No. 45 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
“I’m tired of hearing about money. Money. Money. Money. Money. All I want to do is play the game, drink Pepsi and wear Reeboks.”
— Shaquille O’Neal
Years ago, I held one of the best jobs of my life. I was The Mighty Signal’s sports editor. Granted. It burned me out and for years, I never wanted to walk by a sporting goods store let alone watch any athletic contest. Back in the 1970s, I remember getting an accusing letter from a non-fan. As in today, this newspaper’s primary focus was on high school and local sports.
This outraged father had taken on the Herculean task of measuring, by column inch, how much space had been devoted the past — YEAR — to sports coverage on Hart, Canyon and the first-year campus of Saugus.
The sports dad noted that Hart and Canyon had significantly more ink than Saugus. Why, he wondered? Because The Signal “hated Saugus.” The Centurion fan followed up with several phone calls over my head to the Newhall family, who patiently explained that being older schools, the Cowboys and Indians 1) had more sports teams than the Centurions; and B) we couldn’t write stories about “Saugus Still Not In Playoffs.”
Sports is the most marvelous of distractions. Even the deepest of rivalries help bring a community together in good-natured kidding, boasts and banter. Funniest thing though. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once noted that with players on all levels switching teams so frequently, all a sports fan is doing is rooting for clothes.
Over the decades, The Signal has printed the names of tens of thousands of athletes, professional to itty-bitty T-ballers. It wasn’t until 1974 when this paper started its own, separate sports section. It came out on a Monday and was four to eight pages, broadsheet.
Of course, The Mighty Signal has been covering sports for a century.
Sports Back in the Good Old Days…
Society has changed. To an almost manic degree, parents get their kids involved in organized sports at an early age. The art of children just — playing outside — is endangered. Kids used to slide down hills on toboggans made of discarded cardboard — in 100-degree SCV heat. Up until the 1960s here, one of the top sports was shooting, even by kids, mostly boys. We boxed. Played sandlot baseball and football. Sometimes, kids just played tag, hide-and-seek and catch, without a single point being involved.
Here’s some sports trivia for you. Thank Mr. J.H. Furgeson of Southern California Edison for coming up with the valley’s first semi-pro baseball team. Back in January 1923, Furgeson created a league of teams from Burbank, Lankershim, Van Nuys, Chatsworth, Owensmouth (Canoga Park), San Fernando, Newhall and Saugus. Alas, much of Saugus’ ball club was wiped out in the St. Francis Dam Disaster of 1928. Later, another team, owned by world-famous author and creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, would be added. His Apemen squad played up here on the old ballfields at Newhall Elementary.
Heated controversy and sports are handmaidens. For example, we cite the following description of Newhall’s May 1925 victory over Santa Paula. Besides being the SCV’s first cowboy poet, The Signal’s Thornton Doelle was also the valley’s first sports writer. Noted Thorny: “The Santa Paula outfit don’t know what good sportsmanship means. They are as big a bunch of crybabies and rowdies as ever shamed a diamond by their presence. No team that deeply respects baseball would ever give them a return game.” Our reporter was rather miffed at the alleged shabby treatment by our neighbor to the west. As Doelle described: “They kept hitting batsmen and then threatened the umpire, an SP local, to yank 6 runs off the scoreboard in the 9th inning!”
More teams were added to the league over the years, and some disbanded. In 1926, Douglas Aircraft made perhaps the grandest entrance of any sports team in history. The DA’s flew into Newhall International Airport (near the future Granary Square then) on a custom big-prop plane. They left after a 3-3 tie, called on darkness.
Over the years, it wasn’t all roses for our semi-pro squads. There was an epic all-woman fight in the local bleachers in 1934. Same year, a local businessman promised to donate a brand new mitt to the player who had the least errors the next contest. Seems our Wildcats committed a record 19 errors. Pitcher Bob Thompson grinned at the offer, saying he liked his chances at the new mitt.
Of course, when the Saugus Bobcats played the Newhall Tigers in 1925, most of the valley’s 500-plus souls were there to watch.
Newhall suffered a 25-1 disembowelment. I truly love the peppy sports writing style of the Roaring ’20s from Doelle: “The ’cats played a snappy game all the way through. Their fielding operations were almost air-tight, and when at bat, they bumped the old pill all over the lot.”
By the way. After the Newhall squad lost by two dozen runs, their manager, Lee Carson, resigned. He cited that his players would not: “Lend him their ears.”
First-ever high school baseball game in SCV history?
On June 18, 1946, the all-frosh campus of Hart High out-slugged the 7th and 8th graders of Newhall Elementary, 14-6. Interestingly, the brand-new Hart High, which had just 9th graders in 1946, didn’t have a campus. They held classes in Quonset huts in the back of Newhall Elementary.
Val Verde was pretty much a segregated all-black community during the Great Depression. Signal Editor Dad Thatcher made front-page notice, though, of an African-American lad at Val Verde Park who was reportedly was hitting home runs miles over the fence at an estimated 550 feet — with a softball.
It’s funny how, day after day, we make heroes of our children, how their god-like photos appear on the sports pages. The year was 1973. Few folks realized that the quiet, stately janitor at Castaic Elementary had such an amazing past. On June 6, Vic Harris was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame for his play in the old Negro Baseball League. That wasn’t much of a surprise. Harris’ picture hung in Cooperstown in the Baseball Hall of Fame a year earlier. Harris played for many teams, but primarily for the Homestead Grays from 1931 to 1948. He made about $1,000 a month — not bad money during those tough years. Of course, the Castaic man earned his money. A typical season was 200 games. Harris played not only against the greats of the NBL (like Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige and even a young Jackie Robinson). He also faced the great white players in off-season exhibition games. Harris played against Babe Ruth, the Connie Mack All-Stars and once tripled off Dizzy Dean.
Just in baseball alone, there were so many SCV players who made the bigs. Hart’s Bob Walk won a game in the World Series. Todd Zeile (his mom used to be The Signal’s general manager) in his 16-year Major League career would set a record for the player to have hit a home run for the most different teams (11).
The Heroes & the Haunted…
One of my favorite people was voted by The Signal as the greatest athlete in the history of the SCV. That would be football legend Joe Kapp. The 1950s Indian star is the answer to a sports trivia question: “Who is the only man to quarterback a team in the Super Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the Grey Cup (Canada’s Super Bowl)?” He was also coach of Cal in the infamous Band Bowl game vs. Stanford AND he still holds the record (tied with seven QBs) for most TD passes in a single game, seven.
Cool trivia? In 1955, the SCV was a one-school, tiny farming village. In the SAME backfield as Kapp at Hart was the fullback, Gary Yurosek. He would later get into show business, change his name and become the movie star Gary Lockwood.
Fred DeBernardi was one of the most amazing physical specimens ever to play sports in the SCV. At 6-foot-8 and a lean 250 pounds, he was an all-CIF football player for Hart, one of the fastest sprinters in the Southland, a future NFL player, and 1967 high school discus champ. Later, “DeBo” would be one of the few people on Earth ever to put the 16-pound pro shot more than 70 feet.
Saugus Centurion Tom Gibson Jr. played for the New England Patriots. His dad was a friend of mine. Tom Gibson Sr. is forever in the SCV record books. He threw the first-ever touchdown pass in an Oct. 3, 1947, high school game at Hart’s first-ever home game on their new field. Wish Tom was still around to kid. They lost to Lompoc, 20-6.
There was Canyon High’s impossible 46-game win streak ending in a dramatic, 21-20 loss to Antelope Valley in 1986. They just missed the 47-game record, set by Cardinal Newman. Just three years earlier, both Hart and Canyon went undefeated and took CIF championships in their divisions.
Interestingly, the person MOST people in America watched at a football game was the Hasley Canyon resident, Richard Saukku. For years, he rode Traveler III, the USC white horse, at the home games. Had the best seat in the house.
One of the most famous athletes of his era called the SCV home, but didn’t want to.
In 1947, Wayside Honor Rancho (today, Peter Pitchess Detention Center) was a country club holding house for lower-case and celebrity criminals, including their prison basketball star, actor Robert Mitchum. Tennis superstar “Big” Bill Tilden spent nearly a year at Wayside on a homosexual morals charge. Guards said the once-chipper champion seemed to be a broken man. In the 1920s, he never lost a single important match in a seven-year-period and led the United States to as many Davis Cups — a record that no country or player has come close to a century later. Tilden’s affection for the same sex came into light in a Nov. 23, 1946, arrest. He was seen fondling a teenage boy on Sunset Boulevard. Tilden defended that the youth was a male prostitute. He would later be arrested in 1949 on similar charges.
Put up Your Dukes…
The SCV has a long connection with boxers. Every Friday night for years, we had amateur boxing at the American Legion Hall — and, all over the valley. Ladies were rarely seen at the bouts.
Heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey trained here in 1920s. A Signal reporter in 1925 noted Dempsey could “…knock a bull clean off a bridge.”
Heavyweight champ “Gentleman” Jim Corbett started the Hercules Dynamite Factory on Soledad that would later become our largest employer — Bermite.
In the 1920s, out in Sand Canyon, Norman Selby was having a rousing argument with his wife. Norm’s teen son didn’t like the tone and subject matter and decked his dad. Bloody nose and grinning ear to ear, Norm jumped up off the kitchen floor and hugged his son for the punch. Norm was the world-famous middleweight champ who fought as Kid McCoy. His son would follow as a pro boxer.
Not quite close to boxing is wrestling. A former COC basketball star, Steve Borden was more famous for his ring name. He was the world-champion wrestler, Sting.
And not all sports stories end happily. Tommy McFarland died a few days before Christmas, 1945. He was at first listed as the John Doe who stepped out in front of a speeding car on Highway 99. The motorist swerved to avoid him and the aging man in the tattered clothes just stepped back in to be hit head-on. The final blow was a death one. Tommy McFarland had once boxed for the lightweight championship of the world and ran a camp for boxers in Castaic. He had not a cent on him when he died and was emaciated from winter and hunger. Locals reported he lived scavenging from garbage cans.
There are too many of them.
Without debate, the biggest Cinderella story in local sports took place in March 1987. A short, slow and third-place-in-league Saugus High basketball team ended up as the 64th seed in the CIF tourney. They beat some of the top teams in California, including trouncing No. 1-ranked Rolling Hills in the championship game, 66-53. When asked who should play him in the movie, Saugus coach John Clark quipped: “Robert Redford.”
Then there’s the school colors Hart has been worshipping for 50-plus years. Prior to 1968, they used to be maroon and grey. Fran Wrage, a young, spunky basketball coach from Nebraska, somehow talked the administration into changing them so he could paint the gym red.
Few remember that COC’s Silver Cougar, Lee Smelser, was also coach of the JC’s divot squad. In 1975, the hapless duffers missed a perfect season by one lousy golf stroke. They beat Glendale 488-487 to miss going a perfect 0-15.
Speaking of golf, the long-extinct Hasley Canyon Golf Course made the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most holes-in-one of any course on Earth.
And, Barbara Melby, Beth Parks, Jimmie Write and Pattie Perkins were part of the Hart High squad that took top honors at the National Cheerleaders Association competition — in 1955.
There are SCV legends and streaks, heroes and great games, not mentioned in this humble article.
I am confident, however, there will be some local sports fan in some distant condo canyon who will ask the predictable two-parter: “How come you didn’t write about such-and-such and why is it you guys hate us so?”
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Just seven stories left. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 46 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.