L.A. baseball rooted in Hollywood lore

Tinseltown has long history with national pastime

Hollywood loved baseball in Los Angeles long before the Dodgers came to town in 1958. From silent-film star Fatty Arbuckle’s connection with a minor-league team to a local star inspiring the name of one of television’s most famous characters, baseball in L.A. was no “minor” matter to the local entertainment industry.

The Los Angeles area had several franchises that played in the Pacific Coast League, regarded as one of the greatest minor leagues ever. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the team in Los Angeles, the Angels, that first drew the attention of a celebrity, but rather the more rough-and-tumble Vernon Tigers, who played in a small city just southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Arbuckle was given an option to buy stock in the Vernon team in 1919, but, according to Dick Beverage, president of the Society for American Baseball Research and a PCL historian, Arbuckle never exercised it and was more interested in the free publicity he got from attending games. The Tigers moved to San Francisco in 1925 to become the Mission Reds, although — stay tuned — they would be back.

Starting play in 1903, the Los Angeles Angels (whose name was later adopted by the current American League franchise) were the oldest and most successful of the PCL teams in the area, winning 12 pennants. In 1922, the team was bought by the Wrigley family, who also owned the Chicago Cubs. The Angels played for much of their existence in South Los Angeles at a stadium that was, like the Cubs’ home park, called Wrigley Field, and also hosted another PCL team that called itself the Hollywood Stars (and sometimes Sheiks).

The Stars won the PCL pennant in 1929 and 1930 but struggled at the box office, and in their final year, 1935, resorted to playing Tin Pan Alley songwriter Harry Ruby in their final home game. Comedian Joe E. Brown, “Alibi Ike” on the screen, actually came in to pitch for the Stars’ opponent, the Mission Reds, and struck out Ruby to end the game. The Stars moved to San Diego the next year.

The Mission Reds franchise moved back to L.A. in 1938 and revived the Hollywood Stars name. In 1939, local attorney Victor Ford Collins and Brown Derby Restaurant owner Bob Cobb bought the team and moved it to Gilmore Field in Hollywood. Cobb was able to trade on the team name and location (near the studios along Third Street near Farmers Market) to draw such Hollywood figures as Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and Cecil B. DeMille as stockholders — some nominally, others for more than just show.

You could always open your Hollywood Stars program and find out that Clark Gable or Jimmy Durante or the Marx Brothers had been at a game. Cobb also tried to attract publicity by outfitting his players in shorts and using cheerleaders.

The Angels and Stars had to leave town after the Dodgers arrived, but each left a legacy in Hollywood. One of the Angels’ biggest stars in their final years was slugger Steve Bilko, who was MVP of the PCL 1955-57. Bilko’s surname would be the inspiration for the name given to Phil Silvers’ TV character, Sgt. Ernie Bilko. And the Stars’ home of Gilmore Field was torn down in 1958 and is now the site of Studio 46 at CBS Television City.

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