This is Part I of a two-part series detailing the wild story of the Pacific Coast League's Vernon Tigers in 1919 and 1920. For Part II, click here.
As the calendar flipped to 1920 100 years ago, the Vernon Tigers were poised to establish an early Pacific Coast League dynasty. They'd finished the World War I-abbreviated 1918 season with a league-best 59-45 record, but the second-place Angels beat them in five games of an ad-hoc seven-game championship series that July. Entering 1919 with their eyes on the prize, they were purchased by a celebrity who imbued the already raucous atmosphere of their games with an outrageous sense of humor. They started slow but stormed to a league title -- the first in franchise history -- and a national championship.
In January 1920, the Los Angeles Times was confident in the Tigers' posting the PCL's best record for the third straight season, even though they'd lost two valuable third basemen -- Bob Meusel (who signed with the Yankees after putting up a .337 average) and Zinn Beck (who left to take a job managing the Charleston Palmettos of the South Atlantic League). The club representing the small city just southeast of Downtown Los Angeles would be fine, the paper suggested, because manager Bill Essick -- who years later became a scout for the Yankees and inked a Coast Leaguer named Joe DiMaggio -- was "something of a shark at selecting third sackers."
But by the time Tigers fans had cause to celebrate another championship, a dark cloud hovered over Vernon and the league as a whole, taking the shape of a mirror image of the shadow the Black Sox cast upon Chicago and the Majors at roughly the same time.
At the close of the 20th century's first decade, both baseball and the Los Angeles area were booming. In this twin growth, the PCL saw an opportunity to add a second LA franchise to complement the Angels, who, as charter members, dated back to '03. PCL officials and Angels president Henry Barry identified Fred Maier as a good owner for a new club. Maier owned a brewery in Vernon, one of two municipalities in LA County where alcohol flowed without legal restrictions. For a reported cost of one dollar, Maier was granted franchise rights for the 1909 season.
Although Maier died that April, Maier Park (built out of the existing South Side Park on Vernon's 38th Street and Santa Fe Avenue) was ready for action. Across the street from the ballyard was Doyle's Bar, known at the time as the longest bar in the world -- 100 feet -- and featuring over three dozen bartenders each working his own register. The area was a mixture of the rowdy (Jack Doyle was as famous for his neighboring boxing arena as he was for his bar) and rural-idyllic (there was a cow pasture beyond Maier Park's right field fence).
"The Vernon stadium was a good ballpark," Alfie Oliveri, who was a bat boy for the Tiger and the Angels, told a California State University, Fullerton oral history project in the mid-'90s. "It had regular grass, just like Dodger Stadium has today. They had a clubhouse and everything. It was a good professional ballpark."
But the Tigers played the bulk of their home games at Washington Park, which was home to the Angels before they moved to their more well-known Wrigley Field in South Central Los Angeles in 1925, about a 10-minute drive today from the site of Maier Park. Washington Park was initially part of the amusement grounds called Chutes Park, where the Tigers were for their first two years, before being rebuilt on the same space, with home plate moved a few hundred feet southeast, for 1911-24. Because it had a capacity of over 20,000, about four times that of offense-friendly Maier Park, the Tigers used it when the Angels were out of town and generally used Maier Park for the first game of Sunday and holiday doubleheaders, or other special occasions.
This arrangement held for the duration of the Tigers' time in Vernon. Because of what the San Francisco Call described as Vernon's "rowdyism," the league had the Tigers relocate to Venice ("the liveliest town along the southern beaches, per the same Feb. 1, 1913 Call story) in 1913. By the middle of 1915 season, they returned to their original town in a reconstructed and more pitcher-friendly version of Maier Park with twice as many seats. Still, they resumed playing the bulk of their home games at Washington Park.
One hundred years ago, this view would be toward Washington Park's home plate from center.
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of Hollywood's most beloved comic stars at the opening of 1919. Photoplay put his name next to Charlie Chaplin's as the top comedy performers of 1918 and praised Arbuckle's work as "consistently funny and human." That year, he'd directed and costarred in seven shorts (often alongside his nephew Al St. John and rising talent Buster Keaton). The title cards and the promotional material for these films carried the label "A Paramount-Arbuckle Comedy," giving him the status of a mini-mogul.
He was about to elevate that status. In mid-April 1919, rumors circulated that Arbuckle was buying the Tigers, although the front office issued denials. By the end of the month, the San Pedro Pilot and others were reporting that the comedian had bought the team and installed himself as president. The LA Times started referring to the Tigers as "'Fatty' Arbuckle's boys" in game stories even as it ran an item saying the sale had been delayed. On May 6, the Times ran a story headlined, "Arbuckle is now magnate."
"Doff the skypiece" -- that is, tip the hat -- "to Master Fatty Arbuckle, for the modern Fallstaff is now a full-fledged baseball magnate," the story began. It went on to detail a meeting the previous day, when Eddie Maier (brother of Tigers founder Fred) handed over the majority share of the team to Arbuckle.
It was at Washington Park where Arbuckle made his first and probably most notable appearance at a Tigers game, although he toured Northern California with the team later in the season. On May 13, the comedian put on a show with Keaton and St. John ahead of the Tigers' 6-5 loss to the San Francisco Seals. The spectacle included a musical performance by a combo called The Black and Tan Jazzers.
"Jazz, movie stuff and baseball is a combination hard to resist," Harry A. Williams wrote in the LA Times. "But the bugs [fans] must not expect this every afternoon. This was a special occasion for the purpose of inducting the new president into public eye."
The induction involved Arbuckle stepping up to the dish against Keaton on the mound, with St. John catching and "an ump wearing spring-bottom pants of the vintage of '76" officiating. Arbuckle initially appeared in the box with a boat oar. Feigning outrage over the ump's demand that he use a proper bat, he returned with what appeared to be one. But when Arbuckle busted the new bat over the head of the ump, it proved to be made of papier mache and filled with confetti.
Keaton's first pitch was a ball of ice that broke up before reaching the plate. His next offering was a firecracker delivered in a replica of grenade. Arbuckle got a good piece of it, causing a loud bang and small explosion. Six months following the end of war, gallows humor was evidently in vogue. Keaton, St. John and the umpire pretended to have been casualties of the blast. Arbuckle reacted with a home run trot around the pitcher's mound.
The Times noted that when Arbuckle's trot was complete, he went out to the Vernon bullpen and warmed up with the Tigers pitchers. But that was the end of his performance that day, 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."
The next day's Los Angeles Herald printed a piece from Arbuckle in which he offered excuses for the loss to San Francisco ("it was the 13th of the month. Then again there are 13 letters in 'the Vernon Tigers.' ... [Al DeVormer] bunted so sweet and he ran so sour") but shouldered some of the blame and offered assurances better baseball was ahead.
Roscoe Arbuckle was one of the major stars of early Hollywood. (via Library of Congress)
"I can't blame the boys for losing. This is the first game I've attended and I guess their new boss made them nervous," Arbuckle wrote. "My pal, John McGraw in New York, told me over the long distance phone last night that he'd scout me up some of the finest baseball material that money could buy and I'm going to stick them in the Vernon club until we're invincible. You just watch my smoke. ... I didn't come here to brag or to boast but I believe the Vernon club will bring home the bacon wrapped up in a pennant."
Watch their smoke
If Arbuckle didn't fully live up to that lofty talk -- McGraw, in fact, helped the Oakland Oaks obtain future Major Leaguer Lance Richbourg and sent scouts to potentially poach some players from the Tigers that July -- the team did play well and must have, at times, seemed as "invincible" as Arbuckle had predicted.
But they stumbled out of the gate. As late as May 31, the Tigers were 25-23, looking up at the league-leading Angels (35-18) from fifth place. By July 19, Vernon (55-41) was in second and beginning to breathe down the neck of Los Angeles (59-39). A month later, the Tigers were in first place.
Babe Borton seemed an obvious reason why. Over the last full week in July, he went 14-for-23. The 30-year-old, left-handed-hitting first baseman stayed hot until he missed time late in August with a back injury (an Aug. 30 column by the Herald's Matt Gallagher said "his vertebrae has been shoved back into place"). He returned on Sept. 4 and continued to battle injuries -- a knee issue, an illness suffered on the train -- but when he was in the game his play was an apparent factor. In an early September series against the Seals, he was 9-for-21 with two homers ("Babe just smacked the old apricot to a fare ye well and showed just what a man can do with a missing vertebra and a bunch of will power to back it," the LA Times wrote). He played spectacular defense during a late-September series against Salt Lake (The Times again: "He speared everything that came in his direction, including low, high, wide and wild ones").
The Tigers clinched the title with the first win of a doubleheader sweep of the Angels on Oct. 5.
"Never in the history of baseball was a pennant chase so close as it was between the Los Angeles and Vernon clubs for the last two months," the Herald proclaimed.
Vernon finished 111-70 and was clearly a beautifully balanced club. The pitching staff was fierce. Left-hander Willie Mitchell, fresh off 10 years in the American League, posted a 2.61 ERA over 26 games for the Tigers. Righty Wheezer Del won 25 games and had a 2.38 ERA. The duo of Art Fromme (a former teammate of Christy Matthewson) and Happy Finneran, both righties, were widely considered two of the three best pitchers in the PCL, with the Angels' Doc Crandall also holding a spot.
Aside from Meusel (who would soon sign with the Yankees), the Tigers had .300 hitters in Hugh High (.317), Stump Eddington (.302) and Borton (.303). While all three had spent time in the Majors, the veteran Borton had once led the Federal League (a Major League) in three offensive categories and was still only 31 in '19. He had such talent that to get him in 1913, the Yankees had traded away no lesser a ballplayer than Hal Chase, who led the Federal League in homers (17) two years later and the National League in hitting (.339) the year after that. In a bizarre foreshadowing of Borton's fate, Chase was quietly blackballed from baseball for bribing opposing players.
But before any of Borton's misdeeds were known, he was seen as a hero of the '19 campaign, even though his injuries kept him out action as 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."
With Borton on the injured list due to knee trouble, Vernon took the series, 4-3. Righty Byron Houck, who was related to Arbuckle's business manager (and film producer) Lou Anger through marriage, struck out 11 and scattered six hits in a 2-1 Game 3 win, which included fisticuffs between Beck and an umpire. The home plate umpire had thrown out the ball Houck was using after he'd struck out seven through three innings, and there was a fight after the first base ump (from the American Association) called High out on a close play in the sixth.
Another small uproar had occurred in Game 2, when St. Paul third baseman Tex McDonald began cheating in on Johnny Mitchell on a two-strike count. The Tigers took this as an indicator that a player from another PCL team had "tipped off" the Saints -- given them scouting reports on the Vernon team. One newspaper article described the Tigers as "extremely wrathy" over the possibility that somebody had conspired against them.
The irony of their sense of righteousness wouldn't become clear for nearly a year.