Thirty-seven home runs in '55, 55 in '56, 56 in '57—who needed Mays or Mantle, Williams or Musial, when we had Bilko making that kind of noise? True, he had washed out of the majors after a 21-homer season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953, and there was no denying that the Coast League pitchers he hit best were mediocrities. But it was far more important that he wasn't some remote god who never deigned to come any closer to L.A. than the western bank of the Mississippi. You could watch Bilko bash another one out of Wrigley Field and get a moonfaced grin afterward when you shoved your scorecard at him for an autograph.
Little did I know that he was upholding a long and honorable tradition. Almost since the PCL hit town in 1903, there had been one charismatic galoot or another on hand to make L.A. forget what it was and he wasn't. The most enduring of them all was Jigger Statz, who would have been memorable on the strength of his name alone if he hadn't brought so much more to the Angels. For 18 years, the longest run any player ever had with a single minor league team, Jigger roamed center-field wearing a glove he had carved the palm out of—all the better for feeling the ball, you understand—and making catches that still had native son Duke Snider in awe when he was vying with Mays and Mantle for the kingship of New York. "The writers would ask Duke who the best centerfielder he ever saw was," Noren recalls, "and Duke would always say Jigger Statz."
Statz was just a little rascal, not quite 5'8", couldn't have weighed more than 150 pounds with rocks in his pockets, but he was Bilko's match when it came to casting shadows. He stole as many as 61 bases in a season, batted as high as .360, and Mauch remembers skipping school in 1942, Statz's farewell campaign, to watch him hit two homers on Opening Day. ("Only two he hit all year," Mauch says.) And yet, for all of that, there was something missing, something that kept Statz from sticking with the Cubs and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Los Angeles was his safety net.
Bilko knew the feeling. So did most of the other Stars and Angels I worshiped as a kid. For every Bill Mazeroski or Dale Long, every Noren or Zernial who blew through town on his way to the big show, there were dozens of others who couldn't survive in that rarefied 16-team atmosphere. But I didn't care that Frank Kelleher hadn't cut it in Cincinnati's outfield: he was the heart of the Stars, an amiable lug who hit 226 homers in 10 seasons and got to see his beloved number 7 retired. Nor did it matter to me that the New York Giants had found Roger Bowman wanting; it was more important that the last of his 22 wins in 1954 was a perfect game that tied Hollywood with the original San Diego Padres for first place.
"We were journeymen, I was well aware of that," Bowman says. "But I kept playing for the simple reason that this was what I did best and what I loved best. When I quit, it was going to be forever. So I told myself that until that happened, I was going to suck the marrow right out of the game."
In every other town in the Coast League, tough, proud men echoed that sentiment with bats, balls and, more than occasionally, fists. Some of them you've probably never heard of—Joe Brovia in Portland, Earl Rapp in Oakland and San Diego. But others had names that still ring a bell. Ernie Lombardi, a Hall of Fame career in the National League behind him. caught for Casey Stengel's Oakland Oaks until he was in his 40's. Joe Gordon, the old Yankee second baseman, hit 43 homers as the Sacramento Solons' playing manager in 1951, and two years later, Bob Dillinger, owner of a .306 career average in the majors, rang up a league-leading .366 for the Solons. And how about Bob Elliott, whose two home runs led San Diego past the Stars in their one-game '54 pennant playoff? Seven years earlier Elliott had been the toast of the Boston Braves and the Most Valuable Player in the National League. Add those men to the Angels and the Stars and you have far more than a league that fulfilled its duty when it spawned Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. You have the best minor league ever.
"The best by far." says former Hollywood righthander Ben Wade, who studied the Triple A competition when he played in the International League and the American Association. The Coast League of Wade's era wound up with five of its towns in the majors—L.A., San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, Seattle. But long before then, the PCL was traveling in big league fashion. Oh, there were still trains—Cece Carlucci, the old umpire, is unashamedly poetic when he talks about pulling into Seattle on the Great Northern—but by the mid-'50s airplanes were the thing. "Three-hundred-mile-an-hour Convairs," Bowman says. "Boy, that was hot stuff." And wherever the planes landed was somewhere the players didn't mind being, which was good because they hit each town for a week at a time. They would play single games Tuesday through Saturday and a doubleheader on Sunday, the second game being what sportswriters unfailingly referred to as "the abbreviated seven-inning nightcap."
It may have been the most civilized existence baseball has ever seen, and payday made it better yet. "I came from the big leagues and got a pay raise," Chuck Stevens says. Maybe the 1949 Stars were in better shape to pay this slick-fielding, spray-hitting first baseman than the St. Louis Browns had been; after all, Hollywood's pennant winners drew nearly 600,000 fans. But you hear the same story again and again from former Stars and Angels, which suggests that money preoccupied ballplayers even when they made seven grand a year.
Not that seven grand was the ceiling. "I'll bet Frank Kelleher pulled down 15, maybe even 17 thousand dollars," Noren says. And there have always been stories that Bilko took a pay cut when Cincinnati summoned him back to the bigs in 1958.
Of course I was no more aware of that than I was of the fact that the Stars' and Angels' insistence on televising every home game was eating their attendance alive. All I knew was that TV made it that much easier to watch baseball played by men toughened by the Depression and World War II, men who threw to the right base, balked at the idea of batting helmets and wouldn't let Zernial wear gold shoelaces when he made his debut in a Hollywood uniform. The shoelaces, I hasten to point out, weren't Zernial's idea; they were on the only pair of spikes he could find as he hurried to join the Stars in time for Opening Day. Fair enough, but his new teammates still made Zernial give the laces a coat of black shoe polish. If anyone wanted to be colorful, he had to do it on terms the veterans understood. He could throw ground beef to the boo birds in San Francisco, the way Chuck Connors did. Or he could get back at the umpires the way Hollywood manager Bobby Bragan did when they didn't enforce the curfew in his own ballpark: The next night Bragan sent a coach to home plate with watches up and down his arms and an alarm clock around his neck.