This year the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are playing their 55th season down the road from Disneyland. Adam explores the relationship between America’s pastime and America’s favorite theme park.
Sunday, October 27, 2002. 8 days before my 17th birthday. Edison International Field of Anaheim, one freeway exit south of Disneyland. I was watching this baseball game in Redlands, California, about a 45 minute drive away.
The Anaheim Angels, my favorite baseball team, played the San Francisco Giants in the 7th and final game of the World Series. Taking a 4-1 lead into the 9th inning, closer Troy Percival had runners on 1st and 2nd with two outs. Just one pitch away from turning the Angels into World Champions for the first time in their 41 year history.
Center fielder Kenny Lofton stepped to the plate representing the tying run. Lofton’s favorite pitch was low and inside. If Percival made a mistake low and in…this could suddenly be a tie game.
Luckily for my adolescent psyche…that didn’t happen.
If you’re a professional sports fan, and you were lucky enough to see your team win the championship during your formative years, you know the emotions I was experiencing that night. I honestly couldn’t remember a time in my life when I’d felt happier.
Jump ahead a couple months. A few of my cousins were visiting from Ohio to spend New Year’s with me, my brother, and my parents. Like anyone visiting California, naturally, my cousins wanted to go to Disneyland, and we were happy to oblige.
But before that happened, I needed to make a very important stop.
A week earlier, on Christmas morning, one of my presents was actually a raincheck. A promise from my parents that when we were in Anaheim, we’d pay a visit to the Angels team store and they’d buy me a bright red, Angels World Champion windbreaker, the very same jacket worn by the players and coaches.
That jacket brought back all those same emotions from that night in October. And it bears mentioning, even though it was December, we’re talking about Southern California. It was in the high 60s that day! Definitely not heavy jacket weather. But you better believe that jacket never left my torso that day.
I still have that jacket. It doesn’t get a whole lot of use these days. It still fits, but it’s a bit more snug around the midsection than when I was in high school.
A year ago, on this channel, we released an episode called “The Heart and Soul of Brooklyn”. In that episode, I told a story about a group of young boys living in Brooklyn in the summer of 1955, visiting first Coney Island and then Ebbets Field.
In the process of creating and hosting that story, I realized that the world of baseball and the world of theme parks often run side-by-side and have a lot of similar elements. They’re both fun, they’re both great family outings, and maybe I’m getting overly sentimental here, but they both have an element of adventure and…magic.
It’s now been almost two decades since the Fall of 2002, and the Angels are beginning their 60th season.They haven’t returned to the World Series…they really haven’t even gotten close. Don’t get me started on that topic.
It’s baseball season, and with Disneyland set to open in a few weeks, it’s also theme park season. Unlike last season, Disneyland and Angel Stadium will actually have visitors this year.
Beyond geographic location, the two organizations, Disney and the Angels, share a lot of common ground.
It’s April 1961. John F Kennedy, the first US President born in the 20th century, has been in the White House for about 100 days. Yuri Gagaran wins major bragging rights for the Soviet Union by becoming the first man in space. Fugitive Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman is brought to trial in Jerusalem. And in Los Angeles, a new baseball team takes the field for their first ever home game.
1961 was a transformative year for the American pastime. Baseball is notoriously slow to change, and true to form, the same sixteen teams had existed for six decades. Some of them had relocated, most notably the Dodgers moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and the Giants moving from New York City to San Francisco. But they were still the same ball clubs.
Frustrated by the static nature of professional baseball, which if you’re unfamiliar is composed of the National and American Leagues, plans were drawn up for third league, the Continental League. They had their sights set on professional ball teams in Minneapolis, Toronto, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta, a few of the many regions that baseball-loving Americans were moving to.
Before the Continental League could take shape, Major League Baseball struck a deal. They would do something just short of sacrilegious. They would expand. The next two years would see the creation of the New York Mets, Houston Astros, Washington Senators…and the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels would play their first season just south of Downtown LA, at Wrigley Field.
If you’re a baseball fan like me, the name of that park probably rings a bell. It shares a name with the Cubs longtime home park, on the north side of Chicago. And no, that’s not a coincidence. William Wrigley, the millionaire owner of the chewing gum company and the Chicago Cubs, built the park in the 1920s for two minor league teams. But in 1961, big league baseball moved in.
The previous winter, several baseball executives descended on the baseball owners meetings in St Louis with the hope of putting in a successful bid for the new Los Angeles Angels. Gene Autry, better known as the Singing Cowboy, an established country crooner, radio personality, and movie star would purchase and own the Angels for the next 36 years.
The Angels home opener that year was a disappointment, drawing just 12,000 fans, about 50% of the park’s capacity. That year, they averaged just 7,000 fans per game, one-third the total of the Dodgers, playing down the road at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Despite not drawing many fans, the Angels won 70 games that season. Not too shabby for a hodgepodge mix of out-of-shape veterans and career minor leaguers.
But, for their whole tenure in Los Angeles, the Angels struggled to attract as much attention as their National League counterpart, they also struggled to fill the stands. This was especially disappointing from 1962 to 1965 when the Angels and Dodgers shared Dodger Stadium.
It was time for the Angels to move out of Los Angeles and find their own identity. That’s where Anaheim came into the picture.
In just seven short years, Anaheim went from a dusty citrus-growing town to the home of the most popular theme park on earth; Disneyland. In 1965, Anaheim got another major tourist attraction: The only American League baseball team in the state of California. While announcing the construction of the new Anaheim Stadium just four miles south of Disneyland, the team also announced a new name: The California Angels.
If the team’s move to Disneyland’s backyard seems too perfect to be a coincidence, well…that hunch is correct. Walt Disney was a member of the Angels board of directors from 1960 until his death in 1966, and he was a central figure in the team’s move to Orange County. As fellow family-friendly Hollywood entertainers, Walt Disney and Gene Autry both saw the benefit of giving Americans another option for a family friendly outing. You could visit Anaheim and see Mickey Mantle and Mickey Mouse on the same weekend!
1966,the team’s first year in Anaheim, saw 1.4 million fans visit the ballpark, the highest attendance in the American League. In 67, to promote the opening of Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Carribean, Autry teamed up with the Disney company to offer Angels-Disneyland doubleheader. For $5, fans could buy a reserved seat at a game against the Cleveland Indians, and a special nighttime ticket to Disneyland, giving them access to the park from 8 at night to 1 in the morning.
Just as Disney began to experience some of their worst years, the Angels entered some of their best. They acquired Nolan Ryan, one of the best pitchers in the history of the game, and would go on to win their division in 1979, 1982, and 1986.
Disneyland and the Angels remained friendly neighbors, but for the most part, separate and unrelated entities throughout the 70s and 80s. But that began to change in the early 1990s.
In the middle of the 1994 season, just as the Disney Decade was gaining steam, the studio released Angels in the Outfield, starring a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as Christopher Lloyd, Best known previously as Doc Brown from the Back to the Future franchise. Lloyd plays Al, who leads a team of Angels on a mission of divine intervention to help the team win the pennant.
It’s cheesy. It’s sappy. It’s all the things Disney gets accused of on a daily basis, but it still gives me the warm fuzzies.
Disney’s new CEO Michael Eisner had an interest in sports that went beyond the silver screen. After purchasing and debuting the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim the previous year, Eisner now had his sights set on the Angels. By this point, Gene Autry was in his 80s and in failing health, having handed over day-to-day operations to his wife Jackie. She agreed to sell 25% of the team to Disney in 1994. After Gene Autry passed away four years later, Disney bought the team outright for just over $100 million.
During the years of Disney ownership, the team changed their name for the second time, from the California Angels to the Anaheim Angels. With some financial assistance from the city of Anaheim, the team also gave the stadium a much-overdue makeover.
Early in their ownership, Disney made a big blunder. The company re-designed the team’s uniforms. Beginning in the 1997 season, the Angels played in blue and white pinstripes, with a logo that looked like it was straight out of Toontown. Many fans compared it to something an adult softball team would wear.
In 2002, the team did away with their five-year mistake and took the field in classic red and white uniforms. The uniforms didn’t help pre-season predictions for the team, as most oddsmakers expected them to place third in their four team division. When the Angels finished the first 20 games of the season with a 6 and 14 record, even those projections seemed optimistic.
But they turned it around. Not unlike the original 1961 Angels, the 02 (oh two) team was scrappy. A collection of veterans and newcomers, without a lot of household names. They’d go on to surprise nearly everyone by ending the season with 99 wins. In early November, they celebrated their world championship with…what else? A parade down Main Street USA.
Though Disney sold the team in 2003, the relationship between the two hasn’t ended. Most notably, when Angel Stadium hosted the MLB All-Star Game in 2010, Disney created 36 baseball-themed Mickey Mouse statues and placed them throughout the Disneyland Resort.
I’ve always loved the fact that my favorite baseball team plays down the road from my favorite theme park. When two things you love, and that you’re passionate about, intersect like that, it gives you all the warm fuzzies. I love food, too, and I get that same overwhelmingly happy feeling when I sit down and have a really good meal at Carthay Circle at Disney California Adventure, or Blue Bayou at Disneyland
Wherever you’re surrounded by people who love all the same things you do, those are the really good moments in life. Maybe we used to take those places and experiences for granted a little bit. But I have a feeling, after 2020, we’re never going to do that again.
Whether it’s a baseball game, a football game, a trip to a theme park, a family BBQ…whatever part of your life that features your favorite things and your favorite people, I hope you get to a whole lot more of it this year.
To the Angels, happy 60th season. Play Ball!