Times Past

From SLO Merchants to Blues, Robin Ventura to Duke Snider, baseball here has a rich history

Mission Field signage for the San Luis Obispo Blues, circa 1955.
Mission Field signage for the San Luis Obispo Blues, circa 1955.

“Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell; it rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell; it knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat, for Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.”

For baseball fans who know the joy of the first cry to “Play Ball” to the anxiety of a close game in the ninth inning, Ernest Thayer’s 1888 epic “Casey at the Bat,” says it all.

Fans know all the disappointment that so frequently happens when “there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.”

First published in William R. Hearst’s San Francisco Daily Examiner, readers knew that joyless “Mudville” was a fictionalized name for Oakland whose dockside fronted on mud filled estuaries.

Baseball was a major sport on the Pacific Coast 130 years ago.

Every town from San Diego to Eureka and inland from Bakersfield to Redding had at least one team. In an era before television and digital entertainments, local and regional baseball competition was a family affair.

The late Battalion Chief Bill Callaway, historian for the San Luis Obispo Fire Department, spoke of there once being two volunteer fire departments, each with its own baseball team. Businesses often sponsored players and teams.

Bill Cattaneo once wrote in this column how the “San Luis Obispo Merchants,” thrived during the mid-1930s with players like Charlie and Cupie Lewelling. Johnnie Green, Shugie Rodriguez and Sandy Leguina.

Leguina and his father had moved to San Luis Obispo from Fresno in 1935 to establish Leguina’s Peerless Bakery. Within days, he was playing for the Cambria town team and then back at home for the SLO Merchants.

The Second World War disrupted men’s baseball for a lack of players.

That didn’t stop Santa Maria’s Butch Simas from approaching Leguina about putting together a team. The Santa Maria Indians semipro baseball organization was founded in 1944. The team consisted of hometown players from Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo. The Indians had a remarkable record for more than 60 years, producing major leaguers like Ozzie Smith, Bryn Smith, Robin Ventura and Jim Lonborg.

In 2009, the team moved to Templeton as the North County Indians Baseball Club. In 1946, Leguina thought that San Luis Obispo should have its own team.

He volunteered to make improvements to the run down Mission Field at Nipomo and Palm Streets. He persuaded local contractors and labor unions to donate supplies, equipment and labor. Fresh turf was placed on “a solid foot of loam.” Gene Jackson constructed the dugouts. Stub Sweeney and

Wilfred Zanoli led a crew from PG&E in setting up the lights. The field was on Mission San Luis Obispo’s land. Msgr. Patrick Daly, the pastor, agreed to pay for the costs of water and electricity.

The team briefly revived the “Merchants” name, but early into the first season, George Baker, sports editor for the Telegram-Tribune, renamed the team the “Blues” after their blue lettering and blue stockings — the team that still exists today in the form of a semipro organization that features collegiate players.

Teams came from everywhere to play exciting ball. Charley Pedrotti’s Rosabell Plumbers from South Pasadena, the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, the Los Angeles Police Academy, the Kansas City Monarchs, the San Francisco Seals and the Hollywood Stars.

A team of Major League all-stars including Duke Snider, Roy Smally, Hank Sauer, Gus Hernial and Dell Crandall played the Blues on Sunday, October 23, 1955.

Bob Jansen, who handled the finances for the Blues, told Cattaneo that the largest crowd at Mission Field was that same year when 5,000 came to watch the Blues play Lefty O’Doul’s Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals.

Like the fictionalized Mudville, San Luis Obispo had “five thousand throats and more” shouting out “lusty yells.”

Next week: Lou Bartolo, the “mightiest Blue” and the story of Bluebelle.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, he is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.