The Old Ballgame Part Two

Arroyo Grande Boys League Baseball 1963

“It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, Let’s play two”…..Ernie Banks Chicago Cubs.

Sometimes, in little towns like ours threads will cross each other and create a narrative and human fabric from disparate and yet similar experience. This skein is nearly unbreakable and so involved that any one person cannot be addressed without causing ripples.

Vard Loomis was as tied to the sport of baseball as any man who ever lived here. He played with my uncle Jackie and future major leaguer Thornton Lee at little Arroyo Grande high school. Like Thornton he went on to university. His university was Stanford. Known during his time as the “Cardinal,” not for the bird but for the color of its uniforms. Vard was no slouch either, he captained the team in his senior year. It was not a particularly good year for the Stanford nine, but Vard, at least had a winning season and was their ace pitcher. 

Stanford Baseball

When Vard came home from Stanford and entered the family business baseball was in full swing. From the turn of the century until the mid-fifties and the rise of television, amateur and semi-professional teams toured the country and town-ball teams were everywhere. It wasn’t unusual for a little town to have more than one team. Some would be sponsored, other were school ball teams. Our Arroyo Grande high school played Cal Poly and Santa Maria Junior College. Pick-up teams played on weekends and after work in the summer.

My father told me of going down to the high school field to see barnstorming teams play. They played on the old diamond at what is now Paulding Junior High. Kids could earn a nickel for fetching balls hit into the creek or even across it onto the fields of Garden Street.

The famous House of David came through every year or so, playing town teams along the railroads where they could play two or three games a day against teams from different small towns. They could play Paso Robles, Atascadero and Arroyo Grande on the same day. 

The House of David teams fielded one of the most popular baseball teams in the country at the time. Famous professional players occasionally donned fake beards and joined the team for exhibition games. Grover Cleveland Alexander, Satchel Paige, and even Babe Ruth. (They considered signing the Sultan of Swat in 1934, but decided his outrageous lifestyle would be a poor fit for the ascetic, Jewish orthodox team.) The hirsute athletes also popularized the art of the “pepper game,” a collection of Harlem Globetrotters-esque antics where they juggled and tossed balls, bats and gloves, made them vanish only to pull them out of their beards. They even played innings while mounted on donkeys. Playing as far afield as Hawaii and Mexico, the House of David continued to draw crowds into the 1950s, when television and the rise of Major League Baseball led to a decline in popularity of touring professional teams.

1927 Tour of Japan. Zenichi Kinimura between Gehrig and Ruth. National Archives

They weren’t bush league teams either. They often played against teams of major leaguers or Negro League teams who were picking up extra money in the off season. Babe Ruth and his “Bustin’ Babes toured with Lou Gehrigs “Larruping Lou’s for many years and both took on not only the House of David but also toured Japan 1934.  

That Japanese tour was organized by Kenichi Zenimura, a Japanese-American baseball player, manager, and promoter from Fresno. He had a long career with semi-professional Japanese-American baseball leagues on the west coast and Hawaii. These leagues were very active and extremely popular from about 1900 to 1941. He is also noted for the successful barnstorming tours he organized that brought famed players such as the Babe and the Iron Horse, Gehrig to the west coast and to Japan for exhibition games in the 1920s and 1930s. Zenimura brought his teams to our area during the depression and played at the high school and at the old ball field in Pismo Beach which used to be about where the sewer plant is today. There’s a series of old photographs kicking around taken during one of those games. The all Japanes-American teams dressed in their heavy woolen uniforms playing on a Sunday afternoon, the ranks of automobiles down the foul lines parked facing the field, the fans sitting on the grass, picnic baskets open, adults watching the game and kids running around playing games of their own, all of this surrounded by the artichokes which used to be grown there. Just off to the east the Southern Pacific railroad, where at four o’clock the SP Daylight Limited would thunder past, pulling its even dozen Pullman cars, their bright Red, Black and Orange livery flashing in the afternoon sun. The game pauses, players watching the train, the pitcher, his head down hands on hips, pauses in his work. Kaz Ikeda, the catcher, squats patiently in behind the dish, his brother Seirin stands at short using the toe of his shoe to smooth the dirt in front of him.

Arroyo Grande Growers, Vard Loomis center. SLOCHS photo.

Coached by Vard Loomis the Arroyo Grande Growers were playing the Kenichi Zenimura’s Fresno Athletic Club or FAC as it was known. 

Prior to the war, Juzo Ikeda the father of Kazuo and Seirin asked Loomis, to coach a Japanese-American baseball team. 

“There were between 40 and 50 farmers in this area at the time and many had big families, so there were a bunch of boys around here who needed some type of recreation after school. “Vard coached from 1932 to 1942 until the Japanese were forced to had to evacuate to the internment camps.”….Kaz Ikeda

Kaz and his brother were both lettermen at Arroyo Grande High School and attended Cal Poly, a small agricultural and engineering college in San Luis Obispo where they both played ball. Seirin was a crackerjack shortstop and Kaz caught though he was always careful to say he rode the pine most of the time.

He started playing on a Japanese American team from San Luis when he was just thirteen and was the first player Vard chose when the Arroyo Grande “Growers” were formed in ‘32. They played Japanese teams all over the coast from Salinas to as far south as Santa Barbara.

Sent to Gila River, Kaz and his brother continued to play. Kenichi Zenimura had quickly organized nearly 32 ball teams there. Some were for kids, some for teens and some for adults. “Zenny” even built the ball fields in the rocky soil around the barracks in which they all lived. He and the other ballplayers painstakingly removed rocks and pebbles and did their best to make the rough fields playable. There was no grass on those fields. They had to make the bases from scrap lumber left over from the building of the camp, they even put together a grandstand for the primary field. 

Gila River Field Home Plate. National Baseball Hall of Fame photo

For the three years the 10 camps existed baseball was played year round weather permitting. Snow storms at Tule Lake California delayed games as did howling dust storms at Manzanar. Torrential rains at the Rohwer and Jerome camps in Arkansas washed out the fields and games could be cancelled over intense heat or clouds of mosquitos and biting flies. And yet they still played.

Gila River Baseball on the home made field. Tets Furukawa, 3rd from right rear from Guadalupe. With only one suitcase allowed, he carefully packed his uniform from home. Densho Archive photo 1944

Survivors of the camps have stated that the games did much to foster a sense of community and give the internees something around which they could rally.

After the war Kaz and his brothers Seirin And Saburo and their extended families were amongst the first organizers of The Arroyo Grande Boys League. Returning veterans of the military, men who had played at Guadalcanal, Saipan, in the fields England, France and Germany began to have families and the league filled up rapidly with boys eager to play. 

They were the last decades of baseballs dominance. Here at home, boys lay awake at night dreaming of the World Series. There was no superbowl and the NBA could still characterized as a minor sport. The biggest thing in basketball was the seemingly utter dominance of UCLA and its annual trek to the college championships, regular as clockwork. It was still baseball and in the fifties it was still a radio sport with no teams west of St. Louis. Didn’t matter though, kids were wild for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Saint Louis Cardinals and the Giants of New York. 

Not yet did the leagues simply use the names of Major League teams. Local adult and kids leagues used their sponsors names or simply called themselves the Gators or the Growers and Merchants.

Pismo Beach Merchants at the old Pismo field, 1939

In the photo above, made up of players from Santa Maria, Arroyo Grande, Pismo and San Luis are many familiar names including Floyd Hoover and “Mutt” Anderson, owner of the Greyhound Cafe in Arroyo Grande. Butch Simas and Carl Barbettini were big supporters of the Santa Maria Indians. These guys were the fathers of the kids in my generation.

It all changed in 1958 when Walter O’Malleys Dodgers stepped of the plane in Los Angeles. They were to dominate the west coast television market and quickly relegated the Los Angeles Rams, which had been one of only two NFL teams in California to the status of also rans at the box office. 

The All-Star played in the 1959 season was also the first All-Star Game played west of St. Louis. The American League defeated the National League 5-3. Hall of Fame All-Star starters included Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Stan Musial and Willie Mays. For kids out here is was unbelievable that these players were actually in reach and not at the end of a three thousand mile radio signal.

That same year the Dodgers beat the White Sox in the World Series at the old LA Coliseum and it’s strangely configured ball field behind the great relief pitcher Norm Sherry who saved two and won two. 

During the 1959 World Series against the Chicago White Sox, attendance at all three Dodgers home games exceeded 90,000. Game 5 drew 92,706 fans, a World Series record that will likely remain unbroken. The Dodgers won the series 4-2, capturing their first World Championship on the West Coast.

The sad thing was that it began the erosion of the old town ball teams. It was too easy to watch baseball on TV now instead of heading out to see the locals play. Other than a few high school college summer league teams they have slipped back into the shadows of history.

The San Luis Blues still play every summer but the old Santa Maria Indians with their bright red uniforms and “Scoop” Nunez running the show are probably gone forever. It took a dedicated group of men to operate a team, most of them former players themselves and it seems there are few willing or able to serve anymore.

Arroyo Grande Varsity Baseball 1961. Vard Loomis’ son, rear. AGHS photo.

In the picture above is our own Jimy Williams. Jimy is from a pioneering ranching family and holds the distinction of being the only native ofArroyo Grande who owns two World Series rings as both a coach and manager. The best memory Jimy though is of Coach Eugene “Pee Wee” Fraser hitting endless ground balls at him, over and over until it was too dark to see. Thats the real game behind the game.

Gene “Pee Wee Fraser. AGHS photo

Youth leagues are now it if you want to see a game. Little, Pony, Senior, American Legion and Babe Ruth leagues are how kids learn to play today and its always fun to walk on down to Soto field to see them. Those fields are likely a last testament to Arroyo Grande’s athletic past. Designed and built strictly by community volunteers you can see in the names, Porter, Campbell, Ikeda, Santos, Pilg, Volunteer and Don Roberts fields and if you know where to look the autographs of “Bub” Robertson and Tony Janowicz inscribed in concrete.

1964 Babe Ruth All-Stars, Kaz Ikeda Coach. Cayce Shannon photo.

Literally thousands of Arroyo Grandeans have supported baseball since it’s earliest beginnings almost a century and a half ago. Though things have changed in many ways there is one thing to remember, kids play for fun and it’s not uncommon to see boys and girls down at the fields playing home run derby or three flys up and having a whale of a time. My boys and their friends would come by our house which is just a long block from Soto, pick up a bucket of balls and some bats from my coaches bag and walk down to Santos or Porter field and play until dark. Its best to leave the folks at home. Thats the real game.

Chad Smithback, The Real Deal, Mike Shannon photo

Just a little note at the end. Years ago when I was a coach at Arroyo Grande High School, one of the ball players, a big, supremely talented seventeen year old took me aside and said, “Coach, lets take a walk.” 

We ambled side by side out to a spot just behind second base where the outfield grass offered us a whiff of the perfume that only comes from a fresh mowed field. The boy laid down on his back and I sat beside him for a moment just taking it all in, a warm spring afternoon on a ball-field. The crack of Fungo bats lofting balls to the outfielders, the slap of leather as pitchers threw their long toss warm ups and coaches sitting in the dugouts penning their lineups before the game. Sean turned to me and said, “Isn’t this the best Mike? I could die right here today and be happy.”

L-R, Steven DeRose, Tony Martinez, Tim Davis, Tommy Sugushita, Colin Shannon, Joe Wighton, Eli Panos, Sean Mosley, Ben Hodges, Anthony Luis and Cameron Walton.

Just a note. In the photo above, players on the 1997 14 year old Babe Ruth All-Star team, about to play at Sinsheimer Stadium in San Luis Obispo features two players who were coached by Tom Woods, who as a boy played for Kaz Ikeda, who played for Vard Loomis, who played with my uncle Jackie coached by my grandfather. Thats how connections work in a small town. 

Father and Sons, Nipomo Baseball, 1898.
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THE KEYHOLE

Hanging in pride of place in my grandmothers office was an aged poster print. It was a once popular poster that hung in fraternity houses and university boarding houses across the country. It shows a group of insouciant college boys playing poker. Though it was my grandmother Annies I somehow imagined it to be a depiction of my dad’s fraternity house days at Cal Berkeley. I thought he must have whiled away those idle hours passing the old pasteboards across a baize cloth covered table like the young men in the painting, killing time in the way young men do when the horizon is just at hand but not yet touchable. It seemed vaguely romantic when I was ten.

In the days before television people played cards. My grandparents played Canasta with Clayton and Cornelia Conrow every Wednesday night for decades. She had a little round table in her front room as they called it, stocked with decks of cards, pencils and tally slips always at the ready. The folding card tables even had a special deep closet in the entry hall where they lived between games. 

My grandmothers bridge club motored along for over fifty years. I knew most of them, I used to drive her to Mrs Brisco’s or Mrs Jatta’s house after she could no longer drive herself. As those old girls dropped away and the group got smaller, they still kept it up until they could no longer fill a table. Listening to them talk was a better way to get the news than the local paper.

My mother belonged to a bridge club too. Mrs Loomis, Mrs Taylor, Mrs Wood, Mrs Waller, Mrs Rust, Mrs Talley formed a rotating group of Bridge players who stuck with it for fifty years. In those days the women would dress in their best, hair done, makeup on, the good heels and when I was little, she still wore glovesto go out. . Putting her purse under her arm, mom would offer her cheek for the good bye kiss, saying. “Careful honey, don’t mess up my lipstick.”  She would be off for an afternoon of card playing and serious gossip. It had to be the gossip because my dad always said she never won a trick in fifty years. She was an artist not a mathematician. They played for fun but were very serious about friendship. When my mother was dying of cancer, they all came to see her and say goodbye. Every single one. 

When my parents first met, what do you think my mother was doing? She was playing solitaire of course, something she did almost every day for the rest of her life. When you visited in the morning, dad would be in the fields and mom would be sitting at the enamel kitchen table ensconced at her end, drinking coffee, smoking the first cigarette of the day and playing solitaire. 

In our family, card playing was a serious business, especially Poker. Not your namby-pamby wild card games or community poker games like Texas hold-em but guts-ball games of stud, draw and high-low. Fancy-schmancy games that made it easier for a novice to win were not only  discouraged but at the family table, forbidden. 

They started us early. After Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner the big kitchen table would be carried into my grandmothers office and chairs gathered from all over the house. The file drawer opened, the top drawer mind you, business files were relegated to the lowers. The the baize  table cloth was taken out and very carefully spread across the table. The walnut carousel with it’s genuine ivory chips was placed in the very center. Each chair got a coaster to protect the fabric, there was no eating during a game. 

My grandfather Jack sat at one end and my father George at the other. My grandfather had a view of the wild horse hatrack and my dad looked over the “Burning of the midnight oil.” They were the Stud Ducks at the table. Most of the others were also rans. My uncle Jack, a big bluffer, My grandmother Annie, serious but without deceit, my mother; well we already know what kind of a player she was. My great uncles Bob and John and their wives Marion and Eva played most years too. Uncle John with his big deep voice and hearty manner was a journeyman player, so was uncle Bob. Marian was very sweet, not an advantage at a poker table. My great aunt Eva was sort of fluffy and cackled a lot. As a poker player she was no-account, sorry aunty.

All three of us kids had a place too, even when we were very young. Cayce the youngest sat next to my mother. He was pretty little then and since he has not a mean bone in his body his refusal to use the “Skip and Draw Two” cards in the Uno deck tells you everything you need to know about how he played poker. My brother Jerry sat across from Uncle Jackie and being the oldest, I had the place of honor next to my grandfather. Being at the table with the adults was a real treat for us but as youngsters we were not very good players and our elders would have to slip us chips under the table when we were doing badly.  

The best games of all were when my dad’s poker club came to the house. They were another kettle of fish entirely. Many of them were college grads. Schools like Stanford, that was Vard Loomis and Berkeley, which was my dad and Oliver Talley. As fraternity boys they had learned to play for keeps. In my dad’s case, poker helped pay for his tuition. He said his fraternity brothers and the firemen in the house where he cooked and bussed tables were not that good and with the five dollars a month his parents sent him from his home in Arroyo Grande he got along pretty well with the skills he had learned at the family table. He also had a head for numbers which didn’t hurt either.

In the afternoon we would help my father move the kitchen table and chairs, slide in the leaf and spread the tablecloth setting it all up in the living room. Those guys didn’t eat while playing, just a plate or two of mixed nuts, sometimes right out of the cans. They did drink though. When they came in the house they brought bottles of their favorite, fifths of scotch, bourbon or whiskey right off the shelves of Kirks Liquor on Branch street. They sniffed at cognac, too upper class, wrinkled their noses at gin, too British and drank their whiskey straight in a Low Ball or Old Fashioned glass, no ice if you please. There was a sort of hierarchy to it all. None of those guys put on airs, they were dirt farmers or worked in businesses which served the farm and ranch community. Putting on airs was frowned on. If you had dared to show up with beer you might well have been sent home. That marked you as less than serious, a lightweight. Wine was; well I can’t repeat what they said about that! Even Scotch was given a little fish eye, un-American to say the least.

As a youngster I had little opportunity to see these men, my fathers friends, fathers to my friends, in their natural habitat. On most social occasions kids were to be seen and not heard. They didn’t talk out of school around children. They were kind of just there you know, like trees or buildings. They inhabited a world we weren’t privy to just yet.

But the poker club offered a rare opportunity, like going to a zoo where yo could see a wild animal in the flesh. There were no bars or fences to look through but there was a keyhole. 

Our little farm house was built by Thomas Records around the turn of the 20th century. Originally just three rooms, kitchen, living room and a single bedroom, it had been modernized off and on over the years and when we were growing up had an indoor bathroom and a second bedroom for the kids. My parents bedroom was right next to the living room and in those old houses the doors had old fashioned mortise locks with beautiful glass door knobs, each one with a large keyhole under the knob.

My mother would make herself scarce on those nights, fleeing the house and no doubt meeting the wives for some socializing of their own. Us kids would be trotted out to practice our social skills, saying hello and shaking hands with Ed Taylor, Oliver, or Don Rowe and all the others, but soon we were shuffled off to bed. Or so they thought.

We used that keyhole the way a scientist uses a microscope. They were right there, just feet away. They all talked at the same time, there were jibes, cross talk and comebacks, barks of laughter, they grimaced, they frowned and muttered under their breath when they lost a hand. They joked and took a slug of whiskey. Oliver lit his cigar, Dad a cigarette, Milt Nelson chewing on his pipe as always, all of it creating a shimmering cloud moving hazily around the room. Raise you five, pass, hit me, gimme two, call, the language of poker running just beneath the surface like a lazy stream. The jokes, nothing we were ever going to hear in polite company and oh my goodness the teasing. They knew each other so well that gentle commentary about noses, bald heads, skinny legs seemed to pass almost without notice.

The flick of a wrist, a red chips clicking onto the pot, “I call,” the chips raked in and then without any visible signal the game stopped. The players  sat back and dad an Ed or Oliver stood and went to the kitchen. A loaf of Webers bread in its blue and white livery, Mayonnaise and mustard from the fridge and a stack of baloney and the went to work. Sandwiches were made, though they were farmers they used no lettuce or onions, vegetables were for market not eating. For a while it was calm and quiet as they refueled but soon enough the chairs slid across the floor and the action picked up again.

We didn’t know when they quit, for we had nodded off in our parents bed. Waking in our own beds in the morning, everything in the house was back to normal. My dad stayed up very late, washing dishes and putting things away, not wanting my mother to have to do it. As we slipped into our chairs for breakfast, my dad already gone to the fields, it seemed as if perhaps it was a dream or perhaps just a sudden glimpse of what was behind the curtain of adulthood.   

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