evening we played street ball with kids on the block and streets close by Hollister St., where I lived. We even painted a diamond on our street. It seemed that we couldn’t get enough of the game, (and there were many influences that stimulated our interest)…..
INFLUENCES OF THE GAME
The earliest influences of baseball for me was my older brother, Vince. He played Sandlots baeball for a neighborhood team called “Precita Valley”. I looked up to him and wanted to be just like him. He could really smack the ball and took the time to teach me. I watched him play games primarily at Rolph Park at the edge of Precinct Valley and a few times I got to be bat boy. That was my first influence , but many would follow…..
In my youth we didn’t’t have all of the distractions or the diversions that kids have today.
We had baseball, $.35 cent movies, the S.F. Seals, the Oakland Oaks, old radios, sandlots and parks. Today, kids have TV’s, I-Phones, I-pads, computers, video games, and shopping malls to chase the skirts and money to go on vacations.
Triple A professional ball in our cities stimulated our interest and enjoyment of the game. We were in awe of the players (our heroes really). To get to Seals Stadium, I took a mile walk, a bus & a street car. Sometimes we even rode free by nipping a ride on the cow catcher of the street cars. Remember that? We could get into a game for the price of a movie and sit in the bleachers, or you could pick up cushions after a game and earn a free pass to the next game. Seals Stadium and Emeryville Park in Oakland were intimate parks and a fan’s delight to watch a game. For us the Coast League was big time baseball. We knew all the players back then and even traded playing cards. Many of us became “New York”fans primarily because many local players such as Joe DiMaggio, Frank Crosetti, Jerry Coleman, Charly Silviera, Billy Martin, Bobby Brown, & Gil McDougal to name a few who went on to play for the Yankees. Our “NY”attention faded when the Giants came to town in the late 50’s and gave our baseball lives a whole new dimension. I like to think that we all made it to the Big Leagues!
My fondest memories were at Seals Stadium, watching a game like a bird! Sometimes my friend and I didn’t have enough for car fare and the game too, but the trees outside the stadium, across the street, accommodated us! Way over and beyond the right filed fence there was a raised park with trees that overlooked the stadium. We would pack a lunch, climb a tall one where we could see a good portion of the field, and we would stay perched there for the entire game. It helped that my friend’s dad lent us a war-time pair of binoculars. I wish Norman Rockwell could have seen those two happy boys. Sometimes we would even hitch hike home. Yes, you could do it back then, and feel safe -- another example of the good old days. To enhance those days we were able to experience and love the league play that San Francisco provided us. To this day we still talk about those times and the joy they brought…..
“THE CITY LEAGUES”
San Francisco offered a wide range of league play where we would practice the skills we were learning. Many of us got our start in the recreation leagues organized by the Park and Recreation Department. These were usually conducted and coached by the park directors who took us through a schedule where we would compete against other playgrounds, and you can bet that we would play hard for those little championship medals, or small trophies that we cherished. I’ll bet many can still be found in closets, attics or garages!
There were Saturday leagues which gave us more opportunities to compete. By this time we played for sponsored teams usually coached by volunteer managers who gave much of their time, effort, and most went into their pockets to provide what sponsor’s couldn’t. God Bless those guys. There was even a Saturday “Stadium League”where we got to play in the big park where the Seals played. It made us feel like pros for those brief moments of our lives. We also got to play in the “Stadium”during annual benefit games.
The grand daddy of league play was the “Sunday League”and to us it was huge, something we all looked forward to and couldn’t wait for the end of the week. We planned our lives around Sunday. Games were played at 10:00am, 12:00 and 2:00pm on about 15-20 fields that I can name. Some of them took quite a bit of time and effort to get there on time since it required taking several buses and/or street car rides to get there. We may have been late to school or church, but never to a ball game. Several parks had more than one field. Father Crowley was in the heart of the city and contained 3 diamonds. It seems the bigger games, championships, playoffs, etc were at Funston Field or Big Rec (in Golden Gate Park), especially Big Rec. where you had a game announcer. Sam Levin was the voice of that big beautiful park to say nothing of the thrill of hearing your name over the PA system.
Most games were 7 innings and rarely went longer because of time limits. Leagues were organized by age and ability. The younger ones, ages 10-12 were called C-Novice, followed by
C, B, A, and AA, for high school age and beyond. The Sunday leagues were well organized and highly promoted. Many of us spent our entire Sunday at the park playing and watching other games.
On weekends, schedules were printed in the “San Francisco Chronicle” and were called the Hirsch & Price Bookings, compiled by a highly respected and dedicated gentleman named Al Erle who worked tirelessly to add importance to those memorable times.
Making our league even more memorable was being able to find all Sunday League box scores in the Monday “Chronicle” consisting of 1 or 2 full pages in the “Sporting Green”. These “Green Sheets”could be found in many of our back pockets on Mondays. They kept us up to date as to what our friends throughout the city were doing. The leagues also gave us the opportunity to become friends with players all over the city in addition those on our own teams. It also helped that during the course of our youth most guys played on several teams. When we weren’t playing, we watched our friends play.
If the above wasn’t enough baseball, we also had a Winter League, and a Night League, where we learned to play under the lights at Funston Field in the Marina. It was during these leagues that many of us wore long johns, heavy sweat shirts and turtle necks under our suits & jackets between innings. We may have frozen our family jewels off, but we loved every bit of it.
To add to the city leagues a kid could play CYO ball and American Legion. It seemed like every high school had a Legion team and many churches had CYO teams.
After high school many of us played on traveling teams consisting of post high school guys along with college age and adult men. They also were promoted by the “Chronicle” with the Hirsch and Price Bookings. We traveled all over Northern California, played on some nice fields, and if we were lucky we got meals and lodging paid for. That was the essence of “Semi-Pro Ball”. The last league (a very informal one) that is stored in my memory bank was the “Bums League”. Other parts of the city had their own version of such informal games. The closest one to me was at Bayview Park…..
THE "BUMS LEAGUE"
This “League”took place primarily on Saturday’s and lasted the better part of the day. The players were primarily, (but not all of them), blue collar workers who, after a hard week of work, would like to unwind, and baseball was the perfect vehicle for doing so. These men weren’t just ordinary players. Among them were former high school, college, and ex-minor league players who were incredibly talented and highly competitive. The ages ranged from mid 20‘s to the 40‘s and maybe a few into the 50’s. At the start of the day the first thing they would often do was to get the field ready by forming a line of 15-20 guys who would pick up the pebbles off the infield, pull weeds off the outfield grass and drag the infield with sacks or flat pieces of cardboard. The park director would add the final touch by marking the foul lines and the plate area with powdered chalk.
After the field met the “Bums”approval they would choose sides (it was their version of the 3rd St. draft) and they would decide the stakes, usually 4 bits ($.50/man) and they took an extra collection. The way they played you would think it was for $50.00!! They played hard and played to win. The park director often umped and settled disputes, and there were often many heated discussions (after all, you could get a haircut or at least a beer for half a buck ).
After the hard fought games, the tired warriors would gather in the clubhouse where they would feast on sandwiches bought by the extra collection taken before the game. Each man got a half loaf of french bread stuffed with lunch meats, cheeses and other enhancements. I think they got a deal from the deli up the street because they bought so many of them. Man of the sluggers bought a thermos which I don’t believe contained milk or cola. They would top off the day by continuing to argue or brag about the game and they would spin baseball stories that were fun to listen to. Those bum’s games were a joy to watch, or if you were lucky enough like I was once or twice, you got to be an extra man and would happily play right field and bat last!
In summer, the Bayview “Bums League”provided me with another enduring memory of the game we loved and how we played it…..
HOW WE PLAYED THE GAME BACK IN THE DAY
The rules of the game were enforced by the age old nemesis, the umpire who definitely earned his paltry pay. He did it for the love of the game and certainly not for the abuse given to him. The rules were quite different back then and were often quite a challenge to the “Ump”. Some, rules I can recall:
• One “ump”often called the game behind the pitcher. (He had to be everywhere at the same time and see everything at the same time) Those faithful “umps” had to be wizards!
• More often you had an ump behind the plate and one for the bases (one more to yell at)!
• Checked swings were not usually appealed. The plate ump or the one on the bases called it -- He made the call--case closed!!
• Sometimes the fields were marked, if not, the umpires eyeballs ruled. (not instant replays)!!
• Bean Balls were rarely seen -- usually accidental.
• Length of games were usually 7 innings or by time limit -- extra innings were not common.
• The “umps” were hard working, often from the neighborhood, and we called them by their first names.
• Sometimes an “ump” couldn’t show up so a dad or an uncle or a fan would volunteer. God bless them all, especially the ever dedicated “umps”.
• The equipment we used back then was a story in itself…..
In those days we used what we had, usually the result of used, hand-me downs, gifts (if you were lucky) or 2nd hand purchases:
• HELMETS: What helmets? Our nice soft caps were all the protection we had! As a result, some of the beanings were not very pretty.
• BASEBALLS: Sometimes new, sometimes a gift. When worn out they were often repaired with great care with white adhesive tape -- acquired when mom wasn’t looking.
• BATS: All were wooden. Metal bats were light years away! I often wondered what we could have done if we had used them in our day! If you had your own bat you treasured it, and when cracked many were repaired with tacks and tape acquired from garage or medicine cabinets.
• BATTING GLOVES: In our day the batting glove consisted of the thick skin of our hands.
• SPIKES: (now called cleats) sometimes new or hand me downs or purchased used for a few bucks. I can remember using a file so they wouldn’t get dull.
• CATCHER’S GEAR: Affectionately called the “Tools of Ignorance”, although most catchers were the smartest guys on the team. Their equipment was very bulky, heavy and cumbersome. You had to love those guys, especially in hot weather.
• GLOVES, MITTS: They were like your best friend, made of leather and were not nearly as big as they are today. They were such a treasure you made them last with home repairs and Neits Foot oil. If you couldn’t repair them, shoe makers were very skillful at repairing and restringing and it would cost maybe 6 bits ( equaled 75 cents) or so. During games, far different from today, we would leave our glove on the field, near our position, between innings much like the pros did at that time period.
• UNIFORMS: Were another prized possession and, we treated them with care. We accumulated strawberries on our legs by sliding. Good ol’mom was kept busy sewing, nursing wounds, and patching the pants.
• CUPS: Yes, let’s not forget the cups -- you didn’t catch or play infield without one. They were the MAIN reason many of us went on to have families!!
NOTE: What I have written on these pages is what I would call: “A golden age of sandlot baseball in the City”…..
THE END OF AN ERA
Long gone are the days when San Francisco Sandlot baseball was so very special to so many of us. However, those days are still very much alive in the minds of those of us who played and loved the game. It saddens me to see so many empty baseball diamonds today.
My story has been about my particular baseball experiences growing up in San Francisco in my neighborhood and area of play. I’m sure that many avid baseball lovers can recall similar experiences, unique stories, traditions and rituals that you experienced back in the day in your own area. But, there is one thing that is common to all of us. San Francisco “the City”, Sandlots, its Parks, the Recreation Department, its directors and coaches teamed up to teach us how to play the game and how to play it the right way and to have fun and camaraderie. We learned teamwork, fair play, sportsmanship and a life long love for the game. Yes, we also learned all the necessary skills, such as throwing, fielding, base running and how to smack a ball, and we did it all without the use of metal bats, batting helmets, batting gloves or performance enhancing drugs!
A few points of interest
re: S.F. Equipiment/Rules
A few points of interest on baseball equipment and rules
1.) We never had helmets
2.) We could leave our gloves on the field (behind our position) between innings
3.) We used wooden bats (sometimes repaired with tiny tacks and tape)
4.) We never used batting gloves
5.) Fielding gloves were much smaller mitts
6.) Uniforms were mostly wool with buttons
7.) We always showed our baseball socks
8.) We rarely had checked swing appeals. The umpire behind the plate called it
9.) We usually had 2 umpires, one behind the plate and another for the bases. Sometimes we only had one umpire who called balls and strikes as well as the bases from behind the pitcher's mound (if we had one)
10.) Managers/coaches managed the game on the field - usually not from the dugout