Sunday, February 17, 2013

Arena Baseball at Hughes Stadium

Imagine Fenway park with the Green Monster just 310 feet from the plate enticing left handed hitters to crack one over the wall.  Now imagine a similar setup with the wall moved in to 77 feet closer to the infield.  That is what Sacramento Solons hitters enjoyed and their pitchers endured in 1974.

Sacramento rejoined the Pacific Coast League in '74 after a 13 year absence and revived the Solons nickname that had been used by the previous incarnation from 1936 to 1960.  They landed the gig luring the Brewers top farm team from Eugene but did so despite lacking a baseball facility to call home.  They chose Hughes Stadium, a 47 year-old football facility and did the best they could to make it work for professional baseball.  The left field foul pole was intended to be 260' from the plate but they weren't allowed to infringe upon the track that circled the field and the fence was just 233' down the line.
 
The wall in left field was topped by a net that was in play extending the "wall" to 40 feet in height.  The inviting seats in left, were in time, nicknamed the Camellia Gardens after the state flower.  The right field corner was also hitter friendly, just 300' from the plate.  The deepest part of the field was a very reachable 390' to dead center.

Stocked with future Brewer bombers Gorman Thomas and Sixto Lezcano, journeyman Tommie Reynolds and hometown boy Bill McNulty, the Solons bashed a mind-blowing 305 home runs in 144 games.  The poor pitching staff allowed nearly as many and 491 of the 606 long balls hit by Solons and opponents were hit at Hughes Stadium.

The carnage started with 51 HR in the first six games, 33 over the net which was soon dubbed Mt. Sacramento.  After the barrage, the Solons extended the net all the way to the left-center gap in an attempt to cut down on the cheapies.  The PCL batters continued to build their home run totals with 93 taters in the first 13 games.  The outside wall to the stadium behind the left field wall / net was just over 300 feet from the plate resulting in plenty of drives landing outside the venue.

The high scoring games that took place resembled a game foreign to baseball purists but drew fans into games that often had final scores resembling football games.  No lead was safe as Solons fans came to find out.  They lost a game to Tacoma that they led 9-3 with two outs and a runner on base.  Tacoma hit four straight home runs, a double, and took a 10-9 lead (and eventual win) with another big fly.  Twice 14 homers were hit in a game and twenty grand slams were observed by the Sacramento faithful.  The offense drew the fans in and minor league owners took notice as the Solons led the PCL in attendance.  Fortunately for pitchers none of them got crazy and moved the fences in drastically.

Because the outfielders could play so shallow, runners rarely took an extra base and were sometimes forced at second or third on hard hit singles.  Sometimes a batter would be nabbed at first base on a one hopper to an alert outfielder.  Sacrifice flies were a rarity, doubles were uncommon and no one hit a triple until July.  Solons manager Bob Lemon said of adjusting his strategy for the funky park- "It's like pro basketball.  You call a time-out in the last two minutes and that's when the game is won. I let them play for eight innings and then try to win it. You never have it won and you're never out of it."  Solons GM John Carbray couldn't ignore the strange brand of ball being played in Sacramento but tried to put a positive spin on the circumstances stating "We have some pluses in the conversion.  We have a good infield and good lighting."

Solons rival and Phoenix manager Rocky Bridges, upset when he found out one of his pitchers was an atheist, threatened the hurler with a starting assignment in Sacramento.  Bridges claims the next time he saw the young man he was carrying a bible and rosary beads.

Indians farmhand Steve Dunning did the improbable on August 16, when he no-hit the Solons.  His performance was made possible by striking out 14 and allowing just three shallow fly balls, leading Spokane to a 10-0 win. Just a month earlier, Tacoma's Coley Smith was the first to hold the Solons in the park as they had homered in their first 54 home games.

With one game to go in the season the Solons faced off against the Hawaii Islanders, both tied for last with 66 wins.  The Islanders broke a five game losing streak by beating the Solons 8-5, sticking it to Sacramento fans again.  You see, the Islanders moved from Sacramento on the verge of the '61 season leaving the fans without a team.

The Solons finished the year 66-78 allowing 1,030 runs while scoring 937.  The disgruntled pitching staff turned in a 6.70 ERA.  Roger Miller, who would claim just two innings of major league action in his career, was far and away their most effective pitcher with a 4.48 ERA.  Miller, presumably a sinker ball pitcher, held opponents to 1.2 HR/9 while his teammates allowed double that.

Bill Castro a reliever with a 4.71 ERA was the only other hurler with a mark under five.  He seemed no worse for the experience going on to a ten year major league career with 45 saves.  Bill Travers had the best MLB career of the suffering Solon pitchers, winning 65 games for the Brewers from '74 to '80.  The lefty pitched just five games for Sacramento allowing 22 runs in 23 frames.  Thankfully Brewers brass thought enough of him to promote him in late May where he stayed the rest of the year. 

Gary Cavello allowed 40 home runs in 116 innings on the way to a 9.16 ERA.  Already 26 and yet to sniff the majors, he retired from the game after the monstrosity.  Cavello's 40 home runs allowed were eclipsed by teammate Tom Hausman who gave up a club high 50 dingers but somehow limited the damage enough to keep his ERA at an even 6.00.  Hausman won a team high 12 games but vowed not to return saying "I'll miss the fans, they stuck with this team through some tough times".

Southpaw Thomas King's HR/9 at 2.2 was in line with the rest of his teammates but perhaps spooked by the thought of facing lineups full of right handed hitters, he walked 54 in 68 innings and allowed 117 hits on the way to a 10.32 ERA and a 2.515 WHIP.  He too would never pitch again.


Solons sluggers were led by third sacker Bill McNulty who belted 55 HR and slugged .690 SLG,  and Gorman Thomas with 51/.656 SLG.  The duo sparked hopes of breaking Tony Lazzeri's PCL home run record of 60.  Even though breaking the record would have been inflated by Hughes tiny dimensions, Lazzeri had the benefit of a 198 game schedule. Thomas led the race most of the year but slumped and was suspended by GM Cabray for repeatedly breaking bats and tossing helmets after many of his PCL record 175 strikeouts. 

Hughes Stadium aided the 6'4" McNulty more than anyone.  At 28 years old his MLB career had been limited to two cups of coffee with the A's in '68 and '72.  The Sacramento native was a fan favorite and cranked 44 of his homers at Hughes.  He never made it back to the majors but was able to parlay his big year into a contract with a Japanese team in '75.

Twenty year old Sixto Lezcano also excelled with a .325/.393/.602 line and 34 homers propelling him to an up and down big league career.  At 32, Tommie Reynolds was easily the elder statesman on the squad.  He hit 32 HR despite hitting just 12 in over 1,300 major league plate appearances earlier in his career.

The immortal Stephen McCartney was an original Seattle Pilot draftee and was in the seventh of eight minor league seasons.  The 178 lb. converted infielder stroked 32 of his 98 career homers in '74 and had 30 of the Solons 80 outfield assists.  While his infield skills were an asset in the bandbox outfield, it did nothing for his career as he never reached the majors.  In contrast to McCartney, the Brewers had high hopes for infielder Tommy Bianco who was taken third overall in the '71 draft.  The prospect started his career as a second baseman and usually hit like a middle infielder but was shifted to first base in '74.  Hughes Stadium helped the 5'11" Bianco's stats look like a first sacker with 28 home runs.  That was about the best Bianco had to offer as he hit .179 in just 34 major league at bats. 

Three other Solons topped double digits in taters but there was a certain indignity that came with some of the homers as McNulty said "It's downright embarrassing when one of my routine pop flies goes for a homer".  Sacramento management conceded a change was needed but also was thrilled to have led all of the minors in attendance with over 295,000.  Plans were discussed regarding a new stadium for Sacramento fans to call home but there was no way it would be ready for the '75 or even the '76 season.  Hughes Stadium had been deemed unfit for school usage due to earthquake safety regulations which didn't apply to business enterprises.  The Solons tore up the cinder track and pushed the left field fence as far back as possible bringing it to a slightly more reasonable 251' and extended the right corner to 309'.

The changes to Hughes reduced home runs by about 40%, but it was still very hitter friendly.  Five Solons topped 20 dingers in '75 but the stats no longer looked like science fiction as no one topped 28.  The pitchers were still feeling the crunch but allowed about a run less per game.  Offensively the Solons couldn't keep up as Thomas and Lezcano graduated to the Brewers and McNulty left for Japan early in the year.  GM Cabray was optimistic about drawing 500,000 fans and even had the Solons donning shorts to fill the seats.   

photo from sportslogospot.blogspot.com
Despite strong attendance figures the Solons struggled to find funding to build a stadium and their future in Sacramento was bleak.  It didn't help any when the team repeated as cellar dwellers with a 59-85 record.  When a new stadium didn't materialize, the Brewers concluded they didn't want their top pitching prospects working in a Pony League size field and looked elsewhere.  The Rangers transferred their AAA talent to Sacramento for the '76 season.  Although they were outscored 948 to 828 the '76 Solons finished at 70-72, outplaying their pythagorean record by eight games.

After the '76 season the Solons were still unable to get a stadium deal done.  The plan was to move to San Jose until a deal could be struck.  It never happened and after little support in their new location the team was moved to Ogden, Utah in '79.  Sacramento would have to wait until 2000 for baseball to return. 

I am disappointed that I could not find a picture of the inside of Hughes Stadium when baseball was played there.  So I gathered up the dimensions and overlaid them on a diagram of a current hitter friendly stadium, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.  I drew it to scale with the 1974 Hughes Stadium dimensions in blue and Citizens Bank in red.


Hughes Stadium located on the campus of Sacramento City College is still in use and underwent a major rebuild in 2012.  The  action is limited to football, track and field, and other non-baseball events but the mid-70s saw an arena style game like we'll likely never see again in pro baseball.

Hughes Stadium in modern times
 Many of the anecdotes and data were compiled from The Sporting News Archives from 1974-1976.


2 comments:

  1. Great post,I attended many games in 1974.Sometimes ,they would put the shortstop(Lopez) in left field,and move the left fielder to a rover position between CF and 2nd base.Those were fun days.

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  2. Thanks, I hoped I described the park accurately since I never saw it in person nor found a picture of the baseball arrangement. Sounds like it would have been a cool experience but not necessarily the best place to groom a prospect.

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