Take Me Out To The Ballgame!

In early Fresno County, locally-sponsored baseball teams existed between professional and semi-professional classifications of baseball. Sponsored teams existed in many forms, most often as a youth team sponsored by a business or organization, but they also extended into the semiprofessional category with players having an association to the sponsor, though not always as an employee. These teams were more than recreational, often operating within leagues but also as barnstorming exhibition squads. A barnstorming team was willing to play against any competitor of any level, including major league. Moreover, sponsored-organized baseball was not reserved only to Fresno. The 1904-1905 Reedley Deneens were a shining example of a sponsored youth baseball team in the Central Valley. Sponsored by Marion Deneen’s butcher shop, the team donned all-black uniforms with a striking “Deneens” block-letter logo across the chest. A close proximity to the towns of Laton and Parlier suggests matches against their respective clubs happened fairly often. Laton, the small locale of roughly two square miles and located twenty-three miles southeast of the city of Fresno had its own youth club, the Reds, pictured circa 1910. The Reds, unlike the Deneens, lacked a sponsor. A youth team pictured in 1908 from Parlier, located about five miles from Reedley, also lacked a sponsor, though it is fair to assert that the two teams were equally competitive.


At the turn of the nineteenth century, organized baseball had many levels of competition. Sponsored baseball teams, characterized by uniforms depicting the names of local sponsoring businesses and organizations, were widespread throughout the Central Valley. Outside of professional league frameworks and restrictions, sponsored baseball was a much more inclusive pastime than east coast major league baseball or its minor league farm system. Two notable Fresno teams were sponsored by local newspapers. The Expositors, pictured here in 1889, were an all-youth team affiliated with the Fresno Daily Evening Expositor. On their roster was twelve year-old Frank Chance, reclining on the left, who went on to play as an adult for the Republicans. The Republicans were associated with the Fresno Morning Republican and wore “F-R” uniforms with tiger-striped sweaters. The visually appealing pattern of the sweater overshadowed their official title. The popular nickname for the team, the “Tigers,” won out in the press. The Tigers were a robust team, with Chance as their star catcher. In 1897, the Tigers partook in a statewide tournament hosted by the San Francisco Examiner. They finished second, yet twenty-year-old Frank Chance was scouted by the Chicago Cubs and went on to make his professional debut in 1898. Chance proved crucial for the Cubs, securing two World Series wins. He later managed the team, as well as the Red Sox and the Yankees.


Frank Leroy Chance was born on September 9, 1876 and raised in Fresno, California. Chance played for the Fresno Daily Evening Expositor youth club and later on the Fresno High School varsity team. In his early twenties, he played semiprofessionally in the Midwest, as well as for the Fresno Morning Republican “Tigers” before being scouted by the Chicago Cubs in 1897. Chance was signed as a catcher. However, a managerial decision to move him to first base sealed his legacy. The infield trio of shortstop Joe Tinker, second basemen Johnny Evers, and first baseman Frank Chance became legendary for their characteristic 6-4-3 double-plays, coining the phrase “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” Their lethal infield dominance not only led the Cubs to secure the National League pennant in 1906, but to the World Series in 1907 and 1908, besting the Detroit Tigers in both meetings. Chance was immortalized with Tinker and Evers in “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” a poem by Franklin Pierce Adams written in a first-person narrative depicting the despair of a New York Giants fan as the Chicago Cubs defeated them to secure the National League pennant in 1906, 1907, 1908 & 1910. Chance later served as a player/manager for the New York Yankees, again for the Cubs, and the Boston Red Sox. In 1946, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York along with Tinker and Evers.


Semiprofessional baseball was a classification more telling of individual players than of teams. Often, semipro teams were operated by local businesses and comprised of recruited players. In certain cases, players were employees or owners of a business but were most often exceptional athletes paid to advertise on the field with branded uniforms. The Fresno Commercial Club, a conglomerate of philanthropists and business owners that operated as the predecessor to the Chamber of Commerce, fielded this team pictured in 1914. They played teams such as the Hermanns, sponsored by Jake Hermann’s Clothing Store, owned by the son of M.D. Hermann. M.D. was a member of the Commercial Club who brought his talents to Fresno in 1884 and established Hermann the Great’s Tailor Shop. Various well-established businesses throughout the Valley advertised and demonstrated community spirit through sponsored teams. The original Sun-Maid team was owned and operated by the Sun-Maid Raisin Company and was fiercely competitive, playing against nearly everyone, even the Nisei All-Stars before disappearing in the early 1920s. In 1927, a reiteration of the Sun-Maids arose for the Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig nationwide barnstorming exhibition at Fresno’s Firemen’s Park. The Yankee duo competed with names such as the “Bustin’ Babes” and “Larrupin’ Lou’s,” adopting various local names. In Fresno, the Yankee-led teams were renamed the Sun-Maids and American Legion All-Stars in an appreciative nod to local significance.


The diverse population in the San Joaquin Valley contributed to tremendous competition on the baseball field. In 1919, The Fresno Athletic Club (FAC) arose, featuring Kenichi Zenimura, the “Dean of Nisei Baseball.” Zenimura established a ten-team Nisei league and constructed three ballparks in his lifetime; the first in 1920 near Japantown, aptly named the Fresno Japanese Ballpark. It hosted thousands of matches between visitors and the FAC with Zenimura as shortstop. In 1927, the Nisei All-Stars, the best players of the FAC, competed in Fresno alongside Lou Gehrig against Babe Ruth’s team during the two Yankees nationwide barnstorming tour. In addition to state competitions, the FAC and All-Stars competed against international teams in Hawaii, Japan, Korea, and China as well as Minor League, Negro League, and local teams such as the Cubs—the first all African-American semiprofessional baseball team in Fresno. The May 4, 1935 issue of Fresno Bee describes the “Colored Cubs” playing against the FAC at the Japanese Ballpark. The Cubs also played against the Merced Aztecs as well as other Mexican and semipro teams throughout the Valley. Zenimura’s second ballpark was built at the Fresno Fairgrounds Assembly Center in 1941 during the WWII internment. He was transferred to Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona where he built his third field, “Zenimura Field” in 1942. Zenimura’s two sons, Kensho and Kenshi, both played for Fresno State, the FAC, and Hiroshima Carp, a Japanese professional team.

Hubert Benjamin “Dutch” Leonard, pictured in 1915, was born in Birmingham, Ohio in 1892. When he was nine, his family settled in Fresno, California. Dutch attended Fresno High School in the footsteps of his older brother, Cuyler. Both pitched on the varsity baseball team, though Dutch also pitched for a semiprofessional Parlier team in his second season at FHS in 1910, climbing to the professional Valley League Visalia and then Porterville teams in the winter of 1911. Said to have looked like a Dutchman, the childhood nickname remained with him throughout his career. Pitching at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, he once recorded twenty-two strikeouts in a single game. He signed with the Boston Red Sox in late 1912. A starter by 1914, he was named the American League’s best pitcher with an astonishingly-low Earned Run Average (ERA) of 1.01 through thirty-six games—twenty-five of which he started and seventeen he finished despite persistent injury. In 1918, Dutch was traded to the rival New York Yankees. Embittered, Dutch returned to Fresno and pitched for various teams until his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers in 1919. He returned to Fresno again in 1921 during a series of bitter contract disputes with famed Tigers’ player/manager, Ty Cobb. He was released from the Tigers in 1924 and retired thereafter. Dutch passed away in 1952 at age sixty as a successful farmer.


It was not uncommon for local police and fire departments to have baseball teams in the early twentieth century. Beginning in 1909, the two Fresno agencies scrimmaged with vigor, competing for an annual trophy and city-wide bragging rights. The Fresno Police Department was photographed with their championship trophy by C. “Pop” Laval, one of Fresno’s best known early twentieth-century photographers, and the Fresno Fire Department team was photographed by another of Fresno’s early photographers, Fred C. Ninnis. Fresno’s emergency responders began playing at Firemen & Policemen’s Park near the Fairgrounds upon its completion in 1922. Gate funds were allocated to families of both agencies. The name was changed to simply Firemen’s Park in 1927, possibly for the team’s numerous wins. Ironically, following a second visit by Babe Ruth to the park in 1931, it burned to the ground on July 17, 1932, the cause linked to a cigarette left in the locker room. Both clubs had ornate uniforms and elaborate traditions—such as the Police Department firing a small cannon prior to the start of their “home” games. Although not the case in Fresno, other cities and towns were known on occasion to scrimmage their local police teams against respective prison and jailhouse baseball teams. Even the military sported their own teams as can be seen in this 1926 photograph of the Company C championship team from the 184th Infantry of the California Army National Guard.


In 1928, the Fresno Bee broadcast the World Series between the American League New York Yankees and National League St. Louis Cardinals from a new sign on the side of the Fresno Bee building at the corner of Van Ness & Calaveras Streets. Using an electronic “playograph bulletin” scoreboard with illuminated position markers, the Fresno Bee announced the annual Fall Classic in real time as plays were reported over the telegraph wires. Along with the newcomer Fresno Bee, which began printing in 1922, the Fresno Morning Republican simulcast the World Series at their office building located at the corner of Van Ness & Tulare Streets. Additionally, the Fresno Herald newspaper also displayed a similar board at the corner of Fulton & Mariposa Streets. Baseball truly was “America’s Pastime” and the local papers were looking to get in on the action. This photograph shows the crowd of eager fans enjoying Game One of the 1928 World Series on October 4th in the bottom of the fourth inning, featuring many of the Yankees’ famed “Murderer’s Row” hitting lineup that included Earl Combs, Bob Meusel, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig, pictured in 1927. Fresh from winning the 1927 World Series, the Yankees won Game One of the 1928 series by a margin of 4-1 and would go on to sweep the Cardinals, continuing the legacy of the domineering ball club nicknamed the “Bronx Bombers.” The Yankees have won the World Series an additional twenty-three times since 1927 and 1928, and once previously in 1923.


Fresno High School has been the baseball birthplace of many of the game’s great players like Hubert “Dutch” Leonard, a phenomenal player for the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers who played for the 1910-1911 Fresno High Warriors, as well as Hall of Famers Frank Chance and Tom Seaver. Fresno High School’s 1906 varsity team, pictured here, included pitcher Cuyler H. Leonard, older brother of “Dutch.” Early twentieth-century Fresno High School teams would have competed against teams from other towns throughout Fresno County such as the fierce Coalinga Union High School team pictured here. Scholastic and collegiate teams of the early twentieth-century boasted some of the most highly detailed uniforms of the period. Although Fresno High School’s 1906 all-black uniforms seem rather simple, they stand out beyond the traditional white “home” and gray “away” uniforms and were similar to the imposing all-black uniforms of the Reedley Deneens sponsored team. At the time, solid color uniforms were just as common as pinstripes or two-tone color schemes. Such were donned by Coalinga Union High School and have on occasion crossed into modernity in Major League Baseball. The Chicago Cubs once wore uniforms that were an entirely navy blue with a white block “C” and the silhouette of a bear. Often uniforms like these return as tribute to past teams.
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