The beautiful uncut hair of LaGrave

Business brought me to Fort Worth this past week, though a tight schedule prevented me from planning any baseball detours as part of the trip. Too bad since I’m currently working on the SABR Games story that took place in Fort Worth in 1952 and would have benefited greatly from even a few extra hours in town. But then I looked at the map. 🤔

Wait a minute! My meeting (at Tarrant County College) is only a mile from LaGrave Field?! Maybe, just maybe, I can pull this off.

Luck was with me as my event ended almost an hour early, so after saying my goodbyes and packing up my gear I set off on my mile-plus walk to the site of the Texas League’s first of two Dave Hoskins Nights. (If the name is unfamiliar, Hoskins was the two-way sensation who not only broke the Texas League’s Color Barrier in 1952 but was also the circuit’s top draw, top pitcher, and third best hitter. Previously he had starred in the Negro Leagues as part of the Homestead Grays Murderers Row!)

1952 Globe Printing baseball card

While the second Dave Hoskins Night was hosted by the ace’s home fans in Dallas, this first tribute, on August 28, came from the fans of his team’s crosstown rival, the Fort Worth Cats. Hoskins for his part pitched well enough to reward celebrants with a shutout and his 20th victory of the season. He even banged out two hits for good measure.

So this Dave Hoskins history was what was on my mind as I began the short walk to the ballpark, though Hoskins was hardly the most renowned player to take the field at LaGrave. Two of my favorite Dodgers, for example, were Fort Worth Cats en route to the big leagues: Duke Snider and Maury Wills, the latter breaking the team’s Color Barrier three years after Hoskins integrated the league.

The walk itself started out simple enough but got a bit dicey halfway through. Google’s walking directions had me take Main Street, which for several blocks became more highway than street. That there was no sidewalk over this stretch added adventure if not danger to this part of the journey. To boot, wearing a suit and carrying two travel bags wasn’t exactly optimal for dodging traffic, so I was fortunate that there weren’t many cars at this time of day. I was definitely happy to reach the stretch where the sidewalk resumed.

Abandoning the Google directions, I followed this street sign and turned off Main St. early to take a shortcut through a parking lot. I was quickly rewarded by a view of the ballpark. While taking my first photo, a car pulled up to me and asked if I was trying to get onto the field. Before I could respond fully, the driver warned me that the field was patrolled by a security guard whose car I could now see.

Just seeing the old shuttered ballpark, from any angle, made the walk worthwhile, but I had a second goal. To qualify for SABR Landmark status, abandoned ballparks, no matter how historic, need markers. Would my walk around the perimeter lead me to one?

Bingo!

Shadows didn’t permit a clean shot of the marker, but I could still make out the words.

FORT WORTH CATS HISTORIC LAGRAVE FIELD – Nearly 50 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown have played at LaGrave Field over the years.

In better days there was actually a bottom half to the sign, which named the Hall of Famers. In fact, the sign sells the old ballpark short as Satchel Paige and many other Negro League greats played here as well.

Having nabbed a picture of the marker, I also managed a picture of the old ticket office just before the aforementioned security guard interrupted my hardball voyaging.

The concerned watchman let me know they really didn’t like people walking around the ballpark, but he softened his stance somewhat when I told him I was from the Society for American Baseball Research. He asked how much longer I needed to be there and I told him I maybe needed just one more picture from a different spot. Reluctantly, he assented, and thanks to his largesse you are now looking at a shot of the centerfield scoreboard, complete with clock.

Here is an image from Google Maps that shows a much better view while testifying to the overall state of neglect and disrepair to which the ballpark has fallen victim. Graffiti runs the gamut from “Pimp” to “See God in everything.” (Click here for a photo not nearly as depressing.)

Between the watchful eyes of security and a plane to catch, my visit to LaGrave came to a quick end, though not without some humor. Having taken the most direct path to a spot I thought Uber could retrieve me, I sent my driver a helpful note.

“It’s Jason. I’m on Main and 7th, right across the street from…wait, what?!”

I enjoyed my short trek to LaGrave but also left saddened at the current state of the ballpark and its even more uncertain future. It’s easy to picture that even a year down the road, the history I was able to visit will be gone entirely, and with it, I believe, no small part of the cultural wealth and heritage of Fort Worth itself.

Baseball can be played in many places, but that isn’t to say they’re interchangeable. Some places are sacred, and I believe this is one of them. Walt Whitman sung of grass as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Taking some liberty with his verse, here’s hoping the uncut hair of LaGrave might once again provide fans and yawpers alike with “the thrill of the grass.” Until then, if you’ll pardon the “potty” humor, I guess there’s always Bud Sellers. 🤣

The author’s Dave Hoskins collection

Second home

However much baseball has changed in my lifetime one aspect that has always stayed the same is the notion of a home team and an away team. This is true even when the two squads share the same ballpark (e.g., Dodgers/White Sox Spring Training) or play at a neutral site such as Mexico City or the Field of Dreams. After all, someone has to bat first.

The same is true with people and places. As we find ourselves in different spots over the course of our lives, we are sometimes at home and other times visitors. As a kid, I knew one home and that was the Palms/Mar Vista area of Los Angeles. Until halfway through the eighth grade, I’d spent my entire life in the same house on the same street in the same neighborhood. (Why this house has since been re-branded “Bigfoot Lodge West” is beyond the scope of this article.)

The red pin on the map was our house and center of my universe. That school in the upper left corner, Charnock Road Elementary, was where I walked for first and second grade. Tito’s Tacos, at the bottom of the map, was where we’d go out to eat. The Baskin-Robbins in the middle is where we’d go for ice cream when guests were in town. And most importantly, in the same strip mall as Baskin-Robbins was the liquor store where I traded what I could skim from my mom’s parking meter change for pack after pack of baseball cards.

Every now and then I make the trip back to Los Angeles to see old friends and take in a Dodger game. Forty years later, the old neighborhood is part familiar, part unrecognizable. Make the mandatory trip to Tito’s and place the same order I’ve always placed (tacos with cheese), head down Venice Boulevard to Baskin-Robbins, and this is home. Pass just about anything else, even the house I grew up in, and I’m the visitor, connected to nothing I see.

My son keeping tradition alive, 2017

Los Angeles will always be home to me, but my connections have dwindled to a just four: high school buds, tacos, the Dodgers, and nostalgia. Not a bad four to keep, I suppose, but sure a lot less than in the old days. That’s what the decades do to a place. Things happen. Things change. The blessing, of course, is that my remaining touchpoints, while few, have each gotten better with age.

* * *

Only a few years ago there was a fifth connection to the city: family. My dad passed in October 2020, an indirect COVID casualty, but before that had spent a good 70 years of his life in L.A. That said, his true spiritual home was Venice, especially Venice Beach.

Locals, depending how far back they go, will remember him as the “cardboard sign man” of the 1980s and 90s, or–this century–as the “tee shirt guy.” In a town that prides itself on its freaks and crazies, my dad managed to lap the field, rendering the pretenders of this new urban Bohemia downright normal by comparison.

Accidental Jewel co-star Nelson Schwartz

Still, despite my dad’s near celebrity status (if not because of it) I hated Venice as a kid. Too dirty. Too weird. And, when my dad was there (i.e., all the time!) too embarrassing! I was definitely the away team here, a reluctant (though frequent) visitor at best. I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate the ways Venice was my dad’s lifeblood, nor was I aware of its baseball history. And, for damn sure, I had no idea there were baseball cards!

Venice Tigers baseball cards, 1913-14

Yes, Venice was briefly home to the Venice Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. The team that had called Vernon home from 1909-1912 (and would return to the industrial enclave south of Los Angeles in 1915) spent the 1912 and 1913 seasons just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. (You can see the approximate location of the Venice ballpark on the SABR Baseball Map. You can also spot Vernon in the map’s lower right-hand corner.)

Moving from the map to real life, the marker is not so easy to locate. Having wandered the neighborhood a fair amount, nary noticing a thing baseball related is proof of this. However, some nice online photos are available though the Historical Marker Database. Google Street View also affords this image, though my understanding is that it’s frequently defaced by graffiti.

The presence of the Tigers in Venice (and even Vernon) pre-dates my dad by quite a bit, and it would be a stretch to even call my dad a baseball fan beyond his love of Fernando Valenzuela. Still, I feel drawn to this Pacific Coast League squad of no-names simply because these Tigers, like my dad, called Venice their home, even if both parties left too soon.

I have a Venice trip in my future, one that I’ve already put off too many times. A friend has been holding my dad’s ashes for me far longer then etiquette should allow, and the plan has always been to spread them at Venice Beach. There are a lot of reasons why I’ve waited this long, but I feel like the ghost of an old ballpark, whether as bonus or distraction, may be just what I need to get moving.

* * *

While I’m in the neighborhood I can also check out a couple other Venice Tigers-themed sites. About 0.4 miles from the Corner Ballpark marker, there is the precise location (southwest corner of South Venice and Abbott Kinney) where the ballpark (built in only five weeks!) stood . Though not an official SABR Landmark, why not take a look! And finally, if I’m dropping ashes off the Venice Pier, I may as well stroll past the old parking spot of Ward McFadden’s Ship Café.

What does the Ship Café have to do with baseball?! How else did fans get ahold of their 1913 Venice Tigers schedule doubloons!

There will be a weirdness to the trip, as is tautologically true of all things Venice, but the weirdness will not emanate from the sights, the sounds, or even the smells. Now the weirdness will be my dad joining me, unmistakably, at every step. It will be his weirdness, once off-putting but now sufficiently missed as to turn the unwanted to welcome and the foreign to familiar. Steeped in his memory, this New Venice will offer me what it offered the Tigers, neither errand nor detour but second home.

Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to my father, Nelson Schwartz (1947-2020) and his special love of all things Venice.