Coliseum Set-Up Stunned 1958 Dodgers

The Dodgers and Red Sox exhibition game Saturday night in the Coliseum brings back memories of the 1958-61 seasons when baseballs flew out over the short screen in left field and died at the 435-foot mark in right-center.

In 1958, the newly-minted Los Angeles and San Francisco teams met in the Dodger home opener in the Los Angeles Coliseum, giving both teams a good look at the configuration of the huge stadium built for the 1932 Olympics and the place play in for the next four years. Their reactions were predictably mixed.

Home plate was tucked back into the Southwest corner of the place, with the left field wall only 250-feet away. The right field foul line was relatively normal, 302, but the fence then arched sharply into right field seemingly all the way to Palm Springs -- a whopping 440-feet in right center and was 425-feet in dead center.

Realizing that a thousand 260-foot fly balls would waft into the seats in left field, the Dodgers erected a 42-foot screen that had to be taken down when the club was on the road an replaced when they returned.

That cut a solid smash to left that would be a home run in every other park in the major leagues to a single off the screen, while allowing towering pops to drop over it into the seats for cheap home runs.

The Dodgers had opened the season in San Francisco, flying directly from Vero Beach for the game. After dropping two of three to the Giants while playing in tiny Seals Stadium, they arrived in Los Angeles for their first home series of the season and their first look at their new home.

Ironically, the first major league team to set foot on the field in 1958 was the visiting Giants, the Dodgers being delayed by a parade through town that made them late for batting practice.

When the Giants came out of the runway under the stands into the bright California sunlight, it took a moment to get their eyes in focus. But when they did and spotted the left field screen, they all stopped and laughed.

"Oh, man," Willie Mays shouted. "They weren't thinking of Duke Snider when they built this park." He then pointed to the distant right-center field fence and murmured under his breath, "Duke ain't gonna' reach that fence."

The Giants smacked 25 balls over the screen in left during batting practice. The Dodgers hit only seven. But the view was so inviting that Jim Gilliam took his cuts right-handed against the right-handed batting practice pitcher.

To complete the picture, Pee Wee Reese took his final cut left-handed and singled to left -- even the Captain was thinking about the short barrier.

"Wow, I better hold on to every pitch," catcher Rube Walker said. "If the ball pops out of my glove, it could fly right over that fence."

Mays, shouting from the dugout to Snider, said "Look Duke" and pointed to left.

Snider, staggered at the huge expanse of outfield in right-center, said "I don't know why they wasted the money putting up a fence."

"Why don't you bat righty?" Reese asked him as Snider lashed a couple line shots to right.

"I'll get one this way," Snider said, shifting his feet and driving one to left that cleared the screen."

Gil Hodges slugged a pair over in succession and the ever-helpful Reese said, "You are a cinch to beat Ruth's record."

"The only record I'll break is Tommy Brown's," Hodges said. Brown, a young utility player, kept careful count of his batting practice home runs and made Ruth look like a 98-pound weakling. He hit 285 into the seats in Ebbets Field one season.

But when the game started, the players found they were batting against a partially filled stand that blurred their vision. Even Mays lost a ball in the background of white shirts.

The New York press, still-steaming from the Dodgers exit from Brooklyn, was on hand and made much of the oddly configured field. And when the predicted 90,000 fans failed to show up, one of them sniffed, "They only missed by 12,000".

None of them mentioned he 12,000 they had underestimated would attend was very close to their average attendance the Dodgers drew the year before in Ebbets Field. Los Angeles fans showed up -- 505,453 of them -- in their first 15 home games and even the NY writers couldn't denigrate that stunning total.

In the game that followed, Los Angeles won a 6-5 decision for starter Carl Erskine, building a 5-2 lead before third baseman Dick Gray hit the first home run, an arching drive over the screen in left for the eventual winning run.

As has always been and still is, the two old rivals put a unique twist to the end of the first official Major League contest in Los Angeles history.

The Giants threatened in the top of the ninth when Jim Davenport laced a drive off the screen for a double and Willie Kirkland boomed a 430-foot triple to center. However, Davenport missed third on his way home and his run was nullified when the Dodgers' appealed. May's singled Kirkland home to cut the lead to 6-5 but Clem Labine slammed the door to save the Dodgers first home game.

During the first year, 193 home runs were hit in the Coliseum, 101 of them by the visiting teams, with Snider hitting the only shot over the 440-foot right-center field fence. Snider had singled in the first inning to record the Los Angeles Dodgers first hit and that, perhaps, was the highlight of his season.

The combination of a sadistic field configuration, and a bad knee held the Duke of Flatbush to 15 home runs, snapping a string of five consecutive seasons of 40 or more. He had averaged 34.5 homers over nine seasons as a regular in Los Angeles and, often as a part-timer, he could only add 14.6 during his final five seasons in Dodger Blue.