Baseball returns to the L.A. Coliseum

March 29, 2008 ... One hundred fifteen thousand three hundred. A number so large it needs to be spelled out. That was the paid attendance at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to see an exhibition game between the Dodgers and the Red Sox. The announced attendance to watch the Red Sox play the Dodgers in their original West Coast home was one for the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Coliseum gathering broke the previous record for largest crowd to bear witness to a baseball game. That record had stood since December 1, 1956, when 114,000 people watched an exhibition between the Australian national team and an American services team during that year’s Olympics in Melbourne. Fitting, then, that the attendance record would be broken in Los Angeles’ Olympic venue, as the Coliseum hosted the 1932 and 1984 Olympic Games.

It was a very memorable event. And make no mistake, this was more of an event than a ballgame. Ceremonies were held before the game and then interspersed during the nine inning affair, which was merely a spring training game but was treated as so much more.

Among the memorable moments, Vin Scully was flattered to be feted in the pregame ceremonies, which began a half hour before the ceremonial first pitch was tossed by Wally Moon. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar threw out another first pitch an inning later, bouncing his toss towards home plate. Given another opportunity, Kareem sky hooked the ball into Russell Martin’s mitt. The Olympic cauldron was lit after the fifth inning.

As a tribute to Red Sox fans, Sweet Caroline was played during the middle of the eighth. No modern ballpark is more well known for its quirkiness that Fenway, but the venerable Boston ballyard is no match for the idiosyncrasies of the Coliseum, which the Dodgers spent $500,000 to retrofit for the one night stand.

The left field wall, which stood at 250 feet when baseball was played at the Coliseum from 1958-61, was just 201 feet from home plate. A 60’ screen had to be cleared in left for a ball to be declared a home run. The bullpens were side by side in foul territory, the mounds nearly even with third base. The temporary backstop was placed about a dozen feet behind home plate, and a broken bat got stuck in the scaffolding that held the netting up.

The most unusual reminder that this was indeed your grandfather’s ballpark was the nearly rectangular shape of the playing field, on which the very faded yard markers of USC’s football field were visible. Because of the irregular shape, right field looked to be much further away than the 300’ feet it was. The temporary fence erected in right field gave the makeshift playing field a Little League feel.

The game itself was fairly uneventful, save for a 2-8 caught stealing in the fourth when Jacoby Ellsbury was gunned down at second by Martin with center fielder Andruw Jones covering the bag. The Dodgers used a five-man infield throughout the game, with their center fielder playing shallow in the outfield grass behind second base.


Surprisingly, there were a mere four home runs. Kevin Cash, a career .167 hitter, belted the first one, sending the ball well beyond the left-field power alley situated 280 feet from home plate. Kevin Youkilis, James Loney and Blake DeWitt also went deep. Manny Ramirez, the best pull hitter long ball threat in either line-up, didn’t play.

The Dodgers followed that trend well before most teams, building Dodger Stadium six miles north of the Coliseum, which they abandoned after the 1961 season. That meant it was unlikely that the Major League single game attendance record of 93,103 would ever be broken. That was also for an exhibition game at the Coliseum, albeit a mid-season one, which took place on May 7, 1959 in honor of Roy Campanella, who had been paralyzed the year before in a car accident.

The park did produce some crazy moments during the L.A. Dodgers’ inaugural season such as a three-homer game on April 24 from the Cubs’ Lee Walls, who had hit only six four-baggers during the entire 1957 season. But while the Coliseum yielded 193 home runs during the 1958 campaign, most in the majors, that total was actually lower than the MLB-high 219 four-baggers that were hit in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in 1957. And in the four seasons that the Dodgers played in the Coliseum, no Dodger player hit more than 14 home runs at home in a single season.

That is not to say that the Coliseum was beloved by players, especially pitchers. San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Antonelli called the left-field wall “the biggest farce I ever heard of,” and Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale commented, “It’s nothing but a sideshow. Who feels like playing baseball in this place?” Outfielders, meanwhile, often complained about being unable to see batted balls. “Those rows of seats go so high, it’s awful hard to see anything but high flies,” said Willie Mays. “Line drives, they are murder.”

For Dodgers players, the Coliseum could be heaven or hell. Lefty-swinging Wally Moon, who joined the club prior to the 1959 season, reconfigured his swing to hit high flies (“Moon Shots”) over the left-field screen, hitting 37 home runs in the Coliseum from 1959–61, compared to only 12 on the road. Another lefty swinger, future Hall of Famer Duke Snider, struggled with the Coliseum’s deep right field dimensions in 1958, hitting only six home runs at home all season. But Snider rebounded after the Dodgers shortened the right-field fence in 1959, and actually hit more home runs in the Coliseum (32) than on the road (21) 1959–61. 

Among Dodgers pitchers, no one was hampered by the Coliseum more than Sandy Koufax, despite some great individual games there. From 1958 through 1961 Koufax was 28–20 with a 3.57 ERA and 33 home runs allowed in Dodger road games; in the Coliseum, he was 17–23, 4.33 with 56 home runs allowed. Koufax did not fully blossom as a superstar pitcher until 1962, when he won the first of five straight ERA titles in the Dodgers’ first season in Dodger Stadium.

Tickets for the game nearly a half-century later, which benefited the Dodger's new “Think Cure” cancer charity, sold out less than an hour after being available for public consumption on February 2. For those that did make it to the game, the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

A baseball diamond hadn’t been used on Coliseum grounds since September 20, 1961, when Sandy Koufax pitched all 13 innings of a 3-2 victory over the Cubs. Just 12,068 fans showed up to bid the Coliseum adieu that day. It’s hard to imagine that nearly 10 times as many people would want to show up to see the one day resurrection.

The game itself was an afterthought, as most exhibitions are. The Red Sox, who flew in from Japan to be a part of the occasion, were winners, 7-4. But the night belonged to the fans and the memories that were made. For those that were there, who will ever forget the players in the tent-like dugouts joining us in doing the wave.