The following is the seventh of an occasional series by Charles Fountain on the history and culture of spring training.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Charlie Briley so loved baseball that when he died in 2002, his widow didn’t think that was necessarily reason enough for Charlie to have to give up his long and deep association with the game. So Gwen Briley took the pill bottles from all the medicines Charlie took during his long final illness, threw away the pills, scrubbed the plastic bottles clean and filled them with Charlie’s ashes. She then called some of the many friends in high places that Charlie had throughout the game, and today, a bit of Charlie Briley rests in 20 different big league ballparks.
Charlie Briley with Carl Yastrzemski at Fenway Park in the early 1960s. (Photo Courtesy of Scottsdale Charros)
For nearly 50 years, spring training in Scottsdale meant Charlie Briley. Back in the mid-1950s, Charlie, his bird-hunting friend Dizzy Dean, and some other business partners put up their own money and built Scottsdale Stadium, a wonderful old rustic wood structure that looked like it came right from the set of a John Ford western. As the self-formed Scottsdale Baseball Club, these men managed spring training when the Orioles played there for three years in the mid ‘50s, and continued after Charlie helped persuade his friend Tom Yawkey to bring the Red Sox there between 1959-1965. The business partners gave their stadium to the city in 1963, and Charlie Briley went back to The Pink Pony, the steakhouse and bar he’d owned since 1950, the place New Yorker writer Roger Angell calls the best baseball bar in America.
The Pony — few in Scottsdale call it by its full and formal name — is in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale, less than a 10-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium. For as long as spring training has been in Scottsdale, the Pony has been the place where baseball people came to enjoy a 20-ounce prime-rib and drinks poured with a heavy hand, to talk baseball with each other, and with Charlie and his bride Miss Gwen. Everybody in baseball has been to the Pony.
“We had four commissioners one night,” said Gwen Briley, who worked alongside her husband for 30 years and keeps his spirit alive in the Pony today. “Gene Autry, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Ted Williams, you just name ‘em. They’ve all walked in that door. It’s been a helluva run, let me tell you.”
Gwen Briley is 76 now, but she’s still at the Pony every evening, in heels and pearls, regaling her regular and her fortunate patrons with story upon story of her years with Charlie. She is a master, old-school, saloonkeeper raconteur, in the tradition of Toots Shor or Sherman Billingsley.
“Charlie told me before I married him I had to learn two things. He told me I had to learn to drink — and I’m not a big drinker, I can’t stand to see a drunk woman. And he says, you gotta learn baseball. And I said: Oh, *%!#!, because I didn’t know anything about baseball. Here’s how much I didn’t know. I’m over at Charlie’s, and we’re watching baseball of course, and the announcer says this player was a switch hitter. And I say: Oh my God! They’re announcing on national TV that this guy’s a switch hitter? That’s terrible.
Jackie Jenson, Mike Higgins, and Ted Williams are welcomed to spring training in 1959 by the Scottsdale mounted police. (Photo Courtesy of Scottsdale Charros)
“And Charlies’s dying off laughing, and I said: ‘I don’t think it’s funny at all Charlie. I’m serious.’ And Charlie says: ‘You don’t understand. ‘ And I say: ‘Oh yes, I understand.’ And Charlie says: ‘No, you don’t understand baseball. It means he can bat either left handed or right handed.’ I said: ‘Oh. ‘”
Miss Gwen was the light of Charlie Briley’s life; and when she speaks of him, there is still a catch in her voice, more than six years after his death. She learned the game soon enough after marring Charlie, and learned too how to run a saloon that every night during spring training was half-filled with baseball celebrities, and half-filled with the fans who came to ogle them. She learned from Charlie a deft touch that kept both populations happy and coming back.
“One of the things I’ve never let my customers do is go up and mess with the celebrities that are here,” she said. “It was just a policy of mine.” But Miss Gwen was not above asking for an autograph on behalf of some of her customers. Giants All-Star Will Clark was in the place one night a few years back, and a table of young women all wanted his autograph.
“So I went over there, and I said: ‘Will, I need about 10 autographs here.’ And he said: ‘What are you going to do, sell them?’ And I said: ‘Let me tell you something Will Clark. One day you might be damned glad somebody is asking you for an autograph. So sign this damned piece of paper.’” Clark signed. He would have signed anyway, of course. Baseball people would do anything for Charlie and Miss Gwen.
There are fewer baseball players in the Pony these days. Front office people from the Cactus League teams, umpires and scouts still regularly come in and linger over baseball conversation in one of the dark booths, but the players pretty much keep to their rented homes these days. And Miss Gwen has put the place up for sale. “I’m getting tired,” she admits, “I’ve been here 36 years.” She’s turned down a bunch of offers she termed “ridiculous.” She’s getting closer with one guy, she thinks; but it’s not just about the money. “I want someone to buy it that will keep it the Pink Pony,” she says.
That is going to be tough. Oh, the new owner can keep the bats behind the bar and the photographs that speak to more than a half-century of Scottsdale baseball history on the walls. A new owner can keep the steaks large and the drinks strong. There may still be a one-hour wait for a table on spring training nights. But if the Pony doesn’t have Miss Gwen?
Who will tell the stories? About the night Billy Martin brought a stripper in to celebrate Charlie’s birthday and Miss Gwen said fine, but you’ve got to wait until the families with children leave at least. Or the one about Gene Autry standing in the doorway, every eye in the place on him, and asking, just as he did every night, ever so politely, in that familiar, courtly, movie-star voice: “Miss Gwen, would you please go put my Stetson away?” Or about the night Charlie moved into the Pony’s current location from a spot just up the street in 1971, and got Dizzy Dean to help. “OK, I’m going to feed you, and I’m going to get you half-looped, and then we’re going to move this restaurant,” Charlie told him, and there they were, after midnight, weaving up Scottsdale Avenue, carrying tables and chairs and liquor and pictures into the Pony’s new home.
“Oh, it’s been a helluva run, all right,” said Miss Gwen. “These are such great memories. And after you leave I’ll think of a million more.”
That’s what brought baseball people and fans back to the Pony, year after year after year.
Charles Fountain is a journalism professor at Northeastern and has authored a book on the history and culture of baseball spring trainng, titled “Under the March Sun.”