LOS ANGELES -- When the Hollywood Stars began playing in the Pacific Coast League, the first talking picture had not yet been released. By the year their last game was played, it was the Golden Era of their namesake industry, with the studio system pumping out films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Peyton Place and Jailhouse Rock.
The Stars took the field in front of Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Gary Cooper, Gene Autry, Jayne Mansfield, Elizabeth Taylor and Cecil B. DeMille, all of whom were at some point involved with the promotion or ownership of the team.
But Hollywood wasn't just a Minor League club with the mid-century equivalent of a calendar full of celebrity-centric theme nights. In fact, there were two separate franchises with the team name, and both of them were a key part of the PCL's own golden age. They won five championships, played for devoted fans and were involved in one of the most notorious brawls in baseball history.
"When I was growing up, the reputation of the [big leagues didn't mean] all that much," wrote Chuck Stevens, who grew up in the West and played for the Stars from 1948-1955. "We heard about the World Series only in the newspapers. Sometimes we went down to the newspaper office to see the World Series played out on a magnetic board, but the [Majors] were far away, and so we cared much more about the Coast League."
Before the Dodgers and Giants relocated from New York City to California, the PCL was, so to speak, the only game in town.
A Star is born
In the beginning the Stars were limited to a supporting role in Los Angeles. Long before the Hollywood club arrived, the Angels were the city's team. They won the modern Pacific Coast League's first championship
in 1903 and took three more titles before the close of that decade. Late in 1925, they opened a new ballpark south of downtown, about two miles from the L.A. Coliseum. Wrigley Field, like the one in Chicago, was named after the owner of the Cubs, William Wrigley, who also owned the Angels.
"The appointments of the place and its comforts leave little to be desired by those who care for outdoor sports. The completion and occupancy of this [park] is to me in the nature of a dream come true," PCL president Henry A. Williams told the Los Angeles Times
in an Oct. 4, 1925 article, calling the steel-and-concrete venue that seated about 20,000 "unquestionably the last word in baseball architecture and construction."
But the Angels and their fans, who'd previously split nearby Washington Park with the Vernon Tigers, also had to share their new home.
After the '25 season, the Tigers moved to San Francisco, where they would play as the Mission Reds (also known as the Missions). Los Angeles was considered a two-team town, and Salt Lake owner Bill Lane gained permission to relocate his Bees to L.A. in January 1926. Newspaper accounts from that month detail a battle between the communities of Hollywood, Glendale and Long Beach to land the team, even though it was already decided that they would be tenants in Wrigley "from now on or until further notice is given," according to the Times
That inaugural Stars team finished 94-107. (The Angels, going 121-81, were once again champions.) But that Hollywood squad featured once-and-future big leaguer Lefty O'Doul, who eventually was named a PCL Hall of Famer
, and was managed by Ossie Vitt, who hit .252 while playing multiple positions that season and helmed the club for the next eight years.
Hollywood Stars memorabilia is on display at the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles.
Probably no person made a bigger impact for the first iteration of the Stars, though, than Frank Shellenback, who was in the circuit's first Hall of Fame class.
A big right-hander who grew up in L.A. and graduated from Hollywood High School, Shellenback was said to have learned his spitball from Eddie Cicotte (the White Sox hurler played by David Strathairn in the movie Eight Men Out). In the 1984 book Hollywood Stars: Baseball in Movieland, Richard Beverage (who was inducted into the PCL Hall as a historian this summer) revealed that Shellenback threw the spitter on approximately two-thirds of his deliveries.
"In one memorable game at San Francisco," Beverage wrote, "...Shellenback allowed only one fly ball, his infield producing 18 assists."
He won 16 games and sported a 2.97 ERA in Hollywood's inaugural year and really dazzled in the Stars' first championship run in 1929. Having picked up 26 wins in the regular season, he won three more in the best-of-7 playoff series against the Missions.
The Stars repeated in 1930, getting a third straight solid campaign out of first baseman Mickey Heath (who hit 94 homers from '28-'30) and a great rookie year from Jesse Hill, who signed out of the University of Southern California. Shellenback had a rocky first half of the season -- as did the team as a whole -- but wrapped up the year with 12 straight victories and tossed a complete game in the title clincher, an 8-4 win over the Angels.
That was the last championship the original Hollywood franchise would claim, but Shellenback was not finished. He managed the Stars in 1935 and went on to be Ted Williams' first professional manager the next year. Another Boston- and Cooperstown-bound player, Bobby Doerr, made his pro debut with the Stars, suiting up for Hollywood in 1934 and 1935.
By those years, Lane was losing money. The Great Depression was on, and as his team aged, the Angels won back-to-back titles in 1933-1934. Beverage found the Stars drew fewer than 90,000 fans in 1935. Angels president Dave Fleming, never happy to share Wrigley Field, forced Lane's hand, telling him that the Stars' rent would double for the 1936 season. Lane moved the team to San Diego, where they became the Padres.
Call it a comeback
By 1937, the Mission Reds -- the team that vacated Vernon to make room in Los Angeles for the first Stars team -- had fallen on hard times. Just as the Angels were outplaying and outdrawing the Stars, the San Francisco Seals, with a scrappy youngster named Joe DiMaggio
, were making it tough for the Missions to get by.
Owner Herb Fleishhacker wanted out. He made arrangements to move the club south, where it would play as the reborn Hollywood Stars for the 1938 season.
Fleishhacker's friend, construction magnate Earl Gilmore, owned some acreage next to his Gilmore Stadium, which hosted football and auto races in the Fairfax District, near the geographical Hollywood. But for their first year as the second Hollywood Stars, the team returned to Wrigley Field. According to a 1980 article by Stephen M. Daniels published in the Society for American Baseball Research Journal,
that was a deal Angels president Fleming agreed to with the stipulation that the Stars build their own park immediately so a healthy rivalry might blossom.
They soon had a new park on Gilmore's land, but Fleishhacker sold the team by the time it opened.
In 1938, Bob Cobb was already the president of the Brown Derby restaurants (there were three) and quite possibly the inventor of the Cobb salad. But perhaps the passionate baseball fan's happiest achievement was buying the Stars from Fleishhacker that December. Beverage's book details how Cobb, who was married to actress Gail Patrick, raised cash by selling shares to A-list celebrities while retaining a controlling interest in the team by limiting how many shares each star could buy.
On Jan. 10, 1939, the Times
printed his roster of shareholders: "Robert Taylor, George Raft, Miss Patrick, Cecil B. De Mille [sic], Raul Walsh, film director and turfman; Charles Rogers, film executive; Gary Cooper and Lloyd Bacon, also a director."
The same story revealed the Stars would play in a new $200,000 ballpark (about $3.5 million in 2017 dollars), Gilmore Field, near the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. It seated nearly 13,000 in an intimate atmosphere, with very little foul ground and the corner bases fewer than 25 feet from the first row. The Times
article indicated the park was scheduled to open for May 9, but it actually did on May 2, after the Stars started the season at neighboring Gilmore Stadium.
Gilmore Field measured 335 feet to the corners, 385 to the alleys and 407 to dead center field.
"Before 10,000 fans, the Stars presented gala pre-game festivities in which ... 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," Daniels wrote.
The Times reported Buster Keaton was also in attendance, sitting with the family of outfielder Ernie Orsatti.
Babe Herman, who batted .324 over 13 seasons in the big leagues and for whom a park is named in his native Glendale, was among the Stars players to christen Hollywood's new home that season, but the club finished 82-94.
The Stars didn't win another championship until 1949, but that season began the most impressive stretch of the franchise's history.
"For the remaining years of their existence, they would be of championship caliber and they became the glamour team of the PCL," Beverage wrote.
The historian attributes the successful turn to two factors -- the hiring of Fred Haney as manager and a new working agreement (a relationship similar to but not the same as today's affiliations) with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Haney had managed three years in the big leagues and went on to manage seven more there -- including leading the Milwaukee Braves to a World Series title in 1957. The Dodgers were run by Branch Rickey, who pioneered the use of the Minor Leagues as a development pipeline when he was the business manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s and '30s, and who used that expertise to provide Brooklyn with maximum depth.
Among the Dodgers prospects to benefit the Stars in '49 was Irving Noren, named PCL MVP after recording 30 outfield assists, a .330 average and 29 homers. Frankie Kelleher, who played 10 seasons with Hollywood, matched Noren's dinger total and had a .376 on-base percentage. Right-hander Willie Ramsdell led the league with a 2.59 ERA.
They drew more than half a million fans and finished with a 109-78 record as Haney won Sporting News'
Minor League Manager of the Year honors.
"This is the greatest thrill of my life," he told the United Press after the team took the championship. "But the real credit goes to those 23 guys in the clubhouse. This is a case of the players making the manager look good instead of the other way around."
They went 104-96 in 1950, but the Oakland Oaks won the crown. At the end of that season, Rickey left the Dodgers for the Pirates, and Cobb made sure his team's working agreement went to Pittsburgh too, paving the way for a 93-74 campaign in 1951.
Beverage considered the 1952 Stars "very likely the best team in Hollywood history," and they reclaimed the PCL title. Standouts were Bucs prospects Dick Cole at shortstop, outfielder Carlos Bernier (who stole 65 bases, knocked in 75 runs and hit .301) and knuckleballer Johnny Lindell, who won 24 games and posted a 2.52 ERA over 282 innings. Lindell was the first of three straight Stars to win league MVP honors (followed by R. Dale Long in 1953 and Jack Phillips in 1954).
The Stars were champions again the next year, even as Cole, Bernier and Lindell all moved up to the Majors. In that season the rivalry with the crosstown Angels erupted.
Seeing a different kind of stars
"The Hollywood fans hated the Angels and the Angels fans hated the Stars. ... Everybody hated each other," Bernier told Gaylon H. White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club.
That matches the account of Stevens, a member of the '53 Stars.
"Every time we played them, the stands would be filled to overflowing," he wrote. "The cross-town rivalry was humongous, and so heated that it spilled out on the field with that horrendous fight at Gilmore Field in August."
On the second day of the month, Hollywood hosted Los Angeles for a Sunday doubleheader in front of a crowd of 10,408, which made for a venue record of 63,017 over an eight-game set. The UP reported the melee that broke out in the twinbill's opener "capped a week of several near brawls between the hot cross-town rivals."
Kelleher had pinch-hit the Stars to two wins in the series, according to the Times
, and he dodged a couple inside pitches before tripling in the fourth inning. When he stepped into the box in the sixth, Angels southpaw Joe Hatten plunked him. Kelleher, who had a gentle reputation, charged the mound.
"I thought it was [Rocky] Marciano," homeplate umpire Cece Carlucci told John Schulian in a 1993 Sports Illustrated
article. "He hit Hatten in the chest. Must have knocked him 15 feet."
The UP indicated Los Angeles first baseman Fred Richards "came over to aid Hatten and promptly was floored by a roundhouse right thrown by Kelleher."
Carlucci was able to temporarily restore control, tossing Kelleher, but -- much to the objection of Hollywood manager Bobby Bragan -- Hatten was allowed to stay in the game.
The peace didn't last long. Ted Beard, who came in to run for the ejected Kelleher, swiped second on the next pitch and took off again on the following one, going in spikes high to Los Angeles third baseman Moe (Murray) Franklin, a former Hollywood player who might have been playing his first game with the Angels. Accounts vary on what exactly happened next, but the UP report reads, "That was the signal to turn the diamond into a virtual boxing ring."
Players from each team pounded players on the other indiscriminately. Not even umps were safe.
"I was down three times," Carlucci recalled to Schulian.
By some tellings, the fighting continued for more than 30 minutes. It didn't end until approximately 50 police officers -- sent by chief William Parker, who'd been watching the televised game at home -- were able to separate the teams.
"I'm not particularly concerned about a few players slugging each other. But I don't want a bunch of spectators agitated and starting a riot," Parker later told reporters.
Deputy police chief Arthur Hohmann warned players and managers that any individual involved in a further incident would be arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. That did the trick. The Stars held on to win, 4-1, but dropped the nightcap, 5-3.
Today, a CBS studio operates on the land where Gilmore Field hosted the second Stars franchise.
PCL president Clarence "Pants" Rowland was in attendance and fined Kelleher $100. Hollywood's Beard and Gene Handley and Los Angeles' Franklin and Richards were docked $50 apiece.
Two weeks later, Life magazine ran a three-page spread with 13 photos of the brawl (and one from a Dodgers-Braves incident) under the headline, "It's rhubarb time at the ball park." In one shot taken after things had settled, three policemen sit in the dugout, watching the game.
Hollywood continued to play good baseball into the second half of the 1950s, fielding teams featuring future big leaguers such as Fred Green, Dick Stuart and Bill Mazeroski. The 1957 club was 97-71, with Compton native Bennie Daniels going 17-8 with a 2.95 ERA over 31 starts, with 15 complete games.
But clouds had been gathering for some time, threatening to block out the Stars. The Angels had made it known in 1953 that when the Los Angeles territorial agreement expired following the '57 season, they would not renew it. CBS, which acquired the land where Gilmore Field stood, revealed plans to open a television studio there in the next few years.
Whatever measures Cobb and his celebrity stockholders could have made to keep playing (there was, according to Beverage, a possibility of moving to the San Fernando Valley), it didn't ultimately matter. In 1958, the Brooklyn Dodgers came to Los Angeles and the New York Giants went to San Francisco, forcing the Angels to Spokane, Washington, and the Seals to Arizona. Cobb sold the Stars, who moved to Salt Lake, the home of the team that Bill Lane brought to Los Angeles in 1926.