Professional baseball in California was born long before the before the Dodgers and Giants took a train out west. It predated the Athletics bolting from Philly for the Bay Area. It even was around prior to television and even radio beam across the continent.
One of the best teams in the country played in San Francisco, and some of the greatest players ever wore its uniform. This was a team that didn’t play in the National or American Leagues. It wasn’t considered “major league,” but that was just an arbitrary decision. The Pacific Coast League and the San Francisco Seals were great baseball.
The history of the Seals tells a colorful story of the city, the sport, and the characters who helped forge the expansion of professional baseball to the “left coast.”
Baseball’s Origins in San Francisco
Before the 1902 baseball season, a few enterprising team owners from the California State League gathered at a hotel bar in San Francisco to discuss a radical idea – the formation of a multi-state professional baseball league on the West Coast of the United States.
With rail service providing reliable transportation and advertisers and ballparks lined up, the men were determined that the new league, dubbed the Pacific Coast League, would challenge the American and National Leagues of “the other coast.”
The first season, six franchises were chartered: the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Oaks, Portland Beavers, Sacramento Senators, San Francisco Seals, and Seattle Indians. That placed the newly formed PCL in three western states: California, Oregon, and Washington.
GOOD TO BE A FAN: The 5 Best Seasons to Be a San Francisco Sports Fan
The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906
In numerous ways, the history of the Seals mirrors the history of San Francisco in the first half of the 20th century.
Just as baseball was blossoming as American’s national pastime, San Francisco was emerging as a major city in North America. When adversity hit the city, as it did in one of the worst tragedies in US history, baseball was part of the solution for healing.
On April 18, 1906, the northern coast of California was crippled by a major earthquake along the fault line. San Francisco was ravaged by fire, and more than 3,000 residents lost their lives. Close to 80 percent of the city was destroyed by flames.
The Seals home, Recreation Park, was swallowed by flames after the earthquake. But beleaguered leaders of San Francisco urged the team to continue the season for morale. The Seals played the balance of the 1906 season in Oakland. The following year a new Recreation Park was constructed at 14th and Valencia Streets. That location hosted the Seals until the early 1930s.
Early Seals Star
Following the Great Fire of 1906, one of the young people who lived briefly in a refugee camp after losing his home was 11-year old Harry Heilmann. Heilmann worked at his father’s rebuilt soap business, but still found time to play ball. Years later he was signed by the Detroit Tigers and played in the outfield with Ty Cobb. Heilmann won four batting titles in the 1920s, and he’s a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was one of the first big stars to emerge from the PCL before going on to star in pro baseball in the East.
For the first 30 years of the PCL, some great West Coast ballplayers stayed home, shunning large contract offers to play in the “real” major leagues. Why leave sunny California and go east to play for a team and city you didn’t care about when you could make more money out west? Some established major leaguers with ties to the West, like Sam Crawford, retired from the major leagues and accepted contracts to play in the PCL, where they continued to be stars.
Soon, one family would bring along more stars than even the Seals and the PCL could hold.
The DiMaggio Boys
Every spring when the baseball season began in San Francisco, civic leaders hosted a parade and special dignitaries attended the game. Seals Stadium opened in 1931, and it was one of the best ballparks in the country, easily as luxurious and modern as any used in the major leagues.
San Franciscans took great pride in their baseball team, and to them, in the years before television, the only professional baseball they saw or knew was in the PCL. The stars who wore the uniform of the Seals were revered in the city. None more so than three brothers of a working-class fisherman from the wharfs of San Francisco.
If the protagonist in Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” was a real person, he might have been Giuseppe DiMaggio. A small, bowlegged, iron-tough Italian immigrant, Giuseppe worked on the wharfs of San Francisco as a commercial fisherman. He had nine children, and if Old Man DiMaggio didn’t catch fish, those kids went without. It was a tough life in San Francisco in the 1920s and early 1930s. But then, the DiMaggio found salvation in an unlikely place.
Born to Play
It was as if the Mighty Baseball God had reached down and touched the belly of Mrs. DiMaggio, not once, but three times.
Vincent, Giuseppe’s oldest son, exhibited the athletic skill needed to swat a wooden bat effectively at a thrown ball.
Two years later, Joseph came along, a wiry kid with bug eyes and a large Adam’s apple. He could swing the bat better than Vince, and maybe even better than Heilmann or any kid who had ever come up in the city.
Three years after Joe entered the world, Guiseppe and his wife welcomed Dominic, a sickly child who grew to be freckled but as fast as a seagull coming off the Bay.
Seals Stadium Stars
The three DiMaggio brothers all ended up playing in Seals Stadium. Each of them had thick black hair and dark eyebrows. Each of them was a thin, right-handed hitting outfielder. Each of them were lethal at throwing a baseball and catching it nearly anywhere it was hit in the outer pastures of the dusty ballparks of the PCL.
Each was a disappointment to the Old Man, who simply wanted them to go out into a boat and catch fish and stop tinkering with a silly game.
But Giuseppe was wrong – baseball was no folly for his boys. After delighting San Fran fans in the 1930s as young players, Vince, Joe, and Dom all became All-Stars in the major leagues.
Joe set the baseball world on its head in 1941 when he hit safely in 56 straight games. That’s nearly two months of getting a hit every game, every stinking day. Dom later set the Boston record for longest hit streak. That means the brothers DiMaggio own the longest hitting streaks for the Yankees and the Red Sox.
However, the DiMaggios weren’t the first to take the MLB by storm from the Seals.
Lefty O’Doul: The Man in the Green Suit
Francis O’Doul is one of the most important baseball figures who is largely forgotten by most modern fans. Born in San Francisco in 1897, O’Doul was from an Irish-Catholic family that lived in the Bayview (Hunters Point) neighborhood. By the time the earth shook for the tragic 1906 quake, Francis was known “Lefty” because he could throw a baseball with his left arm as hard as any kid in the city.
In 1917, O’Doul debuted as a pitcher for the Seals. A few years later the Yankees paid more than $10,000 to lure him east to be their new star pitcher.
But you know what they say about the best paid plans of mice and men…and Lefty ended up hurting his shoulder. He skipped around pro ball in the 1920s, desperately trying to find a cure for his ailing shoulder.
Finding Success at the Plate
In 1925, the injured pitcher batted .370 with an amazing 309 hits (in 198 games) for the Salt Lake City Bees in the PCL.
Two years later in the uniform of the Seals once again, Lefty batted .378 with 33 home runs and 278 hits in 189 games as an outfielder. He was signed by the New York Giants.
Lefty’s second stint in the major leagues was wildly successful. He won the NL batting crown in 1929 when he hit .398 with a league-record 254 hits. He added another title a few years later. He finished second in MVP voting and he was selected to play in the first All-Star Game, in 1933. He was incredibly popular, too.
A True Fan Favorite
O’Doul was the quintessential “Man About Town.” He loved to meet his adoring fans in whichever city he was playing baseball in. He was a handsome, with piercing blue eyes and a deep tan from his afternoons spent in the sun as a ballplayer. In the 1930s, only Babe Ruth rivaled Lefty’s popularity in the game. Everywhere he went, O’Doul usually wore his trademark green suit, dressed impeccably with freshly-shined shoes and a tie knotted perfectly.
“Lefty had San Francisco in the palm of his hand,” Joe DiMaggio said.
Transition to Manager
Lefty’s MLB career didn’t end so much as he abandoned it (even though he posted a brilliant .349 career average). He was far more interested in being the flashiest and most popular figure in San Francisco than playing ball in the East. He returned to Northern California in 1935 to manage the Seals, a position he held for 16 seasons. In his role, Lefty helped prepare dozens of players for the big leagues. He also maintained his belief that many teams and players in the PCL were good enough to be considered a major leaguer.
In the 1930s Lefty exported his vast knowledge across the Pacific Ocean.
‘Father of Japanese Baseball’
Starting the in the mid-1930s, following an international tour he took part in for MLB, Lefty made annual visits to Japan. At the time few people on the island nation knew much about baseball, but O’Doul brought equipment and his expertise, and quickly spread the game.
By the late 1930s, Japan had its own professional league, and the training methods and tactics used by the teams were taught to them by Lefty. He was rightfully called “The Father of Japanese Baseball.”
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lefty was personally insulted. After the war he returned and accepted a peace offering from Japanese officials who acknowledged O’Doul’s importance at spreading baseball across the nation.
Years after his death, Lefty was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Lefty’s efforts to introduce pro baseball to Japan, stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani may never have emerged.
For many years after his playing career, O’Doul owned and operated a popular saloon near Fisherman’s Wharf. He could be seen there in his brilliant green suit, greeting customers and rubbing elbows with baseball fans.
MLB Expansion and the Death of the PCL
By the late 1950s, a few major league teams were itching to move west.
In 1957, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley announced his intention to move his team to Los Angeles. The prospect of transferring their rivalry with the Dodgers to the West Coast was too enticing for the New York Giants, who soon revealed their plans to bolt for California as well.
In 1958, MLB suddenly had two National League teams on the West Coast. In 1961, the American League added a team in LA, and before the end of the decade, the A’s were relocated to Oakland.
PCL Becomes the Minor Leagues
The three most prosperous teams in the PCL – the Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles Angels, and San Francisco Seals – were all forced to relocate to smaller markets as a result of MLB’s arrival in California. By the 1960s, the quality of play in the PCL was greatly diminished, and it served as a Triple-A league for more than five decades, with various teams coming and going.
Finally, in 2019, MLB purchased the league. It now operates as a top-level feeder circuit.
The history of professional baseball in San Francisco is rich with tradition and ripe with colorful characters. It’s woven into the narrative of one of the country’s most unique cities.
Today, the Giants are one of the most popular teams in the sport. In this century, the team has won three World Series titles.