The History of the Los Angeles Kings
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first seven chapters of this series we recalled William Randolph Hearst’s creation of the Continental League and the Los Angeles Kings; the 1935 CL-MLB merger and subsequent MLB reorganization; the Kings’ postseason triumphs and heartbreaks in the late ‘30s and the firing of manager Al Bridwell after they lost the 1940 World Series; the Kings’ spectacular 1941 season; L.A.’s World War II doldrums on the diamond; the Los Angeles postwar resurgence which led to World Series victories against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and the Boston Braves in 1948; the heartbreak of their 1949 ALCS defeat; their collapse in the home stretch of the 1950 baseball season; and Hearst’s death during the 1951 season. In this episode, we’ll look at how the franchise struggled to redefine itself following Hearst’s passing and the retirement of Joe DiMaggio.
Ironically, Joe DiMaggio’s decision to retire from the major leagues after the 1951 season had come just hours before William Randolph Hearst died. In fact, he’d been scheduled to hold a press conference the day of Hearst’s death to make the decision official; when word of Hearst’s passing came, however, DiMaggio and the Kings front office mutually agreed that it would be more prudent to hold off on the announcement until mid-September. In the meantime, Hearst’s sons set about the business of arranging their father’s funeral and lining up possible successors to assume the California Clipper’s spot in the Los Angeles outfield for the 1952 season.
High on the list of candidates for the job: Mickey Mantle. Since joining the Kings farm system two years earlier as part of the trade that sent Buddy Rosar and the Cooper brothers to the Yankees, Mantle had been tearing up the West Coast minor leagues. In fact, at the time Hearst died Mantle was leading the Pacific Coast League in home runs and RBIs as cleanup hitter for the Kings’ Triple A affiliate team in Bakersfield. On August 24th, ten days after Hearst’s death, Mantle made his official MLB debut playing center field for Los Angeles in a road game against the Longhorns at Kansas City. He made a quite respectable first impression that afternoon, going three for four at the plate and making two critical catches on defense to preserver a 6-4 Kings win.
Thanks in part to Mantle’s timely addition to their lineup, the Kings were able to stay well within reach of first place in the AL West standings as September rolled around and the stretch drive got underway; within a month after William Randolph Hearst had passed on Los Angeles was tied with San Francisco for first in the division standings and many Kings fans were hopeful that one good finishing kick would suffice to propel their club past the ‘Spectors and bring the division crown back to Los Angeles.
But on September 21st, the Kings’ fortunes abruptly took a sharp turn for the worse as Mantle sustained the first of what would be a hundred or so injuries that would mar his otherwise outstanding career in the majors. In the fifth inning of a game against the Cleveland Indians, who were making their final road trip of the season, Mantle tripped over a soft spot in the Hearst Palladium turf while running out a fly ball and tore his knee. The knee injury would sideline him for the final ten days of the ’51 season-- exactly the time when the Kings would be most in need of his services.
Like a ship without a rudder, the Kings began to founder while the Prospectors surged ahead to take the AL West division lead for keeps. San Francisco officially clinched the division crown with a 9-4 win at Kansas City on September 26th, five days after Mantle was sidelined. In the 1951 ALCS they would take the AL East champion New York Yankees to the limit before finally succumbing in extra innings to the Pinstripes in the fifth and deciding game of that series on a home run by former L.A. catcher Buddy Rosar.
On September 30th, 1951 Joe DiMaggio came to bat for the last time in a Kings uniform. The normally raucous Hearst Palladium crowd was as quiet as a church mouse as they waited to see whether the California Clipper could get one last spectacular hit; it was the seventh inning of a relatively meaningless game against the Chicago White Sox as Los Angeles played out the string at the end of the season, but the stands were packed as tightly as if this were Game 7 of the World Series. It wasn’t so much retiring from the sport itself that DiMaggio regretted; rather, he was disappointed at not getting one final chance to put his considerable talents to use in the postseason.
The first two pitches to DiMaggio sailed past him for strikes; on the third pitch, however, the California Clipper roped an eye-popping triple into deep center field to score Joe Page from second base and break a 3-3 seventh inning tie. Los Angeles went on to win the game 6-4 and secure a second place finish in the AL West for the 1951 season. Signs like "WE LOVE JOE" and "DIMAGGIO FOR PRESIDENT" could be seen in every section of the Hearst Palldium stands as DiMaggio walked off the field for the last time, and that was just the beginning of the many accolades that would be coming his way in the wake of his retirement; the day after the 1951 season ended, the Kings announced they would be retiring DiMaggio’s uniform number on the opening day of the 1952 MLB season.
1952 marked the beginning of a period of transition for the Kings as they sought to re-establish their team identity in the aftermath of William Randolph Hearst’s death. For good or ill, in the first three decades of their existence the Purple & Gold had always borne the mark of one man above all others: Hearst’s. Now that he was gone, it would be up to his sons to define the team’s direction in the years ahead-- and they wouldn’t always see eye-to-eye on that score, a fact which at times would drive fans, players, and coaches(and more than once even the brothers themselves) to distraction. This transition period would also have its positive effects, however, since many of the decisions made around this time would lay the groundwork for the legendary L.A. playoff runs of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
The 1952 MLB season began with Mickey Mantle still recuperating from the knee injury that had put him on the shelf throughout the last days of the 1951 campaign. By the time he finally rejoined the club in mid-May, the Kings were struggling to preserve a third-place tie with Chicago in the AL West standings. They were also trying to put out a PR firestorm which had been inadvertently lit by a seemingly innocuous decision by the team’s marketing staff....
Since the Kings’ earliest days in the Continental League, their bat-swinging cartoon mascot Emperor Homer The 1st has been one of the most readily recognizable and popular team symbols in all of American sports. Like the blue devil of Duke University’s basketball squad, the New England Patriots’ ‘flying Elvis’ icon, and the wing-and-tire logo of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, Homer boasts a brand recognition level that transcends the immediate boundaries of sport. But he almost ended up becoming a casualty of the Hearst sons’ post-1951 retooling of the Kings franchise; George Randolph Hearst, on the recommendation of the head of the team’s marketing department, had convinced his brothers as well as GM Fred Haney to begin phasing Homer out during the 1952 MLB season.
It was an idea that would blow up in the Hearsts’ faces like the hydrogen bombs then being tested in the Pacific. The second they got wind of the decision Kings fans rose up in protest; for weeks after it was announced the team’s front office was bombarded with petitions, telegrams, and angry phone calls demanding that the Kings scrap their mascot change plans and stick with Emperor Homer.
In Anaheim a group called the Save Homer Club formed with the pledge to boycott all Kings games and merchandise until the team reversed its previous decision and decided to keep its old mascot. The club soon found a vocal and highly influential ally for their cause: Hollywood star, future President of the United States, and Kings season-ticket holder Ronald Reagan, who in a letter to Fred Haney three weeks after the boycott started said that "Los Angeles without Homer would be like New York without the Statue of Liberty."
While Reagan’s comments may have been somewhat hyperbolic, they accurately reflected just how beloved Homer was among SoCal baseball fans. Faced with a looming public relations Armageddon if they stuck with their intention to replace their longtime mascot, the Kings were quick to backpedal: four days after Reagan’s letter was printed in the Times, Fred Haney held a press conference at Hearst Palladium to give the news that the team had reconsidered its plans and would be keeping Homer the 1st as its mascot for the foreseeable future. The day after Haney’s press conference, the Save Homer Club ended their boycott; in early June they renamed themselves the Homer the 1st Fan Club. The fan club would remain long after the boycott had become a distant memory; today, in fact, it boasts members in sixty-seven countries.
The ’52 Kings began fading out of pennant contention just after the All-Star break. Had William Randolph Hearst still been in charge of the team, Al Bridwell’s job would most likely have been in serious jeopardy. But his sons were somewhat more patient with the Los Angeles skipper. They decided they would stick with the veteran manager until the end of the season, then make a decision about whether to bring him back for 1953.
Throughout most of the second half of the 1952 season, Los Angeles continued to struggle to break its third-place tie with Chicago. They finally ran out of gas in the next-to-last week of September and would end the season in fourth place in the AL West; in spite of this rather disappointing finish, however, the Hearst brothers ultimately opted to renew Bridwell’s contract for the 1953 season. With a promising crop of young players coming up through the ranks of the Kings minor league system to balance out veterans like Mantle, the brothers felt Bridwell would have better luck in ’53 and so deserved one more shot at leading the Purple & Gold to a pennant.
When Bridwell returned for the start of the 1953 MLB season and his latest mission to bring the AL West division crown back to Hearst Palladium, fans would notice a distinct departure from the big hitter- oriented offense of the Kings teams of the past. Bridwell had decided during the offseason that his ballclub’s best shot at returning to the postseason lay in emphasizing the fundamentals on defense and timely singles-- what might be referred to as "small ball" in today’s sports lingo.
Not that the Purple & Gold would be doing away with the big hitter attack entirely-- Mickey Mantle would dazzle fans at Hearst Palladium when he blasted the first pitch of the Kings’ ’53 season straight into the upper deck for a home run that paved the way for a six-run shutout of the St. Louis Browns in what would be the Browns’ last Opening Day before they migrated east to become the Baltimore Orioles. However, it would be double plays rather than doubles to right that would serve as the ’53 Kings’ trademark in their quest to regain the AL West division crown. Preston Ward in particular became the new face of the Purple & Gold’s infield; by the time the All-Star break came, the Los Angeles infielder had personally accounted for at least a third of all AL West force plays during the first half of the regular season.
Early in the second half of the ’53 season, the Kings clawed their way to a three-way tie with San Francisco and Chicago for the top spot in the AL West standings. While it seemed too early to make any definitive predictions about where the team was going from there, some of the more optimistic members of Purple & Gold fandom dared to hope their boys might finally return to the glorious playoff heights they’d enjoyed in previous seasons.
Their optimism was rewarded in late August and early September as Los Angeles surged past the White Sox, then swept a three-game set against the Prospectors in San Francisco to capture first place in the division. Only one further obstacle stood between the Kings and their first AL West division pennant since 1949: the Kansas City Longhorns. The Longhorns had overcome a mediocre start and a painful twelve-game mid-June slide to establish themselves as a possible dark horse in the division pennant race, and when the Kings arrived at Prendergast Park on September 15th to start their final road trip of the 1953 season, Kansas City fans eagerly packed the bleachers to see if their Davids could slay the purple & gold-garbed Goliaths from southern California.
Things didn’t quite work out that way for the Longhorns. Los Angeles would take three out of four games of their series in Kansas City; by the time they returned to Hearst Palladium for their final home games of the regular season, they were ten games ahead of the Prospectors in the AL West standings and were poised to clinch the division title. They officially secured the division pennant with a three-run shutout of the Cleveland Indians on the final Saturday of the regular season....
...which set up an eagerly anticipated ALCS showdown with the New York Yankees. It would be the first time the Bronx Bombers and the Purple & Gold had squared off in the postseason since 1949-- and both teams were coming loaded for bear...
To Be Continued