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A baseball game for the record books

A baseball game for the record books

LOS ANGELES -- A city popularly spoofed for transience, where history tends to be something that happened last month, is about to feel a collective lump in its throat over a 50-year-old memento.

Here, where 15-minutes-of-fame chime hourly, where time speeds along faster than anywhere, time is about to stand still.

Better yet, the clock will strike 1958 and freeze all day Saturday, which promises to be a day unlike any other in this valley of tinsel and lotus.

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The Dodgers are returning to their Los Angeles cradle for one night, and waiting for them in the Memorial Coliseum will be about 115,000 fans to see them play the Boston Red Sox in a preseason game for which the term "exhibition" was invented.

It will be quite an exhibition, and much more than just a game, this runaway fulfillment of a flash that came to Frank McCourt a few months ago, when plans were being brainstormed for a year-long celebration of the Dodgers' arrival from Brooklyn.

"Hey, how about a one-night revival of the Coliseum years?" McCourt and others in the room wondered.

From that simple idea has sprouted a day-long festival of nostalgia, a veritable baseball Woodstock featuring genuine Boys of Summer, and one for the record book -- Guiness'.

This will comfortably be the biggest crowd ever assembled for a professional baseball game, a record obviously currently belonging to the same Coliseum, which housed the erstwhile Brooklyn Bums for their first four L.A. seasons while Dodger Stadium was being built.

The current pro record is the 93,103 which attended, oddly enough, another Dodgers exhibition, in 1959 against the Yankees. However, the largest baseball gate ever counted was the 104,400 which viewed an exhibition at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

The record for the largest baseball crowd appears to be safe. Although no gate was kept for an exhibition put on by two United States teams during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, there was a full house in the main venue, which had a listed capacity of 136,000.

The crowd may also break the record for American team sports, believed to be 112,912 in Chicago's Soldier Field for the Nov. 16, 1929 football clash between Notre Dame and USC. (More irony: USC still calls the Coliseum its home.)

"It will be awesome to look around there and see a hundred thousand people," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, shaking his head for emphasis.

"To me," Torre added, "baseball is all about history."

Torre's own Coliseum history is lamentable -- as a Milwaukee Braves rookie in 1961, he went 3-for-32 there in three series -- there will be an overdose of that in Exposition Park. History, oddity and charity.

The entire program is for the benefit of ThinkCure, the Dodgers' official charity launched last July in a partnership among the family of club owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, the City of Hope and Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. ThinkCure's mission is raising funds for cancer research.

At first glance, both Dodgers and Red Sox players will be thankful to have to spend only nine innings within the aberrant dimensions of a converted football oval: 201 feet down the left-field line to a 62-foot high fence, 300 feet into the right-field corner.

That will be a faithful recreation of what the 1958-61 Dodgers regularly saw, coped with, vented over -- and tried to spoof.

The best episode of the latter belonged to Duke Snider, the outfielder, who, on a dare and a bet, once tried to throw a ball clear out of the Coliseum.

Snider, who will be among the dozen-plus Coliseum-era Dodgers who will be back on that field and in their uniforms for a poignant Saturday bow, recalled being approached before a game by Don Zimmer.

"Warm up," Zimmer advised Snider, "I got a bet with a bunch of the guys that you can throw one out of the Coliseum. There's $200 in it for you."

"The first one hit the top row of the Coliseum," Snider related. "The second hit the concrete wall behind the last row."

Snider announced to the gathered, "This is it. This one's going out of here." That attempt ended with the ball slipping off his middle finger as he released it -- and he heard something pop in his elbow.

He couldn't play in that night's game, drawing a fine of $200 from Buzzie Bavasi when the Dodgers GM got wind of how he had gotten injured.

But it turned out well for Snider. On the last day of the season, he tried again and went out of the Coliseum on the first try, getting his $200 reward. A little later, Bavasi, appreciating his competitiveness, refunded the original $200 fine.

Mild-mannered Carl Erskine recalled being tempted once to do likewise. Not out of machoism, but out of anger. And not before a game, but while he was on the mound.

Erskine was near the end of his career in 1959 when Chuck Tanner beat him in a tight game with a two-run, pinch-hit homer, turning on an inside fastball to lift it just over that screen down the left-field line.

Erskine still says, "I'm not a showboat, but when the umpire threw me a new ball, I glared at that screen and I wanted to turn and just fire the ball over the spot where he'd hit it, just to show everyone in the world how cheap it was. To this day, I wish I'd done it. I'd be more famous for that than anything."

Erskine got a measure of revenge by helping Wally Moon perfect his signature Moon Shot, throwing hours of batting practice as the left-handed slap hitter worked on the inside-out swing that made him a Los Angeles legend -- briefly.

"And I enjoyed every minute of it," said Moon, who never became big enough to receive a ticker-tape parade, but did get an escort from Lew Burdette, which was probably even more satisfying.

"I hit one of my Moon Shots off Burdette," Moon said of the great right-hander of the Milwaukee Braves, "and he was a great character. As I'm trotting around the bases, he met me at second and walked by my side all the way to third, talking all the time, 'How can you hit a ball like that ...'"

A lot of stories such as these will be making the rounds all day Saturday, when fans understandably will be asked to arrive early to lighten the inevitable traffic and parking crunch.

Befitting the scale of the occasion, there will be plenty to occupy and fascinate early arrivals: Live performances of '50s and '60s music, a silent auction to raise additional funds for ThinkCure, autograph opportunities with the Dodgers legends.

The weekend happening that kicks off the Los Angeles Dodgers' 50th Anniversary season itself was kicked off Friday morning at City Hall.

The McCourts accepted the Grand Slam of recognitions from civic leaders: resolutions from the City of Los Angeles and the California State Legislature, a Los Angeles County Commendation, and a Congressional Record.

Supplementing the charitable undertones of the historic game, the Dodgers and their local television outlet, KCAL-9, will hold a telethon benefiting ThinkCure simultaneous to the Coliseum action. Beginning at 7:10 p.m. PT, fans will be able to pledge by calling 866-554-CURE.

Already underway is an online auction of autographed game-worn jerseys from the game. Bidding at http://dodgers.auction.mlb.com/ will continue until April 10.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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