Games People Play: The Los Angeles Athletic Club’s Weekly Magazine, “Mercury,” 23 May 1918.

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From humble beginnings in a town of 11,000 in 1880, the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC) grew, as the Angel City did, dramatically in ensuing years and this was not just in membership, but also in prestige. A meeting in the legal office of Frank A. Gibson led to the formation of the institution, which rented space in the Stearns Block, located on the east side of Main Street just north of the El Palacio adobe house of early American merchant Abel Stearns, and the building, also known as the Arcadia Block for Stearns’ wife Arcadia Bandini, is where U.S. 101 runs through downtown today.

A September 1880 mention in the “Local Brevities” column of the Los Angeles Herald observed that the club had sixty members using two halls in the building for its gymnasium. The following June, a detailed article in the Los Angeles Express reported that the LAAC “was organized the purpose of affording the young men of Los Angeles, whose duties during the day are such as to give them no opportunity for exercise, the means of improving their physical condition.”

Los Angeles Express, 9 June 1881

The equipment at that early date included “parallel and horizontal bars, a ladder, spring board, rings, Indian clubs, dumb bells, and boxing gloves” but it was added that “as the Club increases in membership other apparatus will be added until, as we hope, the gymnasium will become in its appointments as complete as could be desired.” Noting that the LAAC “supplies a want long felt in the community,” the Express observed the low $5 initial fee and $1 monthly fee and officers hoped it would become permanent, not just for “young men who have a fondness for athletic exercises, but also of those who believe that their health and strength may be promoted by a course of gymnastics.” This included those whose business duties were such that they “had become physically debilitated.”

Later, the Club had its facilities in the Downey Block, situated on the west side of Main at the northwest corner with Temple Street, and then had a third location opened in 1890 on Spring Street, south of Second Street. By that time, stated the Herald, there were nearly 400 members, with over 110 to be voted upon (sponsors were required) at the next meeting of officials. A “Ladies’ Night” was in the offing and there were plans for “the club . . . to extend its advantages to the younger generation.”

Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1895.

By 1895, there was an LAAC football team, which competed with the likes of Stanford University, which seven years later was demolished 49-0 by the University of Michigan in the first Rose Bowl game as part of the Tournament of Roses.” Under the leadership of realtor Frank Garbutt, a long-time LAAC official, boxing matches were held under the Club’s auspices, including one promoted by the Los Angeles Record ad of 5 March 1900 featuring local gladiator Kid Williams challenging the African-American boxer Rufe Turner of Stockton for the state lightweight title (with a total purse of all of $100), a bout won by Turner.

At the end of 1905, the LAAC, which was at another locale on Spring and Sixth streets, ended its lease and then reorganized with a new contract at that spot, but with $20,000 to undertake a major remodeling of its facilities. Charles Eyeton, reported the Express of 28 December, had wanted to build a club based on the Olympic in San Francisco and he convinced Rowan, with the leadership role, Garbutt and others to join in the enterprise, which featured the formation of an incorporated entity with $50,000 in stock. These, however, were not to be sold to members until the Club was “on a paying basis” as they used to say. For a March 1906 reopening, the piece concluded, “the club is to be conducted on strict business principles” and “drinking and gambling will not be permitted.”

Los Angeles Record, 5 March 1900.

In 1912, it moved to a large building constructed expressly for the club on the corner of Seventh and Olive streets and had the novelty of a swimming pool in an upper floor of a structure. Prior to this, such sports as wrestling and handball became major activities at the LAAC and they remained so when the featured artifact for this post was published, this being the 23 May 1918 issue of the Club’s weekly magazine, the Mercury (named after the fleet-footed Roman god whose symbols including winged sandals—though he was also the god of merchants and thieves).

The cover photo is of the middleweight champion wrestler Walter Miller, who in the previous week bested Jack Kennedy in a match at the Club, with the magazine reporting that Miller was “pouncing upon his powerful and resolute young adversary with all the force and fury of a lion defending his empire on the mountain slopes.” This match was deemed to for the world championship and it was added that the victor, with two falls, sent Kennedy “back to his Oregon home baffled, bruised and beaten to a frazzle.”

Express, 28 December 1905.

The article noted that the biggest win was not the match, but Miller’s “breaking the strangle hold that Old Man Indifference has held on the mat game in Los Angeles for the past two years, as “his exhibition took the fans by storm.” Miller did not look like a wrestling master in his street clothes, but “when stripped and cleared for action, however, he shines like a million dollars” and “his mastery of the scientific end of the game gives his work the subtle deceptiveness of magic art.”

Despite giving up five years and seven pounds to Kennedy, the champion grappler lifted the younger man off the floor and sent him crashing to the mat on several occasions, though it was accounted that Kennedy “succeeded in making spectacular breaks” from leg scissors, toe holds and headlocks and “brought the audience to its feet as many as a dozen times.” Still, Miller “was compelled to use all of his skill and cunning in extricating himself from a bad scissors combination” and then executed “a swift lunge that landed him the wrist lock that won the [first] fall.”

Later, however, Kennedy crashed against Miller’s knee and suffered a nasty cut to his forehead, but the latter allowed the former to leave the ring to have the wound treated, leading to a 15-minute delay. Kennedy returned and provided “some of the cleverest and fastest work of the night,” but Miller again demonstrated “the inexorable grip of the same wrist lock that had proved [Kennedy’s] downfall in the first frame,” but also got the younger man’s head “in the murderous vise of the scissors, out of which gameness was powerless to deliver him.” Kennedy gave a short post-match address admitting the better wrestler won, but stating his intention to improve as he had in the previous year and that “I hope to have another chance at the championship.”

Also covered was a Round Robin handball tournament that ended with Joe Lacey winning all 24 games and taking the prize of a gold watch, while Ernie Clark, who lost just four matches, earned a fob (and a chance in the future to win a watch), with the prizes presented by former club champion Garbutt. Those finishing last, Jay Welton and Art Howard, had a spirited final game so that the “cellar champion” Howard was given a leather medal with the inscription, “there may be a worse player, but we haven’t found him yet.”

Speaking of chance, Frank Chance, former manager and part-owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Angels baseball team and former player-manager of the Chicago Cubs with its famous “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” double-play combo, challenged Angels owner Johnny Powers to a handball contest at the Club. When he was told of Powers’ prowess “in the four-walled domain,” Chance professed to dismiss this as “punk” and boasted “I will guarantee to hand the little leader the small end of four out of every five games we play—that is, if you can coax or bribe him into the courts.” While Powers had not yet responded, former Angels skipper Charley Reilly, offered to take on the winner. Chance and Powers were actually close friends, with the former having to resign as manager the prior year for health reasons (he died in 1924 at just 47 and is buried at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.)

A Club swimming column noted that a woman’s meet would be held in July that would “plunge the greatest array of female talent ever assembled in the south” and “will include such stars as Julia Heaton, Gladys Carpenter, Farrell Creighton and [Pacific Coast] Champion Dorothy Burns” in a relay attempt to break a 400-yard record of 5 minutes and 48 seconds set in Indianapolis. Also on tap was a diving contest, with national champion Aileen Allen, a Canadian native who organized an all-woman swim team at the Bimini Baths, west of downtown, an occasional actor, and a 1920 Olympics competitor (who coached the American woman track and field team in 1928 and the swim team at the Los Angeles games four years later), featured.

In other items of interest, there was reference to “naval memorial services” offered at Venice for Memorial Day on 30 May and the Mercury noted “it is planed to get the boys from the submarine base with their crack military band, the old soldiers from the Sawtelle home, the local civic and social organizations, the school children, the local members of the Red Cross and their auxiliaries to take part in the morning parade and in the services to be held at the Auditorium.” Afterward, airplanes were to fly overhead and scatter flowers on the ocean with rituals “held in honor of our departed sea heroes, while the big guns boom the salute of honor.”

With regard to aviation, it was noted that invitations were received for the opening ceremonies of the new airplane manufacturing plant of Glenn L. Martin at Cleveland. It was added that it was “among the largest and best equipped in the United States and will be one of the government’s chief sources of supply during the present war,” this, of course, being the First World War, which America joined in spring 1917.

It was stated that Martin, a former resident of Santa Ana who became a local aviation legend after his first flight in 1910 and had an earlier firm, was a member of the LAAC and “was very active in the club’s life” before he moved east. It was also stated that some of Martin’s local flights included Garbutt as a passenger in what were “numbered among the most sensational [flights] ever made in California” and it was further recorded that Garbutt gave a unique banquet to Martin in 1913 with “the dinner . . . served on a real aeroplane spirited to the club from Mr. Martin’s factory by employes [sic].”

Concerning the war, an article titled “How the War Affects Service” observed that “war conditions have made a decided change in the club’s dining room service, and the change has been for the better.” Federal food administration restrictions were such that it was thought that “good eats were to become a mere matter of history” and that meals were to “be about as savory as sawdust,” though it was recognized that “these economies were necessary if America was to win the war, and America would not be allowed to lose.”

Yet, it was reported, service was improved and “new dishes of keener and finer flavor appeared on the table, and the old dishes were touched with a heightened relish” with the result that “the jolt the government gave the national bread-basket was the one thing that we all needed.” Old customs and cookbooks were discarded and “food values were studied and new combinations worked out” so that “we are feeding better during the war than we did before the war.”

As examples, the rolls served were considered far better than the old wheat bread and that these were “a distinct L.A.A.C. product and is superior in flavor and nutritive value.” With meat curbed, there was the effort “to bring vegetables and fish to the fore and the new and delightful combinations worked out are a joy to the epicure, and they are here to stay.” As for desserts, the pumpkin pie was such “that make mother’s efforts with the fastidious gustatory conceit appear rather amateurish.”

Service changed, as well, so that members would just have a head waiter or captain “serve a table d’hote dinner” so that “host and guests are relieved of trouble and embarrassment” of trying to order a la carte For unexpected company or last-minute gatherings, as well as automobile parties and family meals, “this feature of club service has become generally known” and more popular. Readers were asked to “keep in touch with progress in the club if you wish to reap the full benefits of membership.”

Also highlighted was the purchase by the LAAC of two ambulances that were “presented to the Red Cross . . . and are ready for the start to the fighting front” as “these little cars are models of efficiency in war relief work and thousands of them are in the service in France and Italy.” Military regulations only allowed a 3×5 inch brass plate for insignias and these “will be appropriately inscribed with the name of the Los Angeles Athletic club and the date of presentation.” The vehicles were ordered through club member William E. Smith, who owned the Ford dealership in Pasadena.

Finally, there was a listing of the dozens of employees who took place in a Liberty Loan bond drive and it was averred that “when it comes to real patriotism, the kind that expresses itself in service that counts, you may put the employes [sic] of the Los Angeles Athletic Club in Class 1, with a record that is very near 100 per cent perfect.” Of just under 200 workers, 172 purchased them, with the rest considered “the transient element of the force,” and with amounts ranging from $50 to $500, the total raised was $11,700. It was concluded that there was “no doubt as to where this little organization stands on the question of the war” and if all American workers responded in proportion, “there could be no doubt of the success of the home end of the fighting—and that’s the end where the war is really won.”

The publication has great interest for more than just the athletic aspect of the LAAC’s operation, including those items related to the war as well as the reference to Martin and, while this is the only issue of the Mercury in the Museum’s holdings, we have other Club-related items we can share in future posts on this blog.

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