Palm Springs at Play

Golf and tennis rule, but other sports — from auto racing to polo to baseball — have helped shape the character of this desert resort town



Bob Hope

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Palm Springs 75 Anniversary logoEveryone who picks up a golf club, tennis racquet, or polo or croquet mallet in the desert today owes a debt to Palm Springs. Anyone riding a horse, hiking in the hills, or cheering in the stands at a baseball game can trace the history of their chosen pastime directly back to Palm Springs. While the whole world associates golf and tennis with Palm Springs, the city’s sports history tells a much more colorful and varied tale.

Golf

The Coachella Valley has more than 120 golf courses, but only a few are actually in Palm Springs proper. Nevertheless, golf has grown synonymous with Palm Springs. Like many other city traditions, the sport got its toehold in the desert at the glamorous El Mirador Hotel. The hotel opened on New Year’s Eve in 1927, when Palm Springs was still a village with little more than a few dirt streets. But beautiful winter weather and the work of publicists Tony Burke and Frank Bogert encouraged movie stars and the wealthy to “discover” the town.

In 1929, a few months before the Great Depression hit, El Mirador opened the valley’s first 18-hole golf course. Without enough golfers to sustain costs, it closed the same year. It was an inauspicious start for the sport that today draws national media coverage and tourism dollars to the valley.

With the economy recovering in 1932, oil magnate and water developer Thomas O’Donnell opened a course in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, set against the San Jacinto Mountains to the west. O’Donnell Golf Club went private in 1944 and today invites the public in for a variety of charitable events such as the annual Evening Under the Stars for AIDS Assistance Program and large-scale events, including the 75-year celebration in April.

While golf course architects were busy building courses in other desert cities, Palm Springs was hamstrung by the lack of big chunks of open land. Still, development went on and the city-owned Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort opened as a 9-hole municipal course in 1957, with nine holes added in 1959. A second 18-hole course designed by Ted Robinson was added in 1995.

In 1995, pro golfer Tommy Jacobs bought the former Bel Air Greens, a modest little 9-hole course in the middle of a residential area in Palm Springs, and added his name. The course was sold in 2006 and the name changed back to Bel-Air Greens.

In 1961, the private 36-hole Canyon Country Club course opened on 550 acres of Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indian land; it later opened to the public as the Indian Canyons Golf Resort.

Other public courses in Palm Springs include the 18-hole Mesquite Golf & Country Club (opened 1985) and Escena Golf Club, which began life in the 1960s, closed in 2007, and re-opened in 2010 with a new Nicklaus Design clubhouse and course that plays off the retro look of the ’60s Rat Pack era.

Charlie Farrell and Kirk Douglas at the Racquet Club.
Charlie Farrell and Kirk Douglas at the Racquet Club.

Collection of Palm Springs Art Museum, Gift of Dorothy Anderson, © Palm Springs Art Museum

Tennis

Like golf, tennis got its start in Palm Springs at El Mirador Hotel. At the height of the winter season, El Mirador’s tennis courts were packed — so busy, in fact, that actors Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy founded the Racquet Club in 1934 after they were asked to limit their playing time on El Mirador courts. The new place became the preferred Hollywood hangout for tennis, cocktails by the pool, and all-night parties.

Pearl McCallum McManus, a member of the city’s first pioneer family, had the Palm Springs Tennis Club built in 1937, and the Paul R. Williams-designed clubhouse opened the next year. It was a private club, but she opened the courts and club to the public for charitable events.

“Auntie” Pearl is often credited with bringing the midcentury modern style of architecture to Palm Springs, in the form of the Art Deco-style Oasis Hotel, designed in 1925 by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1947, Williams and A. Quincy Jones collaborated on additions that expanded the traditional tennis courts and club into a complex that fit naturally into the hills to the west.

Today the courts are open to guests at the hotel and its time-share bungalows. Philanthropist Harold Matzner owns Spencer’s Restaurant, a favorite Tennis Club hangout for the wealthy and famous.

The Easter Bowl, a juniors’ tournament sanctioned by the U.S. Tennis Association, was held in Palm Springs for several years before moving to venues in Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert in 2011. The BNP Paribas Open is one of the most significant events in professional tennis. The tournament is played out in the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the world’s second-largest tennis stadium.

Gene Autry at Angels Stadium with the Angels’ general manager, Dick Walsh, in 1970
Gene Autry at Angels Stadium with the Angels’ general manager, Dick Walsh, in 1970.

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Baseball

Originally built to host polo matches, Palm Springs Stadium opened in 1949 next to today’s Palm Springs Library. It came into use as a ballpark when it hosted spring training for the minor league Washington state baseball team, the Seattle Rainiers, from 1950 to ’52. Other teams taking spring training there included the Oakland A’s and Chicago White Sox.

In 1961, Gene Autry brought his major league California Angels (now Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) to Palm Springs for spring training. The Angels played its first exhibition game in the renamed Angels Stadium that year and came back each spring through 1992. Seeing the Angels at play on a sunny afternoon when the rest of the country was still fighting snow and ice was a huge draw. Spectators in recreational vehicles would line up at dawn to find a parking space.

Wanting the team to have first-class accommodations, Autry bought the small Holiday Inn on the eastern edge of town. He renamed it Melody Ranch and added rooms, a second pool, more tennis courts, and a few bars and restaurants. The hotel soon became known as the Gene Autry Hotel, or “The Autry,” and it was a popular base and watering hole for major sports media when the team was in town.

Over the years, the stadium aged, and the Angels needed more modern facilities. At the time, Mayor Sonny Bono and Palm Springs City Council were focused on launching a new international film festival. Autry’s request to refurbish the 5,100-seat stadium, with its obsolete locker rooms, didn’t make the budget. In 1991 the team moved to Tempe, Ariz., where they will stay at least through 2025.

Still, baseball lived on in Palm Springs. Two pro teams, the Palm Springs Angels of the California League (1986-1993) and the Palm Springs Suns of the independent Western League (1995-1996), also played their main season games at Palm Springs Stadium.

In 2004, the Palm Springs Power, a semi-pro collegiate league operated by Andrew Starke, began summer play at the stadium and signed a long-term lease with the city in 2006. The California Winter League, a professional instructional with five teams, including the Palm Springs Chill, began play there in 2010.

Smoke Tree Ranch
Smoke Tree Ranch

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Horseback Riding and Polo

In a way, Palm Springs pioneer Harriet Cody launched sports tourism when she built the first commercial stable at South Palm Canyon Drive and Ramon Road in 1919. By 1924, she had 24 horses available for rent to visitors. Golf and tennis had yet to make their formal appearance, and horseback rides into the desert and Indian Canyons were the primary leisure activity for visitors and residents.

In 1928, the private Smoke Tree Ranch started a small polo club for its owners and vacationers who rented its rustic bungalows. Walt Disney played polo at Palm Springs Stadium in 1936, then joined in matches at Smoke Tree as a visitor, and in 1948 bought a house there. The Smoke Tree Stables are now open to the public for trail rides and lessons.

In 1931, when the U.S. Census showed that Palm Springs had only 1,040 residents, a small group formed Desert Riders, a private equestrian club. Founding members included the area’s first postmaster Carl Lykken, trial boss Art Smith, Charlie Farrell, Nellie Coffman, Pearl McCallum McManus, and Melba and Frank Bennett.

The Riders were primarily a social club, and invitations to their morning chuckwagon breakfasts were a sign of status among visiting celebrities. As Palm Springs grew, the group took on the task of marking and maintaining their riding trails, many of which were expansions of ancient trails used by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Today’s hikers can thank the Riders for 28 trails in the mountains around the Coachella Valley, including the Lykken, Burgess, Hahn, Coffman, Furer, Hoff, and Art Smith trails.

By 1957, development in Palm Springs was eating up available land, and Palm Springs Stadium had long since become baseball’s spring training venue. That year, a group of 11 players formed the Eldorado Polo Club in Indio, where land was inexpensive and plentiful. Polo in Palm Springs passed out of the city’s embrace and began to thrive in the east.

Palm Springs Rodeo
Palm Springs Rodeo.

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Rodeo

Rodeos in Palm Springs were mostly casual, on-again, off-again affairs, with the first one held in 1937. When the Palm Springs Mounted Police (now the Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue) formed in 1949, it sometimes held rodeos as its primary fundraisers and sometimes partnered with the 1934-1981 Desert Circus.

In 2010, a memorial rodeo for Frank Bogert, “The Cowboy Mayor,” was held at Caballeros Field, adjacent to Palm Springs Convention Center. The Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association sanctioned the three-day event, which was so successful that producers planned a second rodeo for 2011. But an organized group of animal welfare activists launched a vigorous onsite protest all through the 2011 rodeo. Using mobile loudspeakers and video screens that depicted animal cruelty, they instigated the cancellation of the 2012 event.

Mayor Sonny Bono at the Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix
Mayor Sonny Bono at the Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix.

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Auto Racing

The first Palm Springs Road Races were held on hay-bale-lined runways at the Palm Springs Airport from 1951 to ’58, with city streets used for the straightaways. James Dean took third place in 1955, moving to second when another driver was disqualified. He was driving a Porsche, but contrary to popular lore, it wasn’t the one he drove in his fatal car accident later that same year.

In 1985, car racing returned with the Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix. Keith McCormick, whose twice-yearly classic and exotic car auctions have become a Palm Springs tradition, helped coordinate that first race and held his first Exotic Car Auction event the same week. After a hiatus in 1993, Chrysler stepped in as a sponsor, and vintage cars took to the streets next to the Wyndham Hotel and Palm Springs Convention Center. But the city was growing. Residents’ complaints about noise and congestion, along with sponsorship shortfalls, meant that the Chrysler Grand Prix had its last run in 1996.

Joe Henderson’s Bowling Academy in 1950
Joe Henderson’s Bowling Academy in 1950.

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Bowling

In 1942, Joe Henderson opened Palm Springs Bowling Academy at 378 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Pins were set by hand in those days, a task that Moya Henderson took over during the war. By 1960, the Hendersons sold the lanes and Palm Springs Bowling and Billiards became the new name. The establishment was gone by the mid-1960s.

Darryl Zanuck’s Croquet Course at his home.
Darryl Zanuck’s Croquet Course at his home.

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Croquet

Far from being a genteel pastime for a summer afternoon, croquet in Palm Springs in the 1940s and ’50s was played with expensive, calibrated English equipment, high wickets, and fierce concentration.

The first and only East-West Croquet Championship was held at Howard Hawks’ Palm Springs “Hog Canyon” compound in July 1946. The West team was made up of Darryl Zanuck, Howard Hawks, and agent Fefe Ferry. The East team of Moss Hart and Tyrone Power won two out of three matches, and the entire event lasted 11 hours. Floodlights were set up to light the court for the players and 300 spectators. Life magazine covered the match with a two-page spread.

Zanuck’s weekend home in Palm Springs had a croquet course with a fountain in the middle as an obstacle. He took the game seriously, as did Hawks, and the two were leaders in bringing top croquet to the West Coast. Zanuck, production chief at 20th Century Fox, was inducted into the U.S. Croquet Hall of Fame in 1979, and Hawks followed in 1980.

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