Venice in the Springtime, 1913

Come back with me, if you will, to the days of yesteryear. To the spring of 1913, to be exact. Who of us can remember that on April 10th of that year, President Woodrow Wilson, our newly inaugurated 28th President, threw out the first pitch in the first game EVER played by the New York Yankees, previously known as the New York Highlanders? Or that the horse Donerail, showing startling improvement over his Lexington form, was restrained to the stretch turn, where he moved up with a rush, and, under punishment, drew away in the last sixteenth to win the 39th Kentucky Derby? Or that the nation's first regular service station opened in Pittsburgh? Or that the following year, Cleveland installed the first traffic light?

That's right. By 1913, the automobile had come into general usage and had become a symbol of democratic technology and civic reform. Once the playthings of the wealthy, the car quickly came within reach of the middle class. The classic and popular Model-T back then was solidly constructed, and easy to operate and repair. Its chassis was high to provide good clearance. A four-cylinder engine produced 20-horsepower in two forward speeds and a reverse. In 1909, the least expensive Model-T got about thirty miles to the gallon. Customers responded to the advantages of the Model-T, and new plants were constructed. Production increased from 10,000 in 1909 to 78,000 in 1912.

In 1913, Ford found a better, faster way to build cars. They introduced the world's first auto assembly line. Production jumped to 472,000; a car could be turned out in 93 minutes. It was truly the "universal car," in every corner of the world. By 1917, Ford's sophisticated assembly process enabled him to sell 730,000 Model-Ts annually at the unheard of price of $345 to $360 each.

Southern California's dispersal, prosperity, and mild climate, combined with its population's inordinate mobility and acquisitive inclinations, provided a favorable setting for the automobile. For most Angelenos at the time, the family car was used for drives in the country or weekend camping trips. However, an increasing number of auto owners began using their machines for daily commuting and shopping, because 15 years of inadequate streetcar and interurban service finally convinced many locals to seek alternative means of transportation. And the automobile was the answer.

During the mid-teens, Angelenos purchased cars at such a rapid rate that the number of cars per resident rose dramatically. The switch to automobile commuting must have seemed a natural since it provided its passengers with unprecedented mobility and flexibility. The modern driver could travel whenever and wherever he or she pleased. The car had become more than a sophisticated means of recreation. It soon supplemented the electric train, as auto registration in Los Angeles County, less than 20,000 in 1910, exceeded 100,000 in 1920, and approached 800,000 a decade later.

Ahem, yes. That's all well and good, but let's keep it about Venice, shall we?

Venice in the spring of 1913 also saw the introduction of professional baseball locally. At a meeting in February between the Venice-based Kinney Company, Eddie Maier and Hap Hogan, all the papers were signed to bring a pro-baseball team to town.

Four years earlier in 1909, the Vernon Tigers were created to compete in the six-year-old Pacific Coast League. The team was owned by prosperous meat-packer Peter Maier and his brother Eddie Maier, a local brewery owner. Eddie had unsuccessfully tried to build a new amusement pier in Venice in 1912, but the construction was halted that November. He was looking for a way to invest in this up-and-coming city.

For four seasons (1909-12) the ball team played in the appropriately-named Maier Park in the tiny suburb of Vernon, north of Los Angeles, but in 1913 they moved 14 miles west, to the coastal town of Venice.

Why choose Vernon or Venice -- small towns at best -- to hold ballgames? The answer was simple: Venice and Vernon were the only towns in Los Angeles County at the time where one could buy a bottle of liquor. 

Maier transferred his Pacific Coast League AA franchise to the new Venice Tigers, who were to train in the city at a stadium set up on the Recreation Gun Club grounds, located on the southwest corner of Virginia Avenue and Washington Boulevard (now South Venice Blvd. and Abbot Kinney Blvd.). The six acre site was upgraded at a cost of $12,500. New grandstands holding 3000 seats and bleachers for 4000 were built. The outfield fence was built with 3 feet of wood topped by six feet of wire mesh. Eighty parking lot spaces were reserved for automobiles outside the fence, I guess in right field, for what is now considered the first "drive-in" ball park.

Yes!! Another Venice first! In professional baseball! And so-o-o Southern California, especially back in 1913. Just imagine being able to buy a car for less than $400 and take your significant other - or sweetie - out to a professional ball game, all without having to leave the cozy confines of your new auto. The land of sun and possibility, all wrapped up under the publicity-wise guidance of Abbot Kinney; a vision for a new, drive-up society.

The grand opening of the new baseball park and the Tiger's first game on March 26, 1913 was an exhibition game with the Chicago White Sox's second team. The park's dedication was preceded by a monster auto and motorcycle parade headed by the Venice Band which left its assembly point at Temple and North Broadway in Los Angeles, and headed for Venice. Eddie Maier, owner of the team, rode with Charles Comiskey of the White Sox, while manager Hap Hogan shared a car with Jim Callahan, esteemed manager of the Chicago team. After reaching Tiger Field, Mr. Maier hoisted the great American emblem - the American flag - to the top of the flagpole and fireworks attended the salute.

4000 fans, including all of Venice's school children who were given a half day holiday and free admission, packed the grandstands and bleachers. Mayor Hoolbrook delivered the first pitch which was caught by Abbot Kinney, the catcher. The Tigers were no match for the White Sox who won the game 7 to 4.

The first Pacific Coast League game at Tiger Field was on Sunday April 6, 1913, when Venice lost to the Los Angeles Angels 3 to 2. The game was called during the Tiger half of the eighth inning, because all Sunday morning games (the only games played at Venice's Tiger Field) were subject to a two-hour and fifteen minute time limit. This was to allow the clubs to catch the trolley to Washington Park in Los Angeles for the second half of the double header.

The 1913 Venice Tigers team was comprised of older major league veterans and young hopefuls. It featured Coach Wilkie Clark, star pitchers Duke Walk and "Spider" Baum. Dick Bayless and Roy "Rhino" Hitt had both played with Cincinnati. John Raleigh and Eddie Hallinan had formerly worn St. Louis Browns' uniforms. Pitcher Fred Harkness had thrown for the Cleveland Indians. Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity, a future Hall of Fame member, had spent nine seasons with the New York Giants. They all now played Class AA baseball, one step below major league baseball in the east.

Managed by picturesque Hap Hogan and captained by star Walter Carlisle, the Tigers traveled up and down the coast to play opponents in Portland, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, in what was called the longest season in professional baseball, 216 games that year.

In a casual photograph taken at the time, the 1913 Venice Tigers pose in their usually empty stadium. Unfortunately, there just weren't enough Tigers fans in Venice for it to pay, so the team ended up playing many of their games in Washington Park, located in downtown Los Angeles on 8th and Hill streets, whenever the home team (the Angels) was out of town. It could hold up to 15,000 kranks, as fans at the turn of the century were called.

Despite early surges, the Tigers finished fourth in the Pacific Coast League standings in both 1913 and 1914. Sadly, attendance figures for the 1914 season in Venice weren't even enough to pay the interest on Maier's investment. The crowd for the April 26th Sunday game was only 550. They finished the season with a 113-98 record.

Unfortunately, in March 1915, after an illness of only one week, manager Hap Hogan passed away at his home in Venice of pneumonia. The town mourned their fallen sports leader and flew flags at half mast. But that was about all the interest the team could rally locally.

Maier had enough and on January 4, 1915 he announced that Venice would lose its baseball franchise to Vernon. The Tigers played their last game, which they won against the Angels, in Venice on June 13, 1915. The Angels, who also used the field on Sundays, played their last game, a win over Salt Lake City, on July 5, 1915. In all only 78 regular season games were played at Tiger Field by both clubs.

Venice Park was dismantled and moved in sections off to Vernon at a cost of $7,500. So far Maier had lost about fifty grand. The team finally won the pennant in 1918, during a protracted season that was halted on July 14 by the "work or fight" order during World War I. (Baseball wasn't considered "work" yet.) Though the season was short, investors were finally attracted to the team.

One prominent individual was Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who had recently resided at 46 Brooks Avenue in Venice, and at the time was a huge silent film superstar. He purchased the Tigers in May of 1919, where his presence became a major selling-point for the '19 - '20 team. Arbuckle's interest in the team was probably spurred by his business manager and confidant, Lou Anger, whose wife was the sister-in-law of Byron Houck, Vernon's ace pitcher.

Anyway, the team had provided two colorful seasons for the Venice fans and many younger Tigers eventually gravitated to the major leagues. "Rowdy"  Elliot joined the Chicago Cubs. Joe Wilhoit bounced his way around four big league teams. "Big Ed" Klepfer, a 20-game winner for Venice in 1914, was brought up to play for the New York Yankees. 

So, today, as you cruise down Abbot Kinney on your way to Costco or wherever, pause for a brief moment to reflect on the first-ever drive-in ballpark 91 years ago right there, on the right side by, say, the Splash Dive Company or the GB Escrow building, and imagine the sound of the whallop of baseballs, the smacking of leather, cheers, beers, and old tin lizzies right here in Venice, at the old ball game.