At the turn of the 20th century, the three most popular sports in America were horse racing, boxing, and baseball. Many of the two million Americans living on the west coast were hungry to watch and cheer for teams playing these sports, and luckily for them, at the turn of the century, their population was large enough to make a professional baseball league financially feasible. Thus, the Pacific Coast League was born in 1903. Six teams were in the PCL’s first class. One of which was the Los Angeles Angels.
The league flourished for over fifty years as the highest quality baseball found west of St. Louis. In addition to the Angels, the league included teams like the San Diego Padres, the Hollywood Stars, the Oakland Oaks, the San Francisco Seals, the Seattle Rainiers, and the Salt Lake City Bees. Several MLB Hall of Famers got their starts in the PCL. Joe DiMaggio, Paul Waner, and Bobby Doerr played for the Seals. Ted Williams played for the Padres. And Bill Mazeroski was one of the Hollywood Stars. Future MLB Angels skipper Gene Mauch played second base for the Angels at one point, as did future white-haired HoF manager Sparky Anderson. Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda even pitched one year for the Los Angeles Angels.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Wrigley chewing gum family was big in California baseball. Not only did they own the Los Angeles Angels, but they also had their Chicago Cubs train on nearby Catalina Island every spring. In 1925 they built a new stadium in South Los Angeles for the Angels to use. It was called Wrigley Field, and the Angels called it home until 1957. (Not only did the PCL Angels use this facility, but the MLB Angels also used this stadium for the first year of their existence.) The stadium had 20,500 seats, a tall clock tower behind home plate, and the iconic Wrigley Field concrete outfield walls covered in ivy where line drives would go to hide.
Being so near to Hollywood, producers were drawn to use the Angels’ stadium in tv shows and movies. The classic Lou Gehrig biopic, The Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper was filmed at Wrigley. The tv show The Gilette Homerun Derby featuring MLB’s top sluggers battling head to head was filmed here as well. Mickey Mantle got the best of Willie Mays in the series’ opening episode.
Over the course of the PCL’s heyday, from 1903 to 1957, the Los Angeles Angels were the league champions 12 times. They won the first ever PCL championship in 1903, being led by future MLB Hall of Famer Dummy Hoy who played in all 212 games that season.
The last PCL championship the Angels won was in 1956. They won in large part by the tenacious hitting of Gene Mauch who batted .348 and scored 123 runs that year, and by the ferocious hitting of the league’s triple-crown winning MVP, Steve Bilko, who hit for a .360 average, smashed 55 home runs, and knocked in 164 RBI.
“Stout Steve” was an Angels hero and beloved fan favorite. And as a fan back then, how could you not love a guy who, in addition to his feats of 1956, hit .328 with 37 HRs for your team in 1955, and hit .300 with 56 HRs in 1957?
But then came the Dodgers. Brooklyn owner Walter O’Malley bought the Angels from Philip Wrigley in 1956 and then ran the team out of town two years later to make sure the Los Angeles area baseball fans had just one team in town to cheer for – the Dodgers. The Angels were relocated to Washington and became the Spokane Indians. When Major League Baseball came to the west coast, the PCL couldn’t compete, so in order to survive, it had to morph into a triple A league, which is how it continues to exist to this day.
After seeing how popular the early LA Dodgers were, MLB was eager to cash in on the lucrative LA market, so it announced that it was going to expand in 1961 to include an American League Los Angeles team. Gene Autry, the famous movie cowboy turned businessman, decided he wanted in, and the franchise was awarded to him. He wanted to continue the good name of the Los Angeles Angels, but Walter O’Malley owned the rights to it. Autry had to buy the name from O’Malley for $300,000 in order to be able to use it.
In the expansion draft of 1960, Autry and the Angels used one of their picks to sign an aging first baseman named Steve Bilko from the Detroit Tigers. In the Angels’ first MLB season in 1961, Bilko platooned at first base with Ted Kluszewski and had a productive year. The former Angels superstar hit 20 homeruns and reached base a healthy 40% of the time.
And fittingly, the last home run ever to be hit at Wrigley Field was hit by the former PCL Angel, Steven Thomas Bilko. Pinch hitting in the ninth inning with two outs and nobody on, in an eventual 8 – 5 loss against the Cleveland Indians on October 1, 1961, Bilko sent the last Wrigley homer soaring over the left field wall.