Memories of the Game
When baseball was bush league and hit home with everybody
Written by: Carl Nolte, Native Son column
San Francisco Chronicle, April 3, 2016
It is spring, the skies are blue, and baseball is back. The Giants and the Dodgers open up the season this week, a good time to go over to the Double Play Bar and Grill for lunch the other day and soak up some of the flavor.
The Double Play is a San Francisco baseball shrine, right across the street from the old Seals Stadium, where the Giants and the Dodgers brought big-league baseball to the West Coast back in 1958.
We had lunch with John Ward, a walking encyclopedia of baseball. He didn’t want to talk about the big leagues and the season to come. He wanted to talk about small-time baseball and seasons long gone.
Baseball used to be part of everyone’s life in Northern California, he said. It still is, but he thinks there is a big difference. Now people watch baseball on television, or at the ballpark, sitting on their duffs, watching the game.
200 teams in S.F.
Back then, they played baseball on organized teams, in organized leagues. Hardball with wooden bats. The real game. Ward, who has developed a website all about these diamond days, says there were 1,600 teams in Northern California — 200 in San Francisco alone.
Ward’s website, a labor of electronic love, offers 7,000 photographs, rosters of teams, videos, box scores and thousands of names. The website is www.goodoldsandlotdays.com, and it is a celebration of what they used to call the bush leagues.
“Now calling something bush league is kind of an insult,” Ward said, but back then newspapers listed the schedule — “Where the Bushers Play Today” — every Sunday. On Monday morning, The Chronicle’s Sporting Green had almost a full page of bush-league box scores.
Everybody, it seems, had a team: bars, restaurants, breweries, labor unions, big companies with a lot of workers, sporting goods stores, auto dealers.
Bernstein’s Fish Grotto on Powell Street had a team. So did the Double Play. Horsetrader Ed, the famous used car showman on Van Ness Avenue, sponsored a team. Every small town had a team, and so did most city neighborhoods. There were ethnic teams: an African American league played in the East Bay and there were many Japanese teams. One of them, the San Jose Ashahi, was so good it barnstormed in Japan, playing college nines.
The Chronicle had a team that went 18-5 in the Class B National League, playing foes like the Marina Lions, the Columbia Park Boys Club, the San Quentin Prison All-Stars and Romey’s Market. Columnist Herb Caen played first base in 1940 and ’41. The only other big name was Ed Dougery, a former Cal player who covered Oakland cops for the paper.
Rising to big leagues
Ward, a one-time politician who served a dozen years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, got hooked on baseball when he was a kid sportswriter, making 5 cents a column inch for stories in the old San Carlos Enquirer. Later, he managed a semipro club on the Peninsula.
Now he’s a property and political consultant, but he’s never lost his love for baseball.
He has a soft voice and a faraway look in his eyes when he talks about this nearly vanished world. It was a semipro game for the most part.
“Some of the players were paid, and some not,” he said. “The umpires got five bucks a game, and sometimes the sponsor would slip $5 to a pitcher. Or they’d pass the hat.”
The games were pretty good, and the big-league scouts would watch them closely. A few of the players became famous: the three DiMaggio boys out of San Francisco and dozens of others. San Francisco in particular was a hotbed of baseball.
Al Erle, who ran a San Francisco sporting goods store, was the de facto commissioner of semipro ball. He’d schedule hundreds of games a week and fill the newspapers with bush baseball lore.
His motto: “Now remember fellows, it’s all for one and one for all. Go out there and hustle.” Corny stuff, right out of the old ballpark.
Ward recalled famous road trips. “We loved to play the Tiburon Pelicans, a town team,” he said. “We changed in a saloon and went there for beer afterwards.
“A favorite trip was to Occidental, up in Sonoma County. The outfield ran uphill, so you didn’t have to chase the ball when it was hit up there. It would roll back down. After the game was a full dinner at Negri’s or the Union Hotel.”
His website covers 100 years of sandlot and semipro ball, ending in 1980. The peak? About 1947, Ward said, after the young men had come back from war.
Some teams remain
Changing times — and big-league ball — killed off small-time baseball, he thinks.
There are still a few teams. The San Francisco Demons of the Latin American League is one. Their home field is Crocker Amazon playground. There are others, including the Novato Knickerbockers of the Sacramento Rural league. But it’s not the same.
Will it ever come back? Ward shook his head, sadly. “No,” he said.