The oldest surviving national baseball league, the National League, was founded in 1876, with its counterpart, the American League, forming in 1901. The two leagues were based in the East Coast, with no teams West of the Mississippi River, for logistical and financial reasons (train travel to the opposite coast could take up to a week), so sportsmen in California had to form their own leagues. The Pacific Coast League was organized in 1902 with six charter franchises: the San Francisco Seals, Seattle Indians, Oakland Oaks, Portland Beavers, Sacramento Senators, and the only team in Southern California, the Los Angeles Angels.
The PCL was unaffiliated with the Eastern leagues, and on its own as a more or less independent league. Yet the quality of play was very high since there was no real competition for the talent on the west coast. The list of players who got their start in the PCL includes Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Mazeroski, Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Bobby Doerr, who after leaving the PCL became Hall of Fame players and managers in the major leagues (there was even a push during the 1940s and 1950s to make the PCL a third major league). The PCL was so popular that in 1909, the league added more teamsone in particular located in the newly-created city of Vernon... and the Angels had their first cross-town rival.
The Vernon Tigers were created in 1909 to compete in the six-year-old Pacific Coast League. For four seasons (1909-12) Vernon the team played in the newly-incorporated city of Vernon, located a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles. Calling Vernon a "city" was charitable. Nobody lived thereit was really just the confluence of three different railroad lines, surrounded by ranchland that the owner hoped to turn into an industrial area along the railroad tracks.
With no people and no businesses, why hold ballgames in Vernon? The answer was simple: You could buy liquor in Vernon, while the rest of Los Angeles County was dry. To entice customers who might prefer to drink at home, the city founders added "the world's longest bar" (100-feet long with 37 bartenders, so no waiting), a boxing arena, and a baseball park. To fill the stands, they brought in the Tigers. PCL officials granted Fred Maier, who had just inherited a large brewery in the area, franchise rights to a ballclub for the 1909 season. Maier was a shrewd businessman, and got the franchise for a reported cost of one dollar. Little did he know he was going to lose money on the deal.
Maier Park was built in 1909, over the existing field at Vernon's Southside Park, on East 38th Street and Santa Fe Avenue. The six acre site was upgraded for PCL games at a cost of $12,500. The Los Angeles Herald reported: "Work will be started upon improvements to be made in order to convert Southside park into a league diamond, which will include the erection of a modern grandstand and bleachers to conform to the increased dignity of the park and its high class occupants." The new grandstands held 3000 seats and the bleachers another 4000. The outfield fence was built with 3 feet of wood topped by six feet of wire mesh. Behind right field was a stinking cow pasture. In left, Doyle's Tavern (with that 100-foot bar) conveniently butted up to the fence, and it was rumored that there was a door in the left field wall where some players would run in to Doyle's for a quick beer between innings. Eighty parking spaces were reserved for automobiles in the first "drive-in" ball park. In January of 1909, the Los Angeles Herald announced: "The Vernon club players, 'Outlaws,' as they have been named by Hen Berry, will be putting in spring practice there."
The Vernon Tigers in 1910 stay out of the bar long enough for this team portrait with Maier seated in the back center.
The "Tigers" name had been used by a Tacoma franchise that had started in the 1904 season, and finished in 1905which didn't portend success, but the uniforms just said "Vernon," anyway, so it didn't really matter. With a shiny new park, a family brewery and 37 bartenders to sell his beer in the only place near downtown Los Angeles where a person could get a drink, Maier was ready for the cash to flow in... and then he promptly died. His younger brother, Eddie Maier, took over the club in 1910. A graduate of the UC Berkeley, Eddie knew baseball like his brother, but was new to the beer and baseball business.
Because people were at the ballpark for drinking as much as watching baseball, there were incidents of what the San Francisco Call described as "rowdyism" during the games at Maier Park. As a result, the PCL convinced Maier to move the team in 1913. He chose a spot called Venice, located 14 miles west along the coast. Why Venice? Because Maier knew it was the only place town in LA County where you could buy a bottle of beer (it was "the liveliest town along the southern beaches", per the same Call piece). A new stadium was constructed on the southwest corner of Virginia Avenue and Washington Boulevard. (Which is now the corner of South Venice Blvd. and Abbot Kinney Blvd.) Unfortunately, there weren't enough fans watching the games or buying the beer (maybe because Maier was targeting his beer "for invalids," who didn't get to the ballpark much). With no fan base in Venice, the team ended up playing many of their games at 20,000-seat Washington Park in Los Angeles whenever the home team (the Angels) was out of town. Attendance figures for the 1914 season weren't even enough to pay the interest on Maier's investment. The crowd for the April 26th Sunday game was only 550. They finished the season in fifth place with a 113-98 record.
By 1915, a frustrated Maier moved the team and stadium back to Vernon. Venice Park was dismantled and moved in sections back to Vernon at a cost of $7,500. So far Maier had taken over his brother's business and lost about fifty grand. The team finally won the pennant in 1918 with a league-best 59-45 record, during a protracted season that was halted on July 14 by the "work or fight" order during World War I. (Baseball wasn't considered "work" yet.) Eventually the Tigers lost to the second-place Angels, who beat them in five games for the championship in the first 'freeway series' (if there had been freeways, yet) in July. Though the season ended on a down-note, investors were finally attracted to the team.
When the Tigers weren't playing, the field was used as a silent film set. Harold Lloyd appeared for the first time in glasses onscreen in "Over the Fence" (1917), on Maier Field.
Illustration: The Pullman Herald, Washington, 09 May 1919, page 6.
In May of 1919, the New York Telegraph reported that the Tigers had been purchased by silent film superstar Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who had acquired stock controlled by Thomas Darmondy and had taken over as president of the team. Arbuckle's interest in the team was probably spurred by his business manager and confidant, Lou Anger, whose wife was the sister-in-law of Byron Houck, Vernon's ace pitcher. The press announced the purchase, and the fat jokes began: Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Fatty Arbuckle moved into his new baseball suit yesterday." (14 May 1919, p. 28)
Fatty apparently thought it'd be a fun timehe even posed for his own Zee-Nut baseball card in the new suitbut he didn't understand how much work goes into running a ball club. Up to that point, he had put all his time into making movies... and the Tigers would turn out to be a lot more work and trouble than anybody could have anticipated.
Panoramic view of Washington (or "Chutes") Park, where the Tigers and Angels would play. It was located on the north end of Chutes Park on Washington Blvd. and Main Street, near an amusement park and alligator farm. The Chutes Park water slide is visible beyond right field.
Fatty's first appearance with the team was on May 13, 1919, with a large Hollywood contingient was there to watch in the Washington Park grandstand. Tom Mix and his manager, Eddie Rosenbaum, occupied one box. The New York Telegraph reported: "Fatty, Al St. John and Buster Keaton put on a side show. Dressed in the garb of the Vernons they staged a game all their own, using a plaster paris bat and ball. The result when ball and bat met may be imagined."
The Los Angeles Times reported that while Arbuckle caused a commotion, there was more to come, as, "After the game there was the daily riot in the right field bleachers. However, Mr. Arbuckle did not participate in this personally. The owner of a club can put on mob scenes at home plate, but he must not riot in the bleachers."
In August, Variety reported that Arbuckle and his comedy staff were even barnstorming with the team. They went to San Francisco and staged burlesque stunts at the ball yard where Vernon was playing. Fatty, the papers said, "was a riot." But Arbuckle was now having to spend all of his time promoting his team, and not his movies. He started to feel stressed and overworked. In October, he told the Los Angeles Herald that he "just bought them to please Anger," and all he did was be "president and sign checks." He was quoted as saying, "I can't go to the ball game any more, Lou... It makes me too darn nervous. After two hours and a half of that, I can't do anything else I want to. The excitement makes my stomach feel bad." Newspapers even began reporting that the stress was affecting his weightwhich is not good news when your film career rests on being called "Fatty."
Fortunately the Tigers were more up to the task than Arbuckle... at least they appeared to be: They edged the Angels for their second straight Pacific Coast League pennant, in a dramatic closing-day doubleheader before an overflow crowd of 25,000 fans at Washington Park, and ended up winning the pennant by one and a half games, with an overall record of 111-70. After taking the PCL, the Tigers took on the American Association's St. Paul Saints for a seven-game "Minor League World Series" at Washington Park. "They call the club that came here the Saints," Arbuckle wrote before the opener. "The only saints I ever heard of were dead ones." Even with their best player, "Babe" Borton out with a knee injury, Vernon took the series, 4-3.
Zeenuts card for Babe Borton of the "P.C. League." You can't make this stuff up...
But problems arose: During the last two weeks of the season, rumors proliferated that opposing players had been bribed to insure Vernon the flag. It was the year of the Black Sox, the tainted World Series that would result in the expulsion from baseball of eight players for collusion with gamblers, so any improper activities raised red flags. Criminal charges were brought before a Los Angeles grand jury in October, 1920, but Tiger first baseman Babe Borton counterattacked by claiming that there was no gambling scandal: Vernon had won the 1919 pennant by bribing opposing players, not by throwing the games for gamblers, like those crooked Black Sox. On Christmas Eve, LA superior court judge Frank R. Willis dismissed the indictments and ruled they could not be submitted again. He stated no matter how "reprehensible" the actions of the ballplayers were, the charges couldn't go to trial, as throwing baseball games was not a criminal act.
Although the accused athletes were cleared of charges on a technicality, Pacific Coast League President William H. McCarthy unequivocally resolved the scandal by expelling all of the players suspected of wrongdoing from the league: Salt Lake outfielders Harl Maggart and Bill Rumler (the 1919 batting champ); and pitchers Tom Seaton of Portland and Casey Smith of San Francisco. (But not for too longRumler received a pardon from Organized Baseball in 1928, and finished out his career playing for the Hollywood Stars.) Borton was kicked off Vernon and worked in the motion picture industry for a time (ironically, longer than Fatty was going to), then spent most of the rest of his life as a process operator for Standard Oil in the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, the Tigers went on to become the first PCL team to fly three successive pennantspresumably all on the up-and-upbut not with Fatty. The Santa Barbara Morning Press of October 26, 1919 (Volume 48, Number 49), reported that the ballclub had accepted his resignation as president, and his duties for the next year would be handled by a guy named "Puss" Halbriter. (Is there anything about Fatty or this team that wouldn't be considered socially insensitive today???) A syndicated column called Sport Jazz by Razz Berry reported, "Fatty Arbuckle has quit baseball. Must have been afraid he'd lose his stage figure." That December, Variety reported that Fatty was through with baseball and all of its scandalsat least with the Tigers: "Arbuckle arrived in New York Monday morning... he had had a lot of fun monkeying with the baseball game, and having sold out, now contemplated buying the Los Angeles ball club, merely for his own amusement." It was also reported he was thinking of buying the St. Louis Browns back east in the Major Leagues.
Fatty ultimately stayed out of baseball and focused on the film business, signing a three-year, $3 million dollar contract with Paramount Pictures, but scandal followed him, as well. On September 5, 1921, a party was held in Fatty's 12th floor suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, where he and friends were vacationing after an exhausting summer in which Arbuckle had to film three movies at the same time to fulfill his new contract. One of the guests at the party was an actress named Virginia Rappé, who suffered from chronic cystitis, a bladder inflammation. Arbuckle secured a suite of three rooms (1219, 1220, and 1221) on the 12th floor of the hotel, and at one point during the festivities, Arbuckle and Rappe retreated to one of the bedrooms. What happened in that room will never truly be known.
Later on during the party, Arbuckle found Rappé passed out on the bathroom floor. He picked her up and placed her on the bed, then left to get help. When he returned with a few others, they found her screaming in pain. Four days later, Rappé died. Then Maude Delmont, another guest at the party, told the police that Arbuckle had raped Virgina Rappé with a Coke bottle and caused her death. Later that day, Roscoe was arrested for murder.
Arbuckle's murder trial was a joke, but not the kind he specialized in. Medical expertsfor the prosecution and defenseagreed that Virginia Rappé had died of peritonitis, and was not caused by an outside source. It also turned out that the prosecution's star witness, Maude Delmont, had an extensive police record involving blackmail, prostitution, and swindling, and never took the stand. The jury, however, was deadlocked with a 10 to 2 vote for acquittal, and a mistrial was declared.
There were two retrials, with the prosecution's case continuing to crumble: They declined to present any testimony from Delmont, and their main witness, Zey Prevon, escaped house arrest and fled the country. Still, there was a second mistrial, then a third jury acquitted Arbuckle in six minutes, five of which were spent writing the statement of apology.
Despite that, Arbuckle couldn't get work in Hollywood for ten years, and was heckled in the street. He therefore had to work behind the camera under aliases, like "William Goodrich," or "Will B. Good," after his father William Goodrich Arbuckle. He was forced to sell his home in Los Angeles, along with his luxury automobiles, to pay legal fees that his former studio was refusing to cover, citing a morals clause in his contract. Suddenly a gambling scandal didn't seem like such a big thing.
Finally, on June 28, 1933, he was signed by Warner Brothers to make a feature length film... and died from heart failure the very next day. Buster Keaton said he died from a broken heart.
Eddie Maier (right) watches his Tigers return to Los Angeles in 1939 as the newly-named Hollywood Stars at their opening game in Gilmore Field; At left is Tigers publicist Gene Doyle.
As for the Tigers, attendance to their games was limited by the small population of Vernon, and not enough fans came out from Los Angelesespecially after Arbuckle sold his stock, and the gambling scandal made fans question the honesty of game. Prohibition was also in force, and people weren't going to drive all the way from LA to Vernon's beer halls for a soda. For the next few years, the Tigers played most of their games in Los Angeles while the Angels were out of town. After a last-place finish in 1925, the franchise was sold to San Francisco backers, who moved the team north and renamed them the Mission Reds. But in the fashion of a true tinseltown movie sequel, the Reds moved back to Southern California in 1938, and were dubbed the Hollywood Stars.
TOP PHOTO: Vernon Tigers, 1919 Pacific Coast League champs. Silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle stands at center in the dark suit. Scandal even followed him here. Notable players are: Happy Finnernan (number 2), Bob Meusel (3), John Mitchell (6), Willis Mitchell (7), Wheezer Dell (9), Stump Edington (10), Ed High (11), Al DeVormer (13), Art Fromme (14), Chester Chadbourne (15), manager Bill Essick (19), and Gus Fisher (20).
The 1913 Venice Tigers pose in the usual empty stadium.
CoastLeague.com. "Homepage of baseball's third major league." This site gets you everywhere you need to go to find out about the PCL.
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 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.
The Grand Minor League: An Oral History of the Old Pacific Coast League by Dick Dobbins; Duane Press (December 15, 1999): 328 pages. The Pacific Coast League was professional baseball at its best. In their heyday, from the 1920s through the mid '50s, PCL minor league teams drew sellout crowds to ballparks in Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. The rivalries were intense, the players skilled, the fans devoted. To PCL fans, major league baseball today might seem a bit out of scaleespecially in its current, celebrity-crazed setting, where games are televised, autographs are signed for a fee and players look tiny in stadium-size venues. Of course, many longtime baseball fans and former players were a bit spoiled by the PCL.
The Pacific Coast League: 1903-1988, by Bill O'Neal; Eakin Press (July 1, 1990): 364 pages. the nearly 100-year history of baseball's greatest minor league. The list of stars who have played in this league reads like a who's who of baseball Hall of Famers.
The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957 by Dennis Snelling, McFarland (October 14, 2011). In 1903, a small league in California defied Organized Baseball by adding teams in Portland and Seattle to become the strongest minor league of the twentieth century. Calling itself the Pacific Coast League, this outlaw association frequently outdrew its major league counterparts and continued to challenge the authority of Organized Baseball until the majors expanded into California in 1958.
Barbary Baseball: The Pacific Coast League of the 1920s, by R. Scott MacKey; McFarland Publishing (March 1, 1995): 237 pages. In the 1920s, baseball fans across America flocked to minor league ballparks to see their hometown teams play. This was particularly true on the West Coast where fans embraced the colorful Pacific Coast League as a third major league. The rowdy reputation of the Pacific Coast League was well earned. Owners' meetings were rambunctious affairs where league issues were sometimes settled by violence. In the stands, drinking and gambling went unchecked, most notoriously exemplified by the "Booze Cage" at San Francisco's Recreation Park where 75 cents bought a shot of whiskey and the best seat in the house. On the field, players and umpires were as likely to trade punches as insults.
"Over the Fence": A Silent Film Review: "Harold Lloyd dons his famous spectacles for the first time and makes movie history as a boy who just wants to take his girl to a baseball game. Of course, Snub Pollard is in the way and chaos ensues but the real fun is seeing Lloyd's evolution as a comedian."
Jeffrey C. Hause has written professionally (in a very amateur fashion) for entertainers like Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Rodney Dangerfield, Gabe Kaplan, Rick Dees and people he'd rather not tell you about. He's also written screenplays for producers like Ivan Reitman, Richard Donner, Ray Stark, Lawrence Turman, and Samuel Goldwyn Jr., at Warner Brothers, Disney, Universal, Columbia, Franchise Pictures and Interscope. Here's his résumé. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.