Gilmore Field & the Hollywood Stars
In one of the most oft-quoted lines of 1989’s Field of Dreams, and possibly one of the most memorable quotes from any baseball movie, author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) says, “[t]he one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”
True to Mann’s words, baseball has similarly marked the different time periods in the history of Los Angeles. Early 20th century LA was first represented by the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League (1903-1957). Since moving from Brooklyn in 1958, LA baseball fans have cheered on the Dodgers (and also arguably the modern-day Angels, who played in LA from 1961-66 and have been referred to as the Los Angeles Angels since 2005). Similarly, LA’s baseball stadiums have marked different eras in LA’s history, from Chutes Park (1903-1910) and Washington Park (1911-1925), to Wrigley Field (1925-1961) and Dodger Stadium (1962-present). Regardless of the era, stadium, or team, baseball has been ever-present in LA since the early 1900s. And in true tinseltown fashion, for a brief sliver of time from 1939 to 1957, the city hosted the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League right in the heart of Los Angeles at Gilmore Field.
Before they had ever called Gilmore Field home, an earlier iteration of the Hollywood Stars baseball team actually existed in Los Angeles beginning in 1926. At the time, the team didn’t have a field of their own. Instead, the Stars played second fiddle to the Angels at Wrigley Field, just serving as a team to watch while the Angels had a road game. But when the Depression hit and the Angels raised their rent in 1936, the Stars were rebranded as the Padres and moved to San Diego.
The second iteration of the Hollywood Stars began in 1938 when Herbert Fleishhacker, wealthy San Francisco businessman and owner of the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Missions, decided to move his team to LA. For their inaugural season in 1938, the Stars again had to rent space at Wrigley Field. Fleishhacker had plans to build a great new stadium for the Stars, designed to create a cross-town rivalry with the Angels, but he went broke after their first season and was forced to sell the team before the plan could come to fruition.
Enter the Hollywood Stars’ new owners: George Young, Victor Ford Collins, and Bob Cobb. Of the three, it was Cobb, the famous restaurateur and owner of the Brown Derby restaurants, who effectively ran the team for the next 19 years.
Bob Cobb, himself a big baseball fan, had new success with the Stars by tapping into his celebrity connections. To raise the capital needed to build their new stadium, Cobb created the “Hollywood Baseball Association” where prominent local figures and Hollywood celebrities could buy small amounts of stock in the team. Hollywood jumped at the chance to take part. The Association’s members were a veritable who’s who of Hollywood at the time: Cecil B. DeMille (who was also the first chairman of the board of directors), Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, George Burns, Gail Patrick (actress and wife of Bob Cobb), Robert Taylor, Walt Disney, Jack Benny, Barbara Stanwyck, and Harry Warner, to name a few. The Hollywood Baseball Association not only gave Cobb the much-needed funds to build a new stadium, it also allowed him to advertise as “the Hollywood Stars baseball team, owned by the Hollywood stars.”
With the infusion of cash from their celebrity investors, Cobb and the Hollywood Baseball Association were ready to find the Stars a home ballpark. Cobb negotiated an agreement with the A. F. Gilmore Company to build the new field on the land it owned on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax, to become part of “Gilmore Island” along with Gilmore Stadium, a multi-use stadium frequently used for football games and racing events. The new Gilmore Field was scheduled to be ready for Opening Day of the 1939 season, but due to construction delays it didn’t officially open until May 2, 1939.
Unsurprisingly, given the celebrity cast of the Hollywood Baseball Association, the christening of Gilmore Field had “all the fanfare and glamour of a film city world-premiere.” And quite the fanfare it was for that first game:
[B]ecause it’s in Hollywood the dedication will be more like a gala premiere with stars of the screen, radio and stage on hand to help the Hollywood Stars and the Seattle Rainiers start the ball a-rollin’. The opening battery? It’ll be Gail Patrick, lovely screen star and wife of Bob (Brown Derby) Cobb, the vice-president of the Hollywoods, as the pitcher. The catcher will be Martha Raye, “the screen’s clamor girl.” No, Martha won’t catch the first ball in her mouth because she’s afraid Joe E. Brown might get jealous. And the first batter will be … [Jack] Benny, No. 1 man on the air. And ‘tis rumoured the umpire will be Jane Withers. Of course, there’ll be a whole host of other motion-picture celebrities present. Among them will be Robert Taylor, Lupe Velez, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Lloyd Bacon, June Collyer, Stu Erwin, Gary Cooper, Bill Gargan and the song-writing duo of Gordon and Revel. Several of them are stockholders in the Hollywood club. And for the benefit of those who don’t like motion-picture stars but prefer baseball instead, there’s going to be a ball game between the Hollywoods and the Seattles, starting at 2:15.
Gilmore Field’s celebrity atmosphere didn’t end with its ribbon-cutting. In addition to the Stars’ celebrity ownership, Hollywood continued to come out in support of its hometown team. While the Stars on the field were hitting home runs and catching fly balls, fans would frequently find themselves among stars in the stands like Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Rosemary Clooney, Buster Keaton, and Bing Crosby. Boxer and actor “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom had a reserved seat section, with his name in big letters. In 1948, 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor was a batgirl for a charity baseball game. And in 1955, Jayne Masfield was named “Miss Hollywood Star” with the LA Times declaring, with a not-so-subtle double entendre, that “[t]he Stars may not capture the pennant this year, but they’re already far out in front when it comes to mascots.” In his 1993 article “Of Stars and Angels,” Sports Illustrated author John Schulian recalled his own memories of Mansfield at the Stars’ games:
When sweet Jayne high-heeled out of the dugout as Miss Hollywood Stars, there was an awe-inspired silence at the way her chest defied gravity. As the males in the crowd began roaring lustily, skipper Clyde King, as courtly and God-fearing a southern gentleman as ever graced the game, whispered, "Goodness gracious.”
While it was exciting to see the star-studded cast of investors and owners at any given Stars’ game, what truly made Gilmore Field a special place was the intimate feeling of the ballpark and the community of fans that came out for their team. As the LA Times described the new Gilmore Field on its opening day:
One of the most pleasing features, and one stressed by the operators, is the intimate character of the whole layout. With seating capacity of 12,500 the designers planned the park so that the playing field is very close to the grandstand, so close, in fact, that front row spectators can almost reach out and touch the players.
The closeness of the field was hardly an exaggeration—a mere 34 feet separated home plate and the backstop, and there was only 24 feet from the grandstand to the first and third base lines. The intimacy of the ballpark earned it the moniker “Friendly Gilmore Field.” As John Schulian recalled:
"Friendly" Gilmore Field, as it was always advertised, was designed with the spectator in mind. The areas of foul territory behind home plate and along the first- and third-base lines were so small that the grandstand was almost on top of the playing field. People liked to watch games at Gilmore Field because they felt themselves a part of the action there. It was exciting to sit behind third base and have Butch Moran (or some other Star) slide into third so hard that he kicked dirt into your face. The design of Gilmore Field integrated the entire community behind the Stars.
Even the celebrity investors and owners, who so frequently could be seen in the stands cheering on their team, were a part of this community behind the Stars. For the members of the Hollywood Baseball Association, this was not a money-making opportunity; in fact, none of them were allowed to invest more than a small amount in the team, and the board of directors served without pay. These celebrity investors bought stock in the Stars purely out of a love for the game and a desire to be a part of bringing a new baseball team to LA. As LA Times sports columnist Dick Hyland wrote in 1940, “They made of that ball club a civic thing...It was to become a part of Hollywood, another asset, another evidence of growth; it was, plainly and simply, a Chamber of Commerce activity on the part of a group of people who want their little corner of the world to be better than all other corners.”
It was because of this community feel that the packed bleachers at Gilmore Field remained full throughout the war years, despite the Stars never filling up the box score in quite the same way. By 1945, the Stars finished in last place, but set a new record for that year’s attendance, with an annual total of 323,959. When the war ended, the fans kept flocking to Gilmore Field, setting an all-time attendance record of 513,056 in 1946.
It wasn’t until 1949 that the Hollywood Stars returned the favor to its fans on the scoreboard. That season, the team hired Fred Haney as its manager. Fans at Gilmore Field were already very familiar with Haney, as he actually played for the earlier iteration of the Stars, and was the team’s broadcaster beginning in 1943. Dubbed the “Voice of the Stars,” he always ended his broadcasts with “This is Fred Haney, rounding third and heading for home.” Additionally, the Stars entered into a new agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers to serve as their farm team. This, along with Haney’s hiring, ushered in a new era for the Hollywood Stars. For the rest of their existence, the Stars never finished a season below .500, and went on to win the Pacific Coast League Championship in 1949, were runner-ups in 1951, and won back-to-back championships in 1952 and 1953.
Yet, not all of the club’s decisions were good ones after Haney’s hiring in 1949. After seeing a touring British soccer team in shorts, LA Times columnist Braven Dyer wrote a column in 1950 wondering why baseball was slow to change its fashions. Inspired by the story, Haney introduced shorts to the Stars uniforms, shocking the baseball world. Haney also believed that shorts would improve the team’s speed. The players, on the other hand, liked them because they provided some relief from long flannel uniforms in the hot summer months. The strange sartorial decision fittingly debuted on April 1, 1950, but unfortunately this was no April Fool’s joke. The “shorties” never caught on with the fans, and players were ridiculed by other teams in the PCL. The shorts were phased out to just home weekend games and holidays after the 1950 season, and they were gone completely by 1953.
On the business side of things, Gilmore Field and the Hollywood Stars pioneered the use of television coverage for their games. In 1939, the Stars were one of the first professional sports teams to broadcast its games on television, and by the late 1940s they were the first team to televise home games—unheard of at the time, and even in some cases still today. Though common-place today, the broadcasts at Gilmore Field were novel for the time, in that they had a camera directly behind home plate so that “fans can call balls and strikes at home just as accurately as the umpire.” Bob Cobb believed this television coverage would provide “a great new audience of baseball fans.”
However, it was perhaps the egalitarian nature of the Hollywood Stars that also precipitated its decline. There’s no doubt that Cobb’s ground-breaking ideas for television broadcasts were successful in bringing in a larger audience and made games more accessible to the local fans. The only problem was that these broadcasts became the preferred way for fans new and old to see their Stars play, rather than coming out to the ballpark. By the late 1940s, despite the increased success of the Stars on Gilmore Field’s scoreboard, more and more frequently the team was playing to empty seats. Even after winning the pennant in 1949, the Gilmore Field audiences continued to decline as the number of TV sets in Southern California steadily rose. Gilmore Field’s owner, Earl Gilmore, was staunchly opposed to TV and even threatened to cut the radio and TV power lines at the ballpark in 1951. Gilmore and the Stars’ ownership compromised by giving Gilmore 30% of the team’s TV revenues, but attendance continued to decline.
Despite the slumping attendance at Gilmore Field, ownership knew that they could always count on a packed house for any series against their bitter cross-town rival, the Los Angeles Angels, since these two teams “couldn't play a weeklong series without spilling blood.” Angels’ pitcher Tommy Lasorda—known decades later as the famed manager of the LA Dodgers—threw his share of pitches “accidentally” too far inside at Stars’ batters. In any given series, the first baseman might be scooping up a handful of dirt to throw in the face of their rival’s baserunner who dared to steal second. One of the managers of the Angels, Bill Sweeny, once offered a cashmere suit to any player who started a fight with the Stars. Even the teams broadcasters hated each other. The rivalry boiled over into a full-blown riot at Gilmore Field in 1953. Angels pitcher Joe Hatten threw a fastball right at the Stars’ Frank Kelleher, resulting in a dust-up of punches thrown, but that was just the beginning. In retaliation, Stars baserunner Ted Beard slid into Angels’ third baseman Murray Franklin with his cleat spikes “belly button high” and all hell broke loose. The fight was so bad that William Parker, LA’s Police Chief, was watching the game on TV at home and immediately called for “every available unit to get to Gilmore.” A half hour and 55 police officers later and the 1953 brawl ended, but not before earning a three page spread in LIFE magazine. As Schulian puts it, “if you measure fun in bruises and bloody noses, the Stars and the Angels may have had more of it than anybody.”
The death knell of Gilmore Field and the Hollywood Stars ultimately came from two successive blows in 1957. CBS bought the land occupied by Gilmore Field, and the Stars were going to have to once again play at Wrigley Field after the 1957 season ended. But the Stars never played at Wrigley Field again—or anywhere else—because soon after it was announced that the Brooklyn Dodgers would be moving to Los Angeles in 1958. With the Dodgers moving in and taking over the baseball territorial rights in LA, both the Angels and the Stars PCL franchises had to be relocated.
The Hollywood Stars played their last game at Gilmore Field on September 5, 1957. Following the 1957 season, the Hollywood Stars were sold to new owners and moved to Salt Lake City, becoming the Salt Lake Bees. As for Gilmore Field, Earl Gilmore dismantled the ballpark to make way for the expansion of CBS’ television facilities to ultimately become part of CBS Television City—which is now, in a twist of cosmic irony, dealing with its own fight to avoid the wrecking ball. On September 5, 1997, members of the Pacific Coast League Historical Society commemorated the 40th anniversary of Gilmore Field’s last game with a bronze plaque, now displayed on the wall of CBS’s Studio 46. Armed with old insurance company maps, aged photographs, and a tape measure, the group located the exact spot of Gilmore Field’s home plate, and CBS officials promised to bury a plexiglass-covered home plate in that spot of the studio driveway (though it’s unknown if this actually exists—we’ve been unable to find any pictures or other information on it).
Other than the bronze plaque on the CBS television studio lot, the only remnants of Gilmore Field can be found at LA’s Original Farmers Market, located at the corner of Fairfax and 3rd Street. The Farmers’ Market, which opened in 1934, is itself the last remaining vestige of “Gilmore Island,” the group of stadiums and attractions that occupied the land of former Gilmore oil field. In addition to the Farmers’ Market, Gilmore Field was adjacent to the football field and race track, Gilmore Stadium, as well as the landmark Pan-Pacific Auditorium and a drive-in movie theater. Gilmore Island also boasted the nation’s first large-scale self-serve gas station, dubbed a “Gas-a-teria.” Though not the original, a faithful recreation of the old gas station stands at the Original Farmers Market alongside the signs and display cases that pay homage to Gilmore Island’s past. Included among these displays are historical artifacts of Gilmore Field and the Hollywood Stars, including a scale miniature of the old ballpark, a flannel Stars jersey, ticket stubs, and a collection of old game programs and photographs.
After hosting over 1,700 of the Hollywood Stars’ baseball games, Gilmore Field was erased like a blackboard. Yet there is no doubt that it was and still is its own “field of dreams” in the memories of its patrons and fans. In the decades following Gilmore Field’s demise, Dodger Stadium would be built at Chavez Ravine, bringing to the surface the pre-existing racial and class divides across LA. Today, Dodger Stadium boasts a new $21 hot dog, and the Dodger’s ongoing dispute with Charter Communications has left the team blacked out from local TV viewers for the past six years. The Hollywood Stars and Gilmore Field, for their brief moment of existence, were a representation of baseball, and the love of the game, it its purest form. Though they are now a part of LA’s past, perhaps they can remind us of “all that once was good and that could be again.”
Gilmore Field was located near the intersection of Beverly Boulevard and Genessee Avenue, now part of the CBS Television Studios at 7800 Beverly Boulevard.
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