Oldest living New York Yankee recalls early Southland pro baseball
While attending the Pacific Coast League reunion down at the Huntington Beach Library, and browsing through old photos and scrapbooks guarded by fanatics who followed and felt the PCL of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s was indeed the golden age of baseball, somebody told me Irv Noren was in the house.
I had been talking to aged diehard PCL fans and pointing out pictures of my dad engaged in the biggest, bloodiest brawl in the history of baseball between the Hollywood Stars and LA Angels in 1953, and when I spotted Irv across the room I instantly became a dog frantically wagging his tail and made a beeline toward him.
Irv was on a cane and as he conversed with several old geezers (that’s all there was at this gathering) I waited patiently beside him until he turned to me and I said, “My father, Murray Franklin, played with you on that 1949 championship team.” Then I showed him the ring awarded those champions that I had inherited from my father, and he shook my hand.
“Remember Murray very well,” he said. “Great guy.” And it was apparent right off that Irv, though in his nineties, was spry, mentally acute, and still inspired. I told him that in all the years my dad played pro ball (from 1937 until 1953) the Hollywood Star team of that era was his favorite. Of course, on that 1949 team, Irv could have been the inspiration for Robert Redford in “The Natural.” He threw and hit gracefully left-handed, led the league in just about every offensive category, and went up to the big leagues in 1950 and had an accomplished career until 1960, including three World Series victories with the Yankees, who got him in a trade with the Washington Senators after he had two solid years.
As soon as we were alone, I said, “You must be 92.”
“I’m 91. Going on 92.”
“You hit .319 in 1954. I had your card.”
“That was a pretty good year,” he conceded.
He said he roomed with the great hall of fame pitcher Whitey Ford from 1952 until 1956. They were still tight. He said Yogi Berra never got credit for being a great athlete, because of his squatty build. “I don’t think Yogi had three passed balls a year. He was as good as they come behind the plate.” A few enthusiasts began hanging around, for, with most of the old PCL players now deceased, Irv, along with Paul Petit and Dick Adams, were the only celebrities left. Before I moved on so others could pose for pictures with Irv, an admirer asked, “What about today’s players, Irv?”
“Bigger, faster and dumber,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “I think Jerry Coleman told me that.” Coleman was his team mate with the Yankees and later a San Diego Padre broadcaster.
Another man who was part of the crew running the reunion came up with baseball card-sized black-and-white photos of Irv standing beside a famous singer as part of the local lore of the entertainment and film culture that surrounded the Hollywood Stars. Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Kim Novak and Anne Bancroft, among others, regularly attended their games. I instantly recognized the photo as one I kept among my dad’s archives.
“My dad’s in the picture,” I said. “And so is Sandlock, Frank Kelleher and Maltzburger.”
“We cut your dad out,” the man confessed.
“You know what my dad was like,” I said. “He’ll rise from his grave and kick your ass.”
“We know that. We’re sorry.”
One had to be around to appreciate what the old Pacific Coast league meant to kids my age, which most of these people running and attending the reunion were when the league was all we had out here, the games were televised, the rivalries were rabid and tribal. I was at the game during The Brawl between the Angels and Stars, and since my father was in the thick of it, I told these geezers how I was out beyond the ropes in the outfield for the crowd over-flow, fought with Star knot-hole kids, and ran across the field and through the stadium and into the clubhouse, where, after the half hour brawl that took 50 LAPD to stop, the clubhouse looked like a field hospital in a combat zone.
One man in a wheel chair told me, “Those were the days. I loved the San Francisco Seals. That’s where I’m from. I’m still pissed off the Giants and Dodgers came out here. What they call the PCL now is a crock of shit.”
The big leagues were what we got on Saturday’s televised “Game of The Week.” The PCL was a quality league full of veterans who’d played in the big leagues and those moving up (Joe DiMaggio, Bill Mazeroski, Ir Noren, Gus Zernial, etc). Games were televised at night Tuesday through Friday with a day game on Saturday and a doubleheader on Sunday. The ball players on all the teams along the coast—from Seattle down to San Diego—were heroes to us kids, and since I was the son of one of these men, to come to this reunion was a nostalgic journey and a thrill unparalleled.
Wherever I went, with my three friends who came with me, I told stories. Dick Adams, 96, former Hollywood Star, player-manager, high school teacher-coach, professional musician, sat at a table with his baseball cards, a few teeth missing, bright and jovial, telling stories. I told him of the time a pitcher named Bear Tracks Greer with Houston of the Texas league dusted my dad, who played for Beaumont, four times. Dad was ready to charge this scary backwoods monster, when the catcher warned, “Bear’s crazy. He’s not like other people, he’ll drill you with that ball from five feet, right between the eyes, dehorn you. He can’t get you out, so he figures if he’s gonna walk you he might as well knock you down four times—nothing personal.”
“Knowing your dad,” Dick said, “I’m surprised he didn’t charge him.”
“He was backwoods, Dick. Crazier than Bobo Newsome. Only reason Bear Tracks Greer wasn’t in the big leagues was because he was too crazy, tearing up bars at night—uncivilized. He met dad in the clubhouse at the Texas League All Star game, drunk as a skunk, put his arm around him and said he loved him and offered him a slug of the jug he was holding. He was supposed to start the game but passed out on the training table.”
“Yeh, if he’s crazier than Bobo, I can see it.”
Dick then told me and my friends about a woman in an elevator who informed Joe DiMaggio, who was with two pals, she could make him happier than his wife of the time—Marilyn Monroe. When Joe refused, his buddies asked if she’d mind taking them on instead. She told them to get lost.
Dick left us with this one: “I never drank much and I’m still kicking at 96, but I only got one year in the big leagues. My brother Bobby drank like hell and got in 14 years!”
Later, a good Samaritan found the glossy of the original photo that had left my dad out. My pals and I wandered over and met with Noren. He was still standing, cane discarded, asked one of my pals, Dave, if he could get him a glass of water. Dave took off. When he returned, Irv thanked him, drank, and we got him to talk. The man was a star athlete at Pasadena High and Pasadena City College, actually played professional basketball for Chicago in the NBA during the 1946-47 season.
He talked of his baseball teammates, guys like Hank Bauer and manager Ralph Houk, who served in WWII. “Seems like all of us served, and a lot of those guys saw heavy action, but they never talked about it. Mickey Grasso, a catcher, my teammate with the Senators, was a tank commander, in charge of a bunch of those cracker-box tanks we had, and they were no match for those damn Panzer tanks, and they were out-numbered. It was toward the end of the war, so Mickey had his guys jump out of their tanks and give the heil Hitler salute. You were better off captured by the Germans, because they weren’t like the Japanese.”
I held the black-and-white glossy of Irv and dad and his teammates and the celebrity singer. They all looked so young, and especially Irv, who was 24 at the time and about to go up the following year to start his big league career. Now Irv was the last one standing, Mike Sandlock having died recently at 100. Mike used to pick me up off the ground when I was a 7-year-old in the clubhouse, rub my face against his rough beard, and say, “You a lover or a fighter, Little Meat?”
My friend snapped a photo of Irv and me, the photo held out front in my hand. Afterwards Irv sipped his water and asked, “Who brought me this glass of water?”
Dave said, “I did.”
“Thank you very much,” Irv said, all grace and appreciation, just like he played the game. §
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his rescue dog, Wilbur. More of his sports essays can be found at his website: dellfranklin.com.