“Lights, Camera, Fastball:
How the Hollywood Stars Changed Baseball”
The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield
Released March 17, 2021
The review in 90 feet or less
Admit to the guilty pleasure in doing a little namedropping.
Especially when it comes to the stars of Hollywood, from the glamor years of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ’50s.
From Rugger Ardizoia to Guz Zernial. Frankie Kelleher, Irv Noren and Dick Stuart. Lefty O’Doul. Frenchy Uhalt. Pinky Woods. Carlos Bernier. Bobby Bragan, Jimmy Dykes. “Ugly” John Dickshot and his 33-game hitting streak. (He made it into an episode of “Mad About You” as we recalled last year).
Paul Pettit was the bonus baby from Narbonne High and ended up as one of our high school vice principals. We appreciated the story Kevin Baxter did on him for the L.A. Times in ’19, about a year before his passing in Sept. 2020.
Bill Mazeroski? Sure, enough, if only for a couple of months before going onto Cooperstown.
Root all you want for some others like Charlie Root and Babe Herman. But the biggest star of them all who maybe was more comfortable in a supporting role was Bob Cobb. No relation to Ty, but one who made a mean salad with blue cheese, bacon, chopped tomatoes …
How someone that inventive with a head of lettuce wouldn’t also be with a group of baseball players is a leap of faith we really hadn’t considered.
From a baseball prism, Cobb’s real salad days were running the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, taking a team that was floundering in its previous version (playing no where near Hollywood, at Wrigley Field near the Coliseum) and bringing them back for a 20-year run that will be as part of old Hollywood as red carpets and beaming spotlights.
The stories of the famous rebirth of the franchise run by the man with the most famous restaurants in Hollywood – The Brown Derby – have been told over the years by historians, players and those fans associated with that time and place that doesn’t exist any longer. It was taken off the menu upon the Dodgers’ arrival in Los Angeles for the 1958 big-league season.
The Hollywood Stars (or Twinks, as the sportswriters called them) were hardly minor league. Not with (more namedropping) Cecil B. DeMille as the first chairman of the board and directors such as Gary Cooper, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Barbara Stanwyck, Bing Crosby, Robert Taylor and Gene Autry (who’d later get his share of an MLB windfall). Cobb’s wife, actress Gail Patrick, was part of the team as well. And plenty of bling in the stands with Groucho Marx, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown … even Fred Mertz (sorry, William Frawley). And a pre-Disneyland raconteur Walt Disney.
Gilmore Field gave the fans more than they could possibly ask for. It was star gazing at its finest. Even the day Babe Ruth came to town to take in a game at the park in 1948, just months before his death, and was treated like royalty.
But it is through a new kaleidoscope that we see this moment in history provided the blueprint for modern sports entertainment. They tried it then, and it worked. Now it may work differently, with a different mindset of consumers, but it has a history that’s in need of review more than 75 years later.
Taylor, a former TV sportscaster in Fresno who remains a card-carrying SABR member and is on the Pacific Coast League Historical Society, says he got the idea to re-examine the history of the Hollywood Stars while working with George Genovese with his 2015 autobiography, “A Scout’s Report: My 70 Years in Baseball,” which came out just months before Genovese’s death at 93.
Genovese, perhaps more famous for the MLB players he eventually scouted and signed (Bobby Bonds, George Foster, Jack Clark, Dave Kingman, Chili Davis, etc.) had put in two of his 15 years in the minor leagues with the Hollywood Stars – seasons that aren’t even noted on his Wikipedia page. The SABR bio project knows better — because Taylor wrote Genovese’s entry. Those two seasons of 1949 and ’51 were sandwiched around his only major-league appearance, with the Washington Senators, in ’50. But he always wore his Stars ’49 championship ring.
The nuggets he would pass on to Taylor about the memories he had of the Stars, and the innovations started by Cobb when his ownership began in 1938, were too good to just savor. They had to be shared.
A preponderance of library searches, media excavation (mostly game information from the Los Angeles Times plus the Sporting News, in addition to the Hollywood Reporter and Variety) and tracking down not just players before their passing but also joyous family members, Taylor pieced together a record of documentation about things that the Stars were far ahead of the curve with. In 34 chapters that go from “You Can Sell it out of a Hat” to “Those Were the Halcyon Days,” we remember things such as:
Televised home games: Starting in 1940, even if there were only a couple hundred people in L.A. with access to a new experimental TV station that would end up as KHJ-Channel 9. People way over in Long Beach were watching games in a store-shop window and spilling into the street. It proved to Cobb this was a hook that could work.
Weeknight games: Under the special lighting system set up by General Electric. C’mon, this is Hollywood. Can’t have the cameras without the lights.
Upgraded ballpark food: That should go without saying if you’re Cobb. They were innovators in hot peanuts with a prize inside. No skimping on the hot dogs, buns, donuts or ice cream.
Charter plane travel for his team: No more trains, buses or station wagons up the coast. Or wagon trains. Cobb flew by air on business. After World War II, he saw the value of it and chartered Western Airlines as his team’s carrier.
Short pants: It wasn’t an April Fools Day joke when they came out on the field with the new look on April 1, 1950. As soon as leadoff man Chuck Stevens beat out a ground ball, manager Fred Haney was joyous about how he sold the team on uniforms that were lighter and allowed them to run faster. If only the Chicago White Sox of 1976 (another Bill Veeck idea stolen) kept them longer.
Dragging the infield between innings: It was more a survival mechanism. The Stars had a Fullerton-born pitcher, Jack Salveson, on loan from the Brooklyn Dodgers near the end of his career, who worked so quickly that games would end about 30 minutes shorter on the average. Cobb needed people to stay long and eat more, so they allowed 10-minute intermissions to allow the field to be spruced up. It worked.
Building a team through young players signed before the big-leagues could get them: Cobb enlisted Oscar Reichow, a former Chicago sportswriter who exposed the Black Socks Scandal of 1919. Reichow worked for the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL, then came to Cobb, as they found a loophole in an agreement with the National Federation of High Schools and big-league baseball that players could not be signed until 30 minutes after their high school graduation ceremony. That only applied to big-league teams, not minor league clubs. So the Stars started to sign local talent, players who were in their junior years of high school — Carl Cox, Tod Davis, Clint Hubbard, Eddie Harrison. The only thing that stopped this was the start of World War II.
Batting helmets: When new manager Fred Haney connected the Stars as a West Coast affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, team GM Branch Rickey got them wearing out the hard hats as he also had an interest in the American Baseball Cap Company. Sure, safety was the issue. Especially moreso when the stars and PCL rival Los Angeles Angels squared off. Brawls were plentiful and epic enough to draw the local police. And attendance records reinforced everything Cobb was doing.
But when the Dodgers arrived – which Cobb endorsed, despite what one may think about being territorial – so much of his inspiration was moved forward to that franchise.
Heck, it was Cobb’s idea to build a stadium in the so-called Chavez Ravine area near the L.A. Police Academy, adding cabanas (think luxury boxes) and all sorts of amenities. He gave his plans to Walter O’Malley and then helped the city approve the move. That alone seems worth an investigation into intellectual properties.
And what was the thanks Cobb got? He had to sell off his team, after considering moving them to Phoenix or Anaheim or Long Beach. They went to Salt Lake City. He was out of the baseball business, and became a fan of the upstart MLB Los Angeles Angels, with his friend Autry.
Just for one more reminder — at the Stars’ final home game, one-time Miss Hollywood Star mascot Jayne Mansfield returned, gave Cobb a new car, and they watched pitcher Hugh Pepper go 8 2/3 innings of a no-hitter against the San Francisco Seals before a fly ball fell in front of star center fielder Bernier in the ninth.
Hollywood drama right to the closing credits.
How it goes in the scorebook
Find a booth at Du-par’s next to the Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax — there since ’38 — order up a chicken pot pie, and don’t leave until you’ve finished off these pages.
Then go walk around the property and dream a little bit.
Taylor’s new set of eyes and interviews with family members (including Cobb’s grandson, Bob Walsh) gives us a history refresh of how underappreciated Cobb probably was as far as his impact on today’s game and its marketing, plus the fan experience. Many today should take note and acknowledge it. This also reminds us of the book Mike Veeck wrote a few years ago, “Fun Is Good.” We felt former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was missing that part of it when he took over the team that we sent him a copy. He replied that he was thankful for that.
So strange but true: The Dodgers really did shoot down the Stars, or at least chase them out of town and force Cobb out of the local baseball business. Then the Dodgers put on “Hollywood Stars Nights” with celebrities playing — once a fun attraction for fans, but lately a rather sad exhibition.
It’s nothing like what included on the best parts of Cobb’s dinner plate. And how he was all for the good of Southern California baseball.
Taylor’s work and ability to turn a phrase is a worthy addition to those who want more perspective of what baseball in L.A. meant in that time capsule. Follow the pull and see where Gilmore Field use to be — now CBS Television Studios — and imagine listening to games called by their play-by-play man Mark Scott, who became the man that launched TV’s “Home Run Derby” shortly before his death.
Again, it’s only another reminder about how the minor leagues of today will never be the same as what they once were, or represented.
A second opinion we trust
As former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire writes in the forward:
Taylor’s storytelling of the last decade of the Stars carries special meaning for me because I became a fan of the Hollywood Stars when my family moved to Southern California from Ohio in the summer of 1950. I was a teenager at the time and in the early stages of my love affair with baseball, a passion that would help propel me to a thirty-year career as an executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was so intrigued by the Stars and other teams in the Pacific Coast League that as a freshman at El Camino College in 1953, it was an easy decision when I needed to select a subject for a paper as part of a feature writing class. I decided to title my paper “Make Way for the Coast League,” with the premise that the league could become a third major league. Much to my surprise, and probably to the surprise of my wonderful journalism professor, Mr. Bill Kamrath, my story was published by Baseball magazine. Little did I realize then that some of the players I wrote about in the article would come to real life as close friends and even working companions during my days with the Dodgers. … In the Hollywood environment great stories from the past are always possible subject matter, and Dan Taylor has become the producer and director of a wonderful story of a baseball team that carried the perfect name of Stars.
Our author Q&A
The key to this book as you’ve said comes from your relationship with George Genovese in doing his book, and all the things he’d tell you about the Stars. Then I saw you did his SABR bio. Did he pass away before you had time to really do a deeper dive into his Star remembrances?
Yes, unfortunately George had passed before I jumped into this. The other person who was a motivator was George’s close friend Artie Harris. (He was “Scout Artie” in the movie “Moneyball” and the former coach at Venice High and West LA. He was a longtime member of the Dodgers scouting department.) Artie grew up very close to Gilmore, hung around outside the outfield fence as a kid trying to grab batting practice home-run balls and was part of Fred Haney’s knot hole gang. He made a lot of introductions, put a lot of things in context and shared great stories.
Q: Of all the folks you got to talk to about this – and they are the ones who really seem to hold this treasure in their heart as something of value still today – who did you find had the most enjoyment reliving these days? Who were the ones who could expand most about Bob Cobb’s innovations?
Chuck Stevens! He was great. Same with Jim Hardy. I know, he was a USC and Rams quarterback. But Jim was the Stars first bellboy in 1939. Bobby Bragan’s daughter. Cissie had wonderful stories. Bob Cobb’s grandson Bob Walsh was terrific. He shared wonderful stories of his grandfather. He helped me to understand the type of person his grandfather was. Sandy Oster, who was the bat boy on the 50 team regaled me with stories about the day Fred Haney first broke out the shorts. George was the one who talked about the innovations. We might be sitting in Dodger Stadium when mid-fifth inning arrived and he would point to the grounds crew and say, “we started that at Hollywood.” The pride so many children and grandchildren hold to this day for their loved one’s association with the Hollywood Stars was moving. Pinky Woods daughter, Fred Haney’s grandsons and granddaughter, Eddie Harrison’s son, Tod Davis’ daughter, Carl Cox’s son. I could go on and on.
Q: Have you been able to go to Third and Fairfax – the Grove/Farmer’s Market – and walk around the physical site to try to imagine what it was like?
Yes. Several times. If you close your eyes you can hear the echoes of the crowd! It’s fun to be there and imagine what a game night must have been like. The 1950 movie “711 Ocean Drive” has scenes shot at a Stars game. You see the exterior of Gilmore Field lit up at night. The main subject has a conversation next to the box office as fans walk by and enter the park. A play from the game is shown, Hollywood is in the field and Chuck Stevens makes a play at first base. The main subject is shown in his box. I happened to watch the DVD last week. It’s the closest we can get to that experience today.
Q: Same with old Brown Derby sites?
A couple of years ago I took some business associates to dinner at APL. It’s at 1680 Vine Street, right next door to where the Hollywood Brown Derby stood. It was a bit surreal being in the proximity of the celebrity and history. As we were leaving I mentioned to one of the staff of their closeness to history. She had no knowledge of it but one of the waitresses overheard me and exclaimed, “I’ve heard of that place. I’ve always wondered where it was!”
Q: Are you a Cobb salad fan?
Absolutely! One of the rewards from this project is an invitation from Mr. Cobb’s grandson to come to his home once conditions ease for an authentic Cobb Salad Dinner! I can’t wait!
More to cover
== From a Q&A with Clayton Trutor on “Down The Drive” of SBNation:
Q: The original Home Run Derby with Mark Scott is probably my favorite TV show of all time. What’s your most interesting story about the famed Hollywood Stars’ announcer?
A: I’ve been very fortunate to become friends through this project with his daughter, Mary Jane. She is married to the actor, Michael Dante. They were introduced by Chuck Connors. I love the story of how Mark got the Hollywood job. He was vacationing with his family in Havana. He heard the publisher of The Sporting News paged at the hotel. Mark approached the man, introduced himself and explained his career ambitions. The man told him Hollywood was looking for a radio broadcaster. Mark initiated contact and was flown to L.A. for an interview. He wrote at the time that he couldn’t believe he, a Midwest kid, was seated in a booth in The Brown Derby with Bob Cobb and Bing Crosby! Cobb and Crosby excused themselves to go to Cobb’s office and listen to Mark’s tape. Crosby came out a short time later, winked and said, “Don’t worry kid, you’re in!”
== Before reading the book, we appreciated how much we got joy we heard in Taylor’s voice from from Justin McGuire’s Baseball By The Book podcast (episode 296) on this one. And also remind: Since 2016, Baseball by the Book has become an indispensable listening experience for baseball fans and history buffs. Justin McGuire has interviewed more than 270 authors of classic and current baseball books in that time. Please help him keep things going by donating.
== PCL historian Dick Beverage his own books, “The Hollywood Stars,’ from Arcadia Publishing in 2005 ($19.99), and “The Hollywood Stars: Baseball in Movieland, 1926-1957,” by Deacon Press in 1984.
Taylor noted in our email conversation: “I have the highest regard for Dick. He helped me with some clarifications when I collaborated with George on his autobiography, “A Scout’s Report.” It was a treat to spend some time with him at the 2015 SABR Convention in Miami. During this project many people suggested I contact Dick. I chose not to nor to read his books for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted my research to produce my own conclusions, theories, and ideas and not be influenced by what someone else had previous deduced. I felt that if, in my post project review that had been wrong I would admit it and change that practice in the future. The second, I want to surprise Dick. I have some gift copies that should arrive from the publisher any day now. The first goes to Dick with a personal note. I want Dick to know that his work has influence and inspired someone, made them love the glory days of the Pacific Coast League and in particular the Hollywood Stars. I truly believe that the greatest teachers in life are those who inspire. Dick has helped to inspire me.”
== More about Stan Cline, the artist who did the cover, from Taylor: “Stan grew up a couple of blocks from Gilmore Field. Artie Harris was a classmate at Fairfax and made the introduction. He shared that he made a specific point to include the KTTV truck in his work because as a kid he used to volunteer to drag cable – once inside the ballpark he would hide to avoid having to pay for a ticket!” Here is Cline’s nostalgia gallery website where his full rendition of Gilmore Field (as well as L.A.’s Wrigley Field and many others) exists for sale at various sizes.