Skip to main content
Original Issue


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

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.

One day recently, sitting in the library of his home on Coldwater Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills, James Cagney recalled another writer who ran into the same difficulty.

"This fellow," Cagney said, getting up to demonstrate, "would pitch an entire ball game while he was ad-libbing a story idea to a producer and his staff. He'd take his position in the center of the room, toss off a line like, 'Long shot of the city at night.' Then he'd bend over and look for the sign from the catcher who wasn't there. Maybe he'd shake off one or two as he tried to think of what to say next. Then there'd be the big wind-up and throw and the shaking of his head and the kicking of the rubber at a bad call. Now he was ready to advance the story. 'Dissolve to medium shot of skyscraper,' he might say, 'pan up to lighted window, dissolve to interior and cut to closeup of body sprawled across desk.' Then, still stalling for time, he might bend over and finger a nonexistent rosin bag. Or he'd throw and run across the room to field a bunt. The more time he needed between the fragments of his story idea, the more exciting the game got. He was a great pantomimist. One day he acted out the whole business so vividly that when he announced that he had arrived at the big scene, a director yelled out, 'To hell with the big scene! What's the score?' "

Cagney himself is a onetime ballplayer, having been the catcher for the Yorkville Nut Club, a boys' team in the New York City neighborhood in which he grew up.

It is doubtful, however, that the screenwriter's gambit would have influenced the five-ball golfer, Mr. Louis B. Mayer. Mayer was as coldly realistic and humorless about sports and his adventures in horse racing as he was about his business. In 1937, according to Crowther, Mayer was traveling royally through Europe with his M-G-M colleague and pal, Joe Schenck. On the schedule was a visit to a famous blood specialist of Amsterdam, Dr. Isidor Snapper. It was Schenck, not Mayer, who wanted to consult the doctor, but Mayer put himself down for a checkup to maintain equal status with Schenck. Before the touring potentates reached Amsterdam, word came that Dr. Snapper was fishing in Norway. Where Schenck and Mayer came from, there was always a way to resolve such disappointments. There was here, too. M-G-M's European representative was called in and ordered to produce Dr. Snapper forthwith. The representative, a trained Hollywood operator, found that Dr. Snapper's daughter was in love with a musician. The musician was offered a job in Hollywood on condition that he persuade the daughter to persuade the doctor to hurry home. It worked like a charm, and soon Dr. Snapper had finished with Schenck and was telling Mayer that while there was nothing organically wrong with him, he was rather tensed up and should relax more, possibly find a hobby. The doctor pointed out that many wealthy men found the breeding and racing of Thoroughbred horses an interesting diversion. When Dr. Snapper happened to mention the Aga Khan as an example of a well-to-do horse fancier, Mayer perked up. To be mentioned in the same breath with the Aga Khan was status indeed for a man who had started as a junk dealer.

Mayer bought his first horse from his dear friend, Joe Schenck, and, in the best Hollywood tradition of friendship, Schenck unloaded the worst horse in his stable on him, a dog named Marine Blue. Mayer bore Schenck no grudge but the transaction taught him that he needed expert counsel. So he had an agent represent him at the Saratoga yearling sales, and a little later he purchased Main Man from Jerome B. Respess of California for $17,000. When Main Man won the San Jose Handicap at Bay Meadows that winter and Mayer found himself being photographed in the winner's circle, he was thoroughly fascinated by his new business.

It always was a business with Mayer. He ran his stable as he ran M-G-M. He expected both to show a profit. He had built M-G-M into the No. 1 studio by assembling Hollywood's greatest lineup of stars. In racing, he decided to invest heavily in the most promising stock and bloodlines, and he confidently expected that equine stars would develop.

Quite a few did. But before they did, Mayer also called upon the best exploitation techniques of the motion picture business. As an attention-getter, he offered to buy Man o' War, then standing in Kentucky, for $1 million. Samuel D. Riddle, the owner, replied that Man o' War was not for sale at any price. Mayer also offered a million for the great English sire, Hyperion. Lord Derby, Hyperion's distinguished owner, was horrified. "Though England be reduced to ashes," he said, "Hyperion will never leave these shores."

Mayer owned the greatest money-winning filly up to that time in Busher, purchased from the late Colonel E. R. Bradley in 1944. Busher won a total of more than $300,000 and was named Horse of the Year in 1945, the second filly ever to win that title. It was along about this time that Mayer, searching for a pretty compliment to pay Greer Garson at a dinner, finally referred to the lovely M-G-M star as the Busher of motion pictures.

Mayer himself was honored as the leading breeder in the country in 1945 by a vote of the New York Turf Writers. A few years later he decided to liquidate his stable. While he was in racing, says Biographer Crowther, Mayer was happy. Moreover, adds Crowther, he not only improved the breed (especially in California), but he improved himself.

The big men in the movies not only acquired sporting interests, but soon after rising to eminence began to pay more attention to their own physical fitness. Everybody who was anybody had his personal masseur and his pet exercises. With so many beautiful women around, a man's vanity alone was enough to make him watch his waistline. The nonperforming big shots also seemed to fancy themselves as men of action who could settle any argument with their fists. Mayer himself is credited with having punched Samuel Goldwyn, Walter Wanger and Charlie Chaplin, as well as a number of lesser persons. Zanuck would fight anybody who crossed him at the drop of a hat. One memorable incident occurred when he was producing Public Enemy, the first of the Cagney gangster films.

Zanuck was describing the big final scene to Jack Warner in the presence of Director Michael Curtiz. As old movie fans and young television addicts will recall, the scene has Cagney's corpse delivered to his home. When the door bell is answered, the cadaver falls into the living room, a shocker of a finale. Warner thought it was too shocking, and asked Curtiz for his opinion. Curtiz said he was inclined to agree—whereupon Zanuck hauled off and knocked him cold.

Some of the non-body-contact sportsmen of Hollywood may be found on Samuel Goldwyn's croquet courts every afternoon. Most are members of the Goldwyn Croquet Club and have pledged themselves to comply with the rules of the club, written by Mr. Goldwyn himself. They are: 1) don't get excited, 2) correctly remember balls you are dead on, 3) have patience with fellow members who are not as good as you are.


Recently, in the living room of his home behind the Beverly Hills Hotel, Mr. Goldwyn poured tea and spoke to the subject of physical fitness. He has been a lifelong devotee of long walks, simple exercises, daily massage and—until Mrs. Goldwyn presented him with the two croquet courts as a wedding-anniversary gift—an occasional game of golf.

Mr. Goldwyn cannot say enough for the benefits of exercise or the game of croquet. He credits his recovery from a recent injury to his powers of resistance developed over the years. He had wrenched his knee during a croquet game, but it did not begin to bother him until he went East. His doctor in New York told him that an operation on the knee was imperative. At Columbia Presbyterian Hospital Mr. Goldwyn made a remarkable recovery, spurned crutches but agreed to use a cane. He was walking around the hospital room when his knee suddenly gave way and he fell with a resounding crash that brought nurses and interns running with shouts of "Mr. Goldwyn has fallen! Has he broken his back? Call surgery!" etc. etc. They were astounded to find Mr. Goldwyn—who is 75 years old—struggling to his feet without assistance. Mr. Goldwyn made a short speech to the staff on the benefits of keeping fit.


Later, having moved to the Waldorf-Astoria Towers, Mr. Goldwyn received a call from Mr. William Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Over his protests, Paley had a color television set delivered to Mr. Goldwyn's suite. Despite his distaste for television, Mr. Goldwyn became interested in it and when one program ended, he got up to switch to another channel. Once again, his knee gave way. This time, Mr. Goldwyn not only fell, he crashed heavily against Mr. Paley's television set, smashing the picture tube to bits. Servants came running, but again Mr. Goldwyn astounded them by getting to his feet without aid, and once again he delivered a short lecture on physical fitness. While telling the story in his Beverly Hills home, Mr. Goldwyn walked about the room without even a cane to assist him. He had made a complete recovery and would (he said) soon be ready for the croquet courts.

Meanwhile, Hollywood will take note of other sporting diversions and be represented in force among the crowds of 90,000 that turn out for big league baseball and pro football. The present generation of stars and starlets will crowd the golf courses and the tennis courts and sail the blue Pacific. So much will be going on that (as one of the Hollywood old-timers put it) even if the Dodgers lose the pennant, it will be forgotten in a week in the variety of feverish sporting activity in Los Angeles and at nearby Palm Springs. It's all bigger—and perhaps better—but still it's not quite like the bush-league days when a man could win any game through sheer determination—and by putting the right people on the studio payroll.




TENNIS PLAYER Ginger Rogers typified a time when stars loved sports in a big way—and made them a big production.


CONFIDENT GOLFER Douglas Fairbanks, a superb natural athlete, entered the British Open in 1931, failed to qualify but attracted this absorbed gallery of admirers.


GOLFING HUMORISTS Hope and Crosby, caustic rivals on the links, proved true to old Hollywood tradition when both grabbed up shares in losing major league baseball clubs.


PITCHKR Louis B. Mayer always wanted to be a ballplayer instead of a producer.


POLO PLAYER Darryl Zanuck (left), here shown with stars Eric Martin, Aidan Roark and Laddie Sanford, played well and took the game into studio conferences with him.


CROQUET PLAYER Sam Goldwyn, who wrote his own rules, has become the game's warmest advocate.


HORSE BREEDER James Cagney now just raises Morgans but still fondly recalls the days when producers fought critics.


YOGA ENTHUSIAST Tony Randall (above) and Hunter Jimmy Stewart show modern Hollywood search for serenity via sport.