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And when the game was over, the bikes were always there.
By the '50s, when I came along, the innocence was beginning to fade. Friends who rode the bus to Wrigley said neighborhood kills roughed them up, but Los Angeles, even with its postwar population soaring past two million, was still a long way from having calluses on its soul. Though Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe mused that the city's streets were "lost and beaten and full of emptiness," I remember that they all seemed to lead to the pony ride at Beverly and La Cienega, where the Beverly Center now teems with upscale shoppers. What crime I recall—show-biz bloodlettings, pachuco gang lights in East L.A.—was splashed across the front page of William Randolph Hearst's afternoon Herald Express, 65 copies of which I faithfully delivered Monday through Saturday. The only gangster I was aware of was Mickey Cohen, who, as a favor to the Herald's headline-hungry city editor, stole Lana Turner's love letters to the hood her teenage daughter stabbed to death. Mickey Cohen rooted for the Stars.
George Raft rooted for them too, and both he and Cohen were tight with Bugsy Siegel, so I can only assume that Bugsy made it to Gilmore Field before his untimely demise. Lord knows every other celebrity did. If Gary Cooper. Rosemary Clooney and Milton Berle weren't in the stands, Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille and Burns and Allen were. Some of the big names held stock in the Stars, a tribute to the sway of the team's dapper owner, Bob Cobb, president of the Brown Derby and inventor of the Cobb salad.
But the thespian who made the biggest impact was Jayne Mansfield. 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."
Before L.A. had any Dodgers or big league Angels, any Lakers or Raiders or Clippers or Kings, you had to go a long way to beat La Mansfield's act. Only the Rams could do it, luring 100,000 paying customers into the Coliseum each Sunday, and yet, as late as 1949, three years after the NFL's arrival, the Stars remained the toughest ticket in town. But the town, if you judged it by its tastes, was still shamelessly small-time. Forget all the hoorah about college football at Southern Cal and UCLA. Forget all the cigar smoke that got blown about the club lights at the Olympic Auditorium and Hollywood American Legion Stadium and the title lights at Wrigley and Gilmore fields. The L.A. I choose to remember devoted far more passion to professional wrestling, both live and televised, from the Olympic, from Legion Stadium, from South Gate, from Ocean Park Arena (with none other than Steve Allen at the ringside mike). So great was L.A.'s hunger for these sweaty morality plays that Channel 11 had to pipe even more of them in from Las Vegas. How lining for a city where a good Sunday afternoon of TV sports meant watching semipro football and the Jalopy Derby from Culver City Stadium.
When I think back to all that raw exuberance and unbridled tackiness, it seems the Coast League gave L.A. sports a rare touch of...well, dignity isn't the word, not with the shorts the Stars insisted on wearing in the '50s and the call-the-cops brawls they had with the Angels. But normality, maybe, because no matter how outrageous the two teams got, they still played baseball, they still did something connected to the rest of the country and not confined to Planet California.
Consider Gus Zernial, the slugging outfielder revered as Ozark Ike by Hollywood fans in '47 and '48. He burst on the scene at the same time as Gorgeous George, but did he peroxide his hair and throw gold-plated bobby pins to his admirers? No, sir, Gus went out and hit 40 homers in his second season as a Star, the way any regular guy would if he had a quick bat and a ton of muscles. And believe me, these minor league heroes were regular guys. They lived among us, they worked among us. My dad bought a '56 Chevy from Lou Stringer, a nifty second baseman for both L.A. and Hollywood, and he could just as easily have made the deal with Eddie Malone, who toiled for each team as an iron-man catcher. If my parents had needed any upholstering done, they could have gone to Roger Bowman, the Star lefthander who had a shop in Santa Monica. And we could always roll a few lines at Irv Noren's bowling alley.
No one remembered the intimacy of the times and the town better than Chuck Connors, who didn't realize he was only pausing in the Angels' lineup on his way to a place in television history as The Rifleman. When the Chicago Cubs farmed him to L.A. in 1951, Connors bought a tract house in Reseda, never thinking how long a drive it was to that Valley outpost in those pre-101 freeway days. He found out the first time he had to make the 25-mile haul across the Cahuenga Pass after a Saturday night game, with a Sunday afternoon doubleheader just hours away. It looked like Connors had a lot of sleepless weekends ahead until a family that lived across the street from Wrigley Field approached him.
"I'd known them for a while," he told me shortly before his death last year. "I'd gotten them signed baseballs, some gloves, things like that." Now they were offering to return the favor by putting Connors up on Saturday nights. He accepted instantly. "I'd sleep in their extra bedroom," Connors said, "and Sunday morning I'd eat breakfast with them." He was a first baseman from Brooklyn who happened to be white, they were Angel fans who happened to be black, and this was a Los Angeles that we would never see again.
The big man was Bilko, and I'm talking about more than the excess poundage that inspired a Los Angeles Times headline saying NOT EVEN MRS. BILKO KNOWS HIS WEIGHT. I'm talking about the feats that enabled Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph, to block out the big league sun for my generation of L.A. kids.