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The Brown Derby, Hollywood Stars and a Long-Ago Era

Joe Guzzardi on

In mid-20th century Southern California, the place to see and be seen was the Brown Derby restaurant.

The Derby had various locations in the greater Los Angeles area, but the most famous was on North Vine Street where, as legend has it, Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard, and where the nonalcoholic Shirley Temple drink was first served. Other familiar Hollywood icons who dined at the Hat were John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra and Betty Grable.

Partners Bob Cobb and Herb Somborn, one of Gloria Swanson’s five husbands, comanaged the restaurants. But after Somborn’s sudden death in 1934, Cobb took over, and proved a skilled restaurateur. Cobb created the Cobb Salad, an upscale Chef’s Salad that he served on cold plates with chilled forks. He also refined the pot roast, rice pudding and onion soup to such excellence that Hollywood’s elites stopped off in the wee hours after a night of revelry to sober up on one of those dishes.

But Cobb’s talents extended beyond the kitchen. In 1939, Cobb, a lifelong baseball fan, seized the opportunity to purchase the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars. Cobb put together a syndicate to acquire the Stars that included Gene Autry, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Cecil B. DeMille and William Frawley, who played the grouchy neighbor Fred Mertz on “I Love Lucy.” Crosby invited the players to join him on the golf course, and Jimmy Stewart often hosted dinner at his home for his favorite Stars. The stars loved the Stars.

Almost immediately, as Dan Taylor explained in his new book, “Lights, Camera, Fastball: How the Hollywood Stars Changed Baseball,” Cobb applied his creative skills to the national pastime. For a few seasons, the Stars played in short pants and lightweight tee shirts. Manager Fred Haney, anticipating more stolen bases, said, “We think these suits will give us more speed. They will also permit much greater freedom of motion in fielding and throwing.”

The Stars also were the first to wear batting helmets, to employ movie star beauty queens as cheerleaders, to pioneer televised baseball, to eschew trains for Western Airlines charter travel, and to offer fans unique ballpark food - like its famous 10-cent skinless hot dog served hot off a charcoal grill on a freshly baked milk bun, washed down with coffee and real cream. Ushers wore pressed dark blue slacks and an ironed white shirt with a matching navy tie and jacket.

Like eating at the Derby, an evening at Gilmore Field watching the Stars was first class all the way.

On any given night, Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart and dozens more from the Silver Screen cheered on their favorite team from Gilmore Field’s deluxe boxes and grandstands. Bat Day had a unique only-in-Hollywood twist: Gable, Stanwyck or equally handsome Silver Screen glitterati distributed miniature bats to young fans.

 

During the Stars’ peak years, from 1950 to 1957, the team had an operating agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and sent several players to the Buccos who eventually had roster spots on the 1960 World Series winners: Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, slugging first baseman Dick Stuart, backup first baseman R.C. Stevens, platoon outfielder Roman Mejías, and hard-throwing pitcher George Witt.

Pacific Coast League play was consistently high caliber, and league officials anticipated that the PCL would soon join the American and National Leagues as the third major league.

But things worked out differently. The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, a transition that sent the Stars packing to Salt Lake City to become the decidedly less glitzy Bees. The Brown Derby, a victim of ever-shifting eating fads and dining trends, served its last meal in 1985, 15 years after Cobb passed away at age 70.

Los Angeles has never been the same since the Derby, the Stars and Bob Cobb faded away.

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Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2021 Joe Guzzardi, All Rights Reserved. Credit: Cagle.com
 

 

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