Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Visit a Grand Stadium of the Past
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Pac Bell Park, the four-year-old home of the San Francisco Giants, is without doubt the grandest baseball stadium ever erected in San Francisco, one of the grandest ever erected anywhere. But once upon a time, another grand ballpark graced the city, one that also was hailed as among the very best of its time. I highly recommend that you visit it. It's been gone for 44 years, but that shouldn't stop you. Come along with me and I'll show it to you.

Seals Stadium, it was called. Like Pac Bell in downtown China Basin, it was an urban park. It was in the Mission District, deep inside the city, unlike that chill, windswept blot of concrete, Candlestick Park, where the San Francisco Giants played for 40 uncomfortable seasons.

Seals Stadium was the home for 27 years of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, then baseball's top minor league. Like Pac Bell, the stadium was easily accessible by public transportation, with bars and restaurants and other commercial and industrial facilities nearby. But the city was different then, as were baseball crowds. Most Seals fans were men who worked in factories and warehouses in the mixed industrial and residential areas around the stadium, in other adjacent working class districts or down on the waterfront. Some of the Seals themselves worked in the same places during the off-season. In-season and out, many of the players were regulars in the two invariably crowded bars just across from the stadium.

The Seals moved to Honolulu when the major league Giants came to the city in 1958. Seals Stadium was demolished two years later after serving as the Giants' temporary home. It's inconceivable that anyone whoever entered that magnificent, scrupulously maintained jewel box of a ballpark has ever forgotten it:

*The rows of dark green wooden seats set off by ornate arms of black cast-iron stepping one after another into the marbled sky.

*The unbroken expanse of dark green outfield fences, unsullied by the ads that marred those of other stadiums and built higher than most and farther from home plate than most so as to encourage teams to rely on strategy other than simply trying to bash more balls over the fence than their opponent.

*The unbreakable glass that formed the unique screen behind home plate, fashioned of mere wire mesh in lesser parks.

*The smells. The sweet odor of bread baking at Kilpatrick's just beyond the stadium. The sour stench of puddles on the stadium floor, residue of the fluffy white pockmarked foam that rose gently out of the Rainier brewery across from the bakery, drifted lazily over the stadium walls and floated slowly, hypnotically to earth. The compelling aroma of peanuts roasting, of hot dogs and mustard, the fetid odor of cigar smoke.

Not that it was faultless. It was often cold and foggy at Seals Stadium, especially at night. And those dark green seats were hard. But we were young. We didn't mind the cold, and the hard seats provided a great opportunity for enterprising youngsters. It required whole gangs of kids to gather up the brightly striped orange and green cushions that were rented cheaply to fans. Dozens of us would scramble up and down the concrete steps of the stadium after games, dashing along the rows of seats to snap up cushions, often out of each other's grasp, driven to a competitive frenzy by the reward awaiting us. Ten cents each we got -- plus passes to future games -- but only if we worked hard enough and fast enough to grab off enough cushions to satisfy a sharp-eyed supervisor in the crisp black-and-orange uniform of the Seals' concessionaires.

Only a few years later, I was playing at the stadium, as an unsuccessful invitee to a Seals' tryout camp and as a shortstop on one of the semi-professional teams that held their championship games there. I'll never forget standing on the infield gaping in wonder at the expanse of seats above and beside me. I imagined all 25,000 occupied, everyone watching, everyone cheering. What more could life offer anyone?

No contemporary stadium, not Pac Bell or any place else, could possibly be as intimate as Seals Stadium -- not even famed fan-friendly Fenway Park in Boston or Chicago's Wrigley Field. There wasn't a bad seat in the park, no place where you could not see the field clearly. You were closer than just about anywhere else, so close in the lower reaches you could reach out and touch the players, talk to them and, if you felt particularly brave, razz them to their faces.

I remember how as a pre-teenager in the 1940s I would reach over the low railing in left field and into the Seals' bullpen to pluck at the pinstriped sleeve of a hero -- usually Pard Ballou, the great relief pitcher, a friendly, fat-faced man eager, always, to chat with fans young and old. Often there with Pard was backup catcher Bruce Ogrodowski, who tended to the rabbit hutch he kept in the bullpen when not warming up Ballou and his fellow relievers. It's been more than a half-century, but I can still feel the heft of Pard Ballou's uniform shirt and feel the gentle coarseness of the heavy wool on my fingertips.

Our greatest hero, the greatest of all Seals -- even greater than the great Joe DiMaggio who went from the Seals to superstardom in New York -- was legendary manager Lefty O'Doul. For 17 years he was at the stadium, from 1935 to 1951, striding anxiously between the white lines of the third base coaching box, peering intently from the top of the dugout steps, directing fans as well as players.

Often when the Seals fell behind, Lefty would pull a big red bandana from a hip pocket and wave it at the opposing pitcher, a signal for all of us to pull out our pocket handkerchiefs and wave them. When the enemy pitcher faltered, we knew we had helped. We were all on Lefty's team, our team. O'Doul did not leave the Seals by choice. He was fired by a new owner who foolishly believed that would help the team's sagging fortunes. The team -- and attendance at Seals Stadium -- continued in steady decline until the coming of the Giants.

Today I can see, from the dining room window in our home high on a San Francisco hill, Pac Bell Park on the edge of the bay below. From our kitchen window I can see the light towers of Candlestick Park. But what I see most clearly is Seals Stadium.

Copyright Dick Meister