A bit about Salt Lake City’s Bonneville Park in the 1920s

I’ve been reading a terrific book called “Barbary Baseball: The Pacific Coast League of the 1920s,” by R. Scott Mackey (McFarland and Company, 1995).  This post is a result of one fact in the book:  the Salt Lake City Bees hit .369 at home in 1923.  Read that out loud so it can sink in…Salt Lake City hit .369 at home in 1923.

The Bees hit 84 points higher at home than they did on the road (.285) in 1923 on their way to a league-record .327 team batting average (a mark they would equal in 1924).  Believe it or not, I have found one instance where a major league team had an even bigger home-field advantage:  the Colorado Rockies in 1996, who hit .343 at Coors Field and .228 on the road for a 115-point advantage.  And of course, the individual splits are in some cases even bigger.  For instance, Larry Walker hit .393 in 145 at-bats at home and just .142 in 127 at-bats on the road.

But a major league team batting .369 at home?  I can’t find what the record is, but it couldn’t even be close, could it?

After asking this question when this was first posted, I heard from Society for American Baseball Research member Ron Selter, who tells me he has home/road batting stats for major league teams since 1900, and the highest home batting average is .344 by the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies in tiny Baker Bowl.  That was the year the entire National League, pitchers included, hit .303.  The Phillies hit .286 on the road for a 58-point home field advantage.  Ron mentions the Phils’ opponents hit .360 at Baker Bowl that year.  The Phillies finished the season with a 6.71 ERA, and thanks to 239 errors they allowed almost 7.7 runs per game.  Thanks, Ron.

Salt Lake City was the PCL’s easternmost franchise for 11 seasons.  The team moved to Utah from Sacramento in 1915, then went to Los Angeles to play as the Hollywood Stars in 1925.  (It would move one more time, to San Diego, in 1936.)  During those 11 seasons in Salt Lake City, the Bees led the league in home runs nine times and in batting average eight times.

Altitude and dimensions made Bonneville Park a hitters’ paradise, especially in the context of the Coast League at the time, where the other teams played near sea level.  The average elevation of Salt Lake City is 4,327 feet.  Richard Beverage, in a 1991 Baseball Research Journal article, wrote, “The distance down the line in right and left field was a respectable 325 feet, but dead center field was only 360 feet, and the power alleys were short as well.”  However, these numbers are almost certainly wrong.  Ron Selter provided me with this message that Beverage posted to the SABR listserv in February 2005:

The late ballpark historian, Larry Zuckerman, plotted the distances at Bonneville Park from the Sanborn [Map Company city] map, and he noted that these numbers are only estimates, albeit fairly reasonable.  308 LF–408 CF–320–RF.  He had access to some photos of the park, and they suggest the fences were quite high, perhaps 20 feet or more.  The 320 feet in right field was mentioned in a 1915 article he read about the park.

These dimensions make a lot more sense, given the high batting averages and number of doubles posted by Salt Lake City players; a smaller outfield playing area wouldn’t lend itself to producing either of those.

Ron also provided a February 2005 listserv post by noted Pacific Coast League historian Carlos Bauer:

We have six seasons of data for Bonneville Park…The BA at Bonneville during those six seasons averaged some 50 points above the league average; Three times as many home runs were hit over that period of time than at the average Coast League park; One & one-half times as many doubles were hit there; and, as for triples, they averaged slightly less than the league average.

Bonneville Park looks impossibly small in the above photo, taken from the book “Salt Lake City: 1890-1930,” part of the “Images in America” series.  In any event, the combination of the park’s attributes and the PCL’s supersized season (usually around 200 games during the Bees’ years) created individual marks that are still all-time minor league records.

Let’s look at the Bees’ stats during their heaviest hitting seasons.  First, in 1923:

Paul Strand 194 825 325 66 13 43 .394 .662
Joe Wilhoit 172 662 238 48 7 8 .360 .489
Duffy Lewis 145 478 171 28 8 28 .358 .626
Joe Jenkins 104 303 106 23 1 9 .350 .521
Roy Leslie 194 765 260 70 8 15 .340 .511
Les Sheehan 196 804 272 72 4 36 .338 .572
John Peters 151 517 175 28 4 11 .338 .472
Ossie Vitt 188 811 273 60 7 19 .337 .498
Johnny Frederick 160 585 192 37 10 16 .328 .508
40 Players
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/22/2009.

The Bees’ 204 home runs is the PCL record.  By the way, the reason Les Sheehan is the only player whose name is not in bold is because he’s the only one of the bunch who never played in the major leagues.  His 72 doubles is tied for the fourth most in a season in minor league history.

Paul Strand (at left) led the league in runs, with 180, and RBI, with 187, as well as batting average, hits and home runs.  His 325 hits are the most in any professional season ever, and his home runs set a PCL record.  And he had led the PCL in batting average, hits and home runs in 1922 as well, when he had a 35-game hitting streak.

Strand’s longest hitting streak in 1923 was 19 games, but he had at least one hit in 168 of the 194 games he played and had nine streaks of at least 10 games.  (Hitting streak data is taken from Mackey’s book.)  He sat out five games late in the season or his hit total could have been even higher.  He hit for the cycle on June 9 against Oakland.  Mackey wrote Strand was intentionally walked with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a game on April 28 against Oakland that the Oaks were leading by two runs; the tactic worked when the following batter was retired.

Strand had an extremely unusual career, reaching the major leagues as a 19-year-old pitcher in 1913, then hurt his arm, returned to the minors and became a full-time outfielder in 1919.  After his record season, Connie Mack paid what was reported to be a six-figure sum* to bring him to the Philadelphia A’s, then let him go in midseason of 1924 after Strand hit just .224 in 47 games.

(* While most accounts of the transaction refer to a payment of $100,000 or more, this appears in Strand’s PCL Hall of Fame bio:  “Published figures for the purchase of his contract were $100,000, but Mack later told reporters, possibly stinging from his own embarrassing hype of Strand, that he only set the Athletics back $40,000.”  Mackey wrote Mack acquired Strand for $35,000 and three players, which is also the way it is listed on Baseball-Reference.com.)

“I tried too hard to live up to the price Connie paid for me,” Strand told Gerry Hern in a Boston Post article that was condensed in Baseball Digest in September 1951.

Strand is listed on both Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org as a left-handed batter and thrower, but the photo above shows him posed as a right-handed hitter, and Stanley Grosshandler included him as one of the rare players who batted right and threw left in a SABR research article.

Duffy Lewis was the Bees’ 35-year-old player/manager.  He had been a star on the Boston Red Sox’ World Series champions of 1912, 1915 and 1916.  He returned to the minors in 1921, when he hit .403 in 424 at-bats at Salt Lake City, then added managing duties in 1922 and hit .362.

Bonneville Park was the site of one of the greatest individual single-game performances ever in 1923.  Pete Schneider, a 20-game winner as a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in 1917, became an outfielder when he returned to the minors with Vernon of the PCL.  On May 11, in a game at Salt Lake City, Schneider hit five home runs–two of them grand slams–plus a double, scoring six runs and driving in 14, as the Tigers beat the Bees, 35-11.  Bill James told more of the story in his New Historical Baseball Abstract.  Schneider hit only 14 home runs over the rest of the season and never hit more than 16 in any other season.  He did lead the PCL in triples in 1923, with 23.

There were a total of 11 home runs hit in that May 11 game, nine by Vernon.  Among them was a homer by Tigers first baseman Dallas Locker, his only home run in 185 career PCL games.

By the way, during his earlier major league career, Schneider started both games of a doubleheader in 1917 and lost both as the Reds were shut out twice.  I mentioned that in an earlier post about pitchers who have started both games of a major league twin bill.

You’ll find lots more about Pete Schneider’s life, in and out of baseball, here.

And one other notable achievement at Bonneville Park in 1923:  on August 18 the Bees scored 16 runs in the sixth inning of a 25-12 win over Vernon.  (Schneider went 3-for-3 in that game with a home run.)

Now on to the 1924 Bees:

Lefty O’Doul 140 416 163 31 4 11 .392 .565
Duffy Lewis 154 528 207 55 5 28 .392 .674
Johnny Frederick 186 790 279 67 7 28 .353 .562
Les Sheehan 168 622 215 48 5 22 .346 .545
Howard Lindimore 184 764 259 58 9 15 .339 .497
Roy Leslie 195 755 256 73 3 16 .339 .507
John Peters 141 447 150 36 2 11 .336 .499
Ossie Vitt 112 435 145 33 5 15 .333 .536
30 Players
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/22/2009.

The Bees set PCL records for runs (1,416) and doubles (556).  Duffy Lewis won the league batting championship, and Howard Lindimore led the league with 183 runs scored.  Roy Leslie’s 73 doubles ranks third most in minor league history, after he hit 70 the year before.  He never hit more than 40 in any other professional season.

This was the year Lefty O’Doul (at right) became primarily an outfielder, although he still pitched enough to go 7-9 with a 6.54 ERA.  O’Doul had already had some big league experience as a pitcher.  After ripping up the PCL for four seasons he would go back to the majors as a 31-year-old outfielder in 1928 and went on to win two National League batting titles, plus he hit .383 in a season in which he didn’t win the title.

O’Doul returned to the PCL in 1935 and managed in the league for the next 23 seasons, continuing to see some action as a pinch-hitter into his 40s.  He died in 1969 at age 72 in his hometown of San Francisco, and the restaurant named for him remains a San Francisco landmark.

The Bees played a remarkable series against San Francisco in late May at Bonneville Park.  On May 24 the Seals had 37 hits in a 30-14 win.  Seals first baseman Bert Ellison had six hits in the game, including three home runs; Paul Waner and Joe Kelly also had six hits each.  Ellison went 25-for-37 in the seven-game set, with eight home runs in a three-game stretch.  Ellison finished the season with a .381 batting average and 33 homers, 10 of them in that seven-game series at Salt Lake City.

Next, the 1925 Bees:

Lefty O’Doul 198 825 309 63 17 24 .375 .579
Tony Lazzeri 197 710 252 52 14 60 .355 .721
Ossie Vitt 152 579 200 42 3 6 .345 .459
Les Sheehan 194 734 251 69 1 33 .342 .574
Fritz Coumbe 152 540 179 43 7 21 .331 .554
John Kerr 150 552 182 47 7 7 .330 .478
29 Players
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/22/2009.

The big story of 1925 was the story of Tony Lazzeri, who became the first player ever to hit 60 home runs in a professional season.  His 202 runs scored remains a single-season professional record, and his 222 RBI ranks third all time.  And he stole 39 bases as well.

Lazzeri shows up in the Bees’ box scores of 1925 as Lazerre, and his name usually appeared in Utah newspapers as LaZerre, as seen in the item at left from the September 20, 1925, Salt Lake Telegram.

Lazzeri hit 39 of his 60 home runs at Bonneville Park, which caused many observers to write off his record as ballpark-induced…which it was.  But based on his road stats he was still on a pace to hit 40 homers, which was a significant accomplishment even in the PCL of the 1920s, especially for a middle infielder (Lazzeri played shortstop for the Bees).

Richard Beverage tells the story of Lazzeri’s 60-homer season in some detail in his 1991 article in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal.  He points out that the Lazzeri had 58 home runs going into the last week of the season, when the Bees would play a seven-game series (the typical PCL arrangement at the time) at Sacramento.  Since I work in Sacramento, I spent some time going through microfilm of the Sacramento Bee from that week.

The series, again typically, began on a Tuesday, and I saw absolutely no mention of Lazzeri’s home run total either in advance of the series or during the series until he broke the record.  The Bee had box scores and brief, unsigned accounts of each game.  The account of the series opener included this:

It was a typical contest of the concluding week of play between two clubs that are not going anywhere in the standings [Sacramento would finish seventh in the eight-team league; Salt Lake City was already assured of finishing second.]  All hustling was noted by its absence.

Lazzeri did not hit a homer on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  On Saturday he hit his 59th homer, tying the record that had been set by Babe Ruth with the 1921 New York Yankees.  (Ruth set the record in a 154-game season; Lazzeri would break it in a 200-game season, but of the several contemporaneous accounts I have read only one mentions the discrepancy, and it didn’t make a big deal about it.  Certainly it was nothing like the “asterisk” hubbub when Roger Maris broke Ruth’s major league mark in a 162-game season in 1961.)

For the season-ending Sunday doubleheader, manager and teammate Ossie Vitt moved Lazzeri from his accustomed fifth spot in the batting order to leadoff in an attempt to maximize his plate appearances.  The morning game was played in Stockton (as was usually the case for the Solons’ Sunday doubleheaders) and Lazzeri hit a double in five trips to the plate.

The next day’s Sacramento Bee described the afternoon game as follows:  “It was a typical closing game yesterday with no serious play predominating.  The boys just hit the ball and kept running.”  (As was perhaps evidenced by the four outfield assists in the game.)  Talk about fast-paced; the Solons won the game 12-9 (winning pitcher Frank Shellenback pitched a complete-game 18-hitter!) and it was played in one hour and 15 minutes!  There was probably a lot of first-pitch hitting, as there were only four strikeouts and three walks in the game.

The Bee mentioned Lazzeri’s 60th home run in that final game with just the barest of details:  “Lazerre was presented with the final four-base drive.”  I suspect the word “presented” was used with the accent on the first syllable, as in “given a present.”  Present or not, it was clearly an inside-the-park homer.  The Associated Press story in the next day’s Los Angeles Times contained this description of the record blow:

With one out in the seventh Lazerre slammed one into deep center-field that eluded the Sacramento middle gardener and rolled to the extreme center-field corner as Lazerre raced for the plate close on the heels of the first base runner.  He made it, and with time to spare, and tonight is the possessor of a new world’s home-run record.

(The headline above was in the L.A. Times.)

Here’s the way Beverage described the final home run:

The afternoon game saw Tony fail in his first two attempts.  But in the seventh he hit a vicious line drive to left center.  The ball would have been a routine double had the outfielders not been spread out, leaving a huge gap in left field.  By the time Merlin Kopp had chased down the ball, Lazzeri circled the bases.  He had set a new world’s record.

Lazzeri had been sold to the New York Yankees in early August and would join the team the next year.  He would go on to play in six World Series with the Yankees but would never hit more than 18 home runs in a major league season.  He died in suburban San Francisco in 1946 at age 42.

Lazzeri’s home run record would be broken several times and lasted only one year.  Moose Clabaugh hit 62 home runs for Tyler of the East Texas League in 1926; Joe Hauser raised the mark to 63 with Baltimore in 1930 and then 69 with Minneapolis in 1933.  That remained the mark until Joe Bauman knocked 72 with Roswell in 1954.

Also in 1925:  the Bees had 25 hits against Vernon on July 17, and 25 hits again on July 18!  Lefty O’Doul had 16 hits in a three-game stretch July 16-18.

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