Charlie Briley is a ramrod-straight, Southern-bred gentleman with a shock of silver hair and a face profoundly furrowed by the good life. On this spring night, seated as always on his stool at the crook of the bar in his Pink Pony restaurant, he is haunted by the suspicion that something is up.
And with good reason. It is his 70th birthday, after all, and so far, at eight o'clock, the occasion has gone unrecognized. As he warily takes in the scene around him, Charlie is struck by what seems to him an exaggerated calm. It's as if his normally animated patrons are operating at reduced capacity. Why, just look at Billy Martin, will you, sitting there solemnly toying with his beer, agitating no one, looking the very soul of innocence. He's obviously up to something. Miguel (Mike) Murphy, the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse man, who's ordinarily about as subdued as a rock guitarist, is examining his fingernails, smiling serenely. He must be in on it. Ray Shore, the dapper Phillies scout, appears to be in deep conversation with his wife. Sure. Don Sutton, the gifted and talkative pitcher, has his eyes on the front door. Expecting someone? And there at a table are Chub Feeney, the National League president, and Bill Rigney, the Oakland A's executive, two of Charlie's oldest and best customers. Now these two old friends can generally be counted on to dredge up hilarious memories from their rich past with the Giants or to noisily dispute the check—Chub insisting Rig should pay. Rig protesting it's Chub's turn. This night they are sitting there as orderly and polite as choirboys. And where's Gwen, Mrs. Briley? Well, she's at the door where she's supposed to be, but why does she keep looking down at Charlie's end of the bar? Probably to make sure he doesn't get away, a thought that has certainly occurred to Charlie. He is, above all, a man of a certain dignity, and the unexpected tends to unnerve him. It's the unexpected he expects on this, his birthday.
It comes. Along about 8:30, a female police officer strides purposefully through the front door and heads straight for Charlie. "You're under arrest," she tells him. Before Charlie can demand his rights, she leads him to the middle of the room and handcuffs him to a chair. The crowd at the bar forms a circle around him, and to his amazement and chagrin, the officer removes her badge, then her hat, and finally, just about everything else. Conduct unbecoming an officer! A mariachi band appears out of nowhere, and with the nearly naked ersatz cop prancing before him, everyone sings, "Happy Birthday." Charlie wants to crawl into a hole. "Oh Charlie, oh Charlie!" cries Rita Lim, the tiny waitress from Singapore, in a voice that rings like wind chimes. She is laughing sympathetically from her perch atop one of the booths. Billy is dancing with Gwen. Sutton, the future 300-game winner, brings in the birthday cake from the kitchen, announcing to all, "I'm the world's highest-paid busboy." And the party is under way in earnest. At least it is as soon as Charlie is unchained from his chair.
Just another night at the Pink Pony? Well, not quite. But take away the milestone birthday and, certainly, the stripper—as Charlie, whose sense of propriety is positively Victorian, surely would have—and the scene on that March 25th of last year wouldn't exactly be unrepresentative of life in Charlie Briley's steak house in Scottsdale, Ariz. during spring training. Certainly the cast of illustrious characters would be about right, for from late February to early April every year, the Pony, as the regulars call it, is beyond argument the most popular hangout for baseball people in the civilized world.
March 17, 1986
Briley's joint is in the great tradition of hangouts, one that dates at least to the late 16th century, when Benny Jonson, Walt Raleigh and the boys hoisted a few down at the Mermaid Tavern on Bread Street. Hangouts are not to be confused with establishments like, say, Elaine's in New York City or the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, where auslanders habitually wander in to ogle the resident deities. That's not possible in the Pony in the spring because there are more celebrities than outsiders. And the locals have developed an immunity to stargazing. "In any other place, these baseball people might be worshiped and bothered," says year-round Pony patron Bill Anderson, a 68-year-old retired sea captain. "Here, nobody gives a damn. I've been here when there've been 17 Hall of Famers around. You get used to it."
The Pony is much the way you would imagine Valhalla to be—a comfortable spot where famous folks sit around having a helluva good time. The spring clientele is, of course, special. Most ace hangouts appeal to special people, whether they be newspapermen, Broadway types or the literati. We need look no further than the Algonquin Round Table. With the Pony, the talk is mostly baseball, although the conversation can take some unusual turns. Consider the following overheard Pony dialogue, for instance, between Rigney, baseball's ranking oral historian and the father of a poetess, and Oakland A's broadcaster Bill King, another .400 talker and a student of Russian history. Here's how it went:
King: Let's have just one more, Rig. Then I've got to get back to my room and watch Chernenko's funeral. You were saying?
Rig (with characteristic flamboyance): I was saying that Ferris Fain [American League batting champion in 1951 and '52] was one of the best damn hitters of his time. But, oh my, what a guy! You couldn't keep him out of fights. We called him Burrhead. Once we were in this fine restaurant together, and Burr-head thinks he detects an insult coming from, the next table. Now, just like that, he's got this poor innocent guy by the collar and is shaking him like a puppy. Somebody tells him to lay off and Burrhead looks around and says, "Wait your turn, pal. You're next."
King: The new man is Gorbachev, accent on the last syllable.
Rig: But Burrhead could sure hit.
King: You wonder about this new change of command, whether there'll be a significant switch in philosophy. I doubt it. To the Russian temperament, even God is just another apparatchik.
Rig: Fain could even hit Feller. And Bobby could throw that thing. You could hear his curve ball coming. Kind of a whistling sound. He'd take his eyes off you in his windup and you'd want to shout out, "Hey guy, I'm over here! Right here! Remember?" If he hit you, you'd have a hole in you about like this [fingers forming a circle in the rib cage].
King (distracted now from Kremlin-watching): You're right, Rig. What a rich history this game has! You know that's the trouble with young ballplayers now: They have no sense of history. Their total frame of reference is what they've seen on TV, not anything they've ever read. When I was a kid....
Rig: That Burrhead was something else.
King (into it now): Remember Johnny Beazley's herky-jerky motion. [He's on his feet, winding up.] He looked like a puppet on a string....
Rig: What happened to that funeral?
King: There's time. My round.
And so it goes. On a given spring evening, you can expect to break bread with either or both league presidents, Martin certainly, and Sutton, or Bob Lemon, Lou Boudreau, Dallas Green, Harry Dalton, Leo Durocher, Harry Caray, Bob Uecker, Herman Franks, Gene Autry and scores of newsmen and broadcasters. The waitresses and bartenders know each and every one of them by their first names. There's no real need for anyone to be paged at the Pony, since everyone knows who's there, although every once in a while you can hear some magical announcement like "Phone call for Chuck Estrada."
Once Charlie had yakking at his bar a quintet of Lemon, Boudreau, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks and Mickey Mantle, Hall of Famers all. That's 207 pitching wins and 1,628 home runs cheek by jowl. Charlie boasts that he is a "personal friend" of 25 members of the Hall of Fame. He has a baseball autographed by at least that many, a souvenir that Gwen makes him keep at home, so that, in one of his seizures of generosity, he won't give it away to some guy at the bar. Charlie is a great one for palming off mementos after taking on a few Budweisers. To his eternal regret, he once gave to a perfect stranger a prized autographed photo of Ted Williams and Ty Cobb posed together in Scottsdale Stadium. Cobb and Williams, naturally, were Pony regulars. So was Rogers Hornsby. Pee Wee Reese annually supplies Charlie with souvenir bats from the World Series. Dizzy Dean was one of Charlie's first and best customers.
All Pony customers are loyal to the marrow. Dave Bristol, when he was managing the Giants, and Spec Richardson, when he was general managing them, were regulars of such dependability that they would call in on nights when they weren't coming, so their tables might be made available to less dedicated diners. Baseball people unlucky enough to be transferred to teams that train in Florida will still call Charlie long distance just to soak up some of the Pony atmosphere. For all of the interminable socializing, the atmosphere inside is so decorous that Charlie can recall only one altercation of any real consequence. And this is a place, remember, that is frequented by Billy Martin.
Charlie doesn't need endorsements from his famous patrons, but he gets them, nevertheless. Martin says, "I love the place. I love Charlie and Gwen."
"There is an ambience there that just seems to bring in the baseball crowd," says Caray, the legendary broadcaster. "I'd never think of going to Arizona without going to the Pony. Hell, I rarely miss an evening there."
"It's like that place on television, Cheers" says Feeney. "You go where they know you."
"Baseball people attract baseball people," says Rigney, "and when you get them together, they tell stories."
"They ought to hold the winter meetings there," says Sutton. "On an ordinary night there are enough G.M.s in the room to make 15 trades."
As a matter of fact, trades have been made at the Pony. In 1973, for example, Spec Richardson, then the G.M. at Houston, offered outfielder Jim Wynn to the Red Sox' Dick O'Connell over a Pink Pony Special. O'Connell showed no interest, but Dodger scout Guy Wellman was eavesdropping. Wellman skulked off to the pay phone near the rest rooms and called his superiors in Los Angeles. An hour later, Wynn was traded to the Dodgers for pitchers Claude Osteen and Dave Culpepper. Wynn hit 32 homers and drove in 104 runs to lead Los Angeles to a pennant that year.
The Pony may sound like a miniature Cooperstown, but it doesn't look much like one. It's roomy—19 booths, 15 tables and, with 13 stools at the bar, a capacity of about 200—but it's also intimate and as dark inside as the bottom of a well. Take away Reese's autographed bats, The Baseball Encyclopedia behind the bar and Ferguson Jenkins' uniform shirt in a glass case on the wall of the main dining room and the Pony looks less like a sports bar than the average neighborhood or suburban tavern. There are 70 framed caricatures on the walls, many of baseball people, but just as many of year-round regulars and pals of Charlie's. The earliest drawings were done in the '50s and '60s by the late Don Barclay, a former Walt Disney animator, but the later ones have all been done by Gwen Briley herself. Her likenesses of Martin, A's publicity director Mickey Morabito and Dave Bush, a San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer, are classics of the genre. Hank Aguirre, a former big league pitcher, is on the wall twice, once as a young athlete and again as a middle-aged businessman. Aguirre is a true Pony regular who entertains the crowd every spring with a magic show that involves, of all props, raw eggs. Paul Zimmerman, sports editor of the Los Angeles Times years ago, is depicted only once, but since he is in profile and his nose is of Cyranoesque dimension, he occupies adjoining frames. Rigney is shown as a dark-haired young manager of serious mien, and is, therefore, unrecognizable, since his top is now as snowy as the Jungfrau's and, free as he is of managerial cares these days, his expression is perpetually sunny.
Nobody, not even Charlie, knows exactly why the place is called the Pink Pony, but there is a large ceramic pony, indeed pink, behind the bar to assure even the fuzziest imbiber of his precise location. Charlie is not hard to find inside. He's the slim fellow sipping Budweiser at the crook of the bar, the only man in the room, more than likely, wearing a tie and freshly pressed slacks. Gwen, a pretty and bubbly redhead some years Charlie's junior, will be at the door hailing incoming customers as old friends, which, of course, almost all of them are.
Much of the Pony's popularity may be attributed to its fortunate location, in the heart of downtown Scottsdale, once the tiniest of cowtowns, now a thriving and chic little metropolis of about 88,000 just east of Phoenix. Five spring baseball camps—the Cubs', Angels' (for the first half of spring training), Mariners', Giants' and A's'—are within half an hour of Charlie's front door, and the Brewers (Chandler, Ariz.), Indians (Tucson) and Padres (Yuma) are in town more than they're out. Such familiarity, far from breeding contempt, lends a certain sense of community to the Arizona spring training experience, which the Pony cheerfully exploits. In Florida, where teams are spread all over the landscape, there is no center and, therefore, no Pony. "Arizona baseball is slower, sweeter and somehow better fixed in memory [than Florida baseball]," writes The New Yorker's Roger Angell, a Pony regular himself. "There is no Pink Pony in Florida. The Pony is the best baseball restaurant in the land." But how on earth did it get that way?
Charlie Briley hitchhiked to Arizona from his native Scottsville, Ky., in "nine-teen-and-thirty-six," he says. He had come west to visit his sister, Camille Culton, for just a couple of weeks. He has stayed 50 years. The jump from Scottsville to Scottsdale was far more ambitious than he could possibly have imagined. As a kid in Kentucky, Charlie had been a pretty fair lefthanded pitcher—"wilder 'n hell." He was good enough to play against the House of David team in Bowling Green, and he once batted against a barnstorming Grover Cleveland Alexander ("He struck me out"). In the spring of 1931, Charlie made the 60-mile trip to Nashville, Tenn. to watch the Cardinals play the Yankees in an exhibition game. He was particularly impressed with a 20-year-old Cardinal farmhand who could really zing the ball and who struck Charlie, a pitcher himself, as a certain star. Kid named Dizzy Dean. Charlie asked him for an autograph. "All I had with me was a checkbook," he recalls. "So I tore out a check and handed it to him. Diz looked to make sure there was nothing on the front of that check, then he signed the back. 'Keep this, kid,' he told me. 'Someday, you'll be proud of it.' Well, it wasn't long before I was. That was 1931. Forty-three years later, I was a pallbearer at his funeral."
Charlie hung around Phoenix, working in a drugstore and as a meat salesman, until he was called into the Army in World War II and assigned as a meat inspector. After the war, he was offered a job as a bartender at The Steak House in Phoenix by its proprietor, an old friend named Teak Baldwin. Charlie had never worked behind a bar before, but the money, a hundred a week, bordered on the extravagant and The Steak House was then the top restaurant in the Phoenix area. One of his steadiest customers in those days was Del Webb, who started in Phoenix as a carpenter and built enough of a fortune as a wartime contractor to buy, in partnership with Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail, the New York Yankees. Webb and Charlie talked baseball by the hour in The Steak House, and once, after a particularly long session, Webb even offered Charlie a piece of the Yankees for $10,000. Regrettably, Charlie couldn't raise the money. But his friendship with Webb would prove invaluable in another way.
One of Webb's closest friends was a woman named Claudia Ogden, who along with another woman named Ping Bell, owned a little bar in Scottsdale called, unimaginatively, Ping's. In 1949, Claudia bought out Bell and asked Charlie to come to work for her as the bar manager. She also gave the place a new name: the Pink Pony—a name thought up for her by an artist friend. Lew Davis. "There was no particular reason to call it that," says Charlie. "Lew just thought it sounded good, and Claudia agreed."
Claudia and Charlie cleaned up the act inside, decreeing, for starters, that all horses must remain outside the premises. Charlie, the old meat inspector, also got the horsemeat out of the menu. Six months after she'd hired him, Claudia sold the place to Charlie for $50,000. On Aug. 12, 1950, the Pink Pony was his. His timing couldn't have been better. Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who now lives in Arizona, had moved his training camp to Phoenix three years earlier, discovering, in a sense, Arizona for baseball. Other teams, notably the Indians, quickly followed him to the desert, and the Cactus League was born.
Charlie already had a handy baseball connection with Webb. He gained an even more valuable one when Dean, his boyhood discovery, moved to Phoenix in the early '50s. Charlie reintroduced himself, and Dean quickly became both a Pony regular and Charlie's hunting and fishing buddy. Dean and Reese were broadcasting the Basely all Game of the Week back then, and Diz, ever the anecdotist, began to tell stories about his good buddy, Charlie Briley, and the great little restaurant he owned out West. Baseball people took notice.
Business got so good that in 1970 Charlie moved the Pony half a block down Scottsdale Road into the relatively capacious quarters it now occupies. For years after he bought it, the Pony was just about the only joint in town; now, with Scottsdale emerging as a sort of Carmel East or Provincetown West, the city fairly bulges with quaint bo√Ætes with menus in French and waiters in tuxedos. Charlie's place just stays the same. His waitresses wear jeans, his bartenders are in shirtsleeves, and the front door clangs shut whenever Charlie feels it's time to call it a night. Most of the time, the Pony shuts down by 11 p.m., but if you're clever enough to be inside at the time, you'll find there's no need to rush for the exits.
The Brileys live only a few minutes from their restaurant in a house once owned by Charles Boyer. They've been married 13 years, living testimony that not all blind dates are disastrous. When they met, she was a divorcee living in Orange County, Calif., and he was a widower (his first wife, Libby, died in 1969). A mutual friend arranged the date, and according to Charlie, it was love at first sight. Still, he felt obliged to warn his new love that, "If you're gonna be with me, you gotta learn baseball." Gwen did. She also learned the restaurant business.
Now it is spring again and the Pony has emerged from hibernation. As surely as the cactus flowers are blooming, so is this flourishing little restaurant. What a life it leads. For 10½ months of the year, it's just a good place to get a stiff drink and a thick steak. Then, for six uproarious weeks, it metamorphoses into the hottest spot in the desert. Its tables are alive with famous people. Its walls hum with gossip, tall tales, fond recollections, harebrained schemes. It becomes baseball's command post, its private club. Spring is a time for renewal and hope, and the Pony is the storehouse for those commodities.
But it's all over so quickly. The good times and the good people are gone, it seems, almost before they get there. When the teams decamp in April, says Gwen, "It's like a damn funeral in here." "We're all a little sad and downtrodden," says Charlie. And so, for that matter, are the baseball people who have made the Pony home for those weeks. They know that wherever they go, they'll never find another place quite like it, a place where good fellows talk baseball the night long. There's something inevitably sorrowful about the end of spring training, because the baseball season brings reality, grim reality for most. As one baseball writer lamented, "It's a pity they have to ruin the baseball season by playing it."
But there's always next spring. Charlie puts it best: "You know, when I was a kid, I'd always start crying right after Christmas. My mother would ask me why, and I'd say because it would be a whole year before Christmas came again. But that's the good part, she'd say. Well, spring training is kind of like Christmas for me now. I may feel like crying when it's over, but I know there'll always be another one." He laughs. "And this is for sure: If I'd known back then, when I was growing up in Kentucky, that I'd know as many baseball people as well as I do now, I'd never have cried at all. I'd have been the happiest kid in the whole world. And that's just about the way I feel right now."