Coast to Coast: Return to Holtville

We left Irvine this morning for the drive to Florida. We made it to the Imperial Valley at lunch time, then headed over to the Pioneers Park Museum in Imperial near Holtville.

After spending their early years scrambling for a proper minor league complex, the Angels moved into a four-field cloverleaf complex in Holtville. The Angels used it as a training facility for the major leaguers; when they reported to Palm Springs to play their exhibition games, the minor leaguers would move in. The Angels were in Holtville from 1966 through 1981, moving to Casa Grande, Arizona in 1982.

The goal of this visit was to see what they have in their archives and to establish a working relationship. We were given a tour of the museum by Ed Rodriguez, a lifelong Imperial Valley resident with his own amazing life story to tell.

Ed worked for Bob Andrews of Sam Andrews’ Sons, one of the major growers in the Valley. Bob was one of three brothers. He was a pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves’ system in the 1950s. When his father died, he returned to Imperial to take over the family business with his brothers.

Although I’ve yet to talk to Mr. Andrews, I suspect his Angels connection was Roland Hemond, who was their first farm and scouting director. Fred Haney, the Angels’ first general manager, brought Roland with him from the Milwaukee front office.

Ed told me that it was Mr. Andrews who influenced the Angels to come to Holtville. It didn’t cost the Angels a penny, according to Ed. Local farmers donated the land and built the facility, all to lure a major league baseball presence to their town.

Ed told me that he worked for Mr. Andrews’ farming business. He helped move turf from the local golf course to one of the four practice fields, which was used for games. The other three fields were grass grown from seed. Ed said the turf was planted about a week before the games began, so the players slipped a lot on the grass.

Some of you may be aware that the Angels recently signed veteran reliever Rudy Seanez as a free agent. Rudy, it turns out, is from El Centro and owns a local Cold Stone Creamery. The sports gallery in the museum has photos and clippings about Rudy.

I was looking, of course, for any memorabilia from that era. The sports gallery had a few items, including two photos I’ve never seen before of Nolan Ryan. They were photos staged on the Holtville field. I’m told that the former owner of the local paper donated his entire photo archive to the museum; it’s not catalogued, so I’ll have to come back sometime to dig through it on my own.

Lynn Housouer, the Director of Operations and Archivist, produced a box with programs from the local Carrot Carnival held in Holtville each February. (Holtville is the self-proclaimed “Carrot Capital of the World.”) We found several from the 1960s and 1970s that referred to the Angels. The 1967 issue in particular had a lengthy article and photos. Here’s an excerpt.

The “city boy” stood on the outskirts of Holtville looking at fields of cotton and alfalfa.

He wasn’t impressed, he admits today.

“My imagination just failed to draw pictures of four baseball diamonds, central tower, clubhouse, sprinkler system, batting cages, and all that would comprise, twleve months hence, the finest baseball camp I know,” said the city boy, Roland Hemond, this month.

Hemond is director of farm team training for the California Angels, and the man in that organization who has most to do with the training program of California Angels farm teams at the Holtville complex.

The complex was built in 1965-66 from those very cotton and alfalfa fields that left Hemond initially unimpressed.

But he wasn’t unimpressed long. The first season saw many promising young players develop, due to playing conditions, climate and the instructional program conducted at Holtville.

“I feel strongly that Seattle would not have started the season so well, nor continued its consistently good brand of ball and gone on to win the western division pennant, and finally emerge as champions of the Pacific Coast League had it not been for our Holtville training,” Hemond says.

The program also has a photo of the crowd at an Angels-Cubs exhibition game with an estimated attendance of 4,000. And there’s a photo of Gene Autry riding a horse in the 1966 Carrot Carnival parade.

There’s much more to the museum than just baseball. I learned a lot about the history of the Imperial Valley, a history that most of us raised in Southern California don’t know. It’s well worth your time if you’re down that way, and costs only $4.00 per person.

It was also a personal reminiscence for me. I was born in Brawley, raised my first year in El Centro, and then my family relocated to the Pomona Valley. I remember nothing of El Centro, of course, but my father was born here in 1933 and lived here until he graduated high school in 1951 and joined the Air Force.

Ed led us into a room where the museum displayed poster-size reprints from the yearbooks of local high schools, showing the graduating classes. I found the Central Union High School Class of 1951 and, sure enough, there was my father staring back at me.

I hope to return this winter to spend a week going through the newspaper and photo archives, to see what gems we can uncover.

Right now, we’re in the Francisco Grande Hotel & Golf Resort in Casa Grande, Arizona. When the Angels left Holtville, they came to this complex for the 1982-1984 seasons. Originally built by and for the San Francisco Giants, the Angels moved in when the Giants left for Scottsdale. The practice fields were literally just outside the hotel’s windows; looking out the balcony, I can see where the fields were. The observation tower is all that remains.

But that story is for tomorrow. And then a long drive to El Paso, Texas, another former Angels farm town.

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