The Mayor Is Gone
by Bruce Anderson, March 14, 2012
Fort Bragg said goodbye to Vern Piver last Saturday. It was standing room only in the high school gym where one of the largest crowds in local memory gathered to honor the memory of this most vivid man, the town's un-elected mayor. It was overcast and a light rain was falling when the service ended. Across the street, two girl's softball games were underway, and on an otherwise unoccupied diamond two small boys took turns hitting each other ground balls. Seventy years ago, one of them would have been Vern Piver dreaming big dreams.
Old timers will tell you that Vern Piver was the best all-round athlete Mendocino County has ever produced, “and the best baseball player for sure.” Vern Piver himself, however, will say that Fort Bragg's John DeSilva is the best, adding that the late Ado Severi, Larry Weller, Hal Perry, Kelvin Chapman, Jerry Tolman, and many other local athletes were better at more sports than he was. Old-timers will counter, “If Piver had been a few years younger he would have gone to the majors. He could do it all: he could run, he had an arm like a bazooka and he hit with power. He was tougher than hell, too. Piver would play on a broken leg if he had to.”
Younger people are more likely to remember the popular Fort Bragg native as their high school basketball coach or as the man who was instrumental in founding the Fort Bragg Little League. Farther afield in far-flung Mendocino County, Piver is remembered as the patient, good-humored guy who reffed their basketball games.
A quick-witted, versatile man who left Fort Bragg as a 17-year-old kid to play professional baseball, and by the time he got home to stay he'd played with the best ballplayers there were on two continents and had fought in a war on a third. Only the two years Piver endured as an Army draftee in Korea kept him away from Fort Bragg in the wintertime. Most ball players in the fifties had to work in the off-season, and Vern Piver was no exception. He'd come back to Fort Bragg in the fall and go right to work in the woods. Later, forced out of baseball by an ankle he'd broken one winter falling trees, the industrious Piver continued to work in the woods or at the mill, eventually starting up his own chainsaw sales and repair shop.
For many years, Vern raised prize-winning rhododendrons that surround the comfortable home Vern and his wife Betty shared on North Sanderson in Fort Bragg. The Pivers are the parents of two thriving adult children, Tony, a fine athlete in his own right, who lives in Napa; and Tammy; who is married and lives with her family in Oregon. Betty and Vern for years shared their home with Vern's elderly mother and, it seems, a range of folks who pop in and out at frequent intervals for a visit. Betty Piver was born in New Orleans. Vern met Betty as a young pro ballplayer.
Born in Manchester to a Native American-Italian mother and an Anglo father, and in Mendocino County those are roots few can boast, Vern was raised up the road in Fort Bragg, a Fort Bragg that is no longer recognizable in today's tourist-oriented economy. But of all Mendocino County towns and communities, Fort Bragg remains the most coherent, a rare place where three and even four generations of family can still be found within the city limits. The place is anchored in a way not found often anymore. And it seems likely that every family in town was represented at Saturday's memorial.
It is this strong sense of place that Vern Piver always evoked. In his formative years, as a latter day child psychologist might describe old Fort Bragg, the town was dominated by the mill and peopled by a polyglot array of immigrants, itinerant loggers, hard scrabble ranchers, farmers, fishermen, retired bootleggers, bartenders for the town's thirty or so bars, and a small professional class consisting of a couple of doctors, a lawyer or two, and school teachers. The heartbeat of Fort Bragg came from the town's stately old ballpark on Main Street, a rambling structure erected in the early 1920's out of redwood donated by the mill. Fort Bragg worked hard and played hard. Play itself was baseball on Saturdays and Sundays and a drink or two downtown afterwards.
Until the early 1970's northward migrations of young city people, the Northcoast was largely home to people who were born lived and died right here. The economy was timber, ranching, fishing, and small-scale agriculture. Towns were small and, as they say, “close knit.”
The social seams have long since burst, but what community remains in Mendocino County largely consists of the sports community, and the sports community consists almost entirely of people who were born and raised here. Sports people know each other, particularly from “back when.” And sports people remember. A Laytonville high school football player reminisces about the time he played in Covelo. A forty-year-old woman recalls the intensity of volleyball games in the Lilliputian Leggett gym. A small school basketball player remembers the year tiny Boonville ran Sonoma County's perennial large school sports power Cardinal Newman right out of the gym in a rare victory for a basketball David over a hoops Goliath. No matter where you go in Mendocino County, people will know that Ukiah's great athlete, Kelvin Chapman, once played with the Mets, and that Fort Bragg's Vern Piver had a shot at the bigs with the Pittsburg Pirates. Few people — then or now — are likely to know who their Congressman is. Or want to know except to groan.
Two of the best known sports figures in Mendocino County were Vern Piver of Fort Bragg and Brad Shear of Ukiah, both of whom had enormous influence on several generations of local young people drawn to competitive athletics. Both remembered Mendocino County when baseball was the sport, and every little town in the county, including the state hospital at Talmage, fielded at least one Sunday afternoon baseball team.
It was the old Mendocino County that produced Vern Piver, and 1951 was one of his most memorable years.
Piver graduated from Fort Bragg High School and signed a contract to play professional baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I got $500 to sign and I thought I was rich; it was the most money I'd ever seen,” he says, laughing. Years later, and still looking fit enough to hold his own on a ball field, Vern Piver looked back on a life that took him a long, long way from Fort Bragg, but it was Fort Bragg that always drew him back.
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AVA: You were born on the Manchester reservation in 1933 and grew up in Fort Bragg.
Piver: My grandfather on the Italian side of the family was a Scarioni. There he is in this picture with my grandmother. They got married in April. My dad was born in October. She was packin’ him when this one was taken. (Laughs) My dad was a Piver. He came up here to work in the mill in 1937. His family had a ranch below Point Arena but the ranch house burned down, and we came to Fort Bragg. A guy named Bill Owens owns the place now. His dad bought it in 1951 when it was still called 'the old Piver place.' My grandfather was kind of an oddball. He went to the gold fields in Alaska. Gone for seven years. Popped up one day without a word. Then he made split stuff, worked in tie (railroad ties) camps up in Humboldt County and out at Branscomb. He’d ship his old split stuff tools with some old redwood boards home by train. They’d always get home before he did. He had a packsack on his back, walkin’, hikin’, hitchhikin’. We knew he was coming because his tools got here first. Then, here he came with a packsack on his back.
AVA: Baseball grabbed you pretty early?
Piver: I grew up as a bat boy downtown. I got a picture from when we lived across from the firehouse. I was 'bout that big. Bat in the hand. Hung around the ballpark all the time. I played all sports. Junior Loggers, Senior Loggers. Baseball was it in the 40s and 50s. Pavioni owned the College Inn and he ran the ball club. He’d get a lot of liquor trade at the bar. He was good to me. Gave me my first job for $1 an hour down at the ballpark. I had a little motorscooter to drag the field with. The motorscooter was big time in a way. A lot of guys dragged the field with a horse, but he had a three-wheeled scooter that dragged it, and then I chalked it.
AVA: There was a real nice old ballpark in Laytonville. It’s still there.
Piver: I played up there! Harwood Field. Bud Harwood played shortstop for the University of California. He was a pretty good ball player. They had a few good players up there. Do you remember Okerstrom Logging? The old man was a big side-armer. He hit me in the ribs when I was 15 and every time I seen him someplace I’d groan, and grab my chest and say, 'Oh my ribs are starting to ache already!' He’d come sideways, side arm, I was 15, and he was pitching against me and stuck me one right in the ribs. I can still feel that bruise. A lot of those guys were just old farmers. Get a baseball team together and play on Sundays.
For a while in Fort Bragg, we played down there where the G-P nursery is now. It’s all black dirt. They played softball there, too. No grass. Just black dirt. You’d come home and your socks were black. All black. The wind would blow off the ocean and the dirt would stick to your sweat. They finally re-seeded the field and it was a nice little park. The left field fence was a short hop, just a little over 300 feet. When I was a kid old man Mazzoni had his house just past the left field fence; we had to put up screens because the older guys kept breaking his windows with long balls. I put up the mesh screens on his windows. Kids would get 25¢ for bringing back a foul ball. But you had to move pretty fast through the old man's vegetable garden if he was there; but kids, for two bits, they’d run through his onion patch and everything.
The land downtown was nicer for a ballpark, which is where the Loggers played all the way back to when the park was built. They were called the Seals at first, back in the early 20's, because the San Francisco Seals had given the team some of their old uniforms. Around 1930, the Seals became the Loggers and stayed the Loggers for the next thirty years. The old ballpark had green grass. Wood stands. Everything. Right there on Main Street! The Loggers always drew a real good crowd — what are you going to do in Fort Bragg in the 40s and 50s on a Sunday afternoon? They broadcast the Loggers games live on radio KDAC. They had a guy named Joe Pasero, an old logger. He’d put on a business suit. He’d be all big time. He had his tie and his good suit on to do the local broadcast. At the end of every game he'd always say, “When you lose, you're really learning how to win.” That was his sign-off saying. And he always pronounced San Francisco, “San Cisco.” Never did say it, “San Francisco.”
There were a lot of characters around that ballpark. We had a guy named Burt Enders. Used to wear a three-piece suit. He was the ticket taker. They cooked hot dogs right there, too. Fried ‘em with onions. Oh man they were good! They used the gate money and the hot dog money to maintain the field. They made enough to buy bats, balls — everything from old Al Earle down in San Francisco. That guy must have made a fortune bookin’ all the semi-pro games for Northern California and sellin' equipment to all the teams then. In the summer I worked for Pavioni. He owned the College Inn, the bar in town. Ballplayers hung out there. I was 13 or 14 and he paid me $1 an hour to do whatever for him. I'd get the $1 an hour and all I could eat at the College Inn. They had Italian dinners. The leftovers we’d have for lunch. Nine kids in our family. I could eat. Five boys and four girls. Two sisters are gone and two brothers. Lost one to drugs. One to cancer. And two to heart attacks.
Union Lumber owned the old ballpark. They hired some ballplayers and brought ‘em up here in the summer. A few were college guys out of Cal. The Finns and the Swedes were Squareheads. The ballpark was right in Wop Town, the Italian neighborhood. Every day we played ball there as kids. The ballpark was old, old with wood fences, wood seats, and Pop Marshall was the main guy. He was a bird dog (scout for pro teams) and the Logger's coach and manager. Pop had played for the Detroit Tigers. He had a poolroom with a bar and a soda fountain. In the back he had a boxing ring with seats all around it where Pop would have boxing matches. He lived in the house above his business. Always wore a suit. Never see him without a suit and tie and a hat. Shoes shined. Oh yeah!
AVA: When did they tear down the old ballpark?
Piver: I can’t answer that one. Early 60s, I guess. Then Green Memorial Park was the baseball field. But it didn’t have the coziness of the old park.
AVA: Pretty good coach?
Piver: There were little things he should have been telling me as a prospect coming up, like hitting behind the runner, cheatin’ a little on double plays — that kind of thing, the finer points of the game. Even my high school coach, Andy Anderson, they named the high school gym after him, and not to degrade him or anything, was short on fundamentals. I didn't get the fundamentals until my first year in the pros. When I went to my first year in the pros I didn't know nothin'. But the old ballpark was a great place. They had two teams here in town when I was in high school; I started out with the Junior Loggers. The Junior Loggers were the scrubbinis (scrubs) who couldn’t make it with the big team. So we traveled. We played in Covelo. Leggett Valley. Branscomb. Willits.
The first time I went to Covelo I thought I was going to die in the summer heat over there. I had ice cubes in my pockets, in my hat. A guy said, 'You’re going to play right field today.' I said, 'No, I’m an infielder. I’m not going out there.' He said, 'You’re playin’ right field.' I said, 'They got rattlesnakes out there. I’m not goin’ out in that field.' That was 1949. Covelo had a few good ballplayers, but they’d get so drunk on Saturday night they couldn’t play worth a damn on Sunday!
When I started with the Loggers, Larry Weller was playing, and he was a year younger than me. Everybody else was probably six, eight, ten, twelve years older than me. But nobody got paid. They’d get a few guys jobs, but most of the guys, two-thirds of the Loggers team, worked at the mill. And they played for the Loggers forever. Quite a few are still around here. Bill Brazill, for instance, was born and raised in Boonville. He worked for PG&E. Larry Weller signed with the Yankees out of here. He later worked for the railroad. Bartellini signed with a club in the Coast League. The Loggers was a tough lineup to crack. Guys had been playin' for 30 years, some of them. I was a little snot-nosed kid. I could play though, so somebody had to move.
We played two games every weekend all summer; Saturday and Sunday. Not too many double-headers. I don’t think the Loggers could have played three because they didn’t have the pitching to play three.
They had something like 26 bars in town back then. More bars than any other place in the country for its size. My dad used to run one. I was up talkin’ to Baldy Del Re the other day at the Senior Center. He played baseball here for 40 years or something. He had a dairy up on Bald Hill. He told me the other day that he helped build part of the old ball park, slaved on it, then when the season started Pop Marshall started another guy at first base! Baldy's still burned about it.
In the old days, every little stop in the road had a mill. And baseball was the only game people could afford. Every mill had a team. Dad played on a team at Elk that was three Gravanis, three Gallettis, and three Stornettas — all Italians.
AVA: From the Fort Bragg Loggers you jumped into pro ball.
Piver: I was 17 when I signed with the Pirates. 1951. They brought a team up here to Fort Bragg one time and we beat the hell out of them. A bonus baby was pitchin’. He'd signed for $20,000 or something. I ended up going 5 for 6 in that game. Fontaine asked me, 'You ever think about playin’ pro ball? I said, 'Since I was four years old! Let's go!' He came up about a month and a half later and signed me. He gave me $500 and I signed.
They were going to send me to Klamath Falls, Oregon, right out of Fort Bragg High School. It was June, the middle of the season. They said, 'Well, we’ll have you wait and go to spring training next year. So I waited. Oh, my lands! I was a country boy coming out of Fort Bragg. I didn’t know what sanitary socks were until I went to spring training! You just got an old pair of wool socks and pulled them up here in Fort Bragg back then. Every time you look your white socks were rollin’ down!
I left Fort Bragg on the Skunk. Went to Willits. Caught the train south to San Rafael. Greyhound was on strike. Had to give the porter from the train $10 to give me a ride from San Rafael to the train station in San Francisco at Third and Townsend. I got down to San Bernadino a week early. I get down there, I don’t know what to do. Draggin’ my equipment in a suitcase. I had one pair of slacks. I'd banked most of the $500. What the hell do I do? I went over to where the big league team, the Pirates, were having spring training. They checked me into the hotel and I went out and shagged balls, played a little pepper with the big league team. They never did let me hit. Ralph Kiner, the famous home run hitter, was there.
They were handin’ money out to chumps back then. Bonus babies. One kid, Montgomery, he couldn’t even lace his shoes. He got $40,000. Somebody must have seen him do something, but nobody else ever did. But the game's changed a lot. The guy that taught us how to slide made us slide on cement. DeTorre. He taught sliding in spring training. He could literally slide on cement and not get a strawberry. And the Baltimore chop — chop the ball hard down in the box for a high hop and run hard for first. I'd do that to get on base because I was pretty fast, but you don’t hear that baseball lingo any more.
They fly me to Florida for my next spring training. That was an experience. I got on an airplane and asked where the parachute was. (Laughs) I never flew before. I’d seen movies with planes but never had been in one. Flew all the way to Florida! What an experience that was. I’m dark. I get to Florida they got these signs, 'Colored' and 'White.' I looked at myself, and ask, “Which one do I go in?” I didn’t know. I'm a hayseed from Fort Bragg. I was never exposed to prejudice like Florida's. I’m lookin’ around like a desert rat for water. I go through the chow line and they throw grits on my plate. I told ‘em I didn’t eat mush with my eggs for breakfast. I didn't know they ate grits with everything down there.
When I was finished with baseball, I came back to Fort Bragg and worked in the woods. Those days you could go down to the mill and if you knew a boss you had a job automatically. I’d come back in the fall of the year. I knew Biggie Bartley. Played basketball for years on the local team. He was a boss down there in… He said, You gonna play basketball for me? I said I needed a job first. I showed up Monday for work. Same way when I went to work in the woods. I went to the woods boss, and got the job right away.
AVA: All kinds of woods work?
Piver: Mostly timber falling. Guy asked me, 'Can you run a saw?' I said, 'I think so.' So… It was a good livin’. I got out of high school and worked in the woods that summer with my dad. Then you were known as a tool-packer, learnin’ a trade. A grunt, I guess. Packed the bottom wedges. Packed the saw. Learnin’ a trade. There’s a lot to fallin' trees. You gotta be skilled. You can’t just walk out there and start knockin’ trees down.
But that’s a thing of the past now too. Timber’s smaller. Those days each tree was worth a lot of money. I could see it comin’, the decline in the logging industry. You can’t grow ’em faster than you can cut them down. The outside corporations — all they want is money. They could have been puttin' along like the Union Lumber Company did. But the big boys weren’t happy with puttin' along. The Johnson family ran Union Lumber. I was on a first name basis with them. Everyone was. You’d see them on the street and could talk to them. Now, no one knows who’s running the place. When the outside owners came in here I packed my bag and went to work for a gyppo — Shuster.
The Johnson family helped the town a lot when they owned the mill. They carried people through the big Depression; they gave people enough work to get along. By the same token, Fort Bragg was a company town. People sold their souls, like the song said, to the company store. They had charge accounts down there. I never did, but lots of people bought furniture, groceries, meat at the company store. The only thing they didn’t sell was fuel. They sold everything else. Union Lumber put money in the rec center where kids hung out by the hundreds. There was a swimming pool, and a gym. That’s where I first started playin’ basketball — a little scrawny runt in the corner. They'd get nine guys but they'd need ten; they’d look around — oh shit, he’s here again! We'll take him, I guess. Him was me. Skins against shirts… Playground play. That’s the way it was in the old days. Big guys would let the little guys shag fly balls. It gets to be the little guy's turn to hit and … oh, time’s up — gotta go home.
AVA: Do you remember the strike of 1946?
Piver: Oh yeah. You can’t believe the fistfights me and my brother got into over it. My dad — we had nine kids in the family — he’s makin’ split stuff in Little Valley when he's not working at the mill and he’s gotta go across the picket line to go work. He had to work or we wouldn't eat! At the ice cream and soda water socials all the union people’d be there and me and my brother went hobblin’ up for free ice cream and soda and someone would say, 'Here comes that scab’s kids!' I said, Not for long, pal. Only thing that’s going to be scabby around here is your nose if you don’t shut up!'
There's still some bad feelings about the strike. There was a lady named Mrs. Jensen. She used to walk her husband down there and cross the picket line with him every day like she was walkin' her kid to school. Big fiery red-headed lady. 'Get outta the way!' she'd yell and she’d walk him right across the line. The strikers used to throw rocks and break windows. They coulda had a union here but they wanted a closed shop. They wanted to do their own hiring. The Johnsons would have given them the union, but the union wanted to do the hiring and firing, and the Johnsons said, No, we won’t go for that.
But I was young, about 13. I remember that if you lived over past Puddin’ Creek you automatically became a red. Pudding Creek, you were a communist automatically! You know how small towns are. 'You’re old man’s a commie!' That kind of thing.
The Finns had their own co-op. Sold hay and everything else. My grandfather and grandmother shopped there. I still have some of their co-op stock. You got a cheaper price on stuff if you owned stock.
There were 2,300 people workin’ at the mill here at one time. They had a guy for everything. Automation did away with a lot of the jobs. Machines replaced two or three men. Chainsaws replaced men. You put 45 years in the mill and you got a gold watch — there’s gotta be something wrong with your head to start with to do that that long. I’ve been diversified. I've done a number of things: ballplayer, owned a chainsaw shop, worked in the woods, fished’, crabbin’. I worked for a tree service maintaining saws for them. Used to be a lot of chainsaw shop business. Now there’s nothin’. I see a lot of woodsmen drivin’ up and down Main Street, no work for ‘em and it’s June! They should have half a season in already.
AVA: You mentioned playing winter ball in Mexico.
Piver: I made more in winter ball than I did playin' ball any place else. I’ve been to some backwoods towns down in that country. In Cordova they'd ring the church bell every hour on the hour right across the street from the hotel. We traveled by bus, and the night we won the pennant, the hometown fans rioted. They were rocking the bus and they broke out the windows. I was afraid for my life! I’ll tell ya. They took baseball seriously down there. The team I played one winter for, was Pozarica. In the summer I played for the Mexico City Tigers. The Pozarica team was owned by Pemex Oil. The president of the company went to school down here at the old San Rafael Military Academy then graduated from Cal as an engineer. He was in charge of Pemex/Mexico. He also owned the Ford agency in town so everybody drove a Ford. If you were working for Pemex, they took a season’s ticket out of your wages. I don’t know how many people he had working in that area, probably five or six thousand. Each one had to buy a season ticket out of their paycheck. They had no choice. So the park was full every night. I was paid in pesos. The peso was stronger then. I got a haircut and a shave in 1957, the year I played in Mexico, for 11¢.
AVA: Good ball players?
Piver: Yes. Absolutely. Some big leaguers came from that league. Alvin Jackson. He’s a pitching coach now. He pitched for the Mets. A few Cubans and a few guys from Panama. If you had Spanish ancestry and you played winter ball down there, you counted as a national. They could only have five foreigners on the team. I was a foreigner plus two or three other colored guys on the team. Pete Mason — he pitched for San Diego, then the Cleveland Indians. He was on the roster. They had some big time players down there. Dick Hall, he pitched relief for Baltimore later on. There’s a guy who made some money. He married a girl from Mazatlan, played winter ball down there and at the same time he was gobblin’ up all that beach frontage. I bet he’s a millionaire many times over by now. He was smart. Went to Swarthmore College. If it was raining, he’d figure the dimensions of the ballpark and tell you how many drops of water were falling in that ballpark in a given time.
The regular season here was over in September; they’d start winter ball down there and you'd play until February. We played damn near every day and travel four or five hours from town to town by bus. I played in all the big cities. We'd get 25,000 to a game.
I played against Alonzo Perry. Not many people remember him, but at the time, it was between him and Jackie Robinson to be the first colored ballplayer to integrate American baseball. They picked the right guy when they chose Robinson. Perry was 6-6, played first base. He was a very tough guy; not the kind of guy to turn the other cheek. Robinson was a diplomat. Perry just as soon knock you on your ass as look at you. He didn’t slide one time comin’ into second and I drilled him. I told him, you’ll get down next time. He said, I’m gonna get up and get you down, Piver! He always packed a gun in his back pocket. I saw Perry in a nightclub one night smokin’ dope, marijuana. I didn’t even know what it was at the time. He hit .360- something every year down there, and he hit with power. But you weren’t gonna call him names and get away with it.
When our catcher got hurt, I said, Gimme that gear, I’ll catch. And I caught a one-hitter! That's where I stayed because I had a hell of an arm. Second base was an easy throw for me. If I caught, I figured I had a better chance to get to the big leagues as a utility guy. I could play anywhere. Pitch, if I had to. I had a gun for an arm, but I broke my ankle fallin’ timber in the winter of 1959 and that was it for baseball. I was standing on a springboard, and when the tree went the board kicked against my ankle and broke it in three places. Set two of them. Missed the third one. I broke it again playin’ summer ball with the Loggers. I'd hit a home run, and rounding first base I felt like a rifle went off and hit my ankle. The only injuries I'd had playing baseball was a torn-off fingernail and in Modesto one night I got spiked on the back of an ankle. Doctor came out of the stands and sewed the son of a bitch up there without any kind of painkiller. Next morning I got it shot it up with Novocain and played.
AVA: Best year you had as a pro?
Piver: .345 in Salinas. Still got all the offensive records there. Tore the league up in Hollywood. Hit .300 for a month, but got sent to Salinas. Ended up playin’ in Memphis. No coloreds allowed in that league. I can still remember Eddie Glennan in Birmingham, the owner of the team there. I was killing him. 4 for 6. He yelled at me, 'I’m going to check your lineage!' I yelled back, 'You white racist son of a bitch! I’m going to come up there and kick your ass!'
I played in New Orleans with a white guy named JC Powers. He was a racist from Birmingham. We used to walk down the street and he’d tell the coloreds to get off the sidewalk! I said, Come on, JC. Don’t talk to people like that. He said, I was raised like that. I said, I don’t give a shit how you were raised, it's not right.
Another time, I jumped on the back of the trolley and the operator wouldn’t move it. He said to me, 'Get up front! I said, 'I'm fine where I am. He said, Get up front or nobody goes anywhere.' Jesus. What a system! Played two years down there in New Orleans. Blacks had to sit out in the right field bleachers.
I don’t regret playin' ball. I had six good years in the minor leagues, met a lot of people, traveled all over the country, even got to go to Mexico. I had a great time doin' what I was good at. I don't have any complaints.