SI Vault
Gerald Holland
May 02, 1960
Long before the Dodgers, the gaudy, giddy stars of movieland made Los Angeles a feverish sports town. Today's stars are a more serious lot, but the zany legends are not forgotten
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May 02, 1960

Sporting Hollywood

Long before the Dodgers, the gaudy, giddy stars of movieland made Los Angeles a feverish sports town. Today's stars are a more serious lot, but the zany legends are not forgotten

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It has become almost axiomatic in the last couple of years to say that it took the Dodgers to make Los Angeles a big-time sports town. Look at the white-shirted frenzy that develops in the Coliseum on game days, runs the argument; look at the movie bigwigs who now make a fetish of the game—Jeff Chandler traveling to San Francisco for Opening Day, Jerry Lewis hollering from his box seat as though he were acting on the set, Bing Crosby owning a piece of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bob Hope buying into the Cleveland Indians and the Rams. Was it ever like this before? Ask those who see Los Angeles as the coming, if not actual, sporting capital of the nation. The answer is of course it was, and not so long ago at that, in the great and gaudy days when Hollywood was in its finest flower and, man for woman, one of the most feverishly sporting communities of all.

This is not to imply that Hollywood's sporting interests have in any way diminished; but they have changed. Today's stars are sportsmen of a more serious order; they are sober participants, investors, businessmen. Fred Astaire (professionals agree he could be a topflight golfer if he wanted to give it the time) owns a string of race horses, and so do Betty Grable and her husband, Harry James. Director-Producer Mervyn Le Roy is president of Hollywood Park. James Cagney owned trotters until recently and now concentrates on breeding Morgans. Ronald Reagan (who broadcast the Cubs and White Sox games in Chicago before he went to Hollywood) has jumpers, and Dan Dailey is master of hounds at the West Hills Hunt Club. Jimmy Stewart is an ardent hunter and fisherman, Gable hunts, Cooper skin-dives. Bing Crosby, besides his share of the Pirates, operates the major golf tournament that bears his name. Gordon Mac Rae and Dean Martin are dedicated golfers, and so, when he is not airborne, is Bob Hope. Bill Holden, a superlative gymnast, has started a safari club at Nairobi in Kenya, Africa. Among the younger artists, there are skiers and golfers and tennis players, horsemen and sailors, and Rock Hudson himself confesses that he lives principally for the time that he can spend on his boat. Samuel Goldwyn has two gardeners working full time on his croquet courts and sponsors a tournament every summer, and David Niven and Louis Jourdan are among the actors who play in it.

But all this is pallid stuff compared to the old days, when the Hollywood Stars provided minor league baseball and the big sporting event of the week was the Friday night fights at the Olympic Stadium, an entertainment that attracted the top movie stars and featured Lupe Velez screaming her lungs out at ringside.

This era is recalled with the publication of a biography of Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ( Hollywood Rajah, Henry Holt & Co., $5.50), by Bosley Crowther, the motion picture critic of The New York Times . Mayer and his colleagues, Darryl Zanuck and Sol Wurtzel of 20th Century-Fox, along with their associates and underlings, brought to sports precisely the same attitudes and techniques that they utilized in their picturemaking. In short, they played to win. Mr. Wurtzel, for instance, made up his foursomes from the ranks of those writers and directors whose options were coming up. Mr. Wurtzel did not lose. Mr. Mayer, on the other hand, insured his own good showing by playing five balls from every tee (he used three caddies) and scoring himself on the best shot out of five on each hole. No sensible man, he used to tell his colleagues, would accept the ruinous odds of one-ball golf.

Zanuck was an all-round athlete and a good one. He had to excel at every sport he took up. He had been a flyweight boxer in the Army, and to polish his style he often went a few rounds with the former world champion, Fidel La Barba, who was then on the studio payroll as a writer. Douglas Fairbanks, an incomparable natural athlete, brought Bull Montana, the wrestler, from the East just to work out with him. The studio paid the tab. Bing Crosby used to insist that a certain character was a consultant on every picture he made. The consultant's only duty was to bring Bing the score by innings of all Pacific Coast League games played by the Stars of pre-Dodger days.


Zanuck was as fearless as he was tireless in pursuing his sporting interests. Big-game hunting, skiing, boxing and croquet were among his other sports. An invitation to join Zanuck in a sporting holiday amounted to a command. Director William Well-man tells of what it was like to go on a bear hunt with the boss.

"We went to British Columbia," he said. "You had to shake the porcupines out of the trees at night. It snowed. We had to break trail for the horses. We were snowbound for three days. Zanuck chased a grizzly for 30 hours and came back with a sprained ankle. We forded various rivers 20 times. We lost the horses carrying our medicine. I got blood poisoning. It was the ruggedest, damndest trip you've ever seen. But you know what? Zanuck loved it!"

In the beginning, Zanuck's polo was a pickup sort of game on the Ace Hudkins ranch, which adjoined the Warner Brothers lot. But by enlisting such prime talent as Hector Dods and Aidan Roark, Zanuck worked his team's way up to the polo field at the Riviera Country Club and eventually to the Midwick Country Club in Pasadena, and it was at the latter that someone remarked that Zanuck had the only polo team on which the horses were better bred than the men.

During Zanuck's polo phase, he was accustomed to carrying a sawed-off polo mallet wherever he went and to use it as a prop in outlining or criticizing plots at story conferences. Naturally, lesser personalities on the Hollywood scene began to cast about for sporting gimmickry of their own. One writer took to carrying a putter into meetings, and another pounded a baseball glove and fielded imaginary grounders as he walked around the lot. He was a good fielder but a poor writer, and got nowhere.

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