RIP LAGUNA: If you’re driving down Laguna Street and your imagination is plugged in, you just might hear the crack of a bat and the roar of a crowd.
You’d be hearing echoes of some forgotten baseball game decades ago at Laguna Park, once Santa Barbara’s farm-team home for the Dodgers and Mets. Many Dodger greats played there on their way to the majors.
But alas, the Dodgers and Mets pulled out in the 1960s, and, sadly, city fathers tore the place down in 1970.
Today, the park, covering two square blocks, would be an Eastside sports mecca, with room for four softball fields and soccer games. Instead of spending an estimated $5,460 to fix the sagging fences, City Hall razed the place and used it as an equipment yard.
But oh, Laguna Park had its heyday. The high-water mark was in 1947, when almost 93,000 fans paid their way in. (Unfortunately, real high water was a problem because the low-lying field flooded occasionally.)
Over the years, fans could watch future Dodger stars like Don Sutton, Wes Parker, Ron Fairly, Al Gianfriddo, and infielder Sparky Anderson, a future Hall of Famer, when Santa Barbara was in the Class C Cal League.
The park only seated 2,083, but it was no tank-town bandbox. With a center-field fence a long 440 feet from the plate, Laguna was larger than Wrigley Field in Chicago or the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. “We had a full-sized major-league park,” longtime groundskeeper Tim Badillo told the late S.B. historian Walker Tompkins.
I remember taking my kids to games there in the chill, foggy evenings. Sue’s dad, Peter, took his family, too. There are stories about games being called when players couldn’t see more than 10 feet ahead. The lighting was so bad that outfielder Gus Stathos would trap one-bounce fly balls in the gloom, leap up, and brandish the ball, claiming that he’d caught it on the fly for an out.
The Laguna Park story starts in 1933, as America’s Great Depression deepened. The Junior Chamber of Commerce figured that a major-league farm team or spring-training site would put dollars into S.B.’s drooping economy.
The city decided to build the field in open space between Olive, Ortega, Garden, and Cota streets, and to close off Laguna Street. Unfortunately, the site lived up to the Laguna name: By the 1900s, it had become a dumping ground and muddy marsh, rimmed by tules that burned off occasionally. In 1928, the dump caught fire and burned for two weeks, sending armies of giant rats scampering. By the 1930s, it was a stinking mess.
But in 1938, it was transformed using New Deal money. (Little did the players suspect that beneath their spikes, many feet down, were the carcasses of 300 to 500 wrecked cars.) At first, major league scouts turned up their noses at the idea of locating a team where heavy rains sometimes submerged the field under two feet of water, flooding the dugout and clubhouse. So people in town formed teams and were greeted by large crowds. Then, in 1941, the Dodgers (still based in Brooklyn, of course) arrived with a farm team dubbed the Santa Barbara Saints. Its star pitcher was Walt Olsen, whom I met later when he was a sheriff’s lieutenant and I was covering police, the sheriff’s office, and the courts.
After Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, Laguna Park’s lights went dark, but when the war ended, Santa Barbarans again flocked to the park. “Attendance was sensational at Laguna Park in the 1940s,” Badillo said. Bob Ponce, the late News-Press chief photographer, recalled watching players launch home runs over the short right-field fence toward Mom’s Italian Village restaurant.
But minor league teams all over the country were being hit by boob-tube-itis. Why watch minor leaguers when you could see the big show on TV? By 1950, when the Saints won the Class C Cal League championship, attendance had dipped to 43,000.
The Dodgers pulled out in 1953. In 1961, local rooters like Jerry Harwin and Caesar Uyesaka talked the Mets into locating a team called the Santa Barbara Rancheros at Laguna Park. They were gone by 1964 and the Dodgers were back, lured by a $1/year rent in return for revamping the rickety old park and installing new lights.
Despite all kinds of promotions and the chance to see Dodger stars of tomorrow, attendance averaged only 225. The Dodgers left for good in 1967 after losing a reported $100,000. City Hall began clamoring to raze the unused acreage. The Park Commission urged that the green space be kept for Eastside recreation, but the wrecking ball was called in to pitch.
Even Pearl Chase struck out trying to save the old park. It died at 32. RIP Laguna.
But it lives on, sort of. According to Independent history columnist Michael Redmon, writer/director Ron Shelton, who grew up in Santa Barbara, had Laguna Park in mind when he made his popular film about minor league baseball, Bull Durham.