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100 Years of Memories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trying to revisit every notable sporting event or pay tribute to every deserving athlete from the Valley and Ventura County region over the last 100 years would fill volumes.

In that respect, this exercise falls grossly short.

But it would be inconceivable, as the century comes to a close, not to remember some of the memorable sports moments that enriched the region, that gave it essence and tradition.

So, with apologies to those who might be overlooked, here are highlights and, yes, lowlights of the years gone by.

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FIRST ROUND: 1900-1939

Accounts of athletes and sporting events in the Valley early in the century are sketchy. One thing is known, though. In 1904, Burbank was home to one of the world’s top boxers.

That year, former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries retired with a 20-0 record and bought 107 acres for $10,000 at the corner of what is now Victory Boulevard and Buena Vista Street.

Jeffries first grew alfalfa on the land and later raised cattle, and he converted the ranch’s barn into a boxing and wrestling arena. He lived there until his death in 1953.

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Between 1900 and 1910, Jeffries made more than $1 million in boxing and vaudeville, lost his fortune in mining ventures and became wealthy again by investing in Valley real estate.

In 1909, Jeffries was goaded by promoters and fans to fight Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion who was loathed by white America.

Johnson became champion in 1908, outclassing another white opponent in a fight witnessed by novelist Jack London. His syndicated story on the bout was racially incendiary.

“Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the gold smile from Jack Johnson’s face,” wrote London. “Jeff, it’s up to you!”

Jeffries, who by then weighed 314 pounds, at first refused to face Johnson but gave in to pressure by racists and a $120,000 guarantee. He trained for seven months and weighed 227 for the fight on July 4, 1910, at Reno, Nev.

Johnson pounded Jeffries and won with a 15-round knockout.

A few years later, from 1917-21, one of the region’s all-time best athletes was making headlines as a five-sport star at Glendale High.

But once out of school, Floyd Caves “Babe” Herman opted for baseball and became a .324 lifetime hitter in a 13-year career with four major league teams.

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Herman--a line drive-hitting, left-handed outfielder--broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1926. He was traded to Cincinnati in 1932 and played with the Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers before finishing with Brooklyn in 1945.

In 1942, Herman was a stand-in for Gary Cooper on long shots in “The Pride of the Yankees,” the film biography of Lou Gehrig. Herman, who died in Glendale in 1987, became an expert in orchids and has one named after him.

Another Glendale High product, Frank Wykoff, was among the great sprinters in the 1920s and 1930s, and competed in three Olympics.

While at USC in 1930, Wykoff set a world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100 yards. Wykoff won gold medals as a member of the U.S. 400 relay teams at the Olympics in 1928, ’32 and ’36. Each foursome set a world record.

Glendale was home to yet one more sports celebrity in those days when Casey Stengel moved to the city in 1924, one year before his major league playing career ended.

Stengel later became a legendary manager with the New York Yankees before taking over the expansion and superbly inept New York Mets in 1962.

“Been in this game 100 years, but I see new ways to lose them I never knew existed,” Stengel said of the Mets.

Stengel, famous for his humor and malaprops, launched Glendale National Bank in 1957. He died in 1975 at 85 and is buried at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

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About 80 miles northwest of Glendale, in bucolic Ojai, tennis ruled at the time.

After picking up steam every year since its inception in 1896, the Ojai Valley tennis tournament was interrupted in 1924 when agricultural officials restricted travel to the area because of an outbreak of cattle disease.

Four years later, hoof and mouth disease kept horses and buggies from carrying players and spectators to Ojai, but it didn’t stop a young Ellsworth Vines from playing. Vines won three Grand Slam events in the early 1930s and later became a pro golfer.

“I think anyone who saw Ellsworth Vines [at Ojai] knew darn well he was going to be good,” said Joe Bixler, a former tournament official.

The venerable tournament, still going strong, attracted top players through the years, including Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Tracy Austin and Jimmy Connors.

Even through the Great Depression, The Ojai kept rolling and so did other sports in the region.

In 1930, Japanese American ballplayers in the Valley formed the San Fernando Nippons, a team that faced teams of white players. The Nippons became the Aces in 1934 and joined the Japanese Athletic Union. The team disbanded in the mid-1950s and a new Aces team was formed years later and remains active.

Football competition between local colleges began in 1933, when Glendale, which started playing in 1928, defeated Ventura’s first team, 44-0. It was one of five shutouts that season for Glendale, which finished 5-1-1 and outscored opponents, 93-12.

The dusty desert plot where Edwards Air Force Base now stands was the stage in 1935 for Bob Nordskog’s world-record, 125-mph drive in a model T Ford he had modified.

Nordskog, who became the millionaire owner of Nordskog Industries in Van Nuys, eventually turned to offshore boat racing and won more than 40 events and held more than 45 world and national speed records.

“One of the reasons I’ve won so much is I’m so damn old,” Nordskog said in 1990, a few years before his death. “I don’t give up so easy.”

Racing, on land, came to a dirt track at the Baker-Hoot Gibson Rodeo Arena in Santa Clarita in 1939. The track, closed during World War II, was paved in 1956 for stock car racing and became Saugus Speedway.

Among the notables who raced at Saugus were Bill Vukovich Sr., Troy Ruttman, Bobby and Davey Allison, Jimmy Insolo, Ron Hornaday Sr. and Jr., and Sam Hanks.

Oren Prosser started racing at Saugus in 1958 at age 18, without his parents’ permission.

“I knew my parents wouldn’t let me race, so I forged their signature,” said Prosser, who won a record four consecutive track championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The speedway closed in 1995.

HOT TO TROT: 1940-1969

As motor racing became a fixture at Saugus, horse racing was doing the same in the San Fernando Valley.

In 1943, Helen Dillman, a wealthy Valley resident, and Pete Spears, a horseman, purchased the 40-acre Devonshire Downs tract for $80,000. They opened a large part of the property to horsemen and it became a training and boarding center for standardbreds.

Around 1945, the San Fernando Valley Trotting Assn. was formed and the Downs started holding harness races on Sunday afternoons in 1946. Weekly quarterhorse races were added the following year.

Movie stars such as James Cagney and Mae West owned horses and came out to present trophies and awards.

The state bought the property in 1948 to hold fairs and expositions, and by 1959 few thoroughbred races were held at the Downs.

San Fernando Valley State College, now Cal State Northridge, acquired the property in 1967 as a grant from the state legislature and removal of the race horses began in April 1971. Northridge started playing football at the Downs, now North Campus Stadium, later that year.

Glendale was put on the racing map in 1950 when “The City of Glendale,” a car designed by A.J. Watson and Joe Mastro and built for $10,000, was among the entries at the Indianapolis 500.

The car finished 32nd with Dick Rathmann at the wheel. Watson and fellow engineer Frank Kurtis had some of the top cars at the brickyard from 1948-62.

Racing dragsters out of Santa Paula, Dave Marquez set national and track records until his retirement in 1957.

Always a baseball hotbed, the Valley started to produce notable major leaguers in the 1950s, with pitcher Don Drysdale, from Van Nuys High, leading the way.

Drysdale signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers out of Van Nuys in 1954, made the team two years later and wound up in the Hall of Fame after a 14-year career that ended in L.A.

Going from Van Nuys to Brooklyn was considerably more exciting than from Van Nuys to San Fernando, but Don Prudhomme didn’t much care in 1960.

That year, a young Prudhomme first raced at the long-gone San Fernando Drag Strip at Glenoaks Boulevard and Arroyo Avenue. He lost in a small dragster that topped 125 mph.

Several years later, Prudhomme was drag racing’s king and simply known as “The Snake.” Prudhomme, who lives in Granada Hills, started his National Hot Rod Assn. career in February 1965 at the Winternationals in Pomona. It ended on the same track in October 1994.

Perhaps the first team to capture the Valley’s imagination was the Granada Hills squad that won the 1963 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. In the first Series televised nationally, Granada Hills defeated Stratford, Conn., 2-1, in the final.

The Granada Hills players were so small, new uniforms provided by Series organizers had to be ordered before the team defeated Houston and Izmir, Turkey, to reach the championship game.

“Our biggest guy was about 5 foot 4,” said Fred Seibly years later. “And we averaged about 80 pounds.”

They weren’t much smaller than Gail Goodrich of Poly High, the sharpshooting, left-handed guard who carried the Parrots to the 1961 City basketball title and helped UCLA win its first two NCAA championships in 1964 and ’65.

Goodrich played several years in the NBA and was Jerry West’s backcourt mate when the Lakers reeled off a record 33 consecutive victories in their championship season in 1971-72. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1996.

About the time Goodrich was helping the Bruins launch a dynasty, Mike Larrabee was preparing for a worldwide splash.

Larrabee was a 30-year-old teacher at Monroe High with his sights on the 400-meter race at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

The former Ventura High and USC standout became the oldest man to win the event at the Olympics and brought home another gold medal as a member of the U.S. 1,600-meter relay.

In 1965, several years after each school opened, Pierce and Valley met in football for the first time. About 5,500 packed Valley’s stadium and watched the Monarchs win, 26-6.

The following summer, 17-year-old catcher Steve Chilcott of Antelope Valley High became the first player selected in the June amateur draft, by the New York Mets. Chilcott, who never reached the majors, was picked ahead of Reggie Jackson, Ken Brett and Richie Hebner.

It might be a long while before Northridge plays at the Rose Bowl, but the Matadors made it once to the storied stadium.

On Nov. 18, 1967, Northridge lost to West Texas State, 35-13, in the Junior Rose Bowl, which pitted elite small-college teams. West Texas State featured running backs Mercury Morris and Duane Thomas, who became NFL standouts with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.

With political and social unrest intensifying daily in the U.S., the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 were not spared, with John Carlos and Tommie Smith staging the “Black Power” salute at the awards ceremony for the men’s 200 meters.

But at the pool, Don McKenzie, a former Grant and Valley standout, was making a quiet statement by winning the men’s 100 breaststroke in an Olympic record of 1:07.7.

McKenzie won another gold medal as a member of the U.S. 400 medley relay team that set a world record.

The inexperienced U.S. men’s gymnastics team in Mexico included Steve Hug, the City Section all-around champion in 1968 while at Chatsworth. He also competed at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Until budget, safety and facility issues doomed high school gymnastics in the late 1980s, City schools competed in the sport and Monroe, Chatsworth and Grant were among the strongest. Mitch Gaylord of Grant won a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

The burgeoning sports scene in the region added boxing in the late 1960s, when the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills staged cards. The dome-shaped, theater-in-the-round building on Ventura Boulevard, near Taft, was the Valley’s first cultural center when it opened in 1964. It was demolished in 1989.

Sports writer Pete Kokon, who for nearly 60 years wrote for various publications until his death last year at 85, and promoter George Parnassus drummed up the short-lived venture.

“What happened,” Kokon once told The Times, “was that two Greeks got together to get into the boxing business. Usually when two Greeks get together, they open a restaurant.”

HOMESTRETCH: 1970-1999

Although Kokon and Parnassus couldn’t make boxing stick in the Valley, a hard-punching sensation from Pacoima was making it pay off for him.

His name was Bobby Chacon and he became the featherweight world champion in 1974 at age 22.

“The first time I saw him I said, ‘Gee, this guy’s going to be great,’ ” said Chacon’s trainer, Joe Ponce, who started boxing in the Valley in 1928.

One of the greatest fights in Southland history came on May 24, 1974, when Chacon and Danny “Little Red” Lopez slugged it out in front of 16,000 at the Sports Arena. Chacon won by knockout in the ninth round.

Chacon’s life began unraveling in the 1980s because of drug use and personal tragedies. He has been in and out of rehabilitation centers and suffers from pugilistic dementia.

By the 1970s, the region was yielding outstanding baseball players, with many climbing all the way to the major leagues. None accomplished more than Robin Yount.

A skinny shortstop with unbridled hair under his Taft High cap, Yount was the City player of the year as a senior in 1973 and was drafted that summer by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Twenty years later, with 3,142 career hits and two American League most valuable player awards, Yount retired. When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in July, Yount joined Drysdale as the only players from the region at Cooperstown.

Yount was preceded to the majors by Taft pitcher Larry Dierker, now the Houston Astros’ manager, San Fernando outfielders and neighborhood pals Buddy Bradford and Gary Matthews, Notre Dame infielder Tim Foli, Crespi catcher Rick Dempsey and Chatsworth outfielder Dwight Evans.

Yount was joined in 1973 by Monroe third baseman Doug DeCinces and followed by Kennedy outfielder Garret Anderson and pitchers Dave Schmidt of Granada Hills, Pete Redfern of Sylmar, Jack McDowell of Notre Dame and Bret Saberhagen of Cleveland, among others.

Saberhagen, now with the Boston Red Sox, pitched the only no-hitter in a City championship game, defeating Palisades, 13-0, at Dodger Stadium in 1982.

From Ventura County came Channel Islands third baseman Terry Pendleton, Thousand Oaks infielder Kurt Stillwell and Fillmore pitcher Kevin Gross. Philadelphia catcher Mike Lieberthal, from Westlake, and Cincinnati outfielder Dmitri Young, from Rio Mesa, are among the current crop.

The decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s produced fabled high school football games in the region.

“We didn’t have [stadium] lights at Taft until ’64 or ’65, so we used to play [home games] at Pierce College,” said Ray O’Connor, Taft’s former football and baseball coach. “There were times when we had 8,500 to 10,000 people for games against Birmingham, which had powerful teams then.”

Among the most heated rivalries was that of San Fernando and Granada Hills. The rivalry soared to new heights in 1970, when the schools met for the City title in front of 10,000 at Birmingham. The game, won by Granada Hills, 38-28, matched All-City quarterbacks Dana Potter of the Highlanders and Anthony Davis of San Fernando.

San Fernando, using a well-tuned wishbone attack, steamrolled to City titles in 1974 and ’75. Fullback Charles White, the Heisman Trophy winner at USC in 1979, led a foursome known as the Dream Backfield that included halfbacks Kevin and Raymond Williams, and quarterback Kenny Moore.

In 1976, a rifle-armed kid named John Elway arrived at Granada Hills and, when he left after three varsity seasons, had passed for 5,701 yards and 49 touchdowns. But the future Hall of Famer, who retired in January after leading the Denver Broncos to their second consecutive Super Bowl title, never came closer to a City championship than the semifinals in 1978.

Elway never played with the Broncos in the Valley, but pro football, or a poor imitation of it, came to Pierce on June 15, 1985.

A crowd of 8,200 overflowed the school’s 5,000-seat stadium to watch the United States Football League’s Los Angeles Express, with quarterback Steve Young--yes, Steve Young--play the Arizona Outlaws in the season finale. The Express and the USFL folded soon after.

Olympic athletes from the region were back in the spotlight in the 1980s.

After breezing to a pairs figure skating world championship in 1979, Tai Babilonia of Mission Hills and partner Randy Gardner were the gold-medal favorites at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., but withdrew just before the competition because of an injury to Gardner.

Nothing, however, was going to stop Bill Johnson at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo.

Johnson, a free-spirited and outspoken skier from Van Nuys, became the first American man to win an Olympic downhill medal when he claimed the gold to the astonishment of many, but not himself.

The course was relatively free of turns, which perfectly suited a “glider” like Johnson, who brashly predicted a victory.

“I don’t even know why everyone else is here,” Johnson said. “They should hand [the gold medal] to me. Everyone else can fight for second place.”

After the race, Austrian and Swiss skiers said Johnson won because the course was easy.

“If it’s so easy, why didn’t they win?” Johnson responded.

Few would have ever connected the word “easy” to Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, where the LPGA first visited from 1985-87.

Considered among the toughest courses on the tour, Jan Stephenson won the GNA Classic at Oakmont in 1985 with a two-over-par, the highest winning score on the LPGA that year.

Oakmont became a tour stop again in 1997 and 1998 by hosting the Los Angeles Women’s Championship.

On the men’s side, Valencia Country Club got into the act in 1998, hosting the Nissan Open. Billy Mayfair beat Tiger Woods in a playoff to claim first place and $378,000.

The decade of the ‘90s ushered in the Marion Jones era.

Jones, among the greatest female athletes ever, owned girls’ track in California from 1990-93, winning an unprecedented nine state titles.

As a sophomore at Rio Mesa in 1991, Jones set the national 200 record and did it again the following year after transferring to Thousand Oaks. She finished fourth at the 1992 Olympic trials.

She won the 100 at the World Championships in Seville, Spain, in August but collapsed in the 200 semifinals with back spasms.

Youth baseball brought attention to the region in 1994 when Northridge’s Little League team, dubbed the Earthquake Kids, advanced to the World Series final but lost to Venezuela. A team from Moorpark fulfilled a dream by advancing to Williamsport in 1996.

A dream of another kind, but of no less significance, materialized for Kennedy’s Kevin Serr on June 1, 1995.

That night, Serr belted a 370-foot, three-run home run in the fifth inning and helped hoist the Golden Cougars to a 3-1 victory over Carson in the City 4-A Division title game at Dodger Stadium.

“It’s the greatest moment of my life,” Serr said. “The best feeling on Earth.”

The worst feeling on Earth? A couple come to mind, both involving Cal State Northridge.

In June 1997, the university dropped baseball and three other men’s sports because of gender-equity and budgetary concerns. The community reacted angrily and Northridge reinstated the programs two months later.

Little more than a year later, just before the start of the 1998-99 basketball season, Northridge women’s coach Michael Abraham was arrested on campus on federal drug trafficking charges. Earlier this month, Abraham was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

The shaken Matadors rallied under interim Coach Frozena Jerro, winning the Big Sky Conference regular-season title, the conference tournament and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.

Northridge is back playing strong under Jerro, hired as coach in March, and helping start with a bang another century of sports in the region, hopefully as interesting as the one about to end.


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