Picture this: It's Hollywood in the mid-20th Century. Fans applaud as a spotlight hits the latest Oscar winner. Jayne Mansfield jiggles across a red carpet as flashbulbs pop and men hoot and holler. Liz Taylor blows a kiss to the crowd. Nearby, teeny-boppers are screaming "Frankie! Frankie!" with unbridled passion. Out of view, the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen is having a drink in the VIP room, mingling with politicians and movie stars. Is this a movie premiere? An awards ceremony at the Coconut Grove?
Nope. It's a minor league baseball game.
The Hollywood Stars played professional baseball at Gilmore Field, near the Farmers Market in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. The team was owned by 'Brown Derby' restaurant owner Robert H. Cobb and movie stars Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, William Powell, George Raft, Barbara Stanwyk, Robert Taylor, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Harry Warner, and even Cecil B. DeMille.
The Stars (or "Twinks," as the press called them) competed in the fabled Pacific Coast League, a professional baseball league which ruled the Western United States in the first half of the 20th Century.
Stars owner Gary Cooper and Bobe Hope in a charity game at Gilmore Field.
Until the 1950's, "major league" ball was limited to sixteen teams playing in only ten cities -- and only one of those teams was even east of the Mississippi River (and it was all the way back in St. Louis). So rival leagues developed on the West Coast to entertain baseball fans. The best of these was the PCL.
These western franchises developed a very separate identity from Major League Baseball. They paid their players competitive salaries, drew huge crowds, and could play many more games because of the milder year-round weather. In fact, while the PCL was officially classified as a "minor league," fans and sportswriters called it the "third major league" -- and derisively referred to the major leagues as the "Eastern League."
The quality of play in the PCL was truly good, featuring many future and former major leaguers (in fact they often played many MLB teams in exhibition games). Babe Ruth himself said the games were as good as any in the majors! The league signed players independently of major league teams, and even had their own farm system for players who needed more seasoning. (The Stars had a development team in Billings, Montana, called the Mustangs, owned by Cobb, Crosby, Stanwyck, DeMille and Taylor.)
The PCL produced some of the greatest players and managers in baseball history, including Joe DiMaggio (who had a 61-game hitting streak in his rookie year), Ted Williams, Mickey Cochrane, Casey Stengel, Vada Pinson, Luis Tiant, Maury Wills, Billy Martin (who was carried off the field in a bloody heap after getting spiked in both legs by a Stars player), Lefty Gomez, and Tony Perez.
In the early days of the league a 200-game March-to-October schedule produced extraordinary season statistics, such as future Yankee Hall-of-Famer Tony Lazzeri's 60 home runs and 222 RBI for Salt Lake City in 1925.
Baseball legends who played for the Hollywood Stars included Chicago "Black Sox" spitball ace Frank Shellenback; Red Sox Hall-of-Famer Bobby Doerr (1934-35); Brooklyn Dodger great Babe Herman (who in the off-season doubled for team owner Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees); MLB Hall-of-Famer Bill Mazeroski, Vince DiMaggio, brother of Joe (1934-1935); left fielder John Oscar Dicksus (called Johnny Dickshot), who started the 1943 season with a 33-game hitting streak; and fan favorite Gus "Ozark Ike" Zernail (1948).
The most popular Star of all time was outfielder Frankie Kelleher. Frankie never made it in the big leagues because he was the property of the New York Yankees for his first six years as a pro, and couldn't dislodge anybody in their Hall of Fame outfield (DiMaggio, Charlie Keller and Tommy Henrich). After a stint with Cincinnatti, Kelleher landed in the PCL. He led the league with 40 home runs in 1950, and hit 226 dingers overall during the course of his ten-year career with the Stars.
More infamous was fleet outfielder Carlos Bernier (594 career stolen bases), who slapped an umpire in 1954 over a called strike and was suspended for the year by league President Clarence "Pants" Rowland. Bernier returned home to Puerto Rico and the Stars lost the pennant in the last week of the season to the San Diego Padres.
But then the Stars always had problems with umpires -- and on at least one occasion, even with policemen -- in their storied history.
Early History: The Stars strike out once then re-emerge like a great Hollywood remake in PART ONE:
The Glory Years: The Stars win the hearts of Hollywood and dominate the PCL in PART TWO:
Written by Jeff Hause. Thanks to Vice President Mark Panatier of the A.F. Gilmore Company, for his assistance in the researching of this article.
CoastLeague.com. "Homepage of baseball's third major league." This site gets you everywhere you need to go to find out about the PCL.
Los Angeles Angels. SportsHollywood's page on the Stars' most hated rival team.
The Oakland Oaks of 1948. Bill Shubb's outstanding site covers the Oaks' championship year with Casey Stengel. Also check out his follow-up page on the Oaks of the 50's.
The San Diego Padres of the PCL. From the Journal of San Diego History, based on an article by William G. Swank and James D. Smith III, entitled "This Was Paradise."
The San Francisco Seals. Todd Hawley's webpage focuses on the history of the team and stadium in San Francisco from 1903 to 1957.
The Seattle Rainiers. John Reeves' webpage contains a wealth of information, with stories, pictures and sounds, on the PCL franchise that was in Seattle from 1938 to 1964.
Vernon Tigers. SportsHollywood's page on Fatty Arbuckle's scandal-plagued team.
Further reading: Lost Ballparks: A Celebration of Baseball's Legendary Fields, by Lawrence S. Ritter, Robert W. Creamer (Introduction)
Runs, Hits, and an Era: The Pacific Coast League, 1903-58, by Paul J. Zingg With Mark D. Medeiros
The Pacific Coast League: 1903-1988, by Bill O'Neal
The Race for the Governor's Cup: The Pacific Coast League Playoffs, 1936-1954, by Donald R. Wells
Barbary Baseball: The Pacific Coast League of the 1920s, by R. Scott MacKey
The Pacific Coast League: A Statistical History, 1903-1957, by Dennis Snelling
You Can't Hit the Ball With the Bat on Your Shoulder: The Baseball Life and Times of Bobby Bragan, by Bobby Bragan, Jeff Guinn (Contributor), Howard Cosell (Introduction)
The Hollywood Stars: Baseball in Movieland, 1926-1957, by Richard E. Beverage (Placentia, CA: The Deacon Press, 1984, Out of Print)
Reference: Join the Pacific Coast League Historical Society. Annual membership dues of $15 includes a subscription to the "Potpourri" newsletter. Write to Richard Beverage, PCLHS, 420 Robinson Circle, Placentia, CA 92870.
The Stars' farm team, the Mustangs, are still playing today at Cobb Field in Billings, Montana -- and are now affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds.
Zeenuts.com has PCL baseball cards from the 20's and 30's.
Visit The Los Angeles Farmers Market, which is on the same lot as Gilmore Field and still has the best food in Los Angeles. Here's a postcard of the market, with Gilmore Field in the upper left. (Try Du-par's Restaurant for breakfast -- the Stars used to eat there.)