by Ray Keating
July 25, 2020
Baseball is finally back. And as previously baseball-starved fans enjoy watching games this first weekend of the season, it’s also an ideal time to reflect upon Walt Disney, his love of the game, and how he and his company have been involved in our national pastime over the years.
It’s not surprising that Walt enjoyed baseball, since he also loved this country, and there’s perhaps nothing more American than baseball. As explained in the following D23 video, Walt was a big fan, and sometimes joined his employees in games at Disney’s Hyperion Studios. An athletic field, available for baseball, also was set up when Disney moved to its new studio in Burbank in 1940.
Walt once said, “Baseball is a great teacher of an important secret of living: the giving and taking in the group, the development of qualities and behavior that will stand us in good stead through life pursuits both personal and professional.”
But there has been even more to the Disney-baseball relationship.
Before the Dodgers and Giants arrived in California in 1958, the Pacific Coast League (PCL) from 1903 to 1957 was about as close to the big leagues as the Golden State could get. The PCL served up high-quality baseball. In fact, there were efforts to make it a third major league, though that ultimately failed.
One of the PCL teams was the Hollywood Stars. From 1926 to 1935, the Stars played at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, home to the PCL’s Los Angeles Angels. When unable to afford the Wrigley Field rent charged by the Angels’ owner, the Stars went south to become the original San Diego Padres. But in 1938, the Mission Reds in San Francisco moved and became the new Hollywood Stars.
Walt not only was a fan and season ticket holder of the Stars, but he contributed funds to help build the team a new ballpark. When the team owners, including Robert H. Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurants, sought funds to build a stadium, they formed the Hollywood Baseball Association, and sold ownership shares to prominent local leaders and celebrities. Disney became a part owner in the ballclub, along with folks like Cecil B. DeMille, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, George Burns, Jack Benny, Barbara Stanwyck, and Harry Warner. Gilmore Field opened on May 2, 1939, and the Hollywood Stars were billed as “the Hollywood Stars baseball team, owned by the Hollywood stars.”
Years later, the arrival of the Dodgers from Brooklyn actually got Walt involved in Major League Baseball. As reported by WalterOMalley.com, Disneyland influenced Dodger Stadium in a few ways, including where it was located:
The influence of Disneyland for its layout, parking facilities, trams and high level of customer service did not go unnoticed by O’Malley, who had his executives visit the Magic Kingdom in Anaheim and take notes. O’Malley had corresponded with Walt Disney and asked if he might have some suggestions as he built his new ballpark. Interestingly, Disney had rejected the idea of using the same unattractive Chavez Ravine land for a potential Disneyland site (quite possibly because of the massive amounts of earth that would have to be moved).
The Los Angeles Angels started play in the American League in 1961. Walt Disney, friend of team owner Gene Autry, served on the team’s board of directors from 1960 until his death in 1966. Walt also played a part in the team’s moving into a new stadium in 1966 located in Anaheim, not far from Disneyland.
More than two decades later, the Angels became part of the Disney family. As DisneyBizJournal.com noted in an April 1, 2019, story:
Michael Eisner and Disney acquired a stake in the Angels in 1996, and then purchased the entire team in 1998 from the Autry family. Autry passed away in 1998.
As for the ballpark, Angel Stadium underwent a $118 million renovation for Opening Day 1998, with Disney picking up $78 million of the tab, and the taxpayers covering the rest. And Walt Disney Imagineering was involved in the process. One can see the Disney touch with one particular part of the renovation, as described by Ballparks of Baseball.com: “In left centerfield is the ‘California spectacular’ where geysers erupt and a stream cascades down a mountainside covered with real trees and artificial rocks.” Very Disney.
However, while Disney magic was evident on the field, with the ultimate success of the 2002 World Series victory, the financial aspects of owning a baseball team didn’t add up for Disney. The team was sold in 2003 to Arturo Moreno, an Arizona businessman who made his money in the outdoor advertising industry.
By the way, pro baseball has been played in Disney’s Florida home as well. The Atlanta Braves spent spring training each season at The Stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World from 1998 to 2019. For good measure, the minor league Gulf Coast League Braves played at the ballpark from 1997 to 2007. Also, the Orlando Rays, another minor league team, called the ballpark home from 2000 to 2003.
Yes, Walt loved baseball, and the link between the game and his company has persisted.
I have no doubt that if Walt were alive today, he’d be quite pleased to see the return of baseball.
Ray Keating is the editor, publisher and economist for DisneyBizJournal.com, and author of the Pastor Stephen Grant novels. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, get the paperback or Kindle edition of Ray Keating’s new book Behind Enemy Lines: Conservative Communiques from Left-Wing New York.