By Cheri Rae
Here’s a look back in time, when Santa Barbara was a baseball town, indeed a destination for the old-time superstars of America’s game.
The game was invented in New York before California became a state. And it arrived in Santa Barbara before then, too. In 1847, members of New York’s Company F Volunteer Army Regiment made their way from the east coast via Cape Horn. They were assigned to occupy and colonize California—and many of them were baseball fans. They set up a makeshift baseball diamond, with home plate situated approximately the corner of State and Ortega streets, and enjoyed their leisure time.
The game quickly gained popularity locally; there’s a published report of an 1887 baseball game between two teams of realtors, the Boomerangs and the Corner-Lots, who played at the corner of Micheltorena and Garden streets. The Corner-Lots won 22-11.
Few baseball fans—or poetry buffs—know that Ernest Lawrence Thayer, author of the timeless baseball poem “Casey at the Bat,” had a Santa Barbara connection. He wrote about the mighty Casey and the Mudville nine in 1888 for the San Francisco Examiner under the pseudonym Phin, He moved to town in 1912, married Rosalind Buel Hammett, and lived here until his death in 1940 (he is interred at the Santa Barbara Cemetery).
Babe Ruth played in Santa Barbara twice: in 1925 at Pershing Park, and famously, in October, 1927 for an exhibition game at the then-new Peabody Stadium (the football stadium at Santa Barbara High School). The opposing team was led by Lou Gehrig. Ruth’s team, the Bustin’ Babes, defeated Gehrig’s Larrupin’ Lous, 7-6; both superstars hit home runs out of the stadium that day, delighting the 2,000 fans in attendance.
The WPA-built Laguna Park on Cota Street was designed by architect Winsor Soule. For 30 years the full-sized ballpark hosted an array of teams—from youth Pee-Wee to the big-league farm teams run by the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets. In 1947, the Santa Barbara team set the California League attendance record of 93,000. The ballpark was leveled to make way for a parking lot for buses in 1970.
The field of dreams at Santa Barbara High School is named Eddie Mathews Field. Mathews graduated in the class on 1949; the home-run slugging third baseman with a near-perfect swing played for the Braves (in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta). He was featured on the cover of the first edition of Sports Illustrated in 1954, and was a key factor in the Braves’ World Series wins in 1957 and 1958. The Santa Barbara Don was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1978.
All photos courtesy Michael Redmon, Santa Barbara Historical Museum.