October 20, 2018

Los Angeles history: Jews shined among stars on Hollywood minor league team

While the Dodgers battle for a playoff spot with a Jewish player, Joc Pederson, patrolling center field and a Jewish president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, heading the front office, let’s turn from the pennant race to recall that the franchise is not Los Angeles’ first baseball team to have Jews in such prominent roles.

In 1938, Herbert Fleishhacker was the Jewish owner of the Hollywood Stars, a minor league team in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) that, beginning in 1939, played at Gilmore Field, near the sites of the Grove and CBS Television City today. He was responsible for bringing the team back to L.A. from San Francisco. (The Stars’ first incarnation played here from 1926-1935.)  Through the team’s run, which ended in 1957, Jews filled key roles on the field, with players such as infielder Murray “Moe” Franklin, outfielder Herb Gorman, pitcher Herb Karpel and former longtime catcher for the New York Giants Harry Danning, who, after his playing days were over, served briefly as a coach.

Off the field, Jews also played an important role in promoting the team.

The stadium, which opened in 1939 and seated nearly 13,000 fans, was located in the heart of the emerging Jewish Fairfax district and drew many Jewish fans, including attorney and local judge Stanley Mosk, who would go on to fame as a long-term associate justice of the California Supreme Court. On the other side of the law, “mobster Mickey Cohen occupied a box right behind the Stars’ dugout,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2009.

From the late 1930s until the Dodgers arrival from Brooklyn in 1958, L.A. fans were caught up in the rivalry between the Hollywood Stars and their PCL archrivals, the Los Angeles Angels, who played in Wrigley Field, located near USC and now site of the Gilbert Lindsay Recreation Center. To gain access to better players, the Stars worked out an affiliation agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1949 season, and after the 1950 season, had one with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

​A 1950 Hollywood Stars team photo includes, in middle row, Murray “Moe” Franklin (far left) and Herb Gorman (fourth from right). Photo courtesy of Mark Macrae Collection

Happily watching many of the Stars’ home games was 9-year-old Bruce Littman.

“We sat in the cheap seats,” Littman said, remembering making the drive with his family from their Compton home to Gilmore Field. “Often, we would go with the CJCC [Compton Jewish Community Center] Men’s Club.” At some games, Littman said, he would even get to see a fellow congregant on the field

“Moe Franklin was a member of the temple,” he said.  “On occasion, [Moe also] played on the [shul’s] men’s club team, but to be honest, the other synagogues objected, understandably,” he said with a laugh.

Franklin (1914-78) was born in Chicago, where, at Schurz High School, he lettered in baseball and soccer. At the University of Illinois, from which he graduated, he was a star player and member of the Jewish fraternity. He was 27 when he played in his first major league game with the Detroit Tigers in 1941. The last game in his brief Tiger career was in 1942. 

“My dad would have had a bigger career [in the majors], but he spent his prime years, ages 28 to 32, in the Navy during the war,” said his son, Dell Franklin, who has written about Moe’s years in baseball.

After World War II, Moe Franklin played for several minor league teams, but his favorite, according to his son, was the Stars: “He thought the team,” which had several other former big leaguers, “was a great mix of guys. They all loved each other.” Exemplifying that relationship, when the elder Franklin wanted to add a room addition onto his Compton home, it was some of his teammates, offseason workers in the building trades, who helped him, the younger Franklin said.

“When I was 7 or 8, my dad would take me to the ballpark,” especially on Saturdays and Sundays, Franklin said, recalling the days spanning the 1949 and ’51 seasons, when his father played for the Hollywood Stars.

A timely team addition, when the Hollywood Stars won the PCL title in 1949, Moe Franklin “had the game-winning homer to clinch the pennant,” his son said, remembering how, during the home games, he got to live out the dream of many boys his age — hanging in the dugout. “The guys all taught me how to play baseball. By the time I was 9, I was playing baseball with 12-year-olds,” he said.

“I couldn’t wait to get down there,” Franklin said. The players nicknamed him “Little Meat,” and, after his dad, “Little Moe.” Though not a batboy, he did help out by cleaning the players’ spikes and conditioning their bats in a process called boning. 

“You get a big bone, almost like a Coke bottle, and you knead the barrel of the bat to get it firm,” explained Franklin, who remembers doing it for Gorman, his father’s roommate on the road and best friend on the team.

Moe Franklin sports the early-’50s “shorties” uniform worn by the Hollywood Stars players. Photo courtesy of Dell Franklin

That friendship was cut short in a shocking manner. In 1953, during a day game, the first of a doubleheader after both Franklin and Gorman had been traded to the San Diego Padres of the PCL, Gorman “had a heart attack out in left field and he died,” Dell Franklin said. “The whole stadium just went hush. My dad and somebody else carried him in. He had a young wife, named Rosalie,” who was at the game. “It was a terrible, terrible day.” 

While with the Stars, Moe Franklin, who never played on Yom Kippur, only experienced anti-Semitism once, Dell Franklin said. When his father was playing third base, “there was a guy who popped off on the Sacramento team. He was in the bullpen and he was getting on Gorman,” who was playing outfield. “When the Sacramento player came in, my dad got up out of the dugout and knocked him on his ass,” Dell said of his father, who was also a championship boxer. 

The elder Franklin also threw the first punch in 1953 when a player for the Stars, attempting to steal third base, where Franklin was playing for the Angels, came in high with spikes — touching off a legendary brawl, broadcast live and later covered in Life magazine, in which 50 police officers were called in to break up the fight.

However, for most of the games, especially those at Gilmore Field, Dell Franklin has more pleasant memories, like seeing at the ballpark the other Hollywood stars, such as Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Kim Novak and Anne Bancroft.

After the 1938 season, Victor Ford Collins, Fleishhacker’s attorney along with Robert H. Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurants, bought the team. “In order to raise funds, the two men formed the Hollywood Baseball Association, and to promote their Hollywood Stars baseball team sold small amounts of stock to numerous Hollywood civic leaders and movie stars,” including George Burns and Grace Allen, Harry Warner, Cecil B. DeMille, William Frawley, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper and Gene Autry, according to Stephen M. Daniels, writing for the Society of American Baseball Research.

Helping to get the word out to Los Angeles about the stars, both on the field and off, was their publicity director, Irv Kaze. As part of his job promoting the team, Kaze would get on the phone to stars such as Groucho Marx to let them know when their favorite Stars were going to play, reported Jim McConnell for MILB.com, Kaze, who had a weekly talk show on KRLA (formerly KIEV) from 1992 until his death in 2002. The morning he died, according to a story in the Jewish Journal, “Kaze had attended services at the Congregation Ohev Shalom, where he was a longtime active member.” Kaze was also an inductee and board member of the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

The team is still remembered for its “cool” uniforms. “The Hollywood Stars would play in Bermuda shorts,” remembers Littman of the team’s experiment with “shorties” in the early 1950s. 

“I used to wonder what they did when they slid into base,” Littman said. “That’s gotta hurt.”