It was dubbed the “House of Horrors” and the “House of Thrills”. It featured a distance from left field to home plate at a measly 233 feet; its stadium was more suitable for football and track and field. When a pop fly becomes a home run, a line drive to left field turns into a double play, and a 12-4 lead in the ninth is not safe – there must be something odd at the ballpark.
In 1974, Eugene Emeralds of the Pacific Coast League relocated to Sacramento and renamed the Solons, who originally played in town from 1903 to 1960. The plan was to build a 2,500-seat ballpark, but it would not be ready for the upcoming season. That is when the Solons announced they would call Hughes Stadium home, much to the amazement of many in the community.
Hughes Stadium 1st base Line, Center for Sacramento History
Hughes had been built in 1928 and served as a home for college and high school football games. It had been the home of the Camellia Bowl, the NAIA national football championship since 1961, and featured a cement track and field around the grass field.
Such measurements would seem impossible for a baseball diamond.
The Fresno Bee Sports Editor called it “miserable, a dinosaur stadium designed by a blind architect,” but that did not stop the City Board from granting permission for the PCL club to use it as a ballpark for the 1974 season.
Solon’s organization put up a 40-foot screen in left field that was 233 feet from home plate (the league minimum was 250 feet). The rumor was that PCL officials were unaware of the configuration originally listed at 261 feet in initial press clippings. However, that was not the case on opening night on April 17.
Mt. Sacramento in the distance, Center for Sacramento History
A crowd of 17,318 was on hand to watch the Solons lose 10-3 to Spokane, just a few hundred shy of what the San Francisco Giants attracted to Candlestick Park for their home opener that season. Fans were greeted by 5 home runs by both clubs, along with countless children chasing foul balls behind the third baseline.
Fans were curious about the new home of the Solons, one that was heavily promoted in game-day programs and pocket schedules that year. The “House of Thrills” was a huge promotion in attracting fans to baseball games in hopes of coming home with a handful of souvenirs smacked off the bats of hopeful future major league players.
The screen, dubbed Mt. Sacramento, was a feast for right-handed batters who quickly took advantage of the hitter-friendly facility. A total of 51 home runs were launched in the first six home games of the season, and by season’s end, Solon’s batters would launch 250 dingers, while opposing members swatted 241 into the metal bleachers.
“If you want to bring in the people, you have to bring in the fences,” said FM John Carbray. “When the fences are closed, it’s fair to both sides. Nothing kills attendance like a 2-1 pitching duel.”
Hughes Stadium Baseball Dimensions/1974 Pocket Schedule
Carbray was a natural-born promoter who promoted everything from boxing, drag racing, post-game rock concerts, soccer, and basketball. He would later help build the PCL Fresno Grizzlies off the ground in 1993.
“The fact that he (Carbray) coaxed the PCL into allowing the Solons to play in a ballpark that was about as legal as a spitter serves to indicate that the man has something, besides modesty going for him,” wrote Jack Bluth in the San Mateo Times.
Outside of the ballpark, young fans would burn quite a few calories chasing home run balls bouncing off the parking lot pavement, but many more bought a $3 to see the balls fly out of the stadium. The Solons attracted 295,851 fans on the season, an average of 4,109 per game. The number was tops in the league and bested the previous year’s leader, Hawaii, who attracted 238,390 fans.
“You don’t see anybody leaving early. Here you can be down 6-0 in the sixth and still expect to come back. Win or lose, it’s exciting,” added John Carbray. “Most PCL teams would be happy as punch to have 2,000 to 3,000 people.”
The other oddities of the action on the field were that sac flies were a quixotic feat, the left fielder would play more of a deep shortstop position and throw runners out at first base, and ground balls into the left field would result in force outs at second base.
Hughes Stadium Dugouts, Center for Sacramento History
The stadium did not have dugouts but turned makeshift-covered benches colored powder blue and yellow as the spot for the club to sit during the game. The pitching mound was torn out throughout the season to accommodate other sports but never put back in the exact spot. Pitchers claimed this caused them to have sore arms. Early inning games featured a glare from the sun in left-handed pitchers, with later innings distracting left-fielders. A few of the games were delayed 15 minutes.
Home runs and the uniqueness of the ballpark were the main attractions, but so were a few of the promotions. A 20-foot scoreboard was blown up after the 5th inning of one game, and a daredevil stuntman rode through a fiery outfield wall before jumping his bike over 14 cars. The majority of cars were owned by fans in exchange for free tickets for use in the stunt. It attracted a crowd of 9,000 to the game that night.
Future major leaguer Gorman Thomas belted 40 of his 51 home runs at home; journeyman Bill McNulty led the Salons with 55 home runs, 44 coming at Hughes. Four other members had 28 or more home runs on the season. The team scored 937 runs but allowed 1030 for the year.
“I like the city, and the fans were great, but I won’t go back,” Gorman quipped to the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune during spring training of 1975.
Hughes Stadium Scoreboard, Courtesy of CBS News
There were plenty of distractors. Mainly pitchers where the club ERA at the end of the season was 6.82. It was a place that psyched out pitchers and crushed their egos with a broken-bat swing, a potential home run.
“I don’t care what they do; I don’t want to go back,” commented Tom Hausman the following season. The right-hander gave up 43 home runs at home, but only 7 of them were on the road. “If you could come out of a sane season there sane, you were doing a good job.”
The Solons established eight records that included the following: most home runs by one club (305), most home runs combined in a park (491), most home runs by one team in one game (10), most home runs by two teams in one game (14), most grand slams in one game (3), most grand slams in an inning by two clubs (2), most grand slams in one inning by one team (2), and most home runs by a player (44 by McNulty). The Solons also tied a league mark with four consecutive home runs in one game.
In 1975, the left-field screen was pushed back, and the concrete tore up to further the distance to 251 feet. There were an additional 22 new light fixtures to improve the vision of fielders who would try in vain to secure a pop-up home run. Most importantly, the venue was given an exemption from the Field Act earthquake standards for one year.
Hughes Stadium 3rd base Line, Center for Sacramento History
The Solons led the PCL in attendance again with 252,201 customers and clubbed 196 home runs–down a bit from the previous year. The pitching staff once again posted a horrific 5.71 ERA. The following season, the writing was on the wall for baseball in Sacramento. Attendance fell to dead last with 82,324, and home runs tailed off slightly with “only” 183 round-trippers at Hughes.
In 1977, the franchise was shifted to San Jose with the condition that it would return to Sacramento if a new ballpark would be built within three years. Solon’s new GM Joe Gagliardi hoped a new 3,500 stadium would be ready at Cal Expo, the site of the state fair, by 1978. Unfortunately, fans would have to wait for another 22 years for it to be constructed.
Raley Field, now Sutter Health Park, would open in 2000 for the Sacramento River Cats–where both earned run averages and home runs shrunk to more respectable levels. The 10,624-seat ballpark is considered one of the finest in the minor league leagues and a favorite among ballpark travelers.
Hughes would be earthquake-proof but later went through a multi-million dollar renovation and re-opened in September 2012. The Sacramento City College venue is used for athletic events, classes, local high school games, state-wide athletic championships, and showcases except baseball.
We will never see another ballpark quite like it ever again, or will we? Fans still enjoy the long ball.