Charlie hung around Phoenix, working in a drugstore and as a meat salesman, until he was called into the Army in World War II and assigned as a meat inspector. After the war, he was offered a job as a bartender at The Steak House in Phoenix by its proprietor, an old friend named Teak Baldwin. Charlie had never worked behind a bar before, but the money, a hundred a week, bordered on the extravagant and The Steak House was then the top restaurant in the Phoenix area. One of his steadiest customers in those days was Del Webb, who started in Phoenix as a carpenter and built enough of a fortune as a wartime contractor to buy, in partnership with Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail, the New York Yankees. Webb and Charlie talked baseball by the hour in The Steak House, and once, after a particularly long session, Webb even offered Charlie a piece of the Yankees for $10,000. Regrettably, Charlie couldn't raise the money. But his friendship with Webb would prove invaluable in another way.
One of Webb's closest friends was a woman named Claudia Ogden, who along with another woman named Ping Bell, owned a little bar in Scottsdale called, unimaginatively, Ping's. In 1949, Claudia bought out Bell and asked Charlie to come to work for her as the bar manager. She also gave the place a new name: the Pink Pony—a name thought up for her by an artist friend. Lew Davis. "There was no particular reason to call it that," says Charlie. "Lew just thought it sounded good, and Claudia agreed."
Claudia and Charlie cleaned up the act inside, decreeing, for starters, that all horses must remain outside the premises. Charlie, the old meat inspector, also got the horsemeat out of the menu. Six months after she'd hired him, Claudia sold the place to Charlie for $50,000. On Aug. 12, 1950, the Pink Pony was his. His timing couldn't have been better. Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who now lives in Arizona, had moved his training camp to Phoenix three years earlier, discovering, in a sense, Arizona for baseball. Other teams, notably the Indians, quickly followed him to the desert, and the Cactus League was born.
Charlie already had a handy baseball connection with Webb. He gained an even more valuable one when Dean, his boyhood discovery, moved to Phoenix in the early '50s. Charlie reintroduced himself, and Dean quickly became both a Pony regular and Charlie's hunting and fishing buddy. Dean and Reese were broadcasting the Baseball Game of the Week back then, and Diz, ever the anecdotist, began to tell stories about his good buddy, Charlie Briley, and the great little restaurant he owned out West. Baseball people took notice.
Business got so good that in 1970 Charlie moved the Pony half a block down Scottsdale Road into the relatively capacious quarters it now occupies. For years after he bought it, the Pony was just about the only joint in town; now, with Scottsdale emerging as a sort of Carmel East or Provincetown West, the city fairly bulges with quaint boîtes with menus in French and waiters in tuxedos. Charlie's place just stays the same. His waitresses wear jeans, his bartenders are in shirtsleeves, and the front door clangs shut whenever Charlie feels it's time to call it a night. Most of the time, the Pony shuts down by 11 p.m., but if you're clever enough to be inside at the time, you'll find there's no need to rush for the exits.
The Brileys live only a few minutes from their restaurant in a house once owned by Charles Boyer. They've been married 13 years, living testimony that not all blind dates are disastrous. When they met, she was a divorcee living in Orange County, Calif., and he was a widower (his first wife, Libby, died in 1969). A mutual friend arranged the date, and according to Charlie, it was love at first sight. Still, he felt obliged to warn his new love that, "If you're gonna be with me, you gotta learn baseball." Gwen did. She also learned the restaurant business.
Now it is spring again and the Pony has emerged from hibernation. As surely as the cactus flowers are blooming, so is this flourishing little restaurant. What a life it leads. For 10½ months of the year, it's just a good place to get a stiff drink and a thick steak. Then, for six uproarious weeks, it metamorphoses into the hottest spot in the desert. Its tables are alive with famous people. Its walls hum with gossip, tall tales, fond recollections, harebrained schemes. It becomes baseball's command post, its private club. Spring is a time for renewal and hope, and the Pony is the storehouse for those commodities.
But it's all over so quickly. The good times and the good people are gone, it seems, almost before they get there. When the teams decamp in April, says Gwen, "It's like a damn funeral in here." "We're all a little sad and downtrodden," says Charlie. And so, for that matter, are the baseball people who have made the Pony home for those weeks. They know that wherever they go, they'll never find another place quite like it, a place where good fellows talk baseball the night long. There's something inevitably sorrowful about the end of spring training, because the baseball season brings reality, grim reality for most. As one baseball writer lamented, "It's a pity they have to ruin the baseball season by playing it."
But there's always next spring. Charlie puts it best: "You know, when I was a kid, I'd always start crying right after Christmas. My mother would ask me why, and I'd say because it would be a whole year before Christmas came again. But that's the good part, she'd say. Well, spring training is kind of like Christmas for me now. I may feel like crying when it's over, but I know there'll always be another one." He laughs. "And this is for sure: If I'd known back then, when I was growing up in Kentucky, that I'd know as many baseball people as well as I do now, I'd never have cried at all. I'd have been the happiest kid in the whole world. And that's just about the way I feel right now."