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Coliseum's dimensions affected the play on the field

What's most often remembered about the Los Angeles Coliseum in its four-year guise as a major league ballpark is (1) the crowds occasionally swelled to more than 90,000, easily the most in major league history, and (2) its dimensions were the strangest that anyone had seen in the majors, or has seen since.

Until tonight, that is. As originally configured in 1958, the Coliseum was only 250 feet to the left-field "screen" … which was 40 feet high. Deepest right-center field was 440 from the plate. Straightaway right field was a long ways away, too. It was barely 300 feet to the foul pole down the right-field line, but the fence extended out so quickly that it didn't do the hitters any good. According to Dodgers statistician Allan Roth's records, in 1958 only nine homers were hit in 77 games at the Coliseum.

So yeah, it was different. Sort of an extreme version of Fenway Park, but inside an old-fashioned football stadium. And of course, some observers were not amused. All sorts of nicknames were invented for that oh-so-close screen in left, and it became fashionable to refer to Coliseum baseball as "Screen-O." It's been reported that commissioner Ford Frick -- who would, a few years later, so energetically defend Babe Ruth's home run record -- "ordered the Dodgers to construct a second screen in left, in the seats, 333 feet from the plate, and a ball clearing both screens would be a home run, but a ball clearing just the shorter screen would be only a double."

Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. This was it -- from Ebbets Field to the L.A. Coliseum.

-- Former Dodgers pitcher
Don Drysdale

Frick was overruled by the California Earthquake Law.

Was the Coliseum really such a monstrosity? Well, consider:

In 1956 and '57, the last two seasons the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, there were 363 home runs hit in their home games, and 278 home runs in their road games. In '58 and '59, the first two seasons in the Coliseum, there were 365 homers hit in Dodgers home games, 285 in their road games.

In 1956 and '57, Dodgers home games (including a few in Newark) averaged 9.1 runs, and Dodgers road games averaged 7.8 runs. In '58 and '59, Dodgers home games averaged 9.5 runs, road games 8.7 runs.

But of course, the point isn't that the Coliseum was a hitters' park, or a pitchers' park. The point is that all depended on what you were trying to do. Duke Snider, a left-handed power hitter, was trying to pull the ball, just like Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. And that was essentially pointless, at least in 1958.

Snider tells a wonderful story about the Coliseum, about running into Willie Mays just before their first game there, and Mays says, "Look where that right-field fence is, Duke. And look what they gave me: 250 feet. They sure fixed you up good. You couldn't reach it with a cannon. You're done, man! They just took your bat away from you."

But that wasn't the first time Snider had seen that right-field fence. A California native, Snider spent his offseasons not far from Los Angeles, and in January 1958 he went to the Coliseum for a photo shoot. Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi was there, and "pointed to some flags stuck in the ground and said that was where the right field fence would be."

Snider asked him where home plate would be planted. Bavasi pointed toward the opposite end of the stadium. "I walked down there," Snider recalled a couple of years later, "and I could hardly see the flags in right field. I was convinced then that I'd be lucky to hit 10 home runs in L.A. that season."

Indeed, in March 1958, the following headline appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram: "Knee Fine, Duke Says; Sets Homer Goal at 30." Inside George Lederer's article, Snider said, "I hope I can hit nine or 10 in the Coliseum and another 20 on the road."

Snider hit six homers in the Coliseum … and only nine on the road that season, and it's hard to blame that latter figure on the Coliseum. He simply wasn't completely healthy at any point during the season. He played in only 106 games, and at seven different points in the season he missed at least one game because his knee was hurting.

In fact, Snider had a good excuse for hitting so few home runs in 1958: he was hurt. Despite a sore knee, Snider hit 40 home runs in 1957. That December he went under the knife for the removal of cartilage and calcium deposits; his surgeon said it was the second-worst knee he'd ever seen.

Snider's bum knee never did come back. In his next three seasons with the Dodgers (and their last three in the Coliseum) he played 126, 101, and 85 games, respectively. But he could still hit, and -- thanks in part to shorter fences in right field, beginning in '59 -- Snider actually tied for the lead among all Dodgers with 38 homers in the Coliseum from '59 through '61.

Of course, while the hitters had their complaints, it was the pitchers who really squawked.

Last week, Don Newcombe talked about his first time seeing the screen: "I remember walking down that ramp, and standing there and looking out at that big huge coliseum, but then my focus always came back to that left field screen. I said, 'How in God's name does this O'Malley [Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley] expect us to pitch in this ballpark with that short left-field screen?'

"One of the players, [Carl] Erskine or somebody, came out and said, 'Well, we have to do it. We have to do it, so we might as well do the best we can, and maybe show the Dodger fans what kind of team we have, what kind of players we are.'"

Speaking of Erskine, he tells a story about something he wishes he'd done but didn't. It happened in 1958, in Erskine's first start after beating the Giants in the Coliseum's first game. Erskine went into the ninth with a 5-4 lead. As Erskine recalled, "They sent Chuck Tanner up to pinch hit. I had a strike and a ball on him, and I threw him a high fastball, right on his fists, and he fought it off. He hit it straight down the left-field line, like a foul ball, but it was just inside the foul pole, and it cleared that screen for a homer, and beat me.

"Well, while he was circling the bases -- I wish to this day -- the umpire threw me a new ball, and while Tanner was circling the bases, I glared at that screen, and I wanted to turn around and fire it over that spot where Tanner hit the home run, just to show everybody how cheap this home run was: You could throw one that far. I'd have been more famous for that than winning that first game."

Don Drysdale, just beginning to establish himself as the Dodgers' best pitcher (at least until Sandy Koufax came into his own), was less than thrilled with his new home and not shy about it. Later, he would write, "Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. This was it -- from Ebbets Field to the L.A. Coliseum. You'd pitch a left-handed hitter low and away, wanting him to pull the ball on the ground, and he'd just go with it and slap it off the screen … I will admit that the dimensions of the Polo Grounds weren't a lot better. There were a lot of 250-foot homers in the Polo Grounds. I know that, but I was too new and green when I got to the Brooklyn Dodgers to complain about anything. I was just happy to be there. I can't say that I felt the same way about the L.A. Coliseum."

You know what, though? Drysdale's ERA in the Coliseum in that first season was 3.66, and his ERA away from the Coliseum was 4.80. The next year the difference was even more pronounced: 2.97 at home, 4.03 on the road. In Drysdale's four seasons in the Coliseum, he posted a 3.14 ERA there … not far off his 2.95 career mark (which of course includes his eight seasons in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium). What's more, of the 29 home runs Drysdale hit in his career, 11 came in the Coliseum. So for him, the Coliseum seems to have giveth, and then giveth again.

There's no doubt that the Coliseum was a strange environment. As catcher Norm Sherry observes, "It was a different place." But so was the Polo Grounds. So is Coors Field, and Fenway Park. And baseball has survived them all.

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.