Today in Baseball History: The ‘Screen Monster’ is erected in Los Angeles

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The Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets Field in 1957. The Los Angeles Dodgers played their first game at Dodger Stadium in 1962. It took some doing to get Dodger Stadium built and opened — and a great new book just came out about that if you’re curious about all the good and the bad went that into it — so the Dodgers needed someplace to play for a few years.

The first choice was the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, but talks with city officials broke down. Enter the Los Angeles Coliseum. It’s an historic, venerable building now and was even in 1958 when the Dodgers decided to call it their temporary home. The problem: it’s not very well-shaped for baseball:

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Your eye is likely drawn to that very short porch in left field. It was 250-feet to be exact. Left-center was not much better: a mere 320 feet. Meanwhile, the center field fence they’d eventually erect was 425 feet straightaway and right-center was 440 feet away. A home run in that direction is practically halfway to Alhambra.

The dimensions weren’t the only problem. The single deck of seats, the bright California sun and new fans who tended to wear brighter colors than the old fans back east made picking up fly balls extraordinarily difficult. “Those rows of seats go so high, it’s awful hard to see anything but high flies,” Willie Mays said. “Line drives are murder.” Don Drysdale was more blunt: “It’s nothing but a sideshow. Who feels like playing baseball in this place?”

That left field porch, though, was the biggest issue. To address it, the Dodgers decided to take a cue from the Boston Red Sox and build up when they could not build out. Whereas Fenway Park has a large wall called The Green Monster, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had a 40-foot net erected in left that some have called “The Screen Monster.” It was raised 62 years ago today, 11 days prior to the Dodgers first official game in Los Angeles.

That first game featured both a great number of vision-obstructing fans — attendance was 78,672, which was a big league record for a single game at the time — and a home run over the Screen Monster. The homer came in the eighth inning when 41-year-old Hank Sauer of the Giants went “deep.” The Dodgers still hung on for a 6-5 win, but Al Wolf of the Los Angeles Times noted that it was a bit hard to follow the action, writing, “In the far reaches of the vast arena the game resembled a pantomime. You couldn’t follow the ball, but the actions of the players told you what was happening. Nobody complained.”

One guy who didn’t complain: left-handed hitting outfielder Wally Moon, who came over from St. Louis prior to the 1959 season. Moon, while not a particularly powerful slugger, reconfigured his swing to hit high flies which came to be called “Moon Shots” in order to deposit them over the screen. He didn’t hit a ton of homers with that approach, but he hit way more at home than on the road, smacking 37 dingers in the Coliseum between 1959 and 1961 compared to only 12 on the road.

Overall, however, the short porch and tall screen in left didn’t skew things too terribly. There were 193 home runs hit overall at the place during the 1958 campaign, and that did lead the majors, but there were 219 homers hit in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field the year before. It looked weird and felt weird. It was, on the whole, a hitter-friendly park which gave Sandy Koufax particular fits. Moving to the very pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium in 1962 made a massive difference for Dodgers pitchers, most notably Koufax. But it wasn’t, however, anything on par with, say, Coors Field.

And the place did have some highlights. The Dodgers won the 1959 World Series while calling the park home, playing three games to over 90,000 each, including an all-time World Series record 92,706 in Game Five. Overall attendance for the six-game World Series that year was a never-to-be-topped 420,784. And even Koufax had his moments at the Coliseum. On August 31, 1959 he set the National League single-game strikeout record by fanning 18 San Francisco Giants, recording strikeouts on 15 of the last 17 outs. Koufax also pitched in the last regular season game there on September 20, 1961. He struck out 15 Cubs batters in a 13-inning complete game and he didn’t allow a single hit past the eighth inning. Koufax was reported to have tossed 205 pitches in the game. In possibly related news, he’d be out of baseball due to elbow trouble after just five more seasons. Of course, they were pretty good seasons.

The Dodgers played in the Coliseum one more time after moving to Dodger Stadium. It was an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox in 2008, celebrating the team’s 50 years in Los Angeles. By that time renovations to the Coliseum required that the left field fence be only 201 feet from home plate, requiring an even bigger Screen Monster: 60 feet tall. No one really cared. 115,300 fans showed up for the game. The Red Sox won 7-4.

(thanks to Don Zminda’s history of the Dodgers in Los Angeles Coliseum at the Society for American Baseball Research)

Also today in baseball history:

1963 – A public stock offering of 115,000 shares in the Milwaukee Braves is withdrawn after only 13,000 shares are sold to 1,600 new investors. The team would leave Milwaukee less than three years later.

1970 – Major league baseball returns to Milwaukees as the Brewers play their first game in County Stadium, losing to California 12-0 before a crowd of 37,237. See, it got better.

1979 – Ken Forsch of the Astros no-hits the Braves. It was the earliest no-hitter, calendar-wise, in baseball history. Ken also joins his brother Bob, who tossed a no-hitter of his own the previous season, as the first brother combo to pitch no-hit games.

1984 – Jack Morris of the Tiger no-hits the White Sox 4-0 at Comiskey Park. That brings the Tigers to 5-0 on the season. They would start the year a blistering 35-5, will lead the AL East from wire-to-wire and go on to win the World Series.