McConnell: Pomona tourney was historic

Jim McConnell, who writes a weekly Then & Now column, writes about the disappearance of the Pomona Elks baseball tournament

Unfortunately, the tournament is no more. For its final 40 years, the tourney was run by the Pomona Elks Lodge. The lodge is also no more. It is sad that something so much a part of the Valley’s sporting scene has disappeared from view. But the membership of the lodge grew old, retired, moved away and died. There just wasn’t anyone left to man the tourney.
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With its 32-team field and utilization of several sites, the tourney was definitely manpower intensive.

It all began in the spring of 1933, when Pomona High baseball coach Stan Acres was able to sell members of the Pomona 20-30 Club on the idea. The event started with an eight-team field, but quickly grew. At its height, the tourney boasted a 48-team field, attracting most of the top high school baseball teams in Southern California.

By the time the Pomona Elks Lodge took over sponsorship, in 1962, the tourney was a staple of the Southland sports scene.

How big was it? Well, by 1935 it was big enough to attract Will Rogers as the keynote speaker at its pre-tourney banquet, and California Governor Frank Merriam to throw out the first ball.

The 1935 Pomona Tournament was indeed historic. At Acres’ urging, the Muir Tech team was invited to the tournament. This meant the presence of “colored” players in the tourney, and in Pomona, for the first time. So, long before he broke the major
league’s color line, Jackie Robinson was a pioneer in race relations. Still, in a sign of the times, while all the other players on the other teams were housed for the tourney in Pomona, Robinson was not. He had to travel back and forth from Pasadena to Pomona each day of the five-day event.

More remarkably, probably the two most influential players of the post-Babe Ruth Era, Robinson and Ted Williams, were key players in the 1935 tourney.

Muir Tech and San Diego Hoover met in the consolation finale at Pomona High, with Hoover prevailing 8-7. In that game, Hoover’s Williams hit a 450-foot home run and Robinson had three hits and stole home. The press account of that game, in the Pomona Progress-Bulletin, is believed to be the first time a sports writer (in this case, the Prog’s David Meiklejohn) mentioned how worthy Robinson was of a major league contract, were it not for the color of his skin.

In many ways, the 1935 tourney may have been the biggest high school sporting event ever held in Southern California.

On the rosters of the 24 teams entered in the tournament were no less than 10 future major leaguers, and 45 future professional players. In addition to Robinson and Williams, the tourney included Monrovia’s Johnny Lindell, Glendale’s Bob Dillinger, El Centro’s Bob Elliott, Citrus’ Red Embree, Long Beach Poly’s Chuck Stevens and Jack Brewer and Santa Barbara’s Bill Lillard.

Interestingly, the best team in the 1935 field – San Diego High – failed to produce a major leaguer. It did, however, produce a dozen future pros. And it won the tournament.

By 1935, the city of Pomona had gotten behind the tourney, 100 percent. The city’s restaurants provided free meals to the players. Town folk opened up their homes for players to sleep over. The championship game was broadcast by a local radio station. And Mickey Rooney was recruited from Hollywood to throw out the first ball at the championship game. Actually, Rooney was filling in for another MGM star who couldn’t make it that day – Clark Gable.

The tourney program from 1935 has become quite a collectors’ item. Even more historic is a panoramic photo taken of all the players in the tourney, prior to the first game at Pomona High. There is Williams, smiling in his Hoover uni, and only a few rows over a serious-looking Robinson, in his Muir Tech togs. Both appear younger than springtime, images of greatness caught early.

The tourney’s collection of baseball talent soon had scouts flocking to the event. By the late 1940s, it was not unusual to see scouts from virtually every major league and Pacific Coast League team in attendance at the tourney. The trend continued well into the 1990s. By that time, baseball coaches from most Southland colleges would also be on hand.

The Pomona tournament became an Easter week ritual in the Valley. Eventually, over 150 future major leaguers played in it, including Hall of Famers Robinson, Williams, Ralph Kiner (Alhambra), Duke Snider (Compton), Eddie Mathews (Santa Barbara), Dick Williams (Pasadena), Bob Lemon (Long Beach Wilson) and Rollie Fingers (Upland).

Also playing in the tournament were future football stars Glenn Davis (Bonita), Pet Scharbarum (Covina) and Anthony Munoz (Chaffey). Even future NBA All-Star Greg Ballard (Garey) played, along with future major league umpires Ed Runge (San Diego) and Dana DeMuth (Chaffey).

Among current major leaguers, Jason Giambi (South Hills) and Mark Kotsay (Santa Fe) are proud “graduates” of the Pomona Tournament. Unfortunately, they are the last of the breed.

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