Mr. Ford Christopher Frick, a right-hander, has gone on record as refusing to panic over baseball's newest playing ground, the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"I see no reason to get hysterical," the commissioner said, after taking one look and then fleeing the scene. "I feel the situation has been over-exaggerated."
It is easy for the commissioner to say this, because he merely bosses baseball and does not have to play it. If Walter Alston picked him as a starting pitcher some day he might change his mind.
As everyone knows by now, the Coliseum, new home of the Dodgers, has the shortest left field line in the civilized world, of which Los Angeles is often considered a part. It also has the most capacious right field. This is because the Coliseum is designed for football and track but not for baseball—especially not baseball of the big league variety.
Be that as it may, both the Dodgers and the hapless National League pitchers are stuck with the place for the 1958 season and almost certainly the 1959 season as well. By 1960—unless the Los Angeles voters, in a referendum on June 3, decide that Chavez Ravine would look better filled with tin cans and goats than with Dodgers—Walter O'Malley will have his shiny new baseball park and the problem will be solved. The only trouble is that 1960 is an awful lot of home runs and tainted base hits away.
As the young season progresses, it is daily becoming more evident that 1958 will be a year which baseball fans must recall with a mental footnote, like *war year or *introduction of the rabbit ball. This one will be remembered for *O'Malley's screen.
The screen is a 42-foot-high woven wire mesh monstrosity which stretches along the Coliseum's left field wall, suspended in a manner startlingly reminiscent of the Brooklyn Bridge, between two poles 140 feet apart. The screen begins at the foul pole, 250 feet from home plate (the legal minimum), and ends at a point out toward left center some 320 feet from the plate. Although this comprises the main body of the screen, there is also a section slanting down toward the ground outside the second pole at about a 30° angle, finally touching the fence in right center field at approximately 340 feet from home plate.
Since the entire structure is almost 100 feet closer to home plate than the average for a National League park, the over-all effect is guaranteed to bring a happy leer onto the face of even the weakest right-hand hitter and to leave the strongest pitcher quivering like the Cubs' Gene Fodge. Asked how he felt about pitching in the Coliseum last week, Gene smiled weakly and explained: "I'm all right as long as I don't look out there."
In the first nine games, 28 home runs were hit in the Coliseum, and every one of these was to left field. Of the 28, 20 went over the screen, and the other eight were hit just to the right of it, some barely clearing that part which angles down to the ground. Four of the homers, it is true, would have been home runs anywhere, tremendous smashes deep into the stands. Twelve others were of the so-so variety. They might have cleared the left field fence in Milwaukee (320 feet), Cincinnati (328) or Philadelphia (334) but almost certainly would not have reached the seats in St. Louis (351), Chicago (355), San Francisco (365) or Pittsburgh (365).
The remaining 12 were nothing but pop flies, balls which plunked into the crowd while outfielders, who had arrived in plenty of time, could only stand at the base of the screen and claw at the mesh in unbelieving frustration. A Los Angeles State College mathematics major named Paul Kern busied himself with the problem and figured that a ball hit along the hypotenuse of the right triangle formed by the playing field and the screen would have to travel 253 feet 6 inches to become a home run. National League hitters do not hit many hypotenuses, it is true, but they sure are death on pop flies.
Danny O'Connell, for example, hit only eight home runs in the entire season of 1957. In his third game at the Coliseum, he hit two. And Lee Walls of the Cubs dropped three home runs over the screen in one day. Since he also hit one the night before, he was not only fast closing in upon his total 1957 production of six but also found himself six games ahead of Babe Ruth's pace of 1927, when the great man hit his magic 60.
Nevertheless, it is not likely (this year, at least) that anyone will get sufficient benefit from the screen to desecrate Ruth's spotless record.
The reasons are pretty basic. One shudders to think what a young Ralph Kiner might do in this park, but the right-handed pull hitters of his kind still around are not going to get enough of a chance. With Roy Campanella gone, Gil Hodges is the only good bet on the Dodgers and, although he may possibly improve his career high of 42 hit in 1954, Ruth's record is still a long way away. A left-handed hitter like Duke Snider hasn't the slighest chance.
Why, then, is the left field such an ogre? Well, it threatens to make a travesty of the game. While awarding a tremendous bonus to the popcorn hitters like O'Connell, it severely penalizes the really good line-drive hitters such as Banks, Aaron, Mays and Robinson. Hard-hit climbing balls which might be legitimate home runs elsewhere are thudding into the screen. So it would be useless to increase its height.
Nor is it exclusively a matter of the left field fence. Like other ball parks, this one has a center and a right field, although the similarity ends about here. Those geometric hobbyists who can spot a truncated trapezoid or an acute-angled parallelogram at 100 paces would go crazy in the Coliseum. No one can classify it because no one has seen anything geometrically like it before.
The right field foul pole sits at 301 feet, but this is an optical illusion. Instead of curving out toward center from this point, the six-foot fence just veers off a few degrees and keeps on going. The real right field fence, over which someone could conceivably hit a ball fair some day, begins at about 390 feet. From there it goes out to 440 feet in right center and 425 feet in dead center before beginning its trip toward the screen. No one managed to hit a home run into this abyss during the first week, although Willie Kirkland of the Giants and Duke Snider did manage 420-foot outs.
In the first nine games, to illustrate the lopsidedness of the area, 90 fly-balls were hit to left field and 111 to center and right. Of the 90 to left, only 16 were caught; the other 74 went for hits, a large percentage going over or into the screen. Of the 111 hit to center and right, on the other hand, 73 were outs, one was an error and only 37 were hits.
"I don't know what you would call it," says Snider, who, as the lone left-handed hitting regular in the Dodger lineup, figures to suffer agonies unmatched by anyone else. "It's not baseball, that's for sure."
Says Willie Kirkland: "You can have it."
There are a number who will take it. This list includes not only right-hand fly-ball hitters but also the Spalding company, which has already received an order from the Dodgers for 50% more baseballs than ever before, and the Los Angeles fans, who have descended upon the place in such a way as to shatter all sorts of attendance records. Their point is well taken, too: major league baseball, even in the Coliseum, is better than no major league baseball at all. This is the saving grace.
Both Frick and O'Malley defensively point out that New York's Polo Grounds, with its right field line of 257 feet and left field of 279, was almost as bad. This, of course, is not entirely true because the walls of the Polo Grounds sloped away much sooner to a respectable distance than does the Coliseum screen.
Instead of simply admitting that this is a lousy ball park but the best that they can do, both gentlemen persist in trying to improve it with words. "The fans seem to be excited by the screen," says O'Malley. "They tell me it has become quite a conversation piece, so to speak."
In the meantime there is no place else to go, and the Dodgers will play out their 1958 schedule in the Coliseum, screen and all. The sun will glare off white shirts of the assembled multitudes in the great stands, and outfielders will be unable to get a good jump on the ball. Puny right-hand hitters will bash more home runs than ever before in their lives. The fans will cook in the sun and Snider will suffer and the pitchers will cringe, and perhaps the major league record for most home runs hit in one park in one season will fall (at the present pace it will reach 240 compared to the record of 219). But since this is something like the record for most home runs hit by a left-handed right fielder on the Fourth of July, no one really cares.
Mr. Frick says the situation has been overexaggerated. It is his privilege to take liberties with the language, but he shouldn't underexaggerate them when they are taken with the game.
THE DRAWING above graphically emphasizes the anomalies in the Coliseum, a playing field ideally designed for football and now used for baseball by the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the first nine games played there, 82% of the fly balls to the cramped left field were safe hits, many of them going over or falling off the screen dominating the sector. Only 18% were caught. But in the vast expanses of center and right field, 67% of the fly balls were caught, while only 33% fell in for hits. At that point 28 home runs had been hit in the Coliseum. All were to left, with 20 going over the left field screen. In the seven National League parks at this same point (late Sunday night), there were 60 home runs hit. Only 57% of them had gone into the left field stands. To further illustrate how much of a home run paradise the Coliseum has become, only 10% of total hits in all other National League parks had been home runs. This is normal. But in Los Angeles, every sixth hit was a home run, hit over or near the screen.
FENCE: 42 FEET HIGH, 140 FEET LONG
OF 90 FLY BALLS TO LEFT
28 WERE HOME RUNS OVER OR NEAR SCREEN
46 FELL SAFE
16 WERE CAUGHT
OF 111 FLY BALLS TO RIGHT AND CENTER
38 FELL SAFE
73 WERE CAUGHT
O WERE HOME RUNS
DIAGRAM of Polo Grounds (red) super-imposed over Coliseum clearly shows the fallacy of Frick's comparison. Note the greater playing area in left field and balanced proportions of the Polo Grounds.