On Mondays in the Summer of 1950, the Daily Independent Journal featured reports about semi-pro baseball in Marin County. Jim Gilmartin, the sports columnist, led with this note on August 7:
“Today’s opening of the deer season may have been one factor in the Novato baseball team’s loss yesterday—three of its players like venison more than base hits and went hunting...”
The companion story about Novato’s defeat contained some good news: “The Merchants put together 11 base knocks, including three singles by Carroll Stephens and Aldo Paladini’s homer and single.”
Back then, sports pages were full of local baseball news. Although major league baseball was exciting — Musial and Robinson were once again vying for the National League batting title — no major league teams existed West of the Mississippi, and newspapers like the Journal covered both the Pacific Coast League and semi-pro match-ups.
Novato’s semi-pro team (named the Merchants) played home games at the corner of Marion Avenue and 7th Street, hosting the likes of Muir Woods VFW, Two AM Club, and Pastori’s Market. Later in the 50s, the bulk of Marion Field would become a grammar school, although Little League games continued to be played in one corner. By the 1980s, the grammar school was razed and a housing development took its place — but youth baseball continued to be played in that same corner, and continues to this day.
Marion was one of several Novato baseball fields in the 50s. Locals also played on De Long Avenue (at the corner now occupied by Safeway). In fact, as long as anyone could remember, it had been a ballfield. For much of the early 20th century, a staple of Summer in Novato was donkey baseball at De Long, in which all players rode donkeys while they played.
But by 1950, Novato donkey baseball games were rare and semi-pro baseball was the main event. Little League baseball would not arrive till 1953; Babe Ruth and American Legion were even further in the future; Novato High School would not open until 1957. With the women’s equality movement and Title IX far, far off in the future, women and girls were mostly left out of baseball (and sports in general).
Despite the escalation of the Cold War, the rise of McCarthyism, and the outbreak of hostilities in Korea (the Merchant’s star Aldo Paladini would shortly be drafted into that conflict, as would the newsman Jim Gilmartin), the men, women, and children of Novato looked forward to their own boys of Summer.
Rosters were fluid among the North Bay League teams. If the box score at right is correct, one of San Rafael's players was Bob Manzoni. Or was it his cousin?
In any case, Manzoni was playing right field for San Rafael on April 20 in the 1950 season. By June, Manzoni was one of the stalwarts of the Novato Merchants, as reported in the June 5 edition of the Independent. His ninth-inning RBI capped a come-from-behind, walk-off victory for the Merchants — long before the term "walk-off" became a part of baseball parlance.
Most of those Novato players are gone. But Bob Manzoni and "Big Bill" Almeida, whose ninth-inning home run tied the game on that April afternoon in 1950, are still active volunteers at the downtown Novato History Museum. You can meet them on occasional Saturdays, answering questions and guiding visitors through the exhibits.
The popularity of semi-pro baseball took a nosedive in the late 1950s. When the winningest team in Major League Baseball history arrived in San Francisco in 1958, Bay Area baseball fans had an unprecedented opportunity to see the greats of the Big Leagues. It's hard to say how many people decided to go to those games (or stay home to listen on the radio), but semi-pro teams that previously entertained a thousand fans per game were struggling to put a hundred fans in the seats.
Moreover, by 1953, the Baby Boom boys had started playing Little League in Novato. With so many boys between the ages of 9 and 12, there was baseball everywhere on the weekends. Little League would be joined by Pee Wee League (age 6-7), Farm League (age 8), Babe Ruth League (ages 13-15), and Joe Dimaggio League (ages 16-17). Plus, Novato had enough older teenagers to field a competitive American Legion team (ages 16-19). In short, every weekend, the fans of the Novato Merchants had a lot of baseball options and obligations beyond their beloved home team.
When did the Novato Merchants play their last game?
That answer is a bit murky. For one thing, the team has been reconstituted at various times. News reports show the Novato Merchants playing as recently as 2007.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this exhibit. Baseball in Novato: the 1960s will explore... baseball in Novato in the 1960s. We'll cover the debut of the Novato Knickerbockers and the rise of a significant cohort of professional baseball players with ties to Novato.
In 1950, the Philadelphia Phillies were champions of the National League and the New York Yankees were champs of the Ameircan. The World Series began on Wednesday, October 4. The Phillies had home field advantage, but the Yankees swept the Phils in four games. The final game was a 5-2 Yankee win, and was the only game in the Series decided by more than one run. It clinched the second of a record five straight titles for the Yankees (1949–1953) and was also the last all-white World Series.
The Phillies, a young team known as the "Whiz Kids," had won the National League pennant in dramatic fashion on the final day of the season. But Curt Simmons, a 17-game winner for the Phillies in 1950, was drafted that September. Simmons was stationed at nearby Camp Atterbury and was granted a leave to attend the Series — but the Phillies chose not to request that. Phillies ace Robin Roberts didn't start Game 1 because he had had three starts in five days including the dramatic final-day pennant winner.