Pacific Coast League Baseball in Emeryville: The History of the Oakland Oaks Ballpark
As the 2016 baseball season kicks into full swing, it’s a great time to remind residents of Emeryville’s rich baseball history. East Bay baseball has its heart and soul in Emeryville as the home of the Oakland Oaks from 1913-1955. It was Emeryville that hosted games with such Baseball legends as the DiMaggio Brothers, Ernie Lombardi, Lefty O’Doul, Casey Stengel, Billy Martin and many others. It also hosted many barnstorming games that gave wider exposure to Negro League Hall of Famers such as Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. Even though the stadium is long demolished and the grounds lie underneath where the Pixar parking lot is, the ghosts of baseball’s past are still in the air in Emeryville.
The history of baseball in California goes all the way back to the founding of its cities. Besides community games, the first attempt at league baseball in California was in 1887. For the next 30 years the East Bay had many teams and leagues that rotated through. None of the Oakland teams at this time had an official home field. Many of the home games for the Oakland teams would be played at other teams facility in San Francisco. One Oakland team took it in stride and named the team the “Oakland Commuters.” Even though baseball was very popular in Oakland in those early years, it was not until the 1912 construction of the Ball Park in Emeryville that the East Bay Baseball had a home field that could facilitate pride for fans.
Starting in the 1890’s, Oakland occasionally played home games in Emeryville at the Emeryville Grounds. It was in the shadows of an iron plant that tended to spew black smoke all over the crowd and field. It was also too close to the bay. There was no shield for the heavy fog and strong evening winds. It was less than ideal for a baseball park.
In 1899, The Oakland teams played at another field near Emeryville in Oakland’s Gaskill Neighborhood known as Freeman’s Park. The weather was superior to the Emeryville Grounds and the ballpark could hold up to 7,000 fans. Freeman’s ballpark was accommodating for the 19th century version of the game but baseball was evolving and Oakland needed a more modern field that reflected the new professionalism of the sport.
By 1903 The Pacific Coast League developed into one of the premier regional baseball leagues in the country and by 1912 The Oakland Oaks were its champion. Still without an official home stadium, The Oaks management decided to break ground on a larger facility for its champion team in Emeryville at Park Avenue and San Pablo. This property was the old homestead for the land developer Joseph Stickney Emery, whom the town was named after.
This spot was ideal. The stretch of San Pablo in Emeryville was a debaucherous center for entertainment. Sprawling down San Pablo there was theaters, gambling rooms, bars, and now a baseball field. This area in Emeryville was next to the transportation hub for the East Bay’s Key System that serviced the ferries to San Francisco. At a cost of $80,000, the new park opened in time for the 1913 Baseball season. Even though it was in Emeryville, the stadium was given the name “The Oakland Oaks Baseball Park”. The weather conditions were considered excellent for Baseball and the slight bay breeze only affected left-handed hitters.
In 1916, The Oaks Ball Park made history with the first black player to break the racial line in Professional Baseball. Canadian born left handed pitcher Jimmy Claxton was a traveling barnstorm baseball player who got the opportunity to play for the Oakland Oaks. When questioned about his ethnicity, he convinced The Oaks that he was not black but Native American. He played for the team for only a month until another player betrayed him and revealed his mixed-race ancestry. Shamefully he was fired, but his story was cemented in history. As luck would have it, the day he joined the team was the day pictures were taken for a Baseball card set. Claxton was included in the Oakland Oaks Card set for the Zee-Nut Candy Company in 1916. Today the collectible Oakland Oaks card is one of the most sought after baseball cards on the market.
April 2, 1918 Video archive of Opening Day:
The Park Avenue District of Emeryville was a busy place during World War II. Many of the service men waiting for deployment were busy spending money in the card rooms, pool halls, burlesque theaters, and at the baseball stadium. It was a boom time for business. In the middle of a World War, The Oaks Stadium decided to spend $250,000 for a renovation to the Oaks Stadium. They added 3,000 seats, modern lights on the field, a modern façade, and moved the clubhouses under the grandstand from center field.
After the boom of World War II, the Oakland Oaks saw it’s greatest players and characters. With the help of the legendary coach Casey Stengel, The 1946 Oaks stared to build a solid team. Oakland Oaks had a legendary lineup which included Ernie Lombardi, Billy Martin, Cookie Lavagetto, Nick Etten and Catfish Metkovich.
As runner ups in the PCL Championships in 1946 and 1947, the Oaks finally won the PCL pennant in 1948. With his innovative coaching, Casey Stangel began to be acknowledged and recognized in the major leagues for what he was able to do with this scrappy team from Oakland. In 1949 he left the Oakland Oaks to coach the New York Yankees, which may have cemented the rivalry between Oakland and New York Baseball. Chuck Dressen replaced Stengel in 1949 and the Oakland Oaks went on to win the Pacific Coast League Championship in 1950 and 1954.
A documentary of the 1948 Casey Stengel managed “Nine Old Men” team that won the PCL:
After the wartime boom, attendance at the ballpark began to decline. Under the ownership of L.C. “Brick” Laws, The Oakland Oaks moved to Vancouver in 1955. Two years later the Oakland Oaks Park was demolished to make room for a Pepsi Cola Bottling plant.
It wasn’t until 1968, when the Athletics came to Oakland and gave “The Town” a home field again. Emeryville and its stadium made history and saw legendary players slug it out for baseball glory. Just as it has always been, the landscape and vision of Emeryville are in constant flux. There is a modest plaque on Park Avenue that marks the spot where the entrance to the field use to be. The next time you walk by it, try to smell the Hot Links in the air or hear the faint roar of a crowd after the crack of a bat.
The ground that once saw the greats of the Pacific Coast League, started out as a tycoons homestead, then became a bottling plant, and now a world-renowned animation studio. Who knows what will be next for this plot of land. The air there carries great and complex histories. The intersection of Park and San Pablo Avenue will always carry this complex history and will always be baseball’s sacred ground.
Photos courtesy of The National Pastime Museum, The Emeryville Historical Society, and Chris Treadway