These are the memories that make me a kid again, these memories of a Los Angeles that I can scarcely believe existed and of two Pacific Coast League teams not so much forgotten as overwhelmed by the city's ceaseless charge into the future.
So let me take you back to the early '50s and a Friday night at Gilmore Field, home of the Hollywood Stars. You could always see big names there—Spencer Tracy, Barbara Stanwyck and that crowd—and my parents may well have been looking for them. But I wasn't, because a Star pitcher named Red Munger had caught me staring at him and his enormous chaw of tobacco. Maybe we had box seats, although I can't recall our ever being in that economic bracket, or maybe my head of corn-silk hair stood out like a beacon in the twilight. Time turns so many things hazy, but I do know this: Red Munger grinned and said, "Hiya, Whitey." It was the first time a baseball player ever spoke to me.
Thirty years later, long past being thrilled by conversations with ballplayers, long past even expecting them, I was a Chicago sports columnist covering the dying quiver of a pennant race, but my mind was on old fascinations. I thought of Carlos Bernier. the Star leftfielder who loved arguing with umpires as much as he did stealing bases, and of Johnny Lindell, the dead-armed ex-Yankee outfielder who became a knuckleball pitcher in Hollywood. Mostly I thought of Steve Bilko, who hit so many home runs for the PCL's Los Angeles Angels that I almost gave up on the Stars.
The floodgates of memory had opened, and all because Gene Mauch was in town.
The had been the Angels' second baseman back then, and now, in 1982, he had come to old Comiskey Park as the manager of another band of Angels, the American Leaguers from California. They were in the process of wrapping up a division championship, yet Mauch still labored under the shadow of past failures and a sense that his future would be just as bleak. He never expected anyone to ask about the Coast League and the best days he ever had as a player. When I did, his match stopped short of his cigarette, and his steely gaze softened.
"Where the hell did you come from?" Mauch asked.
He was almost smiling.
I come from the same place Gene Mauch does, a Los Angeles still golden with promise and perfumed by eucalyptus and citrus trees. It is where I was born; it is where Mauch's father migrated when there were no more oil wells to drill in Kansas. As a kid, I lived in the same neighborhood as Mauch, and I remember the other ballplayers who called Ingle-wood home, too: George Metkovich, Peanuts Lowrey and even the National League's 1952 MVP, Hank Sauer. Like so many things viewed in retrospect, that seems a better time. At the very least, it was simpler.
You never traveled by freeway then unless you were going to Pasadena, birthplace of those concrete snakes. There were buses, there were the venerable Red Line streetcars, there were the old coupes that you always wished could fly when they were winding you over Laurel Canyon or Beverly Glen into the San Fernando Valley. And then there were the bikes that Irv Noren and his buddy Norm Hallajian rode to see the Angels play in Wrigley Field, the double-decked replica of its Chicago namesake. This is the same Irv Noren who grew up to give the Stars an MVP season in 1949 and then patrolled the outfield for the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees. But in the late '30s he was a transplant from upstate New York, a baker's son who prayed he was seeing his destiny every Saturday when he and Norm pedaled from their Pasadena homes down through Eagle Rock and Highland Park, past downtown L.A. and on to Wrigley. at 42nd and Avalon just southeast of the Coliseum.
"We'd park right in front of the stadium," Noren says, "just lean our bikes against the wall and go in with the Knothole Gang. Wouldn't even lock 'em."