For nearly a century, the baseball fields in Long Beach’s Recreation Park have played host to many of the best baseball players to ever live, spanning multiple generations of America’s pastime. Rec Park’s first baseball game was played in 1924, between the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and the Chicago Cubs, one of the most storied franchises in Major League Baseball.
The Angels stayed at Rec Park for spring training that season and now, some 96 years later, the Los Angeles Angels (now of Anaheim) have made Rec Park (now Bohl Diamond at Blair Field) their secondary summer home. During that intervening century, countless baseball legends have made their way through Long Beach, and a number of professional sports franchises have made Rec Park their temporary home.
“The thing is, Rec Park had four backstops when it first opened, so you could run a lot of softball and baseball through there, and that’s why it became so popular,” said Bob Keisser, local historian and author of Baseball in Long Beach. “Whether it be high school teams or professional players in the offseason or Connie Mack and Little League teams, you could play baseball there from sun up to sun down.”
In the first few years after its opening, Rec Park welcomed a line of minor league teams that used the facility as its offseason home during the fall. In 1933, Rec Park hosted its first Major League spring training, bringing in the New York Giants (then a Major League Baseball franchise) and MLB Hall of Famer, Mel Ott, until the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933 disrupted that year’s festivities.
Over the years, the Chicago Cubs would use the site for practices before heading out to Catalina Island, which served as the franchise’s spring training home for over three decades. Cubs owner William Wrigley purchased the island in 1919, and brought the team to Catalina for spring training starting the very next year.
Before Blair Field’s grandstand was constructed in 1958, Rec Park brought in numerous baseball legends to use the fields for a myriad of purposes. In 1938, the legendary Jackie Robinson played at Rec Park with his Pasadena City College team, facing off against LBCC. Nearly 20 years later, Duke Snider got his tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Rec Park after serving in World War II. The Compton High grad went on to a Hall of Fame career in the big leagues while winning two championships with the Dodgers.
Long Beach’s spacious facility and pristine weather made it an ideal destination for local ballplayers of all ages, creating a laundry list of baseball legends who’ve made their way through the city. From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, barnstorming teams from all over the country made stops at Rec Park while they toured the country. Some of those barnstorming teams resembled big league all-star teams, featuring iconic players like Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, and Long Beach Wilson’s own Bob Lemon.
In addition to barnstorming teams, major league clubs also visited Rec Park and Blair Field for exhibition games. Longtime manager Connie Mack brought his Philadelphia Athletics squad to Long Beach for an Exhibition game in 1940, and the Dodgers made several visits to Blair Field after its opening in 1958. Those games included stars like Don Drysdale, Sparky Anderson, Don Newcombe, Jim Fregosi, and others.
The Chicago Cubs used Blair Field as a Spring Training site prior to the 1966 season, with MLB Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Leo Durocher, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams on the squad. One of their preseason games played at Blair was against the Giants and their legendary centerfielder, Willie Mays.
From that point forward, Blair Field has hosted baseball at all levels, including Little League, American Legion, high school, plus independent league teams like the Long Beach Armada. Since 1994, Blair Field has been the official home of the Long Beach State Dirtbags, one of the most prominent college baseball programs in the nation.
With the Angels selecting Bohl Diamond at Blair Field as its secondary Summer Camp site for the 2020 season, Recreation Park is home to a professional franchise once again. The Angels’ “taxi squad” will be practicing in Long Beach, awaiting their opportunity to join the big club in Anaheim. The team’s top prospect, outfielder Jo Adell, is one of the most exciting young players in the sport, and he will be using Blair Field to prepare for his likely major league debut in 2020.
“It reaffirms again how viable and how important baseball has been in Long Beach,” said Keisser about the Angels’ return to Rec Park. “From some early baseball players from the ‘20s who worked out there, to Mel Ott and the New York Giants working out at Rec Park in 1933, to the ballpark’s opening in 1958 and Willie Mays playing games at Blair Field, and now to Jo Adell, you can draw a strong line showing baseball’s legacy here.”
Even with such a rich baseball tradition, Blair Field’s ties to professional teams actually goes beyond the diamond and onto the gridiron. The Los Angeles Rams used Blair Field as their practice field from 1967-80. The Minnesota Vikings utilized Blair Field as their practice facility prior to Super Bowl XI in 1977.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a number of “firsts” in the sports world, but Long Beach’s connection to professional teams is nothing new. There may have been a 40-year hiatus, but the latest chapter of Blair Field’s unique pro sports history is currently being written.
Photo courtesy Jim McCormack