Out of Left Field 

California's yen for baseball began with the Gold Rush, Kevin Nelson says.

Even Charlie Brown wanted the San Francisco Giants to win the 1962 World Series.

In a comic strip that became relevant all over again after the 2002 Game 6 meltdown that left the city crying into its Chianti, the round-headed kid stares at a TV screen blankly for three panels before exclaiming, "Why couldn't Willie McCovey have hit the ball three feet higher?"

Of course, McCovey's screamer was lined almost directly into the webbing of New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson's mitt, preserving a 1-0 Game 7 victory for the Bronx Bombers.

Charlie might have moped, but Delmar Nelson was jubilant. The Hayward resident incurred the wrath of his Giants-fan neighbors, but his fixation on fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle was too strong for him to care much about that.

In fact, one of Kevin Nelson's earliest baseball memories was of his dad rumbling through the front door after going to see his hero Mantle in Game 2 of the '62 Series. "The Mick" didn't account for much that day, as Giants ace Jack Sanford tossed a shutout, and the younger Nelson remembers his dad being "very unhappy."

All these years later, the Giants still haven't won a title, so now it's Kevin who finds himself very unhappy. But the Benicia author redeems all that misery with his excellent new retrospective, The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball, which traces the sport from the 1850s to the establishment of five big-league teams by the late 1960s.

The good-natured father of three laughs and pulls a Dick Cheney when describing the thoughts that sparked the three-year odyssey of writing the book -- an odyssey financed almost entirely out of Nelson's own pocket.

"Ah, fuck it. I just had to go for it," recalls the author, whose fourteen other books include The Daddy Guide, The Golfer's Book of Daily Inspiration, and Baseball's Even Greater Insults and were much less labor-intensive to write.

Over three seasons, he crisscrossed the state, meeting Jackie Robinson's contemporaries, visiting the site of the San Diego ballpark where a teenaged Ted Williams made his professional debut -- "It's a parking lot now. What a shame" -- attending Pacific Coast League reunions, meeting old Chicago Cubs fans who used to watch the Northsiders work out their spring-training kinks on Catalina Island just off the Los Angeles shore, and sifting through enough memorabilia to assemble his own nostalgia factory.

One of the hallmarks of California baseball -- as opposed to, say, West Virginia baseball -- is how much American societal trends have altered the composition of the game, its players, and the business. It all started here, as did so much else, with James Marshall's discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill. Hordes of wealth-seekers descended on the territory, often bringing little more than the clothes on their backs and a knack for the primordial form of baseball.

In those days, a ballgame was often the way to break up the monotony of wagon-train travel. Even now, the sport is infused with elements of its pioneer past. Nelson points out that the familiar baseball term "around the horn," referring to the tossing of the ball about the infield following a strikeout, almost certainly derives from prospectors' voyages around Cape Horn.

His book follows the game through the rough-and-tumble days at the turn of the last century, when California professional leagues were inaugurated and folded with the frequency of middle-school relationships, and players earned bad reputations for drinking, smoking, and "Hippodroming" -- purposely throwing games.

If California players were ethically challenged back then, management was more so. Contracts were essentially only good until something better turned up, Nelson says. Players jumped from team to team willy-nilly, and team owners could even lend out star players to other clubs on a moment's notice -- imagine the Oakland A's allowing the Toronto Blue Jays to pitch Mark Mulder for a crucial game against an Oakland division rival.

As competitive as owners were, they still drew the line at using talented African-American, Asian, or dark-skinned Latino players. A few light-skinned African-American players found their way onto the field for the Oakland Oaks or San Francisco Seals, but once their ancestry was revealed they were quickly shown the door. A few Asians played Pacific Coast League ball, but largely as a publicity stunt to lure Asian fans: Chinese Oaklanders lit off firecrackers in the streets when the Oaks' Lee Gum Hong outpitched the Sacramento Senators' Japanese starter, Kenso Nushida, in 1932. Following the game, both pitchers were released.

Executive Order 9066 stripped California's Japanese Americans of their livelihoods, property, and dignity, but it couldn't take away baseball. Nelson describes how internees crafted beautifully manicured ballparks, and the best teams from camp tournaments were often bused across the West to take on other internment-camp squads.

Unlike many today who predict doom and gloom for the future of the game, Nelson remains upbeat. "It may sound Pollyanna-ish, but I think as long as families and children are playing the game, baseball is going to be all right in this state as well as around the country," he says.

Not only that, but a great many more fans surround Nelson at A's games these days than when he watched "The Mustache Gang" win three straight World Series in the early 1970s.

Back then, he laughs wistfully, "you could stretch out -- because the Coliseum was practically empty -- and watch all those future Hall of Famers on the field.


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