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It Was Much More Than Minor Pastime : Baseball: Pacific Coast League in the '30s, '40s and '50s was the stuff of glamorous memories.

October 19, 1990|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Hollywood's big day in the baseball world was overshadowed by a more gripping event happening in Detroit, somebody forgot to mention it to the folks out here.

In Detroit on May 2, 1939, Lou Gehrig missed his first game after 2,130 consecutive appearances with the New York Yankees. But in Hollywood, the significance of Gehrig's iron-man performance was momentarily ignored. These Stars had their own show to put on.

So on a sunny afternoon, the stars of Hollywood and the Hollywood Stars turned out at Gilmore Field--the new home of the city's beloved triple-A minor league baseball team--to see the first game played there.

Robert Taylor and Cecil B. De Mille, both on the team's board of directors, couldn't make opening day. But Bing Crosby, Jack Benny and Al Jolson were there. Rudy Vallee brought his 16mm home-movie camera. And Dia Gable, recently divorced from Clark, sat right down front, "smack behind home plate."

In the reserved section, there was Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. In the box section, Buster Keaton. On the field, Jane Withers played batter, Joe E. Brown clowned as catcher and actress Gail Patrick, the wife of Brown Derby restaurant and team owner Bob Cobb, threw out the first ball. Yes, the Cobb salad was named after him.

And thus began a time when baseball glittered on a field that seemingly produced more schemes than dreams, and certainly more stars than winning teams.

If you were traveling by streetcar, you would board the S car downtown going east, then transfer at 42nd Place to the V car going south on Vermont. That would take you eventually about a mile east of the Coliseum to Wrigley Field, at Avalon Boulevard and 42nd, where the Los Angeles Angels played from 1925 to 1961.

The Angels, one of six original teams of the PCL, long preceded the Hollywood Stars. They began playing in 1903 at Washington Park in downtown Los Angeles, at about 8th and Hill Streets. The Angels were bought by the Chicago Cubs in the early 1920s and moved to newly built Wrigley Field in 1925.

The Hollywood Stars arrived from Salt Lake City in 1926 and shared Wrigley Field with the Angels until 1935. Then, apparently because of a rent dispute, the Stars moved south to San Diego and became the Padres.

In 1938, the San Francisco Missions moved to Los Angeles and became the new Hollywood Stars. They played at Wrigley Field for one season, then at Gilmore Stadium for a month while awaiting the opening of Gilmore Field, which was built next to the multipurpose stadium at Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. (Television City of CBS is there now).

In the early days of the League, team owners scouted and cultivated their own talent, then sold players to major league teams. Later, PCL teams became affiliated with major league organizations and served as farm clubs. But the consensus is that few in the West thought of the PCL as a minor league.

"To a lot of us out here, we looked at the PCL as a major league--a third major league," said Bob Hunter, a baseball Hall of Fame sportswriter who covered both the Stars and Angels for the Examiner and is now a columnist for the Daily News.

He used to travel with the teams by train.

"We had great, great times," he said. "One year the Stars finished dead last, so at the end of the season a bunch of movie stars--George Raft, Frank Lovejoy, the three Ritz Brothers--got together and gave the players a big dinner at the Florentine Gardens in Hollywood. They gave the players a wristwatch and a big send-off."

There were only eight major league clubs each in the American and National Leagues before expansion in 1961, and each team had two or three triple-A teams. With competition that fierce, minor league baseball players stayed awhile, and fans got to know them.

"One thing about those teams is that the guys would make a career of playing on the teams, not like now, where they just stop in," said Times columnist Allan Malamud, who, as a youngster, frequently took the trolley car to Wrigley Field.

The year was 1950. The Hollywood Stars wore shorts, the stars of Hollywood still wore hats and Jim Healy, now a radio personality at KMPC, made $5 a game as the Stars' public address announcer at Gilmore Field.

"I averaged about $18.50 a week because they would have a seven-game series and go on the road for a week," Healy said.

It was that year that Star Manager Fred Haney surprised the baseball world by outfitting his team in shorts and light rayon shirts. Haney claimed the uniforms were no stunt, but instead would increase speed and add to the comfort of the players. But all Healy and Hunter remember seeing are bony knees.

"When I saw those uniforms I thought, 'Holy smoke, they will rip their skin to pieces,' " Healy said. "I thought they would scar their bodies when they slid. But they wore sliding pads.

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