The Hollywood Stars

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This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal


 

    The Hollywood Stars baseball club, which was a member of the Pacific Coast League from 1926 to 1935 and again from 1938 to 1957, was “a fun deal” that gave me “the best years of my life,” according to Robert H. Cobb, its last president. The club was truly a civic venture which was both the pride and the pleasure of Hollywood’s leading citizens.

 

    Baseball first came to Hollywood, California, in 1926, when William H. Lane moved his Salt Lake City franchise to Los Angeles. Although his club played its home games in Wrigley Field, the recently-built home of the rival Los Angeles Angels, Lane called his team the Hollywood Stars. In Salt Lake City, this club had been the most free-hitting and high-scoring in PCL history. Tony Lazzeri played for the Bees in 1925 when he set the league record with 60 home runs in one season. In Los Angeles, Lane hired Charles “Spider” Baum, a former PCL pitcher, as General Manager, and Baum bought and traded for the good pitching necessary to complement the hitting and make the club a pennant contender. Led by Frank Shellenback, probably the finest pitcher in the history of the league, the Stars finished among the top three teams for seven consecutive years. Hitting remained the forte: Manager Oscar Vitt had so many .300 hitters that he was unable to play them all at once; his pennant-winning 1930 club had ten of them, including

Jesse Hill, later Athletic Director of the University of Southern California. Smead Jolley led the club in hitting in 1934-35.

    The Stars were never great favorites of Los Angeles fans, however; the rival Angels had consistently better attendance. When the Stars plummeted to last place in 1935, even fewer fans than usual came to see them play. Owner Lane, called “Uncle Bill” by some and “Hardpan” by others but reckoned an honest, fair man by all, felt the pinch of the Depression. Unable to pay the $8000 annual rental asked by Angels President David Fleming for use of Wrigley Field, Lane decided to move his franchise for a second time. He received offers from Sawtelle (West Los Angeles) and Salt Lake City, but the tough old man decided to gamble on San Diego, which had not fielded a professional baseball team for 35 years. On January 21, 1936 the original Stars became the San Diego Padres, who played in the PCL until major league ball came to the Border City in 1969.

 

    In 1936 a group of Los Angeles sportsmen tried to purchase the Mission club of San Francisco and move it to Los Angeles, but Mission owner Herbert Fleishhacker refused to sell. For two years, Los Angeles had only one baseball team, the Angels.

 

    After the 1937 season, however, Fleishhacker felt compelled to move his team by the same factors that had plagued Bill Lane two years earlier. The Missions were a poor draw in a city in which the Seals had the affection of most fans, and because his brewery, as well as his ball club, was losing money, Fleishhacker could not afford to maintain the club in its present location. In November 1937 the Missions moved to Los Angeles and became the second club and franchise to adopt the name Hollywood Stars.

 

    This second Hollywood club had as colorful a history as the first one. From 1909 to 1925, with a two-year hiatus in 1913-14, it was located in Vernon, an industrial suburb of Los Angeles, and provided the first cross-town rivalry with the Angels. During the 1913-14 seasons, it played its home games in Venice, a seaside resort near L.A. The Vernon and Venice Tigers were usually pennant-contenders and were known as the most exciting and aggressive team in the PCL. This tradition remained dormant while the club played in San Francisco as the Missions (1926-4937), but it was reinvigorated by the Stars.

 

    When Fleishhacker moved the team, he retained ownership but wished to give an appearance of control by Los Angeles people. For obscure reasons, he chose Don Francisco, Pacific Coast head of the Lord and Thomas advertising agency, to be the new Stars’ first president. Francisco admitted his ignorance of baseball but added that he would try to surround himself with assistants who did know the baseball situation.

 

    Francisco and Fleishhacker worked together to establish their team in its new home. They made arrangements to play the 1938 season in Wrigley Field, home of the Angels and the old Stars, but they also acquiesced to Angel owner David Fleming’s insistence that Hollywood build its own park for 1939, in order to encourage a rivalry between the two teams. They hired Wade Killefer, a former manager of the Angels, as skipper and tried to revitalize the Missions by purchasing new players. The club was so poor, though, that they could not pursue their policy as vigorously as they desired. After the Stars bought outfielder Danny Bell from the Yankees, for example, they found themselves unable to raise the purchase price, so they had to return him. The Stars finished fifth in 1938, a great improvement over the Missions’ last-place finish of the previous season, and they produced a PCL batting champion for the only time in their history (centerfielder Frenchy Uhalt), but the club was still a flimsy operation, in terms of both finances

and personnel.

 

    After the 1938 season, the Stars’ management dissolved. Don Francisco resigned as president of the ball club and moved to New York. Fleishhacker was unable to complete arrangements for construction of a baseball park. Then his brewery failed, and he went into bankruptcy. The club was for sale.

 

    The men who purchased the Stars from Fleishhacker’s estate retained control for the next 19 years – until the arrival of major league baseball in Los Angeles forced the club to disband. They made the Stars the civic venture and outstanding team that is remembered today.

 

    The leaders of the new ownership group were Victor Ford Collins, who was Fleishhacker’s attorney, and Robert H. Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurants. This was the dream of a lifetime for Bob Cobb.

 

    Horatio Alger might have used Cobb as a model for his stories. Born in Missouri and brought up in Montana, the restauranteur had come to Los Angeles as a poor boy. He got a job as a food checker in a hash house, then joined the Brown Derby as a kitchen hand. By the age of 40, Cobb had bought the Derby, one of Los Angeles’ most famous restaurants. Along the way, he retained his interest in baseball – as both a semipro player and a Vernon Tigers fan -and married an actress, Gail Patrick. As soon as he realized the import of Victor Collins’ offer, Bob Cobb borrowed $5000 from his friend Cecil B. DeMille and bought a large share of the club.

 

   Collins, who took over as president of the club, and Cobb, the vice president, moved quickly to remedy the two problems which had forced Herbert Fleishhacker to sell the team, a shortage of funds and lack of a ballpark. In so doing, they gave the team its distinctive air as a community-oriented club.

 

   In order to raise funds, the two men formed the Hollywood Baseball Association and sold small amounts of stock to numerous Hollywood civic leaders and movie stars. The movie personalities included Cecil B. DeMille (first chairman of the board of directors), William Frawley, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Gail Patrick (Mrs. Cobb), Harry Warner, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, George Burns and Grace Allen, and Gene Autry. By selling stock to the movie stars, Collins and Cobb gained not only capital, but also the opportunity to promote their club as “the Hollywood Stars baseball team, owned by the Hollywood stars.” Advertisement of movie stars along with baseball Stars increased attendance for the Twinks (as sportswriters were fond of calling the team).

 

   The people who purchased stock in the ball club did so not as an investment, but as a hobby. They wanted to bring top baseball entertainment to themselves and their fellow citizens. The members of the board of directors, which met weekly at first and less frequently as the club became established, were unpaid. They met at the Brown Derby, on auto magnate Frank Muller’s yacht, at the ballpark, or wherever seemed a pleasant place to enjoy themselves and talk about their new venture. Dick Hyland, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, captured the attitude of the founders of the Hollywood Baseball Association when he wrote in 1940,

 

      They made of that ball dub a civic thing. No one was per-

   mitted to invest any big money, but everyone was encouraged to

   take a small bite. It was to become a part of Hollywood, another

   asset, another evidence of growth; it was, plainly and simply, a

   Chamber of Commerce activity on the part of a group of people

   who want their little corner of the world to be better than all

   other corners.

 

   It would be a mistake, however, to think of the Stars as a ball club run for the elite alone. When Collins and Cobb remedied the second problem which had forced Fleishhacker to sell the team -lack of a park in which to play – they made certain that the Stars would be a team to which large numbers of fans would become attached. The new owners entered into a deal with Earl Gilmore, owner of the Farmers’ Market, for construction of a baseball park on land owned by Gilmore at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. The club paid half of the $400,000 needed to build the park. “Friendly” Gilmore Field, as it was always advertised, was designed with the spectator in mind. The areas of foul territory behind home plate and along the first- and third-base lines were so small that the grandstand was almost on top of the playing field. People liked to watch games at Gilmore Field because they felt themselves a part of the action there. It was exciting to sit behind third base and have Butch Moran (or some other Star) slide into third so hard that he kicked dirt into your face. The design of Gilmore Field integrated the entire community behind the Stars.

 

   The civic venture, combining local leadership and popular support, began on an inauspicious note. Gilmore Field was not yet ready for baseball when the 1939 season began, so the Stars had to play a week of home games at neighboring Gilmore Stadium, which was ordinarily used for midget auto races and football games. The right4ield fence was only 230 feet from home plate, so the many fly balls which cleared it had to be ruled ground-rule doubles in order to keep the games from becoming mockeries of baseball. On May 2, this makeshift arrangement came to an end – Gilmore Field was opened for baseball for the first time. Before 10,000 fans, the Stars presented gala pre-game festivities in which Robert Taylor, Jack Benny, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, and Al Jolson participated. Gail Patrick threw out the first ball, and comedian Joe E. Brown (father of Joe L. Brown) caught it. Then the Stars took the field and were beaten by the Seattle Rainiers, 8-5.

 

   The events of the opening week of 1939 and opening day of Gilmore Field typified the Stars’ organization for its first ten years under Collins and Cobb; everyone was amateurishly enthusiastic and wanted dearly to put on a good show, but the team was poor and struggled for several years.

 

   The club was unable to negotiate a good working agreement with a major league team. An agreement with Detroit in the early 1940s appeared useful, but Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Landis “freed” more than 90 of the Detroit organization players, wrecking any chance of aid the Stars may have had. Agreements with Pittsburgh in 1946 and the Chicago White Sox in 1947-48 also proved fruitless. The Stars had some good individual players – among them outfielders Babe Herman, Frenchy Uhalt, Gus Zernial, Jim Delsing, and Frank Kelleher, and infielders John Dickshot, Buck Fausett, and Tony Lupien – but they never had a good team. They were especially weak on the mound, where Charlie Root (age 44 in 1943), Eddie Erautt, and later George “Pinky” Woods were their only hurlers of note. The lack of pitching was especially apparent in 1947 and 1948, when the White Sox sent the Twinks so many heavy hitters that they led the league in most offensive categories but still finished sixth.

 

    The fans remained loyal, however. Attendance increased dramatically toward the end of World War II. During the post-war boom, the Stars reached the 500,000 mark in attendance three times in four years. So many people were crowding the ballpark that in 1947, when Jimmy Dykes was the manager, the Stars tried to expand the capacity of Gilmore Field from 12,500 to 18,000 by adding right-field bleachers. (They were prevented from doing so by the great scarcity of construction materials.) Finally in 1949 the Stars rewarded those fans with their first pennant since 1930.

 

    In 1949 Fred Haney became the team’s manager and the Golden Age of the Hollywood Stars, which lasted until the club disbanded in 1957, began. The interrelationship of these two events is accepted today as fact. Fred Haney, a Los Angeles boy who had been an infielder and base-stealing champion for both the Angels and the old Stars, was the man who led Hollywood to its greatest achievements. Haney was the Stars’ broadcaster 1946-48; all the while, Collins and Cobb were pestering him to manage their team. After the 1948 season, in which the Stars finished sixth for the fourth consecutive year, Haney finally agreed, on the condition that he would have complete control of purchases and sales of players.

 

    Haney believed that the Stars’ biggest problem was the lack of a successful working agreement with a major league club. He was convinced that the team’s most valuable asset was its reserve list, the use of which protected players from the major league draft. Haney arranged an audience for himself, Collins, and Cobb with Branch Rickey, the president of the Dodgers, and using the reserve list as their strongest bargaining asset, the three officials gained a working agreement with Rickey. Brooklyn would provide Hollywood with the players the PCL club needed, would have first choice at buying Hollywood players, guaranteed that the Stars’ purchases and sales would balance at the end of each season, and paid the Stars $25,000 for the use of their reserve list.

 

    Armed with the working agreement, Haney constructed a pennant-winning ball club in 1949. Outfielder Irv Noren was chosen most valuable player in the PCL; he batted .330 with 29 home runs and 130 runs batted in. George Woods, who had lost 20 games the previous year, became an outstanding performer, winning 23. Under Haney’s direction, infielders Jim Baxes and George Genovese, outfielder Herb Gorman, and pitchers Willie Ramsdell and Art Schallock became valuable players. Frank Kelleher continued as the club’s chief power hitter.

 

    The Haney years were marked not only by excellent play, but also by creative management. The best-remembered innovation was one of apparel: T-shirts and shorts as a uniform, beginning in 1950. The “shorties” weighed only a third as much as regulation uniforms and retained perspiration much less. Haney announced, “We think these suits will give us more speed. They will also permit much greater freedom of motion in fielding and throwing. If the trial proves satisfactory, we’ll wear them whenever the weather permits.” The Stars wore their new uniforms throughout 1950, but only sparingly thereafter; they abandoned them after the 1953 season. The players liked them, but the public never really did.

 

    A much more successful innovation in apparel was the adoption of batting helmets in 1949. The Stars wore them at the direction of Branch Rickey of the Dodgers, who wanted to popularize the product of one of his business ventures, the American Baseball Cap Company. The helmets proved a great safety precaution, and today all baseball teams wear them.

 

    The Stars pioneered in broadcasting games on television – they had televised one game in 1939 as part of an experiment conducted by a local channel – and they became the first club to televise home games in the late 1940s. The Stars also originated the practice of dragging the infield after the fifth inning of each game. As veteran club official Paul Jeschke remembers this innovation, it came about when concessionaire Danny Goodman asked Manager Haney how the club could help improve his business. Haney suggested having the infield dragged, figuring correctly that the fans would take the ten-minute break to move around and that many of them would pass the concession stands and make purchases.

 

    Despite good teams and creative management, however, the 1950s were not years of complete bliss for the Stars. They were years of turmoil for baseball in general – television became an important factor in sports, football gained popularity, and the minor leagues began to wither – and the Hollywood club shared in the troubles. The ownership of the franchise, which had maintained a solid front for more than a decade, showed internal disagreement publicly for the first time.

 

    In 1951, Earl Gilmore, the owner of Friendly Gilmore Field, The Home of the Stars, clashed with club management on the usefulness of television. Being unalterably opposed to TV, he threatened to cut the power lines connecting radio and TV broadcasting facilities in the park. The two sides eventually reached a compromise very favorable to Mr. Gilmore: he received 30% of the club’s television revenues.

 

    Later the same year, ownership began to change hands. George Young, one of the original main owners of the club, brought a personal disagreement with Collins and Cobb over operational details into the open by selling them an option to buy his 311¼ shares. Before the shares themselves could be sold, however, the Pittsburgh Pirates, along with Cobb, purchased the stock of both Young and Collins.

 

    The Pirates had become affiliated with the Stars after the 1950 season, when Branch Rickey moved from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh, and the working agreement followed him. The PCL was about to be promoted to open classification, meaning that its teams would be higher-ranking than all others in the minor leagues and would be prohibited from having working agreements with the majors. Pittsburgh wanted to preserve its right to have priority in dealings with Hollywood; it believed that it was doing so by buying a one-sixth share in the Stars. Coast League President Clarence “Pants” Rowland objected violently to the purchase, insisting that its intent was contrary to the purpose of open classification. Rickey protested that his purchase was only an affirmation of faith in the PCL in general and the Stars in particular. Commissioner Ford Frick decided not to disturb the transaction.

 

    The club’s management continued to change. Manager Haney was promoted to the parent Pittsburgh club after winning a second pennant in 1952. President Collins, who held no stock in the team after February of 1952, became chairman of the board in 1953. Vice-President Cobb took over the presidency and Robert Clemens, a protege of Branch Rickey and a solid baseball man, was named vice-president. Three years later, Collins died, and Rickey became chairman of the board. Although Bob Cobb continued to determine club policy, it appeared that the community-based leadership was slowly being eased out.

 

    Almost paradoxically, though, the l950s were also the period of greatest interest in the Stars by the movie community. The movie people had always liked the team and the park, but now times were good and the Twinks were winners, so they made a special effort to see the games. An added inducement was a large room under the grandstand reserved for their private use where liquor and impromptu entertainment flowed freely. George Raft, for one, came to almost every home game – each time, former Publicity Director Irv Kaze recalls, with a prettier girl than he had had the previous night. Jayne Mansfield was chosen Miss Hollywood Stars in 1955 and garnered much publicity for the team.

 

    But then, in the middle of the exhilaration, everything came to an end. In December of 1956, the Brooklyn Dodgers announced that they would move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. Almost at once the Hollywood Stars were dead. They played one more season to a reasonably successful third-place finish, but then they were gone. The Twinks were Hollywood to the end: at their final home game, Jayne Mansfield returned and presented Bob Cobb with a new car, then they watched hurler Hugh Pepper pitch no-hit ball against the pennant-winning San Francisco Seals until a fly ball blooped in front of centerfielder Carlos Bernier in the ninth inning.

 

   Salt Lake City, Mexico City, and Long Beach all made offers for the franchise. On December 5, 1957, President Cobb sold it to Salt Lake interests for an estimated $175,000. Mter 19 years, the original stockholders made a handsome profit on their investment. The money was relatively unimportant to them, though; they deeply regretted seeing a source of great civic pride, an integral part of the community, depart.

 

   People connected with the Stars went their separate ways. Bob Cobb went back to the Brown Derby, taking Business Manager Paul Jeschke with him. Bob Clemens rejoined the Pirates, Irv Kaze, the publicity director, performed in the same capacity for Pittsburgh and later the American League Los Angeles Angels. Danny Goodman, the concessionaire, joined the Dodgers. Scouts Rosey Gilhousen and Tufie Hashem and many lesser officials followed stockholder Gene Autry to the new American League Angels in 1961. Wherever they went, though, they remembered the Stars similarly: “It was major league all the way; I was very proud to be a member of the organization. Without a doubt, those were the most enjoyable years of my life.”

 

 

 

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