The History of the Los Angeles Kings
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
William Randolph Hearst originally got his start in the American business world selling newspapers; it would be in professional sports, however, that Hearst ultimately made his mark on America-- just after World War I ended the famed tycoon became fascinated with the notion of starting up and running his own baseball club, and seeing how the Black Sox scandal of 1919 had cast a pall over established pro teams he thought the time might be ripe for him to offer an alterative to the "tainted" American and National Leagues. With that in mind, in the summer of 1920 he invited several prominent West Coast businessmen to his San Simeon estate to discuss the idea of forming a new league.
The following spring Hearst’s new association of professional baseball clubs, officially known as the Continental League, made its debut with franchises in Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Portland. The Los Angeles club, of which Hearst was a majority owner, was dubbed the Kings because Hearst meant for them, in his own words, to be "kings of the diamond".1 And as far as the Continental League was concerned, anyway, Hearst quickly made good on that boast; the Kings won back-to-back CL pennants in the league’s first two seasons, and by its fifth season the Kings were leading the CL in per-game attendance at their home field, which Hearst had somewhat grandiloquently dubbed Hearst Palladium.
Other leagues had tried in the past to compete with the NL and AL and quickly folded in the face of legal and financial pressures; with Hearst’s money backing the Continental League up, however, it would prove a considerably tougher nut for the two older leagues to crack. Indeed, some sportswriters predicted that the CL might in time swallow one or both leagues up-- a prospect which, as one can probably imagine, did not please MLB commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis very much.
With that in mind, Landis convened an extraordinary special meeting of the MLB owners’ committee at the end of the 1923 season and broached the idea of stretching MLB’s reach further west by either creating new teams or moving some of the existing franchises to new cities in Western states. Not surprisingly, the relocation option met with heavy resistance; Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert was the most vocal opponent, literally screaming in protest at the thought of his club being uprooted from New York City, even then a major American sports hub.
On the other hand, the idea of creating new franchises got major support from those in attendance at the meeting. Major league teams had been making barnstorming trips out west for years anyway, so it seemed like the next logical step to create full-time clubs that would represent the great cities of the American West. To connect these new teams with each other, and with the existing AL and NL franchises, the owners decided to take advantage of the nation’s vast transcontinental rail networks and run special express trains from city to city. Where possible, these trains would be supplemented by short-distance charter aircraft flights.
As a further counterattack against the upstart Continental League, Landis sought to put at least a few of the MLB expansion clubs in some of the same cities then hosting CL franchises. He got a boost on that front when the CL’s Seattle ballclub, chronically mismanaged in both financial and athletic terms, went out of business at the end of the 1928 baseball season. In what became MLB’s first major foray into CL turf, Landis personally telegraphed the Seattle team’s top executives to offer them positions with the new club MLB was forming to take the place of the defunct CL franchise.
With one conspicuous exception, the execs all took Commissioner Landis up on his offer. A few months after the Landis telegrams, the Seattle Schooners joined the National League for the 1929 MLB season. That wholesale pilfering of the Seattle CL team’s entire front office constituted the first blow in the eventual demise of the Continental League; the second blow would come in October of that year, when the New York stock market crash plunged America into the Great Depression and cut deeply into William Randolph Hearst’s personal fortune.
Hearst’s finances would take years to recover from the damage inflicted on them by the Depression; his baseball league would never recover. The Oklahoma City CL franchise would go bankrupt before the end of the 1931 season and the Minneapolis club would be placed into receivership, while the league’s other surviving franchises struggled to keep their heads above water. By 1933, the Portland team had also gone bankrupt and the CL itself was on the verge of total collapse.
Shortly after the 1934 World Series, Kennesaw Mountain Landis convened another special meeting of the MLB owners’ committee, this one to debate the question of whether to negotiate a merger of the American and National Leagues with Hearst’s weakening Continental League. This idea met with considerable support from the committee, and in December of 1934 Landis visited William Randolph Hearst at Hearst’s San Simeon mansion to get the ball rolling on the proposed merger between the Continental League and MLB.
Five months later, Landis officially announced the merger of the Continental League and MLB after the end of the 1935 baseball season. Under the terms of the merger pact, the Los Angeles Kings and two of their sister CL clubs, the San Francisco Prospectors and the Kansas City Longhorns, would become part of the American League; the Phoenix Suns and the Minneapolis Ramblers would join Seattle in the National League; the defunct Portland CL franchise would be revived as a minor league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds; the remaining assets of the old Oklahoma City CL team would be sold off and the profits divided among the five surviving CL franchises; Hearst would retain control of the Kings as that team’s principal owner; and the CL’s all-time top players would receive the same consideration as their AL and NL peers for the Baseball Hall of Fame then under construction in Cooperstown, New York.
On September 29th, 1935 the Continental League played its last-ever game; fittingly, it took place at Hearst Palladium and the Kings won 5-3 over the San Francisco Prospectors. The winning pitcher that afternoon: Kings No. 2 starter Jerome Hanna "Dizzy" Dean, a goofball of the first order who nevertheless could boast some impressive skills on the mound and who the St. Louis Cardinals had once tried to recruit for their own starting rotation.
The addition of new expansion clubs to MLB, combined with the MLB-Continental League merger, would lead to a dramatic restructuring of the American and National Leagues for the 1936 baseball season. At their annual winter meeting following the 1935 World Series, the MLB owners’ executive committee approved a realignment under which the AL and NL would both be split into Eastern and Western divisions; the two teams that finished first in each division in the regular season would then square off in a best-of-5 League Championship Series(LCS), with the winners of each LCS then going head-to-head in the World Series. A number of major league owners groused about the realignment, saying it went against the traditions of the game, but the majority were behind it-- Col. Jacob Ruppert, for one, saw the new divisional format as an opportunity for his Yankees to add still more banners to their already ample collection of championship pennants.
Another advocate of the realignment was then-Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey, who had already revolutionized baseball once before with his invention of the modern farm system for developing players and would do so a third time when he brought Jackie Robinson into the majors in 1947 as GM for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey felt the new divisional format might lend an added dose of excitement to pennant races, which would help boost attendance for all major league clubs, and also level the playing field by rotating teams through a wider array of opponents instead of having them face the same five or six clubs over and over again.
Rickey proved to be right on both counts. The 1936 MLB season was one of the most competitive in baseball history; each of the four newly established divisions had more than one lead change during the first half of the year, and one in particular-- the Western Division in the National League --saw the top spot change hands five times in ten days during the month of June alone. It was also the season when the Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Kings(assigned to the American League Western Division following the MLB-CL merger) became the first teams in MLB history to reach total regular season attendance figures of one million fans.
Shortly after the MLB-CL merger was finalized, some sportswriters openly questioned whether Hearst’s Kings could adjust from being top dogs in the CL to being one of many pennant contenders in the American League. The Kings not only adjusted to their new home, they thrived in it; when the 1936 MLB season was over, the Kings were second only to the Yankees in wins and in regular season attendance. They clinched the first-ever American League West division championship on the final weekend of September when they swept the Chicago White Sox in a three- game set at Hearst Palladium.
On October 1st, 1936 the Yankees, winners of the inaugural AL East division championship, boarded a train for Los Angeles to take part in Game 1 of the 1936 American League Championship Series. Accompanying them were a veritable brigade of sportswriters and thousands of Yankee fans eager to see the Bronx Bombers dismantle the Kings; however, it was New York that got dismantled as Dizzy Dean worked eight and a half innings to pitch the Kings to a three-run shutout of the Yanks. After that loss, and seeing Dean’s distinctive pitching technique, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy was heard to growl to his third base coach: "That ain’t a pitcher, that’s a goddam circus clown."
The Yankees got some of their own back in Game 2 when first baseman Lou Gehrig, the celebrated "Iron Horse", belted a one-out bases loaded double into the gap in center field in the top of the ninth inning to give New York a 5-4 victory and tie the ALCS at one game each going into Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. The excitement and fast pace of the first two games of the series made converts out of many of those who had formerly opposed the new playoff system; the profits that accrued to MLB during the ALCS would make still more converts.
Game 3 saw Yankee Stadium packed to the brim for what both the Yankees and the Kings understood would be a crucial turning point in the series. A Los Angeles win would shift the momentum back in favor of the Kings, while a New York win would put the Yankees in position to clinch the series in Game 4. In no uncertain terms William Randolph Hearst told the Kings’ manager, ex-Giants hitting great Al Bridwell, that not just the season was on the line but Bridwell’s job too-- if the Kings lost the ALCS, Hearst hinted grimly, Bridwell could expect to be fired. To this stick the former newspaper tycoon-turned-sports bigwig added a carrot: if the Kings won Game 3 and then took Game 4 to get into the World Series Bridwell, whose existing contract was scheduled to expire after the 1937 season, would get a new five-year deal and a $60,000 per season raise in salary.
Knowing what was at stake, Bridwell called a Kings team meeting in the Yankee Stadium visitors’ clubhouse on the eve of Game and told his players that if they won the next two ALCS games and took the AL pennant he would personally throw them a steak banquet at Hollywood’s famous Brown Derby restaurant. That did the trick: the Kings shelled New York 7-1 in Game 3 and rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the seventh inning of Game 4 to beat the Yanks 5-3 and take the ALCS three games to one. Making good on his pledge, Bridwell threw his promised steak banquet upon the team’s return to Los Angeles; then it was time to get back to business and prepare for a showdown in the 1936 World Series against another famous New York club, the National League champion Giants.
Giants manager Bill Terry, who’d succeeded the legendary John Graw following McGraw’s retirement during the 1933 season, wasn’t much impressed with Los Angeles despite its regular season record or its ALCS triumph against the Yankees. To cut "Hearst’s traveling circus", as he called it, down to size he chose 1935 All-Star Game hero Carl Hubbell as his starting pitcher for the first game of the 1936 World Series. Al Bridwell countered with Dizzy Dean, and so the stage was set for another coast-to-coast postseason duel....
To Be Continued
1Quoted from an official Hearst Corporation press release dated March 15th, 1921.