Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's
How bad were the early Tigers? This guy was their best hitter -- he was a pitcher.
The Vernon Tigers were created in 1909 to compete in the six-year-old Pacific Coast League. The team was owned by prosperous meat-packer Peter Maier, who then built the appropriately-named Maier Park for the team to play in.
For four seasons (1909-12) the team played in the tiny suburb north of Los Angeles, but in 1913 they moved 14 miles west, to the coastal town of Venice. Why choose Vernon or Venice -- small towns at best -- to hold ballgames? The answer was simple: Venice and Vernon were the only towns in Los Angeles County where one could buy a bottle of liquor.
Their ballpark was located on the southwest corner of Virginia Avenue and Washington Boulevard (now South Venice Blvd. and Abbot Kinney Blvd.). The six acre site was upgraded at a cost of $12,500. New grandstands holding 3000 seats and bleachers for 4000 were built. The outfield fence was built with 3 feet of wood topped by six feet of wire mesh. Eighty spaces were reserved for automobiles in the first "drive-in" ball park.
Unfortunately there just weren't enough fans in Venice, so the team ended up playing many of their games in 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.
The 1913 Venice Tigers pose in the usual empty stadium.
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 lost about fifty grand. The team finally won the pennant in 1918, 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.) Though the season was short, investors were finally attracted to the team.
In May of 1919, the Tigers were purchased by silent film superstar Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The New York Telegraph reported that Arbuckle purchased stock controlled by Thomas Darmondy and took 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.
Fatty apparently thought it'd be a fun time, and didn't understand how much work goes into running a ball club. He put all his time into movies, and the Tigers turned out to be a lot more work and trouble than anybody could have anticipated.
Opening day was on May 25, 1919, and a large Hollywood contingient was there to watch in the sold-out 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."
In August Variety reported that Arbuckle and his comedy staff were 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 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."
Fortunately the Tigers stuck with it a little more than Arbuckle... at least thet appeared to: 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. They ended up winning the pennant by one and a half games.
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 in 1920 for collusion with gamblers.
PCL President William H. McCarthy beat Major League Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis by expelling Tiger first baseman Babe Borton, along with other players, from the league for suspected activities in the scandal.
Criminal charges were brought before a Los Angeles grand jury in October, 1920, but Borton counterattacked by claiming that Vernon had won the 1919 pennant by bribing opposing players. Although the accused athletes were cleared of charges on a technicality, McCarthy unequivocally resolved the gambling scandal by expelling all players suspected of wrongdoing from the PCL: Borton from Vernon; 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 long -- Rumler received a pardon from Organized Baseball in 1928, and finished out his career playing for the Hollywood Stars.
By December, Variety reported that Fatty was through with baseball and all of its scandals -- at 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."
Vernon survived the scandal and became the first PCL team to fly three successive pennants... presumably all on the up-and-up.
As for "Fatty," he was out of baseball and finally getting some rest at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, on September 5, 1921, when a party was held in his 12th floor suite. One of the guests at the party was an actress named Virginia Rappé, a young starlett who had been thrown off the Keystone lot because of venereal disease problems (Mack Sennett had the lot fumigated after she left).
During the party, Arbuckle found 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 one of the partygoers 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. Medical experts -- for the prosecution and defense -- agreed that Virginia Rappé had died of peritonitis, brought on complications from gonorrhea, and was not caused by an outside source. The jury acquitted Arbuckle in six minutes, five of which were spent writing the statement of apology to Arbuckle.
Still, there were two retrials, and Arbuckle couldn't get work in Hollywood for ten years. He had to work under aliases, like "William Goodrich," or "Will B. Good," after his father William Goodrich Arbuckle. 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.
As for the Tigers, attendance to their games was limited by the small population of Vernon, and not enough fans came out from Los Angeles -- especially after Arbuckle sold his stock. In 1925 the franchise was sold to San Francisco backers, who 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).
CoastLeague.com. "Homepage of baseball's third major league." This site gets you everywhere you need to go to find out about the PCL.
Hollywood Stars. SportsHollywood's page on the most glamorous PCL team.
Los Angeles Angels. SportsHollywood's page on the the team and the legendary Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.
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.
Further reading: 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
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.
Zeenuts.com has PCL baseball cards from the 20's and 30's.
Fatty Arbuckle article archive