Ten bucks for one field of dreams

A brief history of pro ball in Contra Costa county

Special to the Martinez Gazette

“Bush League” – Also see “Bush-leaguers”. Adj.

1) being of an inferior class or group of its kind : marked by a lack of sophistication or professionalism

Some folks toss out the term “semi-professional baseball” to describe teams like the neophyte Martinez Clippers – hoping to distinguish top-salaried Big League pros from gig ballplayers who play the game for grins and stipends.

But the Clippers don’t care to be known as a “semi-pro” team, and who could blame them? The new local nine consider themselves part of “an independent league” ranked at a “high single-A minor league level” – although the six-team Pacific Association is not connected in any way with Major League Baseball and its full multitude of contract players, impartial umpires, licensed brands and dedicated minions decorated in team swag.

Paraprofessional baseball is nothing new to Contra Costa. Many so-called “semi-pro” teams existed throughout the county, particularly around the turn of the Twentieth Century and well into the World War years. Like Vaudeville, these ball clubs began to fade away with the advent of television and stay-at-home families diverted by other “post-war” pastimes. Some of them downgraded into adult recreational softball leagues open to anyone who could regularly show up for games.

Urban sophisticates called these underpaid players “bush-leaguers” – implying they were lost in The Sporting Outback somewhere south of Down Under. The term also applied to any minor league team not within the “Big Leagues”.

But on these underfunded local teams, a self-certain attitude always persisted – “If-you-build-it-they-will-come”. Indeed three of these 20th Century “Field-of-Dreams” ballparks have survived to this very day – and that’s half of the Pacific Association’s venues. The Vallejo Admirals still use that town’s charming old wooden ballyard in Wilson Park, the San Rafael Pacifics call venerable Albert Park home and the Sonoma Stompers use Arnold Field just a short walk north of the town square.

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In the old days, if your team couldn’t afford the luxury of a neighborhood ballyard, it used a convenient farmer’s field. Curious, isn’t it, that ballyards are often called “fields” to acknowledge the sport’s grass-roots? “Once in a while,” wrote Nilda Rego, “the farmer would want his field back and the team would have to move.”

Port Costa (current population 228) once was a major West Coast deep-water port that supported teams known as the Tigers, the Wild Cats and the Bull Valleys. In the 1920s, the growing towns of Concord, Pittsburg, Antioch, Richmond joined with Martinez to field semi-pro teams in the Three C League. A hundred years ago, Pacheco (current population 3,685) cheered for its All-Stars.

Rego in her 1988 Contra Costa Times article – “The national pastime was once a local obsession” – quotes Ernie Mangini whose father played for those Pacheco Stars:

“You brought in a pitcher, paid him ten dollars. That was big money.”

Rego also wrote that in the 1930s “every major manufacturing plant in the county seemed to have a baseball team”. And plant managers were always scouting for potential employees who also were productive on the basepaths. Shell Oil, and Union 76 fielded rival teams in the Refinery League. Then, as now, players had colorful names – Louis Ferreira, Poly Northcutt, Coco Commuzzi.

Martinez historian Tom Greerty recalls the Refinery League was filled with a lot of former major leaguers who played “really good baseball”. And they “got paid” for playing ball at night by working for Shell in the daytime.

“It was a way to get a good job,” Greerty said. “The refineries were always looking for a worker who could play second base.”

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Thanks to Harriett Burt and Tom Greerty; Andrea Blachman and Richard Patchin at the Martinez Museum; Priscilla Couden and Maxine Brown at the Contra Costa History Center for all their help is preparing this brief report.

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