Remembering the ghost towns of Seattle baseball

Mar 1, 2017, 6:31 AM | Updated: Mar 4, 2022, 3:04 pm

In this modern era of professional baseball, spring training is a well-oiled machine. For years, the Mariners have set up shop in Peoria, Arizona to shape up for the season ahead, and to play dozens of exhibition games against other major league teams training nearby.

In 2017, the training facilities and ballparks are first-rate. The desert weather is mild and dry, and almost always baseball-friendly. Chances are, it’ll be this way in Peoria next year, too.

Related: Updates from Mariners spring training in Peoria, Ariz.

But go back 90 years or so, and spring training for Seattle’s pro baseball team was a little less predictable.

Before the Mariners, before the Pilots, before the Angels and before the Rainiers, the pro team around here in the 1920s and 1930s was the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League. They played at Dugdale Park in the Rainier Valley, and baseball historian and collector David Eskenazi says the team was a favorite among local fans.

“They were pretty popular,” Eskenazi said. “In 1920, they had the highest attendance of any minor league team except for Baltimore, which had double the population of Seattle.”

Not surprisingly, Eskenazi says, the team was most popular during their winning years.

The Pacific Coast League

“The Seattle Indians franchise in the 1920s was really pretty successful the first half of the decade,” Eskenazi said. “Between 1920 and 1925, they finished between first and fourth [place] five out of six years, including the [city’s] first Pacific Coast League championship in 1924.”

And Eskenazi says the Pacific Coast League wasn’t a small-time operation.

“Pacific Coast League baseball was the highest level of pro baseball west of the Mississippi from its inception in 1903, until 1958,” Eskenazi said, when the Dodgers and Giants moved west from New York to California.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the Seattle Indians headed south for the late winter to work on their batting and fielding chops, they didn’t visit the Grand Canyon State. Instead, the Indians did their February and March workouts in a dizzying number of small to medium-sized towns all over California, from north of Sacramento to south of Los Angeles.

In fact, a look back at the places where the Seattle Indians trained amounts to a geography lesson of pre-World War II suburban and rural California. A partial list of towns where the team trained includes Taft, Hanford, Santa Cruz, Santa Maria, Hermosa Beach, Santa Monica, San Clemente, Stockton and Woodland.

As early as 1922, small towns in California were already competing against each for the Indians’ presence. That year, the Seattle team trained in Stockton, California.

The Sacramento Union newspaper reported in December that officials from the Marysville, Calif. Chamber of Commerce “wrote to Harry Wolverton, manager of the Seattle club, offering him the use of the municipal ball park and their accommodations.”

It’s not quite “if you build it, they will come,” but it’s close.

Spring training for Pacific Coast League (PCL) teams in that era generally consisted of five or six weeks of workouts, along with exhibition games against other PCL teams with training camps clustered around Los Angeles or the Bay Area. It also meant exhibition games against other major-league teams also training in California, “town teams” made up of local amateurs, and “all-star” teams of amateurs from around a particular region.

After all, in the 1920s, before the rise of football and basketball, baseball truly was the American pastime.

Lori Wear is a curator at Kern Pioneer Village, a museum in Bakersfield, in California’s Central Valley.

“We had all kinds of baseball teams [in Bakersfield],” Wear said. “The various oil field companies had baseball teams, or various businesses would sponsor teams, so just as a pastime, a lot of people in their off-hours would play baseball,” Wear said.

Training in Bakersfield, CA

In 1928, the Indians chose baseball-friendly Bakersfield to host the team’s spring training.

In a phone interview last week, Wear described the deal between the Seattle Indians and a local community organization that brought the team to town. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to imagine that similar deals were common between other cities and other teams.

“[The Seattle Indians] were given a $5,000 guarantee if they were willing to hold their spring training here,” Wear said. “About $2,200 of that would cover their hotel expenses while they were in town, and the additional $2,800 was paid to teams from out of town like the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Chicago Cubs, a club from Denver and the L.A. Colored Giants.”

The $5,000 came from the Bakersfield Lion’s Club. The Lion’s Club paid the team, and then recouped their investment (and tried to make a profit) by selling passes to training camp and tickets to games.

“They had six games against major league baseball teams,” Wear said. “And they sold what were termed 1,500 ‘season permits,’ which allowed people to go to the training camp and watch them practice, but it also gave them tickets to six games against major league baseball teams. And those permits sold for $5 a piece.”

It’s unknown how the Lion’s Club made out on the financial side of the deal, but city residents and civic leaders were pleased to have the team in town that year.

Wear says the Indians played against teams made up of workers from nearby farms and petroleum fields.

“They played various teams up and down the Central Valley,” Wear said. “Fresno, Visalia, and Taft put together an all-star team to play the Seattle Indians, and Taft’s about 40 miles southwest of Bakersfield, so that would’ve been made up of some of these oil field workers.”

Newspaper accounts at the time said that the Seattle Indians had actually settled on Bakersfield as a permanent home for spring training.

“Jumping from one town to another and trying to build training schedules of games that will whip the team into shape has never been satisfactory,” wrote Alex Shults in The Seattle Times in January 1928. “Therefore, if a permanent camp can be obtained, a schedule can be prepared that will stand from year to year, and added to as the Indian bosses see fit.”

But for some reason, the team jumped right out of Bakersfield after 1928.

Greener grass in San Clemente

A year later, the team trained at San Clemente.  This “Spanish village” midway between Los Angeles and San Diego was brand new, and the facilities were first-class. San Clemente was an entirely new beachside community that had been developed (coincidentally, it seems) by former Seattle mayor Ole Hanson.

Hanson was famous for having been mayor during the tumultuous General Strike of 1919 — and infamous for resigning later that year and getting out of Seattle.  (It’s pure coincidence that San Clemente’s other most famous former politician resident, President Richard Nixon, also became infamous for resigning.)

When the Indians announced that they would train there, a Seattle Times reporter called San Clemente a “classy new camp,” writing that “no longer will the San Francisco Seals sniff disdainfully at the Seattle Indians in regard to a spring training camp . . . the Seals, who do their training at Monterey, will now find the Tribe working in a plant every bit as modern as theirs.”

The Indians spent their first spring at San Clemente in 1929. Former mayor Hanson, author of a popular book from that era called “Americanism Versus Bolshevism,” was scheduled to throw out the first pitch on the first day of camp, but San Clemente’s mayor handled the duties instead.

In 1930, the Indians again trained at San Clemente. But change, or perhaps the smell of inland dollars, was already stirring in the fresh, seaside air.

In a foreshadowing of sports franchise moves decades later, there were, apparently, more towns that wanted to host teams than there were teams available to host. In November 1930, The Seattle Times reported that tiny Woodland, Cali. (north of San Francisco) was “trying to coax the Tribe away from Ole Hanson’s Spanish village, where they have trained for the last two seasons.”

Headed north to Clark Field

It must have been effective coaxing, because it worked. Woodland had a brand-new ballpark called Clark Field, and in 1931, the Indians were the first pro team to train there.

The local newspaper described the secretary-manager of the Woodland Chamber of Commerce and his effusive praise for the scheme to host the Indians. It was a combination of economic development and role modeling.

“He pointed out there are only eight or nine cities in California selected for training camps and cited the volume of publicity that will be given Woodland and the large amount of money that will be spent here. More than that he stressed the inspired spirit of emulation of a good example which will be left here by the worthy group of men.”

By 1932, Alex Shults of The Seattle Times had taken notice of this worthy group of men and their peripatetic ways.

“The Seattle Indians have wandered o’er the State of California for their spring training since rejoining the Pacific Coast League in 1919,” Shults wrote. “They’ve toiled at Long Beach, San Clemente, Bakersfield, San Jose, Woodland, Hermosa Beach and now at Santa Cruz. San Clemente, Ole Hanson’s synthetic Spanish Village, entertained them the longest.”

Shults also noted that the nature of spring training had changed, and that income from exhibition game ticket sales had become a factor.

“Time was when the baseball training season was a period for seclusion, intensive training and coaching for younger players,” Shults wrote. “Magnates hunted training camps where there would be no counter attractions to keep players out of bed after the curfew hour; where hot sun would beat down on the toiling athletes, making them sweat away the extra poundage; where rookies could blossom in secrecy until the time came for their unveiling.”

Fiscal influence

“Now all is changed,” Shults continued. “Pacific Coast League magnates find training quarters close to California’s two centers of population — Los Angeles and San Francisco — so they can clean up with exhibition games before the regular season opens.”

Related: The Seattle street named for two Roosevelts

Baseball historian David Eskenazi says that fiscal reasons were probably what drove the team to seek a new place to train nearly every year, but he also says it was a simpler era.

“It was not the really big business that it is these days, and it was the team owner and secretary and personnel just trying to arrange something that would work, trying to do it cost-effectively and just make sure that the field was available,” Eskenazi said.

Bill Castellanos has been involved with baseball on the West Coast for most of his life, and he worked for teams in the Bay Area. He’s in his 80s now.  He’s written books about baseball history, and is an active member of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society. Castellanos says it might have been a matter of spreading the wealth and giving different communities the opportunity to host spring training and reap the financial rewards.

“We’re talking about the Depression years, and they were trying to get the best deal available,” Castellanos said. “Each city had some access to money but not necessarily what the ball club really needed, so they had to pick the cities based on what their availability of funds would be.”

“Beyond that,” Castellanos said, knowing why teams moved so often is “pure guesswork.”

In addition to the financial reasons for moving from town to town each year, there were sometimes other unanticipated benefits from training in a new place every season.

Scouting local talent

Tom Crisp is an amateur historian of semi-pro baseball. He lives in Davis, Calif., but he knows a lot about nearby Woodland. He says the Seattle Indians hit pay dirt during the single spring they spent there in 1931.

“There was a pitcher in high school in a town called Esparto,” not far from Woodland, Crisp said. “He was a senior, and he was about 6’5″ or 6’6″ [and he was a] left-hander.”

Crisp says the Indians’ manager and another member of the team went to Esparto to watch “the kid” pitch.

“The umpire didn’t show up,” Crisp said, “so the manager for Seattle ended up umpiring the game in which this kid threw, and the kid ends up getting signed by Seattle.”

“The kid” was Bill Hartwig, who went on to have something of a storybook career but with a tragic ending. He left Woodland the day he graduated high school in June 1931 to pitch for the Seattle Indians. He also played for the San Francisco Seals and the Sacramento Senators before dying from a kidney ailment in 1935 at age 24.

Fast-forward to 2017 again. While the weather is great and the ballpark is terrific, it’s hard to imagine a story like Bill Hartwig’s coming out of Peoria this year.

Or next year. Or the year after that.

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