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    Mudville: December 2, 2021 8:42 am PDT
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    A Pitcher’s Hell

    The 1974 Sacramento Solons were an illusion. They were never as good as their offensive numbers said they were nor were they as bad as their pitching numbers indicated.

    Rather, they simply had the misfortune of playing in what could possibly be the worst baseball stadium any team ever called home. Hughes Stadium, which was a horseshoe-shaped park used primarily for football and track, was converted to a baseball venue prior to the 1974 season, a year in which ridiculous would prove to be one of the kinder adjectives used to describe what the Solons, who were the Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, had to endure.

    Hughes Stadium’s left-field fence was a mere 232 feet away from home plate. While there was a 40-foot screen erected atop the wall, it did little to stop the home-run barrage that took place that season in Sacramento. It also did little to help the pitching staff’s ERA, which ballooned with every passing game.

    The Solons cracked 305 total home runs, which would be considered the modern Pacific Coast League record if not for the fence. There were also 491 homers hit overall at Hughes Stadium, which would be another single-season PCL record.

    While both marks are mentioned in the PCL record book, they are both accompanied by a double asterisk, indicative of the fact that the fence at Hughes Stadium was less than 250 feet away from home plate. Official Baseball Rule 1.04 that states “The distance from home base to the nearest fence, stand or other obstruction on fair territory shall be 250 feet or more. A distance of 320 feet or more along the foul lines, and 400 feet or more to center field is preferable.” The right-field corner was closer to 300 feet while center field was just shy of 400 feet.

    “There are also a lot of stories where arms mysteriously hurt late in the evening because they didn’t want to go in.

    Bill McNulty, a Sacramento native, was the Solons third baseman that season. He led the minor leagues with 55 homers and was largely disappointed about Hughes Field.

    “People were real happy to come to that park,” said McNulty, 74, who hit 44 homers in Sacramento. “As a Sacramento native, though, I was embarrassed. There were about 100 scouts who lived in the area and one of the only reasons they came there is because it was a novelty park. Other scouts only came because Sacramento was a baseball mecca and [Hall-of-Famer] Bob Lemon was our manager and the older scouts knew him. You couldn’t really scout a guy there.

    “It [Hughes] was built at Sacramento City College, which was a junior college, and it was there for a long time. It had real poor lighting and it didn’t have a batter’s eye [in center field] or anything like that. But we put more than 300,000 [actually 295,831] people in there that year because the configuration was so different and unique.”

    McNulty finished five homers shy of the PCL record set by Hall-of-Famer Tony Lazzeri, whose 60 round trippers for Salt Lake City in 1925 remain the standard. Lazzeri, however, did that in a 197-game season over the course of 710 at-bats. While McNulty led the minors in homers, the fact that his stats were skewed by the park allowed for Spokane’s Tom Robson [.322, 41 HR, 131 RBI] to win the league MVP.

    In addition to McNulty, though, future Brewers great Gorman Thomas also took advantage of the situation. He finished second in the minors with 51 home runs. The sluggers are believed to be only the second pair of teammates to hit 50 home runs a minor league season, according to the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. The previous time the feat was accomplished was in 1924 when J. Wilbur Davis and Stormy Davis each hit 51 homers for Okmulgee of the Class C Western Association.

    Throw in future Brewer Sixto Lezcano [34], Stephen McCartney [32] Tommie Reynolds [32] and Tommy Bianco [28] and Sacramento had six of the top 13 home-run hitters in minor league ball in 1974.

    “You had guys get jammed so bad that they broke their bats and the ball still went over the wall,” said McCartney, who was originally drafted by the Seattle Pilots before they moved to Milwaukee for the 1970 season. “Guys would be trying to do anything they could to pull the ball. From the other side, lefties would be trying to push it because they knew they could get it to or over the fence. It taught some bad hitting habits for sure.”

    COMING BACK TO THE CAPITOL

    Sacramento was one of six teams in what was the original Pacific Coast League, joining the circuit in 1903 as the offspring of what was then known as The California State League. The Solons, Sacts and Senators, all three of the names by which the Sacramento franchise was known, remained part of the PCL through 1960. Attendance began to wane, though, after the Giants arrived in San Francisco in 1958 and the Sacramento franchise was sold and moved to Hawaii.

    The city would not have a professional baseball team again until 1974 when the Eugene [Ore.] Emeralds moved down the coast after it became apparent that their city could not support a Triple-A franchise. Edmonds Field had been the long-time home of the previous Sacramento franchise but by 1974 it had been razed and replaced by a shopping center, leaving the team with no choice but to play at Hughes Field. According to the Sporting News [Sept. 28, 1974], the building was deemed unsafe for school use because of a California-earthquake law that restricted use on public-school owned property. There were no restrictions, however, on private use, such as the field serving as a PCL venue.

    So while the players grumbled, the fans were thrilled. The Solons led the minor leagues in attendance but it was obvious from the outset that the park played more like a little league field than anything close to resembling a Triple-A venue. There were 51 home runs hit through the first six games at Hughes, more than half of which were to left field. Sacramento decided to add more netting, extending it into centerfield after that but to no avail. There were nearly 100 home runs hit through 13 games and the barrage was just beginning.

    Twice during the season the Solons and the opposition combined for 14 home runs in one game. Twice there were five home runs hit in one inning and in one game there were four consecutive homers hit. Tack on another game that featured three grand slams and Hughes Field certainly lived up to the billing as the novelty act scouts considered it to be.

    PCL writers began comparing it to the L.A. Coliseum, which had a similar look and set of dimensions when the Dodgers played there immediately following their move from Brooklyn, but there really wasn’t much of a comparison. Though the Coliseum was 250 down the left-field line [with the requisite screen] and 320 to left center, it opened up considerably to 425 and 440 feet as you rounded center field. And, according to SABR’s Don Zminda, while the Coliseum saw a Major League-leading 193 home runs hit in 1958, that was still 26 fewer than the high point in 1957 [Crosley Field]. And, no Dodger hit more than 14 homers in one season at the Coliseum in any of the four years the Dodgers played there.

    ``It's 'legit!': The left-field line at Hughes Stadium for 1975 will conform to the minimum standard of 250 feet as required by the rules of organized baseball. Bob Fretias, left, field representative of the National Association of Professional Baseball leagues (minors), made sure of it yesterday when he joined Hughes field contrator Ed Estrada and John Carbray, general manager of the Sacramento Solons at home plate. The actual distance will be 251 feet. They also measured the other distances -- to center 395, to right 309, to left-center (at the third pole) 326 and to right-center (scoreboard) as 342. The 40-foot screen will remain in left, the 30-footer in left-center and the eight foot fence in right``

    “The writers did compare it to the Coliseum,” McNulty said. “It [Hughes] had more realistic dimensions in center and right field after they put up that screen. While you might hit a ball hard and have it go out in another park, it would still run into that screen and turn out to be a single. Or, you’d hit a pop-up that would be an out somewhere else and it would get over the screen.

    “I just focused on keeping my swing the same, though. You played half the season on the road so you don’t want to change it too much.”

    Some players did try to change their swing, though, and it proved beneficial. Consider Jack Lind, a light-hitting infielder who had a career .231 batting average with 32 homers in 10 minor league seasons. Lind batted a career-best .293 that year for Sacramento with 18 homers. Though he was a switch-hitter, he said he batted predominantly from the left side.

    “I changed my [style of] hitting and just tried to hit the ball off the screen in left center,” Lind said. “It was the best year of my career and it was mostly as a lefty hitter. We didn’t have hitting coaches back then until you got to the big leagues so I changed my stance and learned how to hit the ball to the opposite field.

    “We had three or four big guys with unbelievable power. It was a joke, really, but for me it was a way to improve everything about my hitting. Back in those days a lot of the hitting instruction was hit line drives and go gap-to-gap. I decided that I was going to do that every day in practice and the games and I didn’t worry about hitting home runs or anything like that. It worked out great for me.”

    Tom Hausman

    Tom Hausman, 1974

    NOT A PITCHER’S HAVEN

    To no one’s surprise, the Solons allowed a league-worst 1,030 runs, an average of 7.15 per game, while the staff had a league-worst 6.70 ERA. Starter Thomas Hausman allowed 50 home runs and had a 6.00 ERA in 180 innings.

    “On June 4th I had a 9-3 lead against Tacoma with two out and nobody on. They hit four consecutive homers against me and another against my reliever,” Hausman told The Sporting News in September of 1974. “I’ll try to forget but I’ll never get that game out of my mind as long as I live. This place had me on the verge of quitting but if there’s one thing I got out of this it is this, no manager will ever have to come to the mound and tell me the game is never over until the last man is out. Even if they lengthen the fence to 250 or 260 feet, I don’t want to come back.”

    Hausman, who passed away in 2019, went on to pitch in 160 games over a seven-year Major League career, surrendering fewer homers [37] than he did in one season in Sacramento. His Solons teammate Gary Cavallo would enjoy no such luxury as getting to move on from Sacramento. Cavallo saw his four-year career come to an end in 1974.

    Cavallo, who was released the following spring by Milwaukee, allowed 40 homers and finished with a 9.16 ERA in 32 games for the Solons in 1974.

    “Well, your ERA was seven or eight or nine and that was good,” he said. “You didn’t feel bad about the ERA, but when others looked at it they thought it was terrible but they didn’t realize how short the field was. People back home would look at your ERA and say “Wow” but they didn’t realize it was Sacramento.

    “We had some interesting stories about that place like leading 13-1 in the eighth inning and then the game is tied in the ninth. There are also a lot of stories where arms mysteriously hurt late in the evening because they didn’t want to go in. It was a rude awakening for pitchers but you couldn’t say you didn’t want to play there. I haven’t been back to Sacramento since. But at least I learned what a Solon [a wise and skillful lawgiver] was.”

    Note the positioning of the baseball field.

    The only pitcher who seemed to not notice the dimensions was Spokane’s Steve Dunning, a nine-game winner who made 22 PCL starts that season. He tossed a no-hitter at Hughes on Aug. 16, proving that it was possible, in the short term at least, to have some success there.

    “You just tried to bang them inside more,” Cavallo said. “You never wanted to throw more outside where they could extend. You pitched inside because that is what you could do back then. But then you pitched at Albuquerque where the air is so thin and that was different or Tacoma where it rained all the time and that was different.

    “I was just trying to throw to spots, keeping it low or high and in. I didn’t try to get into the hitter’s head, though. I had enough problems of my own.”

    The Milwaukee Brewers even traveled to Sacramento to play the Solons in what was a common practice at the time. A Major League team would often go to their Triple-A affiliate’s park to give that team a boost in attendance and give the fans the chance to see the Major Leaguers.

    Cavallo had the opportunity to pitch that game and was hoping that a good showing would be enough to spark some front office interest and earn him a promotion. That proved not to be the case, due in large part to the park.

    “I was elected to start and it was an honor because if I did well, it might have left an imprint in their heads, telling them ‘he’s ready’,” Cavallo said. “I was a little over anxious, though, and I remember George Scott hit a fly ball to center that would have been an out anywhere else and I would have been out of the inning. But, it was a home run.

    “I got really mad and I got over excited and just wasn’t in a rhythm [after that]. I pitched three and a half innings and gave up three runs and that would be the one time I was mad at the park. You had one shot and if you did real well, you might be going up the next week.”

    HOMERUN OR BUST

    While Lind tailored his swing to the park, most batters who weren’t hitting home runs were frustrated by the short field. Double plays on grounders to left-field became commonplace as did players getting thrown out at first on sharper hit balls to left.

    McCartney played left field despite being an infielder throughout his career. The club moved him to the outfield to make room at shortstop for Robin Yount and to allow him the opportunity to learn a new position. Unfortunately, he was sent to Sacramento.

    “That was the story line they gave me,” he said. “They wanted me to go to Triple-A to learn how to play the outfield. But then they park me in Sacramento where there is no outfield. It was a wasted experience. It was not the learning experience I had hoped it would be.”

    McCartney holds the PCL record for most double plays started by an outfielder in one game [three] but, oddly enough, that game took place in Spokane on July 29.

    1975 AND BEYOND

    The Solons [66-78] finished last in the West Division in 1974, a half-game behind Tucson for the worst record in the league. They wound up with the worst record [59-85] in 1975 but did lead the league in attendance [252, 201]. The pitching staff once again had the worst ERA [5.71]

    Dig the shorts.

    Sacramento changed the dimensions of the field slightly in 1975 and raised the fencing. It helped some but the Solons still led the league in home runs [196]. Bob Hansen topped the circuit with a more modest 29 homers, which was good enough for third in all of the minor leagues.

    The club changed affiliations, moving on to the Texas Rangers, for the 1976 season but the results were the same. Sacramento led the league with 183 homers but authored another losing season [71-72]. It also had the worst ERA [6.07] in the league and this time the home runs weren’t enough to satiate the fans. Sacramento finished last in attendance [82, 324], the novelty having worn off.

    The Solons, were hopeful that a new ballpark would get built it never happened and the club was leased to San Jose for the 1977 season. After two seasons in San Jose, the club was returned to Sacramento and promptly moved to Ogden, Utah, thus closing the book on the Sacramento Solons.

    PCL baseball returned to Sacramento in 2000 following the construction of a new ballpark. The River Cats, as they were now called, would go on to have much greater success as an affiliate of first the Oakland A’s and then the San Francisco Giants, finishing first in their division 12 times between 2000 and 2019. Sacramento won PCL championships in 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2019. The Cats also won the Triple-A National Championship in 2007 and 2008, defeating the champion of the Triple-A International League in a one-game playoff.

    “Some of the people who went there might have fond memories,” said Marshall Garvey, baseball historian and author of The Hidden History of Sacramento Baseball. “Now that we have Sutter Health Park [formerly Raley Field], I don’t think Hughes is remembered all that fondly. It [Hughes] was always supposed to be a temporary thing. They were always hoping to secure their own stadium and even tried a ballot initiative in 1975.

    “I don’t think overall, though, that Hughes is like Ebbets Field where it is cast in a nostalgic glow. It’s remembered more as a funny curiosity. The Solons had some good players but those Solons [1974-76] were more comic relief. They were a curiosity, the middle child between the old Solons and the [current] River Cats.”

    Or, they were simply an illusion.

    Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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