By Jim McConnell
Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson took that first step toward baseball stardom the week of April 14, 1935. The stage was the Pomona Baseball Tournament. How they got there, and what they did there, is explained by those who were there.
The Pomona High School Baseball Tournament was started in 1933. Stan Acres, the baseball coach at Pomona High, wanted to keep his players busy playing baseball during the week leading up to Easter Sunday. “Otherwise, they would go down to the beach, lie around, get sunburned and lazy, and I couldn’t get them back in the harness for the last half of the season,” Acres remembered in a 1976 interview. “I found out the other baseball coaches in our area had the same problem. So I thought up the idea of the tournament. Got the Pomona 20-30 Club, a group of young men sort of like a Junior Chamber of Commerce, to sponsor it, got the principal at Pomona High, Howdy Reynolds, to back it and off we went.
“The one thing I insisted on was that we invite San Diego High. At that time Mike Morrow was coach there and he had put together this incredible baseball program. I figured as long as we had Morrow’s team in the tournament people would pay to see it.”
However, there was a complication in securing San Diego High for the tournament. A second high school had started up in the city, and the San Diego school board insisted that if San Diego High was going to play, Hoover High also had to be invited.
Acres and the 20-30 Club were now faced with the problem of having two San Diego teams to house and feed during tournament week. They were able to get a local hotel and the YMCA to provide rooms, and the Pomona school district and a local restaurant to supply free meals. But there was a full field of 32 teams in 1935, and with the extra players from Hoover, Acres ran out of rooms and had to house some of the players in private homes.
Hoover’s Ted Williams was one of those players.
“We had Ted and another Hoover player stay with the Reynolds family. Howdy owned a big home up in north Pomona, in the middle of the orange groves,” Acres said. “The funny thing is, Howdy Reynolds picked those two. He took Ted, because he was so skinny, and this other kid, because he was so fat. He figured the two would cancel each other out at the dinner table.
“The way it ended up, the fat kid stayed one night, didn’t eat anything but a bowl of vanilla ice cream, cried because he was homesick, and we had to put him on a bus and send him back to San Diego the next day.”
Like his Hoover teammate, Ted had never been away from home. But he thoroughly enjoyed his stay with the Reynolds — especially the food.
“Truth to tell, I don’t think Ted had much of a home life,” Acres said. “With the Reynolds, Ted couldn’t get over the fact that they ate three meals a day, sitting down at the table. With silverware and napkins. Reynolds said Ted was all elbows and excuse me’s at the table. But he learned.
“By the end of the week, Ted was sitting down for dinner like a gentleman. He stayed over for Good Friday, and spent that afternoon reading the Bible to the Reynolds kids. Because Ted’s language was a little rough, Mrs. Reynolds was reluctant to have him do that, but it turned out he knew the Easter story from memory. Later, we found out his mom was some sort of big wheel in the Salvation Army. While he was here, Ted never mentioned his parents. Howdy Reynolds told him he could use the house phone to call his parents in San Diego. Ted told him no, they wouldn’t want to hear from him, that they were just glad to get rid of him for a week.”
Williams played the outfield for Hoover in 1935, and was also the team’s No. 1 pitcher. Hoover lost its tournament opener on Monday, but then won four straight games to capture the tournament’s consolation title. Williams won a couple of those games pitching, but his hitting was the sensation of the 1935 tournament.
“He was amazing,” said Leonard “Red” Hoey, a member of the 20-30 Club at that time, in a 1991 interview. “Tall kid, couldn’t have weighed over 150 pounds, but once he swung the bat you knew he was there. The ball would make that special sound [coming off the bat] and everything he hit he hit hard. I played semi-pro ball back in Pittsburgh, so I had seen some pretty high-caliber guys. But you just knew Ted was special.”
“Funny thing, through the years the story came up that Morrow had cut Ted off the San Diego High team, and that’s how he wound up at Hoover,” Acres said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth was Ted just didn’t think he was good enough to play for Morrow and so he never bothered to try out. Eventually, Ted did play on Mike’s summer American Legion team, and the two became friends.
“Ted was a junior there in 1935, I didn’t know anything about him but Morrow told me to ‘watch this kid.’ I’ll tell you something else, the Hoover coach didn’t send me one word about Ted or his team for the program and didn’t even recommend him for the outstanding tournament player award. Mike did that. So don’t believe it if someone tells you that Morrow missed the boat on Ted.”
Ted’s weight, or lack thereof, made him an easy target for the bench jockeys.
“Geez, he was skinny, painfully skinny,” Red Embree, who pitched for Citrus High in the 1935 Pomona Tournament, said in a 1992 interview. “And he hated to be made fun of, had rabbit ears as they say in baseball. But once he swung that bat, look out.
“I thought I had a pretty darn good fastball back then. But we watched Hoover play its first game (of the tournament) and Ted just whaled on fastballs. He hit four balls right on the button. Three line drives and a long home run. At the Pomona High baseball field, there was the running track out beyond right field, over 350 feet away. Ted hit one on the track. So I kind of figured I might want to be careful with this goofy-looking guy when I pitched.
“We played ‘em the next day, and I struck Ted out the first time up, using my off-speed stuff. Next time, I figure I’m gonna sneak a fastball by him. He’s mad because he struck out and because our guys at yelling at him, things like ‘Didn’t your mama ever feed you?’ and stuff like that.
“I learned that you don’t want to get Ted mad. He got around on that fastball and that damn ball is probably still going. It went over the rightfielder’s head, over the track and it almost cleared the other side. There were railroad tracks out beyond the track and for a moment I thought the damned ball would clear those, too.
“Someone came up to me afterward and told me Ted hit it 450 feet. All I know is it was the longest damn home run I had ever seen. I just could not believe that skinny guy could hit a ball that far.”
“I was working that game for the 20-30,” said Hoey. “They had me down the rightfield line, to keep kids off the field and chase foul balls. Here comes Teddy, and I know from his game the day before he hit one on the track, which rarely happened. This time, against Red Embree who had a really good fastball, he just hit the hell out of it, a high fly that kept on going. The rightfielder didn’t even bother to look. Finally the ball comes down, and it sticks there in a mud puddle in the infield of the track. So I take a stick to mark the spot. In those days, no one thought about tape-measure home runs, but this one was so amazing that I was curious as to how it went.
“After the game, myself and another 20-30 Club guy took that 10-yard marker they use in football out of the lockerroom and measured from home plate out to where I put the stick. It was 450 feet, give or take a foot. I probably saw 500 games at that park over the years, and never did I see anyone hit a ball anywhere near where Teddy hit his.”
Embree, a 6-foot, 150-pound righthander, went on to a big league career of his own.
“Years later, in 1942, I’m called up to the Indians,” Embree recalled. “We’re in Boston and I’m sitting in our dugout, minding my own business. And then I hear Ted. He’s standing outside the Red Sox dugout, yelling “Red! Red Embree! Come on over here!” I’m amazed he even remembers me. But he waves me over, shakes my hand and grabs my shoulder with his other hand. And he’s kind of holding me there and he says to the other Red Sox players ‘Look at this! Here’s the only son of a bitch in baseball who’s skinnier than I am!’”
Williams wound up hitting .578 in the tournament, with three home runs. He pitched three games and won two of them but gave up 12 runs in 17 innings. Clearly, his bat made him a prospect.
“We got Jack Lelivelt, the manager of the Angels, to come out on Thursday and present the championship trophy,” Acres said. “He showed up early to watch Hoover play in the consolation final, he had seen the write-ups in the Pomona newspaper about this Williams kid and wanted to have a look-see.
“Ted was only 16 years old then, and pretty rough around the edges, but Lelivelt saw something there. Afterward, he had me take Ted aside so he could talk to him. He got Ted’s address and it was arranged that he would send Ted a bus ticket to L.A. and free tickets to an Angels game, and that Ted would work out for the Angels brass before the game. The deal was, if they liked what they saw they would sign him.
“It wasn’t all that unheard of for a PCL team would sign a 16-year-old. Heck, Bobby Doerr signed when he was 15 and [Joe] DiMaggio was only 16. But the Angels were absolutely the best team in the league. If Lelivelt thought Ted could play with them, that was really something.
“What happened? Turned out Ted never showed for the tryout. The next summer, Ted signed with the Padres. So when he sees him Lelivelt asks Ted why he never made it to Wrigley Field for the tryout. Ted told him he got to thinking about it and decided he just wasn’t good enough to play in the PCL. So he threw the tickets away. Can you beat that?”
At the same time Williams was making a big impression in Pomona, so was Muir Tech’s Jackie Robinson. Hoover and Muir wound up playing for the consolation championship. Hoover won, 8-7, despite three hits and three stolen bases by Robinson, including a steal of home.
“Everyone knew that Muir had black athletes,” Acres said. “They had three or four on the baseball team, including Robinson. At the time, I didn’t know Jackie, but I knew his brother Mack, a great athlete. The problem for me was, where to house the black guys. We only had one black family in Pomona back then, and you couldn’t really call it a family. There was an old colored fellow named Zeke who lived in a shack down by the tracks with what you would call his common-law wife. Pomona was a real closed-off place. The Muir guys had to travel back and forth from Pasadena, we had nowhere to put ‘em. But a better group of players we didn’t have. No problems with the Muir players. And they did a great job in the tournament, getting all the way to the finals.”
Tournament week began with a banquet on Sunday night. For 1935, it was held at the dining hall at Pomona College, in neighboring Claremont.
“Joe E. Brown was our guest speaker in 1933 and 1934,” Acres said. “For 1935, he couldn’t make it. Somehow, we were able to get Will Rogers. That’s how big the tournament had gotten. Shoot, we had the governor of California throw out the first pitch. Other than the County Fair, [the tournament] was the biggest thing going in Pomona.”
Rogers’ appearance remained in doubt the night of the banquet. He was over an hour late arriving. It turned out he assumed the banquet was at Pomona Junior College, in Pomona, rather than Pomona College, in Claremont.
“Rogers finally shows up, and of course everybody in the place lets out a cheer,” Carl Bruner, a member of the 20-30 Club (and later on, director of the tournament) remembered in a 1977 interview. “We were kind of expecting a big entourage but it was just Will and his chauffeur, who happened to be a black man.
“Will says he’s sorry he missed dinner, but maybe someone ‘kin russle up some grub for Sam.’ That was his chauffeur. Then Will put on a great show, while his chauffeur sits in his seat and eats Will’s dinner. When Sam is done eating, he helps out Will with some rope tricks.
“Afterward, everyone rushes up to get Will’s autograph. Everyone except Jackie Robinson. He goes over and asks Sam the chauffeur for an autograph. Soon, the line to get Sam’s autograph is as long as the one in front of Will. All because of Jackie. So I kind of got the impression that this is a special kid.
“As the players are filing out, I’m handing out tickets to the games. I telling them they get two, one for their mother and one for their father. Nobody says anything other than thanks until I get to Jackie. He says ‘I don’t have a daddy and my mama works. But can I have one for my brother and one for my preacher?’
“Never did I ever have another player ask for a ticket for his preacher. So I wondered about that and later that week I asked a couple of the other Muir players.
Jackie’s brother Mack, I knew about. But his preacher? The other Muir guys explained it. At the time Amos & Andy was the biggest thing on radio. And a lot of white people thought that’s how blacks really talked. Jackie got mad at someone who said he sounded like a character from Amos & Andy. So, on his own, he went 2-3 times a week after school to a preacher there in Pasadena to take diction lessons. In later years, everyone when they first met Jackie was impressed by how well-spoken he was. He was very determined to make something of himself.”
Muir Tech, in part because of the trip from Pasadena to Pomona (in those pre-freeway days, it could take two hours), was late arriving for its first game on Monday, had no warmups or infield, and lost the game. After that, Muir won three straight to reach the consolation final against Hoover.
“Jackie was the catcher for Muir,” Acres said. “He really wasn’t a catcher, but I guess they didn’t have anyone else to play there. But he was definitely was impressive, a real leader on that team.
“The only incident that happened with Jackie was certainly not his fault. Muir is playing its second or third game and the other team puts on a steal and the batter pulls his bat back and brushes Jackie as he is trying to throw to second. Jackie whirled and complained to the umpire. Unfortunately, we were using volunteer umps from the 20-30 Club and the guy either didn’t see the interference or wouldn’t call it. So I mentioned it to him between innings, and also to the coach of the other team. And I didn’t use that ump again.
“I really should have gone up to the Muir coach and Jackie afterward and apologized. I didn’t, and I still feel bad about that. I don’t know if the player did it because Jackie was black, but judging from some of the bench jockeying by that team I have my suspicions.”
For the tournament’s final day, a large number of scouts and “birddogs” turned out. Mostly, they were there to see a powerful Long Beach Poly team play in the championship game. But some, like Lelivelt, showed up early for the San Diego Hoover-Muir Tech game.
“One guy who was there was Jack Fournier,” Acres said. “He was coaching baseball at UCLA, and also scouting for Branch Rickey. Later on, he became chief scout for the St. Louis Browns. Anyway, during the championship game we are polling all these baseball guys about the outstanding player in the tournament. And I’ll never forget Fournier saying, ‘well, no one is ever going to see the best kid out there in the majors, but if I could I’d sign him in a minute.’ And of course he was talking about Jackie Robinson.
“What Fournier did do was to talk to Jackie afterward, tell him he had the ability to play major college sports. And that paved the way for Jackie to go to UCLA. And if Jackie doesn’t go to UCLA, he probably never gets a look by Branch Rickey and the Dodgers. So that tournament was a time when both Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson really came into their own.”
NOTE ON SOURCES: The above interviews were conducted for articles by the author originally published in the Pomona Progress-Bulletin (1975-88) and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune (1989-95).
TOURAMENT HISTORY: The Pomona High School Tournament was held annually in the week prior to Easter from 1933 to 2000. At its peak, it featured a 48-team field, with teams coming from as far as Bakersfield and Yuma. Over 170 of its participants went on to play in the major leagues, including future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Bob Lemon, Ralph Kiner, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews and Dick Williams.