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Orange County Rhinos beat the NFL to local TV

The semi-pro team was the region's first to broadcast its games. 'They were better than Laurel and Hardy,' a columnist wrote.

March 06, 2011|By Steve Harvey, Los Angeles Times
  • Denny Reasoner, co-owner of the Orange County Rhinos pro football team, displays pictures of his players in 1957. He said he believed the club's name projected an image of "brute strength."
Denny Reasoner, co-owner of the Orange County Rhinos pro football team,… (file photo, Los Angeles…)

Amid the talk about Los Angeles' possibly landing a pro football franchise, young fans may be surprised to learn the area once was the home of two NFL teams, the Rams and the Raiders. Of course that was last century, before the two defected to other cities.

But even old-timers may have forgotten another local aggregation that was a pioneer of sort, the Orange County Rhinos.

In 1957, the semi-pro Rhinos became the first local football team to regularly televise their home games.

Unlike the Rams, who worried that the tube would hurt home attendance, the Rhinos realized that most of their fans were friends and relatives anyway.

The Rhinos provided plenty of excitement on KTLA-TV Channel 5 against such foes as the Venice Bulldogs, the San Pedro Longshoremen and the Eagle Rock Athletic Club.

"They were better than Laurel and Hardy," Times TV columnist Don Page later wrote. "Guys were running into goal posts, fist fights every game and the scores were astronomical."

The fighting was difficult to control because, although NFL games employ several referees, "there were only one or two at our games," recalled Roger Bacon, whose family car dealership was the sponsor.

Bacon was one of several fast-talking TV pitchmen of that era who recognized the value of the medium and who became semi-celebrities themselves. His catch phrase:

"Get off your couch and get on down to Bacon Ford!"

Bacon, who offered a "Rhino Relief Price" discount to listeners, broadcast from the sidelines of La Palma Park in Anaheim and sometimes got involved in the football action himself.

Take the time a couple of the team's players were ejected for fighting against the Bakersfield Spoilers.

The Rhinos "didn't have many substitutes," recalled Bacon. "I told the coach to have them change into different uniforms, paint on mustaches with that stuff that players put under their eyes, and go back into the game. The coach said, 'We can't do that!' I said, 'The hell we can't!' And we did."

The Rhinos won, 21-14.

The team, in fact, won most of its games, and Bacon and game announcer Sam Balter began challenging the usually mediocre Rams to a scrimmage in 1958.

"I would say things like, 'They [the Rams] don't deserve to play in the Coliseum, they belong on a high school field, they're losing to everyone, if these guys had any guts, they'd scrimmage us,'" recalled Bacon, 80, whose patter has not been slowed by time.

The Rams finally agreed and eked out a 73-0 win at the Rose Bowl. The Rhinos, who played two quarters, gave up 38 points, while the Eagle Rock AC, which played the other two quarters, gave up 35.

Nevertheless, it was a taste of the big time for the Rhinos, who were founded in 1957 by co-owner Denny Reasoner. He assembled his squad "the easy way," The Times reported: "No beating the bushes for players. No big deals on long-distance telephones. Just … a help-wanted story in the sports pages of Orange County newspapers."

Most of the players were married and held other jobs. One of the best known, fittingly enough, was running back Jimmy Harryman, a former Compton College star. Harryman later became a professional boxer.

During the Rams scrimmage, columnist John Hall wrote, "onlookers were amazed to see one of the lowly semi-pros suddenly start swinging on the entire Ram squad." It was Harryman.

Reasoner said he believed the unusual Rhinos nickname projected an image of "brute strength" (though it ruled out any chance of the team displaying a live mascot at games). The Times joked that some felt that "Rhinos" was misspelled slang "for the outside of the citrus fruit for which the county was named."

Though retired professional athletes often say "I would have played for free," the Rhinos got the opportunity to prove it in the team's final years.

In fact, Orange Coast magazine reported in 1989 that the players were actually paying to play — they had to fork over a yearly fee of $106 to cover referees and equipment. And they had no health insurance.

Life was always a bumpy ride for the Rhinos, who played into the 1990s. During their half-century existence, they suspended operations a couple of times. They briefly made Montebello their home before returning to Orange County (no hard feelings). And one year they inexplicably found themselves in the High Desert League.

Fame eluded the Rhinos on the football field.

But in 1973, several team members did nab roles in "Legend in Granite," a TV movie about coaching great Vince Lombardi.

Thus, each of those Rhinos had the satisfaction of knowing they could say "I'm not an NFL player, but I played one on TV."

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