The Sandlot Mentors of Los Angeles
This article was published in the 2011 The National Pastime.
This article presents those little known but important men who helped to launch so many players from the sandlots of Los Angeles to baseball stardom.
Southern California has long been fertile ground for major-league talent. Walter Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Bob Lemon, Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, and Ozzie Smith all began their careers on the sandlots and high school diamonds of the greater Los Angeles area. So many gifted athletes—but it takes more than raw talent to achieve big-league success. A strong work ethic, the opportunity to play regularly, good health, luck, and the proper development of skills are vital to reaching the Show. Many major-league stars credit their success to a coach who in their youth helped refine their natural skills. This article presents those little known but important men, who helped to launch so many players from the sandlots of Los Angeles to baseball stardom.
Arthur Dietz (1874–?) led a life one might think was fictional. A graduate of Yale University, he mined for gold in Alaska, worked as a strongman in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and was a professional long-distance swimmer. A train accident in Clarksburg, West Virginia, however, left Dietz with two broken legs and two broken arms, derailing his adventurism. Settling in the Los Angeles area in the early years of the twentieth century, he began a new career as a City of Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Supervisor. Working at the Slauson Playground, located at 62nd and Hoover in southeast Los Angeles, Dietz is credited with developing the baseball talents of Emil “Irish” Meusel (National League RBI leader in 1923), Bob Meusel (of the New York Yankees’ famed Murderers’ Row) and Pete Schneider (a big-league twenty-game winner who hit five home runs in a single PCL game in 1923). Along the way Dietz fathered fourteen children (twelve boys), though none achieved baseball success. During World War I he enlisted in the Army, where he served as the athletic director of US troops stationed in Paris. Following the end of the war, Dietz resumed his Los Angeles recreation career, working at Arroyo Seco Playground in north Los Angeles and Anderson Playground in San Pedro. At Arroyo Seco and Anderson, Dietz emphasized track and field athletics, and his athletes were always among the leaders in the Los Angeles Junior Pentathlon.
Bill Duvernet (1906–1991) played semipro baseball in Los Angeles, but spurned offers to turn professional to pursue a career as a Los Angeles City Playground Supervisor at Manchester Playground (1931–41). Located at Manchester and Hoover in southwest Los Angeles, the playground had four magnificent diamonds and, beginning in 1931, became a baseball hotbed under Duvernet’s direction. More than 80 of his players enjoyed professional baseball careers; many of them credit Duvernet with their growth as ballplayers. Mickey Owen felt that “Duvernet was very encouraging and a big factor in my career development.”1 Bobby Doerr recalled, “He was always talking baseball.”2 Bud Stewart said, “Duvernet was a fine gentleman, so enthusiastic and encouraging to all his players.”3
Among others with praise for Duvernet were Nippy Jones, Lou Stringer, Eddie Malone, Steve Mesner, Gerry Priddy, and Herschel Lyons. Owen, Doerr, Mesner, and Lyons all played on the same sandlot team at Manchester in 1932. Like Dietz a generation before him, Duvernet left his recreation career to serve during wartime. Stationed in New Guinea during World War II, he was in charge of organizing sports activities there. Following his military discharge, Duvernet continued his recreation career at Griffith Playground in north Los Angeles. At Griffith he became a big proponent of basketball and lobbied the recreation department to build more basketball courts, as Duvernet foresaw basketball gaining popularity.
Benny Lefebvre (1912–94) attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where he was better known for football than baseball. Following graduation, he played semipro football for the Los Angeles Maroons, Los Angeles Spoilers, and Long Beach Longshoremen, before beginning a career as a playground supervisor at Rancho Cienega Playground in West Los Angeles. He also coached the Crenshaw Post American Legion team. The 1951 Crenshaw Legion team, featuring Billy Consolo and Sparky Anderson, won the National American Legion championship.
A legendary hitting instructor, Lefebvre tutored Consolo, Anderson, Norm Sherry, Larry Sherry, Don Buford, Marcel Lachemann, and Rene Lachemann. It’s no coincidence that Anderson, Norm Sherry, and both Lachemanns became big league managers, as they were all schooled in Lefebvre fundamentals. Sparky Anderson did not live in the Dorsey High School district, but transferred there to play with the guys from Rancho. Anderson said, “Lefebvre made me realize that hard work was the only way.”4 Rene Lachemann said, “Benny Lefebvre was the most influential in developing my skills.”5
Lefebvre also ran the Lefebvre Baseball and Summer Camp of Catalina Island 1954–63. Late in his career he coached baseball at St. Bernard’s High School in Westchester and football at Pius X High School in Downey. He also coached his own sons, including Jim Lefebvre, the 1965 National League Rookie of the Year. Sons Gil and Tip also enjoyed professional baseball careers.
Chet Brewer (1907–90) grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. He debuted in the Negro Leagues in 1925, pitching off and on through 1952 in the Negro Leagues and elsewhere, with much success. In 1938 Brewer became the first African American to play in the Mexican League. Like many other Negro League stars of that era, he often spent the winter months playing in the California Winter League. Following fourteen seasons in the Winter League and enjoying the Los Angeles area, Brewer decided to make it his permanent home. A longtime scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he also established youth baseball programs in the Los Angeles and Compton areas. Among the major leaguers he helped develop were Roy White, Dock Ellis, Don Wilson, and Bobby Tolan. Dock Ellis felt Brewer “had a tremendous influence on my career.”6 Chet Brewer Field in south Los Angeles is named in his honor.
Earl Brown Jr. (1943–) grew up in Los Angeles and played baseball at legendary Fremont High School. Following a short stint at Los Angeles City College, he signed a pro contract with Tom Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers. After two minor league seasons, however, Brown realized he would never reach the big leagues, retired from the game, and returned to Los Angeles. He went to work full-time for the Southern Pacific Railroad and part-time as a playground supervisor at Manchester Playground in southwest Los Angeles. At Manchester he coached the 1968 Manchester Hawks, a youth team of nine to 12-year-olds that featured Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Chet Lemon, and Rich Murray. He later led teams that featured Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, and Chris Brown. As Davis commented, “Earl prepared us for the next level.”7 Chris Brown said, “He was the coach who really taught us how to play.”8
Brown’s teams often played three or four games a day during the summer months, under the belief that the more you play, the more you learn. While Brown was involved in his youth coaching endeavors, he also scouted for the Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds.
HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE COACHES
Les Haserot (1904–57) starred at shortstop for Hollywood High in 1923 on a team that featured future PCL star Solly Mishkin and Helms Hall of Fame creator Bill Schroeder. Following high school, Haserot became a three-sport (football, baseball, basketball) star at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Upon graduation, he entered professional baseball, playing for the PCL’s Portland Beavers and Mission Bells in 1927–28. A fine defensive shortstop but unable to hit the curveball, he quit the pros in 1929 to become the baseball coach at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. Fremont, by the way, is only about a mile from Manchester Playground.
Haserot became known for running his program like a professional training camp, stressing the fundamentals, conditioning, and playing the percentages. Bobby Doerr commented, “Haserot gave us the knowledge to prepare for pro ball.”9 According to Glenn Mickens, “Haserot was a great motivator and you could feel his love of the game.”10 So great was Haserot’s reputation that fifteen-year-old Gene Mauch commuted several miles from his mid-city Los Angeles home to play for him. Haserot’s teams reeled off a string of Los Angeles City Baseball Championships in 1932, 1933, 1939, 1942, 1943, 1946, 1947, and 1948. Bob White, the successful coach at archrival Washington High School said, “Playing a Haserot team was like playing a big league team.”11
Les Haserot coached at Fremont through 1956, when the effects of leukemia began to weaken him. He died the following year from a self-inflicted gunshot. Among the players he groomed were Hal Spindel, Bobby Doerr, Dick Conger, Merrill Combs, George Metkovich, Nippy Jones, George McDonald, Larry Barton, Gene Mauch, Glenn Mickens, Al Grunwald, Vic Marasco, and Clint Conatser. Haserot’s name still lives in Los Angeles baseball circles. On June 5, 2011, he was inducted into the Los Angeles City Sports Hall of Fame.
John Scolinos (1918–2009) did not develop large numbers of big leaguers, but he was known as one of Southern California’s finest baseball teachers. A graduate of Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, he played high school baseball, but was better known as an All Los Angeles City High School football center. He briefly gave pro baseball a whirl, performing in the California League and others, but World War II interrupted his career. During the war Scolinos served as a radio operator on a B-29. Following the war he joined the staff of Pepperdine College in Los Angeles, serving as football and baseball coach 1946–60. In 1962 he moved to Cal Poly Pomona as baseball coach and his teams won NCAA Division II Championships in 1976, 1980, and 1983. A student of the game, Scolinos is often described by two words: inspiration and integrity. He is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. Cal Poly’s Scolinos Field is named in his honor.
John Herbold (1929–) like Les Haserot before him, graduated from Hollywood High School. At Stanford University he was Phi Beta Kappa and a fourth string catcher on the baseball team. While at Stanford he communicated with Haserot, who inspired him to embark on a coaching career. Following coaching concepts of Haserot, Herbold was a strong believer in fundamentals and conditioning. He coached on the high school and college level for 50 years, beginning at Long Beach Poly High School in 1956. At Long Beach Poly and Lakewood High School he produced numerous championship teams. His 1970 Lakewood team was rated number one in the United States. During his high school coaching years Herbold produced many future big leaguers, including Tommy Sisk, Brian McCall, Ollie Brown, Oscar Brown, Randy Moffitt, Willie Norwood, Floyd Chiffer, John Flannery, Mike Fitzgerald, Larry Casian, and Craig Grebeck.
In 1984 Herbold moved to the college level, guiding Cal State Los Angeles for twenty years. There he developed Jay Gibbons for the big leagues. USC’s legendary coach Rod Dedeaux (whose career is covered in another article in this journal) said, “Herbold was one of the most fundamentally sound baseball coaches of all time.”12 While coaching, Herbold was a part-time scout for five organizations. He also found time to work as a featured columnist for Collegiate Baseballfor twenty years. Herbold was elected to the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1998.
John Stevenson (1933–2010) graduated from Redondo Union High School and UCLA, where he was greatly influenced by a class taught by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. A disciplinarian, he became the baseball coach at El Segundo High School in 1960 and remained in that position until his death. His teams won a California state record 1,059 games and garnered CIF Southern Section titles in 1965, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1979, and 1989. He developed future Hall of Famer George Brett, as well as Ken Brett, Bobby Floyd, Scott McGregor, Zak Shinall, and Billy Traber. “El Segundo is a baseball town because of John Stevenson,”13 said Bobby Brett, another Brett brother who played for Stevenson. Like so many of the above-mentioned coaches, Stevenson was a stickler for fundamentals, alert to all mental aspects of the game. Bobby Brett added, “He gave you all the tools to be successful.”14
Joe Pirrone (1896–1973) was born and raised in Los Angeles where he developed a lifelong love for baseball. He played for Polytechnic High School of Los Angeles, as well as many of the sandlot teams of the area. After a brief career in pro ball, he began showing talent as an entrepreneur, owning a vegetable store, a nightclub, and a restaurant. Baseball remained in his blood, however, and with his brother, John, helped build the new California Winter League into a showcase for Negro Leaguers and local African American talent. The Pirrone brothers sponsored their Pirrone All Stars in the league from 1920–45, which featured such stars as Babe Herman, the Meusel brothers, Smead Jolley, Fred Haney, Willie Ludolph, and Ernie Orsatti competing against stars of the Negro Leagues. In 1929 the Pirrone brothers invested $16,000 to construct Pirrone Park (later known as White Sox Park) at 38th and Compton Avenue on the southeast side of Los Angeles. Here major leaguers, Negro Leaguers, local African American players like Jim Direaux and Joe Filmore, and the Pirrone All Stars played winter baseball in a harmonious, integrated setting. Pirrone will long be remembered as “the Father of the California Winter League.”
Dan Crowley (1907–1994) was born in Los Angeles and played baseball at Manual Arts High School. He en- tered pro ball and rose as high as the PCL in 1933. When Crowley began his pro career in 1925 he got the idea to form an offseason pro team to compete with the local college teams. The “Crowley All Stars” became a tradition and played exhibition games with USC for sixty years, ending in 1984. Over the years the “Crowley All Stars” featured such big-league stalwarts as Bob Lemon, Ralph Kiner, Mel Almada, Harry Danning, Jack Salveson, Rip Russell, and Steve Mesner. Crowley also worked many years as a scout for the New York Yankees and as a longtime college baseball umpire. The next time you view the 1941 baseball film classic, Pride of the Yankees, notice the plate umpire, Dan Crowley.
Willrich “Bill” Schroeder (1904–87) was not a playground supervisor, baseball coach, or baseball scout, but he was a pivotal influence in the development and popularity of high school baseball in the Los Angeles area. Schroeder was born in Beaumont, Texas, but grew up in Hollywood, where he played third base for the 1923 Los Angeles City Baseball Champs, Hollywood High School. Schroeder loved to reminisce about his idolization of Frank Shellenback and playing with Solly Mishkin and Les Haserot. While working as a banker, Schroeder enlisted the funding of Paul Helms (Helms Bakery) and established the Helms Athletic Foundation in 1936. The Foundation established a sports museum with an amazing collection of exhibits and the largest sports library in the world. Schroeder, however, wanted to have an active foundation that not only enabled fans to recall the past, but also kept pace with the present. The Foundation selected Athletes of the Year and Athletes of the Month in many sports. Awards programs were developed to honor local high school all-star teams. Bob Lemon, Duke Snider, Tony Gwynn, Rollie Fingers, Don Drysdale, and many other major league stars were honored by the Foundation. Helms became the center for high school sports in Southern California and flourishes today as LA 84. Braven Dyer Jr., Schroeder’s longtime assistant director said, “Schroeder was the most influential individual in Los Angeles sports during the forties, fifties, and sixties.”15 Schroeder also found time to compile the first PCL Record Book and was the president of three minor leagues: the California League, the Sunset League, and the Far West League.
John Young (1949–) grew up in the south Los Angeles neighborhood that was a baseball hotbed. He did not attend the local public high school, but instead the parochial, Mt. Carmel High School. In fact, Young is the only big-leaguer to come out of Mt. Carmel, while the public schools in the area—Locke, Fremont, Compton, and Centennial—were producing numerous big leaguers. Young went off to play ball at Chapman College (later known as Chapman University)and enjoyed a brief career with the Detroit Tigers.
Following his playing days, Young began a long career as a scout. As the years rolled by, he noticed that fewer and fewer baseball players were coming out of the old neighborhood. The park diamonds that once were the most fertile major league baseball incubators in America were now gang-infested, preventing young prospects from playing baseball. In 1989 Young founded RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) to help return the game to inner city youth. His goal was to encourage participation in baseball, provide youth with a positive team-oriented activity, and to keep kids off the streets. The program has grown tremendously and now operates in 240 sites around the world, adding a softball element and academic element. Is the program successful? Just ask James Loney or Coco Crisp. They’re both graduates of RBI.
Kenny Myers (1920–72) grew up in Los Angeles and played baseball at the “bad boy” school, Riis High School. After signing a professional contract, Myers spent many years as a minor league player and manager, once hitting four home runs (two grand slams) in a single game. He became a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers (signing Willie Davis and Jim Merritt) and later for the California Angels. Myers was more than just a scout. He was a teacher, an analyst, and a batting innovator. Former big league manager and player Norm Sherry wrote, “Myers was the most knowledgeable baseball man in all phases of the game.”16 “He was the finest hitting instructor of all time,” observed famed coach, John Herbold.17 Myers had innovative ways to teach all phases of hitting. John Roseboro and Willie Davis felt he made them major league hitters. Davis, in particular, was a Kenny Myers success story. In high school Davis was a 9.5 sprinter who batted from the right side. Myers patiently taught Davis to hit from the left side to utilize his blazing speed. Eventually Willie Davis became a baseball all-star. When baseball people speak of legendary scouts, Kenny Myers’s name is always in the conversation.
Harold “Lefty” Phillips (1919–72) was a highly regarded All-Los Angeles City pitcher at Franklin High School. He signed with the St. Louis Browns, but arm trouble quickly derailed his playing career. Phillips came home to Los Angeles and briefly worked for the railroad. He eventually became a scout for the Cincinnati Reds (1948–50) and then in 1951 moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers. He eventually became the Dodgers’ head Southern California scout. Mining the wealth of baseball talent in Los Angeles, Phillips signed Bobby Lillis, Sparky Anderson, Larry Sherry, Don Drysdale, and Ron Fairly for the Dodgers. With his great knowledge of pitching, Phillips was elevated to Dodgers pitching coach for a staff that included Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Claude Osteen. Phillips then became the manager of the California Angels 1969–71. Sparky Anderson said, “Phillips was one of the biggest brains baseball ever produced. He was the biggest influence in my career.”18
RICK OBRAND taught in Los Angeles city schools for 39 years. He was selected as a “Hero in Education” and Teacher of the Year in 2008. He also was included numerous times in “Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.” Married and the father of two sons, he currently is the historian for the Los Angeles City Schools Sports Hall of Fame. He is the author of many articles and booklets on high school sports stars.
- De La Vega, John. “Manchester Alma Mater of Many Stars,” Los Angeles Times, 19 February 1948: A9.
- Drennen, Andrew. “Salute to John Stevenson,” Cal Hi Sports State Record Book, 2009: 249.
- Eckhoff, Irving. “Dietz Hailed as Coach of Champions,” Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1932: E6.
- McNeil, William F. The California Winter League, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, Inc. 2002.
- Ostler, Scott. “An All Star and His Collection of Stars,” Los Angeles Times, 2 February 1984: E1.
- 1. Letter from Mickey Owen to author, 1997.
- 2. Letter from Bobby Doerr to author, 30 June, 1997.
- 3. Letter from Ed “Bud” Stewart to author, 17 March, 1998.
- 4. Letter from George “Sparky” Anderson to author, 1997.
- 5. Letter from Rene Lachemann to author, 17 February, 1998.
- 6. Oral presentation by Dock Ellis to author’s class, 1995.
- 7. Waters, Sean. “He Has a Real Eye For Talent.” Los Angeles Times, 27 June 1993.
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Letter from Bobby Doerr to author, 30 June 1997.
- 10. Letter from Glenn Mickens to author, 2 March 1998.
- 11. Bob White interview with author, June 1962.
- 12. Rod Dedeaux interview with author, 3 January 1998.
- 13. Bolch, Ben. Record-setting El Segundo Baseball Coach,” Los Angeles Times, 13 January 2010: A21.
- 14. Ibid.
- 15. Braven “Bud” Dyer interview with author, 1986.
- 16. Letter from Norm Sherry to author, 1998.
- 17. John Herbold interview with author, 2004.
- 18. Letter from George “Sparky” Anderson to author, 1997.