Twilight of the Long-ball Gods Dispatches from the Disappearing Heart of Baseball
By John Schulian
University of Nebraska Press Copyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Of Stars and Angels
These are the memories that make me a kid again, these memories of a Los Angeles that I can scarcely believe existed and of two Pacific Coast League teams not so much forgotten as overwhelmed by the city's ceaseless charge into the future.
So let me take you back to the early '50s and a Friday night at Gilmore Field, home of the Hollywood Stars. You could always see big names there - Spencer Tracy, Barbara Stanwyck and that crowd - and my parents may well have been looking for them. But I wasn't, because a Star pitcher named Red Munger had caught me staring at him and his enormous chaw of tobacco. Maybe we had box seats, although I can't ever recall our being in that economic bracket, or maybe my head of corn-silk hair stood out like a beacon in the twilight. Time turns so many things hazy, but I do know this: Red Munger grinned and said, "Hiya, Whitey." It was the first time a baseball player ever spoke to me.
Thirty years later, long past being thrilled by conversations with ballplayers, long past even expecting them, I was a Chicago sports columnist covering the dying quiver of a pennant race, but my mind was on old fascinations. I thought of Carlos Bernier, the Star left fielder who loved arguing with umpires as much as he did stealing bases, and of Johnny Lindell,the dead-armed ex-Yankee outfielder who became a knuckleball pitcher in Hollywood. Mostly I thought of Steve Bilko, who hit so many home runs for the PCL'S Los Angeles Angels that I almost gave up on the Stars.
The floodgates of memory had opened, and all because Gene Mauch was in town.
He had been the Angels' second baseman back then, and now, in 1982, he had come to old Comiskey Park as the manager of another band of Angels, the American Leaguers from California. They were in the process of wrapping up a division championship, yet Mauch still labored under the shadow of past failures and a sense that his future would be just as bleak. He never expected anyone to ask about the Coast League and the best days he ever had as a player. When I did, his match stopped short of his cigarette, and his steely gaze softened.
"Where the hell did you come from?" Mauch asked.
He was almost smiling.
§ I come from the same place Gene Mauch does, a Los Angeles still golden with promise and perfumed by eucalyptus and citrus trees. It is where I was born; it is where Mauch's father migrated when there were no more oil wells to drill in Kansas. As a kid, I lived in the same neighborhood as Mauch, and I remember the other ballplayers who called Inglewood home, too: George Metkovich, Peanuts Lowrey, and even the National League's 1952 Most Valuable Player, Hank Sauer. Like so many things viewed in retrospect, that seems a better time. At the very least, it was simpler.
You never traveled by freeway then unless you were going to Pasadena, birthplace of those concrete snakes. There were buses; there were the venerable Red Line streetcars; there were the old coupes that you always wished could fly when they were winding you over Laurel Canyon or Beverly Glen into the San Fernando Valley. And then there were the bikes that Irv Noren and his buddy Norm Hallajian rode to see the Angels play in Wrigley Field, the double-decked replica of its Chicago namesake. This is the same Irv Noren who grew up to give the Stars an MVP season in 1949 and then patrolled the outfield for the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees. But in the late '30s he was a transplant from upstate New York, a baker's son who prayed he was seeing his destiny every Saturday when he and Norm pedaled from their Pasadena homes down through Eagle Rock and Highland Park, past downtown Los Angeles, and on to Wrigley, at 42nd and Avalon, just southeast of the Coliseum.
"We'd park right in front of the stadium," Noren says, "just lean our bikes against the wall and go in with the Knothole Gang. Wouldn't even lock 'em."
And when the game was over, the bikes were always there.
By the '50s, when I came along, the innocence was beginning to fade. Friends who rode the bus to Wrigley said neighborhood kids roughed them up, but Los Angeles, even with its postwar population soaring past two million, was still a long way from having calluses on its soul. Though Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe mused that the city's streets were "lost and beaten and full of emptiness," I remember that they all seemed to lead to the pony ride at Beverly and La Cienega, where the Beverly Center now teems with upscale shoppers. What crime I recall - show-biz bloodlettings, pachuco gang fights in East L.A. - was splashed across the front page of William Randolph Hearst's afternoon Herald Express, 65 copies of which I faithfully delivered Monday through Saturday. The only gangster I was aware of was Mickey Cohen, who, as a favor to the Herald's headline-hungry city editor, stole Lana Turner's love letters to the hood her teenage daughter stabbed to death. Mickey Cohen rooted for the Stars.
George Raft rooted for them too, and both he and Cohen were tight with Bugsy Siegel, so I can only assume that Bugsy made it to Gilmore Field before his untimely demise. Lord knows every other celebrity did. If Gary Cooper, Rosemary Clooney, and Milton Berle weren't in the stands, Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, and Burns and Allen were. Some of the big names held stock in the Stars, a tribute to the sway of the team's dapper owner, Bob Cobb, president of the Brown Derby and inventor of the Cobb salad.
But the thespian who made the biggest impact was Jayne Mansfield. When sweet Jayne high-heeled out of the dugout as Miss Hollywood Stars, there was an awe-inspired silence at the way her chest defied gravity. As the males in the crowd began roaring lustily, skipper Clyde King, as courtly and God-fearing a southern gentleman as ever graced the game, whispered, "Goodness gracious."
Before Los Angeles had any Dodgers or big league Angels, any Lakers or Raiders or Clippers or Kings, you had to go a long way to beat La Mansfield's act. Only the Rams could do it, luring 100,000 paying customers into the Coliseum each Sunday, and yet, as late as 1949, the Stars remained the toughest ticket in town. But the town, if you judged by its tastes, was still shamelessly small-time. Forget all the hoorah about college football at Southern Cal and UCLA. Forget all the cigar smoke that got blown about the club fights at the Olympic Auditorium and Hollywood American Legion Stadium and the title fights at Wrigley and Gilmore Fields. The Los Angeles I choose to remember devoted far more passion to professional wrestling, both live and televised, from the Olympic, from Legion Stadium, from South Gate, from Ocean Park Arena (with none other than Steve Allen at the ringside mike). So great was L.A.'s hunger for these sweaty morality plays that Channel 11 had to pipe even more of them in from Las Vegas. How fitting for a city where a good Sunday afternoon of TV sports meant watching semipro football and the Jalopy Derby from Culver City Stadium.
When I think back to all that raw exuberance and unbridled tackiness, it seems the Coast League gave L.A. sports a rare touch of ... well, dignity isn't the word, not with the shorts the Stars insisted on wearing in the '50s and the call-the-cops brawls they had with the Angels. But normality, maybe, because no matter how outrageous the two teams got, they still played baseball; they still did something connected to the rest of the country and not confined to Planet California.
Consider Gus Zernial, the slugging outfielder revered as Ozark Ike by Hollywood fans in '47 and '48. He burst on the scene at the same time as wrestling's flamboyant Gorgeous George, but did he peroxide his hair and throw gold-plated bobby pins to his admirers? No, sir, Gus went out and hit 40 homers in his second season as a Star, the way any regular guy would if he had a quick bat and a ton of muscles. And believe me, these minor league heroes were regular guys. They lived among us, they worked among us. My dad bought a '56 Chevy from Lou Stringer, a nifty second baseman for both Los Angeles and Hollywood, and he could just as easily have made the deal with Eddie Malone, who toiled for each team as an iron-man catcher. If my parents had needed any upholstering done, they could have gone to Roger Bowman, the Star left-hander who had a shop in Santa Monica. And we could always roll a few lines at Irv Noren's bowling alley.
No one remembered the intimacy of the times and the town better than Chuck Connors,who didn't realize he was only pausing in the Angels' lineup on his way to a place in television history as The Rifleman. When the Chicago Cubs farmed him to L.A. in 1951, Connors bought a tract house in Reseda, never thinking how long a drive it was to that Valley outpost in those pre-101 freeway days. He found out the first time he had to make the 25-mile haul across the Cahuenga Pass after a Saturday night game, with a Sunday afternoon doubleheader just hours away. It looked like Connors had a lot of sleepless weekends ahead until a family that lived across the street from Wrigley Field approached him.
"I'd known them for a while," he told me shortly before his death last year. "I'd gotten them signed baseballs, some gloves, things like that." Now they were offering to return the favor by putting Connors up on Saturday nights. He accepted instantly. "I'd sleep in their extra bedroom," Connors said, "and Sunday morning I'd eat breakfast with them." He was a first baseman from Brooklyn who happened to be white, they were Angel fans who happened to be black, and this was a Los Angeles that we would never see again.
§ The big man was Bilko, and I'm talking about more than the excess poundage that inspired a Los Angeles Times headline saying "Not Even Mrs. Bilko Knows His Weight." I'm talking about the feats that enabled Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph, to block out the big league sun for my generation of L.A. kids.
Excerpted from Twilight of the Long-ball Gods by John Schulian Copyright © 2005 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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