Eighty years ago this October, Heber Epperson, an amateur photographer and a friend of PCL Padres manager, Cedric Durst, was allowed onto Lane Field in San Diego to take pictures of that day’s batting practice.
This wasn’t just any BP.
Across the country, the World Series was going strong and on that day, October 5, 1941, Brooklyn’s Mickey Owen would not catch a strike three spitball on Tommy Heinrich with two out in the ninth inning in Game 4 as the Yankees rallied to get the pivotal victory, but the baseball story of the day in San Diego was taking place at Lane Field.
A PCL All-Star team headed by hometown hero Ted Williams was playing a team from Los Angeles. On Williams’ team was slugger Jimmie Foxx. The two were on a barnstorming tour and also put on a Home Run Derby before the game.
Epperson, armed with his camera, took a series of shots of the Splendid Splinter in batting practice, a number of different swings. Linked together, though, these images became the first known color action photographs of Ted’s magnificent swing, a swing that exactly one week earlier collected six hits in a season-ending doubleheader to finish the 1941 season with a .406 batting average, the last player to hit .400.
The world was about to change as well. In two months the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor and Ted Williams would go on to become a Marine pilot.
These magnificent color slides were hidden away in a cigar box for nearly 60 years before being discovered in the home of Autumn (Durst) Keltner when her son Russell was sent to the basement of their Point Loma home to retrieve Halloween decorations.
Autumn, the daughter of Cedric Durst, put in a call to William Swank to help her identify the Lost Picture Show.
Swank, 80, is a retired probation officer who turned his sleuthing skills into becoming a most trusted baseball historian, an expert on the Pacific Coast League, old-time baseball, San Diego, players in general and even the baseball controversy surrounding the 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The pictures of Williams (below) are an American treasure, just like Swank. He tells it like it is and has a deep respect for baseball and its former players. He is a larger than life figure, a walking baseball encyclopedia, who just so happens to look like Santa Claus. His study of the Pacific Coast League is The Story.
Ted Williams 1941 Lane Field – photos courtesy of Bill Swank.
What better person to talk to about the history of the PCL, a remarkable league, a league that is officially no more because Rob Manfred rebranded the minor leagues, killing tradition, getting rid of league names throughout the minor leagues, along with dozens and dozens of minor league franchises.
Manfred is responsible for the league’s new name: Triple-A West.
The PCL produced Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, who ran off a 61-game hitting streak with the San Francisco Seals in 1933. Another future Hall of Famer, Tony Lazzeri, became the first player to hit 60 home runs in a pro league, doing it over 710 at-bats and 197 games with the Salt Lake City Bees in 1925, two years before Babe Ruth blasted his 60 home runs with the Yankees.
The PCL also played under the lights five years before a major league team did on June 10, 1930. Chuck Connors, who later became TV’s “The Rifleman’’ played for the Los Angeles Angels in the PCL and used the league’s Hollywood connections.
I’ve been fascinated with the PCL for a long time and working in San Diego for 10 glorious years became enamored with the history of Lane Field, the downtown home of the PCL Padres. With Petco Park the baseball downtown hub now and the re-birth of the Padres, what better time to learn more about the PCL.
Ted Williams grew up in San Diego and played for the Padres in 1936, when he was still in high school and in 1937 when the Padres won the PCL Championship. Ted wore No. 19, as fate would have it that would become Tony Gwynn’s Hall of Fame number.
This might win you a bar bet: Name the two Hall of Famers who wore No. 19 for the Padres?
“Yes, someone might tell Rob Manfred that “Pacific Coast League’’ is a bit more romantic than Triple A West.”
Tony, of course, has his well-deserved statue outside Petco Park. For a decade, Swank has been trying to get the San Diego Port District and the Padres to erect a statue of Williams as well, the hometown Padres hero, who played his first two years of pro baseball in San Diego and then went on to become a baseball hero and American hero. San Diego being a military town, would be the perfect spot for such a statue. More on that later.
“Ted was just a kid in 1936,’’ Swank told BallNine from his home in San Diego. “Everybody in town knew about him. He was playing in the sandlot leagues. He played his first game for the Padres in June. At the end of the season he had to go back to high school, Hoover High School, and he graduates in February. It was AA then, not AAA. Can you imagine a kid still in high school playing at that level?
“The Pacific Coast League is a glorious name,’’ Swank said. “Getting the word Coast in there sounded cool and described what it was. Ted loved playing in his hometown and the thing he said was, ‘Someday, my ambition is that when I walk down the street is for, people to say, there goes the world’s greatest hitter.’ ’’
Yes, someone might tell Rob Manfred that “Pacific Coast League’’ is a bit more romantic than Triple A West.
As for the Williams pictures at the plate, Durst’s friend Epperson “was an amateur photographer and he had this
new film called Kodachrome,’’ Swank explained. “They were slides, real thin glass and they just said ‘Ted.’ Autumn asked me, do you know what this is? I said, yeah it’s from 1941, a barnstorming game. You’ve got something rare here.’’
Nearly four years to the day after Williams played in that All-Star Game in 1941, three Negro League players came down from Los Angeles to San Diego for a workout: catcher Buster Haywood, third baseman Herb Souell and a shortstop named Jackie Robinson. Branch Rickey was in the stands as was a photographer from Look Magazine, a deal Rickey arranged, as Jackie worked out in his Kansas City Royals uniform. The Royals were a Winter League team.
“Those are some great pictures,’’ Swank said of the Look photos.
Sixteen days later Robinson was officially signed by Rickey and the Dodgers and two years later he would break the color barrier in Major League Baseball and he was just honored on April 15 with all players wearing his No. 42.
Swank’s love affair with the Padres and the PCL began in 1955.
“I had just moved to San Diego the year before from Minnesota,’’ Swank said. He started going to games at Lane Field that season.
“Lane Field was right on Harbor Drive on San Diego Bay. There were Navy ships in the harbor, a lot of sailors there, Lane Field was the biggest bar in town. The sailors would raise hell and crawl back to their ships. It was a colorful time in the city’s history.’’
Owner Bill Lane moved the Hollywood Stars to San Diego in 1936.
“It was right in the middle of the depression and people told him he was crazy,’’ Swank said. “They built Lane Field in two months. The Padres were popular right from the start and during the war they set all kinds of attendance records. The defense workers would be going to the ballgames.’’
In 1958 the Padres moved to Westgate Park.
“I was a (Minneapolis) Millers fan, the American Association was a high level of ball and when I moved out to California, I was just a kid I didn’t know anything about the Pacific Coast League, but Los Angeles, San Francisco, come on, and Seattle, Portland. It was a major league on the West Coast. It was more older players out here. The main thing I remember about Lane Field is getting splinters in your ass. In ’55 the ballpark was falling down.’’
San Diego Union sportswriter Phil Collier, who went on to cover the Dodgers and become close friends with Sandy Koufax, wrote of Lane Field in its final days, “The termites are crying, they have lost their dinner.’’
“The PCL started in 1903 and it was an exciting brand of ball they played,’’ Swank said. “They tried to make it the third Major League. Players that got sold to the major leagues got a portion of the proceeds. A lot of players made more money out here than they did in the majors. Sometimes they would have a season that was 200 games long. You could do it because of the weather.
“Max West, who hit the three-run in the 1940 All-Star Game (off Red Ruffing), is in the PCL Hall of Fame and said he made more money here. “He said, ‘Who wants to spend their summer in Pittsburgh when you can spend it in San Diego and Los Angeles and all along the West Coast,’ ’’ Swank noted.
The travel was good too. “The Padres were flying early,’’ Swank said. “Monday was always a travel day and the first game of the series was on Tuesday and you would play seven games and there would be a doubleheader on Sunday with the second game being a 7-inning doubleheader. It was a pretty well run league.’’
So that’s where Manfred got the idea for 7-inning games.
Slugger Luke Easter played in San Diego in the PCL in 1949 and was soon with the Indians. Johnny Ritchey was the first Black player in the PCL, playing for the Padres, breaking the color barrier in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers.
“Johnny Ritchey was a wonderful role model,’’ Swank said. “He died in 2003.’’
Swank was responsible for Ritchey getting a bust at Petco Park.
Swank has been pushing for a Williams’ statue for more than a decade and even had a day where he “occupied’’ Lane Field or at least where Lane Field used to be, in 2011. “I made a sign, if you protest you got to have a sign, and I appeared before the Port of San Diego because they own the land,’’ Swank said. “I went in as Santa Claus and here is what I said to them:
‘Twas the night before baseball and all through the town,
Not a creature was stirring when Santa took the mound,
He told the board members: I have a goal, a statue of Ted Williams,
Or I’ll give you all coal.
One of the board directors told him, “It will happen, Bill.’’
It didn’t happen. “You know, a politician making a promise,’’ Swank said sarcastically.
Swank has been trying to right baseball wrongs for a long time, including getting home run hitter Gavvy Cravath, a former PCL (five years with Los Angeles) and American Association star, in the Hall of Fame.
Swank has written 10 books, six on baseball, and was the featured speaker at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in 2013 on the subject “The Eisenhower Baseball Controversy.’’ Swank proved there was no controversy and that the future president never did play professional baseball.
As for Gavvy, he was the greatest home run hitter of his era, not Frank Home Run Baker. Baker finished with 96 home runs, Cravath finished with 119 in 3,950 at-bats. He didn’t sign with the Phillies until he was 31. A guy named Babe Ruth broke his records.
In 1913, ‘14, ‘15 and ‘17 Cravath led the majors in home runs and in 1918-19 led the NL while Ruth led the AL. In 1915 he blasted 24 home runs, as many or more home runs as 12 of the 16 major league teams.
Bill Swank: Baseball Santa.
“You can’t say things like that today,’’ Swank said. “Everyone knows who Babe Ruth was, he had the home run records until Roger Maris and Hank Aaron broke them. Who had the record before Ruth. It was Gavvy Cravath. He had more home runs in a season, 24 and more career home runs, 119, than anybody else in baseball. He was from San Diego County. He was a man before his time and is completely forgotten.’’
Swank was a probation officer for 31 years in San Diego, retiring in 1994. It was an interesting job to say the least, and offered quite the inside look at human behavior. He remembers a woman and her kids burglarizing grocery stores to get food and alcohol for their restaurant.
“They wore these long coats,’’ Swank said, “with booster pockets sewn into them. Nobody wears coats in San Diego. They would buy like a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread but in the booster pockets they had five pound hams, roast beef, beer and they go wobbling out and they get arrested.
“We can only release kids to their parents. The mother was in jail. The Sheriff brings her out and I’m telling her what a terrible mother she is in this small interview room and she takes this long drag out of her Newport cigarette and blows it right in my face.
“She said: ‘Without parents like me, you wouldn’t have a job.’ ’’
You can see why Swank gravitated towards baseball history. Swank then offered this comment when asked what was the greatest era in baseball?
“The greatest era in baseball is when you were young, you are learning the game, you just love it so much and you remember all kinds of shit from when you were a kid, you remember games, you remember batting averages and now you don’t remember what happened two years ago in baseball,’’ he said knowingly. “Baseball is like a first love and you never forget it.’’
The PCL, which officially is no more, was a first baseball love to so many and Ted Williams first professional baseball home, one glorious league and for those players, and fans, the glory of their times.