As baseball fans recently began a strange yet historic period of watching sporting events amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing crossed the mind of Los Angeles Dodgers team historian Mark Langill.
“I think the greatest thing I can say right now about this pandemic baseball is I was wondering how many days it would take until somebody complained if the team went into a slump,” said Langill, who besides working with the organization since 1994 has written three books on topics related to it.
It took only four games, but the South Pasadena native could not help but love the reaction from fans.
“You look at the rest of the news, it looks like ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ every night, but thanks to baseball we have an escape,” he said. “We can put on that tunnel vision and think, ‘What’s up with the offense?’”
Langill, 55, has worn those blinders for as long as he can remember. He was born on opening day in 1965 — the same year the Dodgers defeated the Minnesota Twins to claim the franchise’s fourth World Series championship — and made his first trip to the stadium seven years later.
“Aisle 44, row M, seat 1. That’s where it all began,” he recalled. “July 15, 1972, and it was the Dodgers and Expos. I don’t remember much about the game. I remember every feeling being bombarded. What is this music? What is this large field? The cheering; someone in front of me writing down squiggles in the middle of a magazine; this has got to be one of the greatest places in the world.”
Baseball had become more than a game to Langill, and he wasn’t afraid to put that on display, wearing a Dodgers jersey as a kindergartner and playing at South Pasadena Little League, though with little success.
“I was always interested in sports, but there’s a difference between being interested and being able to play it well,” he joked.
That affinity for the sport kept growing, so much so that the wife of a former editor of the South Pasadena Review collected her husband’s press notes from games and gave them to Langill’s grandmother, a local hairdresser, to share with the young fan.
“I just thought, ‘What is this?’” he said. “Daily stats? The neat thing is on the letterhead was a number to the Dodgers’ audio newswire. It was a service for radio reporters that would have interviews and audio clips. I was 9 years old, and I called that thing every day.”
Langill’s grandmother wasn’t the only one to notice his quirks. At a local library book fair, a young girl gave him a book she thought he’d enjoy. It was a hardcover from the 1960s called “The Los Angeles Dodgers.”
Years later in high school, Langill was worried he’d miss a Dodgers playoff game against the Astros because of water polo practice. Luckily, a well-known local librarian stepped in to help the big-time baseball fan.
“I got summoned to the library by a wonderful librarian named Mary Ida Phair,” said Langill. “She was setting up two seats and said, ‘I thought you’d like to watch the game.’ I was blown away.”
A similar gesture was made by one of his South Pasadena High School English teachers, who knew that when Langill, then a sophomore, placed a sweater beside his head it wasn’t because he was cold.
“It meant there was a ballgame going on,” said Langill, who graduated from the high school in 1983. “I was listening to it on the radio. I also brought the sports page to class every day.”
During that same class, Langill received a note from the school’s Tiger newspaper, inviting him to join the staff the following year.
“I was dumbfounded,” he said. “I never asked to be on it.”
It set him on a trajectory that was “a total accident.” Before Tiger ever published, Langill agreed to cover SPHS football for the Review and later freelanced at the Pasadena Star News.
“During my junior year, I was doing the school paper, city paper and Star-News,” he said. “It just kind of all happened. I was just a devoted fan.”
That busy junior year essentially served as a college internship for Langill, who learned how to work behind the scenes with adults. Soon after graduating from Cal State Northridge in 1988, he landed the opportunity of a lifetime — to be the Dodgers beat writer for the Star-News.
“I’ve known for a very long time how lucky I am,” he said, “but I think that also goes back to my childhood, having kindness and encouragement all around me, whether it’s family or community members.”
His success in covering the team he grew up with led to the Dodgers hiring him in 1994. The longtime South Pasadena resident worked as a broadcasting and publications assistant, and his vast knowledge of the organization and sport was quickly noticed.
“In 2002, they had had two ownership changes, and they said, ‘Look, we don’t really know what you’re talking about but you know what you’re talking about,’” Langill said, ‘”how would you like to be responsible for every miscellaneous phone call that comes?’ I was like, absolutely!”
The change in responsibilities became somewhat historic. The Dodgers officially named Langill as the team historian, a position no other organization had during that time. Major League Baseball has an official historian, and the only other person with a similar title in professional sports had retired from the Green Bay Packers’ public relations department and was called team historian emeritus. The Boston Red Sox followed a similar route, hiring former sportswriter Gordon Edes as their team historian in 2015.
“I was the first with that title,” Langill said. “The worst thing in the world for me would be to have that type of title and tell people, ‘Go ahead. Quiz me.’ That can’t be the point. You have to be a resource for others. All this history on the shelf, if I can’t take something off the shelf to help other people, then it doesn’t matter what I know.
“I’m kind of like a park ranger at Yosemite. I can’t take credit for the view, but anything I can do to help others appreciate it is great. … There are hundreds of thousands of team historians out there. I’m just the lucky one with a business card.”
Langill has a joke for anyone who asks him about his job.
“If you’re introduced as a lawyer, doctor or accountant, you know what they do, but what the heck does a team historian do?” he said. “How do you become a historian? If you don’t hit a ball in Little League, then you’re well on your way.”
The title is specific but comes with many different responsibilities that go beyond historic moments and statistics. Langill, who is in his 26th year with the Dodgers, may be tasked with uniform designs from the early 1900s, searching for an old photo or looking for an alumnus or relative from the past.
“Baseball is a game of numbers, and while stats can tell us what, where and when, a historian gives context and helps to answer the most important questions, why and how past events unfolded,” said Erik Braverman, Dodgers senior vice president of marketing, communications and broadcasting. “Mark is an invaluable resource and helps us understand the organization’s rich history through its larger-than-life personalities, on-field heroics and behind-the-scenes stories that connect generations of Dodger fans.”
Langill cherishes that rich history every time he visits Dodger Stadium because it transports him to multiple periods of his life, especially to when he was just a South Pasadena kid collecting baseball cards and memorizing them as if they were flashcards.
“I can visit my childhood there,” he said. “ … It’s a melting pot. It’s a place where all generations can go at different times in their lives, and they can either reminisce about their own life or help a youngster possibly see the future or cultivate their dreams by seeing it. It’s so many different things to so many different people.”
It’s the best site for the job of his dreams, and the gatekeeper to Dodgers history values it more than ever now under trying circumstances.
“It’s just been very humbling because there’s no other job I’d rather have, and not very many people can say that,” he said. “ … I think I borrow from baseball for everyday life the reminder as far as the importance of teamwork. When you look at a community, such as first responders and grocery store workers, it’s a great reminder that we’re all teammates to an extent.
“It puts sports in a wonderful perspective. It’s a wonderful escape, but the real teams we should be rooting for are the ones in our community. That’s the key.”