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Millbrae, the baseball town
May 12, 2014, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Photo courtesy of the Millbrae Historical Society
Gus Suhr settled in Millbrae after his baseball career.

Millbrae became known as the “baseball town” in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. It all started when retired baseball player for the Chicago Cubs, Bill Lange, moved to Millbrae in the 1910s. Lange had been born in San Francisco and, after retiring from baseball, returned to the Bay Area. After building a vacation home in the hills on Spring Valley Lake Road (Millbrae Avenue) he became active in civic affairs. Known throughout the Bay and San Francisco, his wit and charm was put to good use and he was able to “borrow” eight acres of San Francisco Water Department land, without title or lease, to build a baseball diamond. The name “Lange’s Field” was what it became known as.

George Kelly, a nephew of Bill Lange, moved to Millbrae and bought 18 acres of land to the south of Lange (Kelly Lane) in western Millbrae where he built a large magnificent home. The acreage he purchased was perfect for the barbecues he liked to put on for large gatherings. A horse corral was also built for the kids. Kelly, a Baseball Hall of Fame member (1973), had played for the New York Giants in the 1920s when they won four consecutive pennants. He was elected to the Millbrae City Council in 1948 and was active in securing additional funding for the recreation programs. His wife, Helen O’Connor, became well known for her participation in civic affairs as well as becoming prominent in the social circles.

In addition to Lange and Kelly, former baseball players Gus Suhr (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Tony Lazzzeri (New York Yankees) settled in Millbrae and started businesses. Suhr was a National League player for 13 years and earned the nickname “Ironman of the National League.” Suhr and his wife, Helen, moved to Millbrae and raised their children here. He owned a liquor store on El Camino Real. Lazzeri attained the moniker “Poosh ‘em up” for the 60 home runs he hit in one season while in the minor leagues. Later, he played for the New York Yankees. Lazzeri owned and operated a number of apartment buildings at Victoria Avenue and El Camino Real.

Millbrae was constantly welcoming members of the baseball world, such as Joe DiMaggio who had played for the New York Yankees and knew the “Millbrae gang” of baseball players. DiMaggio was a frequent visitor to Millbrae and loved Leonardo’s Deli. More recent “stars” of baseball in Millbrae include: Gregg Jeffries and Keith Hernandez.

The unincorporated community of Millbrae was growing rapidly in the mid-1930s. The 1889 platted Millbrae Villa Addition along Chadbourne Avenue was not paved yet but it was promised by the county that in 1936 the streets would be paved and there was talk of a new elementary school to be built on Taylor Avenue. The 500 homes that dotted the area were filled with young families with many young children that needed outlets for their excess energy. Service clubs, individuals and the community had been donating money and equipment to keep “Langes Field” going. In 1936, Russell Patterson, the chairman of the recreation committee, obtained approval for a governmental W. P. A. (Works Progress Administration) project to improve the area for the children of the community. Adobe bricks were made by volunteers from soil on the water department property and a small, one-room “adobe” clubhouse was erected by volunteers. Don D’Ambrosio was appointed the recreation superintendent to run programs for the kids. D’Ambrosio was to remain recreation superintendent until retirement in 1991.

In the 1950s, the San Francisco Water Department sold land to the city of Millbrae. The land was to be used for a civic center (firehouse, police station, library and city hall) and recreation facilities. The firehouse that had been on Broadway was now to be built on Magnolia Avenue.

The clubhouse proved successful due to the community spirit that developed by the community of more than 300 people. It was used for 33 years but was bulldozed down in 1970. The city asked the voters of Millbrae to approve a $385,000 bond in 1969, to be used for financing of a new recreation facility. The bond failed to get the two-thirds vote, however, the city was able to work out financing without issuing revenue bonds making way for a new, modern recreational facility.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.

 

 

Tags: millbrae, baseball, lange,


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