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Oral History Spotlight: Play Ball!

Baseball in Mill Valley

In this series, we spotlight oral histories from our collection. The Mill Valley Oral History Program is an ongoing collaboration between the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley Public Library. We gather the stories and opinions of individuals from the community and preserve them for posterity. You can explore this collection of over 250 interviews by visiting us in the History Room at the Library. A growing number of interviews is also available online.

Play Ball!: Baseball in Mill Valley

By Marissa Friedman

Although baseball had existed in some form since the 1820s, public interest in the game exploded in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Baseball clubs proliferated. The rules of the game developed and were codified in documents such as the 1857 Laws of Baseball, referred to by many historians as the sport’s Magna Carta. Large crowds of spectators gathered for baseball games across the country. Of course, Marin was not immune to baseball fever – in fact, it became a hot spot for the sport by the 1870s. According to Robert Harrison, “baseball was no doubt being played by Marin teams in the 1860s but there is no reference to a local team until October 23, 1869 when the Marin Journal reported, ‘Base Ball Club – A base ball club was organized in this place on Tuesday night last’” (Harrison, 2018). San Rafael boasted several teams, soon to be joined by teams in Tomales, Nicasio, Sausalito, Mill Valley, Novato, and Ross Valley.

Baseball is a primary thorough line in the history of sport and recreation in Mill Valley. Mill Valley old-timers fondly recall the days when youngsters and adults alike would gather to play or watch baseball, whether it was joining pick-up games among youthful friends or watching semipro teams play at Boyle Park. As Fred Bagshaw recounts in his oral history, baseball games were one of the main forms of recreation for Mill Valleyans when he was growing up in Mill Valley: “we used to go and sit on a hill and watch them….they had good semipro teams that played every Sunday. Players came here from the Army camp at Fort Baker.” Former semi-pro player and Mill Valleyan Edward Reichmuth echoed these sentiments in his oral history, exclaiming “that was a lot of fun in them days, you know. People would love to go to a baseball game Sunday afternoon!” Mill Valleyan Peter Brindley, one of the many youngsters who played in informal pickup games and attended semi-pro games in Boyle Park in the ‘40s and ‘50s, recalled “in those days there was a large grand stand and all the fellows that had come back from World War II would play in a league that included Tiburon, San Rafael, Richmond and San Francisco. These games would be very highly attended, probably 500 or 600 people at every game. People would park their cars up along Buena Vista right in center field.”

Mill Valley began hosting semi-pro teams as early as 1910, when a community-wide effort got underway to construct the city’s first baseball field in Boyle Park. In his oral history, former Tam High baseball player George Pimlott recalls the team effort which went into building the ballfield: 

“the town [built it]. It just gradually built up. Originally there were two great big ditches on either side. One creek comes down from around Buena Vista, and another comes in from the golf links. Those two creeks came together right behind where the grandstand was, and then it eventually came on down to this creek. They were deep ditches. I can remember when they filled the first one. They dumped a lot of old cars right behind the grandstand, the backstop, and   filled it up. Eventually they filled the other ditch, and that made it beautiful. Before those days they could knock a ball over into the willows and they'd have a hard time finding it.” 

Center fielder Reichmuch allegedly would stand on Buena Vista Avenue when heavy hitters came up to bat!

Over the years, Mill Valley hosted several semi-pro teams sponsored by local businesses, including the Mill Valley Merchants. While sponsorships covered uniforms and equipment, they did not cover pay for players. Poor field conditions and lack of compensation didn’t deter Mill Valley’s many local talents from playing on these semi-pro teams, including Tommy Bickerstaff, town burgher Ralston White, Hugh Cavalli, and Rudy Kaufman, as well as Sid Boyle, Clay Budar, Lou Locati, Red Taylor, Ed Ashoff and Tom Tawns. Of course, Mill Valleyans took part in organized baseball at all levels. The city boasted four pitchers who played minor league baseball in the Pacific Coast League in the ‘30s and ‘40s: Bob Jensen (S.F. Seals), Tony Freitas (Sacramento Senators), Art Shallock (Hollywood Stars and New York Yankees), Ed Stutz (went to majors). Freitas would make history as the first Mill Valleyan to play professional ball, playing for the Philadelphia Athletes and the Cincinnati Redlegs.

Tam High played a significant role in the development of many local baseball players. Pimlott, a former Tam High baseball player, credited the school’s remarkably long streak of winning seasons to the tutelage of Coach Wendering. Former student-athlete Frederick LeRoy Martin recalled that the high school “always had championship baseball teams.” It was Tam High baseball coach Jim Langdon who led the American Legion Junior Team, which played out of Boyle Park, to the national semifinals in 1929 – this team included many Mill Valleyans, including Ed Stutz (a future major league player), Fred Martin, Tom Mori, Mickey McGowan, Bill Franchini, Al Bedecarrax and Dick Wright. Martin recalls their epic run in his oral history: “we were league champions in the West. They gave us little medals and if we'd have won that game the next day from the New Orleans team, we'd have gone back to see the New York Giants in the World Series with Babe Ruth playing.” Many professional ballplayers also came out of the program at Tam High, including Sam Chapman, future Philadelphia Athletics’ outfielder, Yankee pitcher Art Scholloch and outfielder Carl Olsen, who played for the Boston Red Sox.            

By the late 1950s, the semipro league had moved its play site elsewhere, making room at Boyle Park for the newly minted Mill Valley Little League, co-founded by Reichmuth. The grandstand was demolished at this time, while new dugouts and stands for spectators were added. In the city’s inaugural Little League season, 1954, Mill Valley hosted two teams while Sausalito and Tiburon hosted one teach each respectively, with each team playing a total of 12 games. The Mill Valley Boys Club Yankees won that first Little League title. Little League grew quickly in popularity, bolstered by a team of enthusiastic volunteers who kept the league up and running. In his oral history, Fred Mack, retired Tam High teacher and athletic coach, fondly remembers the local fathers and coaches who poured their heart and soul into funding and constructing baseball fields at Sycamore Park and Alto Field, and developing Little League baseball opportunities for Mill Valley children. According to Mack,

“I knew, as I got older, I understand this even more, that the guys that were coaching in Mill Valley, that brought me along and brought the other kids along, deserve a lot of credit. They’re just dads that are out there, guys from the bar, or whoever they were, that taught these kids how to run the bases, to do the relays, to do the basic baseball stuff… Mill Valley was a blue-collar community, that was it, and you get your professional athletes, particularly baseball, out of those blue-collar communities. There were these guys that played, and came back, and they were living in town. So, we were getting some pretty good help from the dads, and it wasn’t about them, you could tell. They were in there to help kids get along. It didn’t matter what kid it was; not just their kid. They were helping all of them; it was kind of like my dad. So, they were a great resource.”

Mack’s oral history in particular reveals the tight-knit, community-oriented baseball culture of Mill Valley in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which supported all levels of play, from Little League to high school baseball, semipro players, and beyond.

 

Jenny Fulle: The Girl Who Took on Little League and Won

Mill Valley found itself in the national spotlight in the ‘70s thanks to ten-year-old Mill Valleyan Jenny Fulle who dreamed of playing Little League baseball with the boys. Fulle showed up at Little League tryouts in 1972 only to be rebuffed. Devastated, she took her case to President Richard Nixon herself and received a letter back from him in support. As Title IX had been passed earlier that year, Jenny and her family decided to keep fighting, alongside a host of other girls across the country who also sought legal redress for their exclusion from Little League. Fulle’s groundbreaking legal victory in 1973 ensured that girls across the country gained the right to play Little League baseball. This determined, big-hitting girl from Mill Valley became the first ever to play Little League that season, after a series of legal battles, contentious Mill Valley city council meetings, and much abuse directed at Fulle and her family. She recalls the struggle in great detail in her oral history:

So we had gone to City Council meetings, we had been to Parks and Rec meetings, it had been, “No, no, no, no.” In my mind, the infamous story now with Mayor Jean Barnard, the City Council, one of our last council meetings, was split. I think it was 3-3. So the deciding vote went to the, I think, first female mayor of Mill Valley, and she actually voted against it, against me, and against girls playing. Basically, her reasoning was, “Vive la différence.” And I remember actually being pretty heartbroken and pretty shocked by that even as a kid. So after that, NOW had gotten an ACLU lawyer, Rico Hurvich, to legally represent the case, and he had been working on his side of that throughout this whole process, and he’d been with us since the council meetings. So it ended up in Superior Court in Marin County, just as the Little League season was starting in what would have been my final year of eligibility. He ended up in Superior Court, and the judge ruled in our favor, saying that this is discrimination and it goes against Title IX. Either Little     League lets girls play, or Little League cannot use public facilities anymore. Boyle Park is a public park. So that ruling happened. Meanwhile, there were, I believe, there had been about four or five of us spread across the United States that were fighting at the same time. I had heard that it almost bankrupted Little League fighting all these cases. So they had decided to take one to Supreme Court. So they took it, they chose to go to New Jersey Supreme Court with that case. They were just prepping for that case and getting ready to go to trial with that, when our Superior Court judge ruled in my favor.”

Ed Addeo, a successful veteran Little League coach himself, chaired the Parks and Rec Commission which voted 4-3 to let Jenny Fulle play Little League. He recalled how divisive the case was for Mill Valleyans and the country at large in his oral history. According to Addeo, “It was a big trial up in Superior Court, and Little League sent out psychiatrists from — big Beverly Hills psychiatrists, all kinds of doctors and orthopedists testified how terrible it would be if a girl played Little League — and the bad language the boys use she shouldn’t be able to hear, and how girls weren’t structured, their skeletal features were for having babies, not for athletics. It was just terrible.”

And yet Fulle triumphed in the face of blatant and institutionalized sexism. She remembered that “armed with a court order, literally, and a bunch of cameras following behind, I showed up at the first practice. I was assigned to a team and I showed up at the first practice, court order in hand, and played my one and only season of Little League.” In 2000, Fulle, now a film executive in Hollywood, was invited back to Mill Valley to throw out ceremonial first pitch at the MVLL Opening Day celebrations. In 2017, she led the Mill Valley Little League’s 64th Annual Opening Day parade and caught the first pitch at Boyle Park, where a plaque was installed in her honor. Generations of girls across the county, including dozens here in Mill Valley, can thank Fulle for ensuring that they can play baseball, too.  

 

Oral Histories

Oral History of Ed Addeo, by Stella Perone. (2015). Mill Valley Public Library.  

Oral History of Edward Reichmuth, by Paul De Fremery. (1989). Mill Valley Public Library.

Oral History of Fred Mack, by Nancy Emerson. (2019). Mill Valley Public Library.

Oral History of Frederick LeRoy Martin, by Jean Mosher. (1979). Mill Valley Public Library.

Oral History of George Pimlott, by Betsey Andresen. (1975). Mill Valley Public Library.

Oral History of Jenny Fulle, by Debra Schwartz. (2017). Mill Valley Public Library.

Oral History of Peter Brindley, by Dale Komai. (2001). Mill Valley Public Library. 

Oral History of Thomas Frederick Bagshaw, by Carl Mosher. (1975). Mill Valley Public Library.

Articles

Broverman, Neal. “A Hero’s Journey.” The Advocate. (January 29, 2007). Retrieved from https://www.advocate.com/politics/commentary/2007/01/29/heros-journey.

Harrison, Robert. “Early History of Baseball.” Anne T. Kent California Room Community Newsletter. (October 19, 2018). Retrieved from https://annetkent.kontribune.com/articles/8699.

Kleiner, Joyce. Legendary Locals of Mill Valley. Arcadia Publishing, 2014. Pg. 81-83. 

Livingston, Dewey. “Baseball: A Marin Tradition.” Anne T. Kent California Room Community Newsletter.  (October 26, 2018). Retrieved from https://annetkent.kontribune.com/articles/8704.

MacGowan, Bruce. “Marin sports history: Rich tradition of semipro baseball in county attracted big names, big talent.” Marin Independent Journal (June 21, 2008). Retrieved from https://www.marinij.com/2008/06/21/marin-sports-history-rich-tradition-of-semipro-baseball-in-county-attracted-big-names-big-talent/

“Marin History: Baseball in Marin.” Marin Independent Journal. (April 2, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.marinij.com/2018/04/02/marin-history-baseball-in-marin/

Mill Valley Historical Society. “Boyle Park, Bones, & Baseball: Twenty-Eighth Annual Walk Into History.” (May 29, 2005). Retrieved from https://www.mvhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/plugin-hist-walk-guidebook-2005.pdf.

Weldy, Stephanie. “First female Little Leaguer recognized at Mill Valley’s Opening Day.” (March 18, 2017). https://www.marinij.com/2017/03/18/first-female-little-leaguer-recognized-at-mill-valleys-opening-day/.

Yeomans, Jeannine. “Little League Player Went to Bat For Girls.” SF Gate. (March 10, 2000). Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Little-League-Player-Went-to-Bat-for-Girls-2796521.php.