Friday, May 13, 2011

The Strange Story Of The Vernon Tigers

My interest in the history of the Pacific Coast League Vernon franchise was piqued by a recent story in the New York Times describing the efforts to de-certify the current city of Vernon, Cal. The municipality of Vernon is a factory town right smack in the middle of Los Angeles County that once was home to the best professional baseball team on the West Coast. Rarely has a story had such a wonderful confluence of corruption, celebrity, greed, alcohol, and baseball. Vernon has it all. What Vernon does not have are libraries, parks, schools, or people.

The city of Vernon (described by the Times recently as looking like "a backdrop to David Lynch's 'Eraserhead' ") was founded in 1905, when a few astute businessmen took note of the confluence of three major railroads five miles south of Los Angeles, and decided this would be an ideal location to attract business. One of the founders was man of Basque descent named John Leonis. In 1907 the city fathers decided to add sports as another of Vernon's attraction and built a 7,000-seat arena to house boxing matches and other events. However what was assuredly Vernon's single biggest attraction was that the sale of alcoholic beverages was legal within its city limits - as opposed to the bordering city of Los Angeles, which was dry (I know, difficult to fathom). Doyle's Tavern, which billed itself as the "longest bar in the world" was built in the town, and employed 37 bartenders to serve the thirsty patrons, mostly Angelenos who crossed the city line to enjoy the privilege of imbibing legally.

Your 1910 Vernon Tigers

Meatpacker Peter Maier was a businessman who knew a good thing when he saw it. The business-friendly atmosphere of Vernon, the ability to serve liquor, and a built-in natural rivalry with the Los Angeles Angels made for a good business opportunity. Maier Park was built next to Doyle's (the bar abutted left field, and had its own entry to the ballpark), and the Vernon Tigers were born. On the field the team struggled at first, but the popular Happy Hogan led Vernon to a second-place finish in only their third season, two games behind Portland (in an odd quirk though, the 1911 Tigers actually won five more games than the Beavers, but lost eight more).

Despite an even better finish in 1912 (one game back of champion Oakland), the Tigers were having trouble drawing fans, and the club was moved to the beachside community of Venice, 14 miles away (and not coincidentally the only other "wet" town in LA County). The first "drive in" ballpark in the country, with spaces for 80 cars, was built at the confluence of Virginia Avenue and Washington Blvd. The team played well on the field but continued to have trouble drawing fans (many "home" games were in fact played at Washington Park when the rival Angels were on the road), so in mid-season of 1915 the entire operation was moved back to Vernon. This included the ballpark itself, which was put on rollers and moved in sections, at a cost to Maier of $7,000.

In the war-shortened season of 1918, the Tigers (now led by manager Bill Essick) won the first of three consecutive PCL championships. Here's where our story takes it's next strange turn. The rotund comedian and silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the biggest (in both senses) celebrities of the era. (Arbuckle mentored the young Charlie Chaplin, discovered Buster Keaton and later, Bob Hope). Arbuckle signed a million-dollar film contract in 1918 (real money in those days) and had cash to burn. Fatty thought it would be fun to own a ballclub, and in 1919 purchased majority interest in the Vernon Tigers. Zee Nut even printed a Fatty Arbuckle baseball card.

In 1919, the three-season pennant run of the Tigers was severely tarnished by the PCL's own version of the Black Sox scandal, which occurred the same year. After whisperings that Vernon's success was due to something more than just excellent baseball skills, an investigation was launched and Tiger first baseman Babe Borton was expelled for conspiring to throw games. Other PCL players were also suspected, and just like his counterpart, Commissioner Keenesaw Mountain Landis back East, PCL president McCarthy chose to throw out all the suspected players - their actual guilt or innocence were never determined.

In the meantime owner Arbuckle had tired of his new toy, acknowledging that he was a figurehead who was just expected to sign checks, and complaining of exhaustion from all the personal appearances he was required to put in at Tigers games to promote the team. In the meantime, Prohibition had become the law of the land in 1920, and Vernon's appeal as LA's backyard den of sin immediately vanished.

In 1921 Arbuckle and a friend rented three hotel rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for a party. Sometime during the festivities a minor actress with a history of instability named Virginia Rappe became ill and later died. Arbuckle was accused of sexually assaulting Rappe and endured three lengthy trials for manslaughter. With the Hearst press sensationalizing details of the incident (as well as making them up out of whole cloth) it was difficult for Arbuckle to receive a fair trial. Although eventually vindicated, his career was ruined (though he later became a director under the pseudonym William Goodrich, and enjoyed a comeback under his own name before his death in 1933 at the age of only 46).

The Vernon Tigers - now playing most of their games in Los Angeles - stumbled on for another few season. After a last-place finish in 1925, they packed up again (this time leaving the ballpark) and moved to San Francisco where they endured a dozen seasons as The City's second-favorite team, before returning to Los Angeles and adopting (ironically, perhaps) their new identity as the Hollywood Stars.

Although its dreams of sports grandeur faded, Vernon continued on as an industrial mecca and civic oddity. Studebaker built cars there, Alcoa built a factory, and at aome time there were 27 slaughterhouses in town. But with only 30 city-owned houses in its limits, and all the "residents" being beholden to the city bosses, it's municipal status was a farce and corruption was rampant. There were no elections held from 1980 to 2006, and four out of five city council members were appointed rather than elected. Mayor Leonis Malberg, grandson of founder John Leonis ruled his fiefdom for decades, though later investigations would reveal that he actually lived in upscale Hancock Park. In 2006 eight people moved into a vacant building in Vernon and three of them announced plans to run for municipal office. The city of Vernon's response was to send eviction notices and cut off power. (In another strange twist, these eight people were linked to convicted felon Albert Robles and an attempt to take over the town). In 2009 Mayor Malberg, his wife and son, were indicted of perjury and voter fraud.

With under 100 residents, the contention is that the city of Vernon is a "factory town masquerading as a city", and exists primarily as a means to enrich a small group of people. The California State Legislature and County of Los Angeles have both embarked in efforts to take away Vernon's status as a city. The city of Los Angeles would love to absorb it. Vernon is fighting back, however, and hired a former California Attorney General, as well as pricey lawyers and a PR firm to make its case. Maybe they should build a ballpark and attract a team.

About the flannel: This reverse pinstripe jersey was worn by the Venice version of the Tigers in 1913. It has a sun collar and elbow-length sleeves. No number on back in this era.

1918 Series Fixed? Say It Ain't So!

Speculation continues to build that the Chicago Cubs may have thrown the 1918 World Series to the Red Sox. The Bosox won the series, with Babe Ruth winning two games as a pitcher. A link to an article in the New York Times is here.