4:15 p.m. Feb. 8
Spring Training starts next week. People always ask me about the Pink Pony, a staple of Cactus League Spring Training and one of my favorite baseball restaurants and bars in America. I've been to the Pink Pony a dozen times, but truth be told, I've had dinner there just once. Here's my edited backstory which originally appeared in the March, 14 2004 Chicago Sun-Times.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Gwen Briley misses her husband, Charlie.
Charlie died in the winter of 2002, but every time spring comes around he is as near as the crack of a bat and the crease in a glove. Charlie died of complications from pneumonia at age 87. Charlie had a great life, but that goes without saying. He was a baseball fan........
.....Charlie was cremated. Longtime Oakland A's traveling secretary Mickey Morabito gave the eulogy at Charlie's funeral. He quoted the line Roger Angell wrote in the New Yorker about Charlie's restaurant: "The Pony is the best baseball restaurant in the land." It is a baseball place.
"I've tried to keep Charlie's memory going for over a year now," Gwen says during a morning conversation in the back room of the Pony. "So last spring training I put his ashes in little pill boxes and labeled them. I gave them out to representatives of different teams. "Charlie is in 20 major league ball parks now. He's in St. Louis. Cards General Manager Walt Jocketty got some ashes. Charlie's in Chicago. We gave some to Yosh Kowano, the Cubs' beloved clubhouse manager. And Yosh ran into ex-Cub Jerry Morales."
Morales was coaching first base for the Montreal Expos. Last summer when the Expos came to Phoenix to play the Arizona Diamondbacks, Morales called Gwen at the Pony. Gwen smiles and imitates the former Cub center fielder: "Hi, 'Mama Mi, I put Charlie's ashes in Montreal!' I said, 'You mean his ashes are in Canada? He never spent a day in Canada. Now he's there."
Charlie purchased the Pink Pony in 1950 when it was down the street from its current location in Old Scottsdale. The Pink Pony was Scottsdale's first restaurant. The original Pony sat along a dirt road, and the dusty path was bordered with water troughs for horses. A previous owner had named it the Pink Pony as a spoof on Scottsdale's rugged cowboy reputation. (Although when a horse's gums appear light pink, he's a good bet in a race.)
The Pony moved to its present spot in 1971 and it has evolved into one of the best baseball hangouts in America. The mood is always win, place or show. You can tell when Gwen is in the house. Her white El Dorado Cadillac has the Arizona vanity plate MS PONY.
"Ex-Cardinal pitcher Dizzy Dean was a good friend of Charlie's," Gwen says. "They went bird hunting together here. Charlie was still down on the corner, but Dizzy was the one who started talking it up to the baseball guys." The late Gene Autry (former owner of the Anaheim Angels) soon took over the black vinyl "Millionaire Booth" (No. 3 in the dining room). His wife, Jackie, still sits there today whenever she is in Scottsdale. Former Cubs Fergie Jenkins and Glenn Beckert were visitors earlier this month. Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams used to drink at the Pony.
One night baseball commissioners Bowie Kuhn, Peter Ueberroth and Bud Selig were dining with National League president and former Cardinal Bill White. Harry Caray led a "Happy Birthday" sing-along at Charlie's 71st birthday party that featured a mariachi band, strippers and ballplayers. "In fact, ex-A's manager Billy Martin and another customer hired the first stripper we ever had in here," Gwen says. "She was a young blond who had knockers as big as my head. Forget the food that night. All my help was outside the kitchen, standing on booths watching the show."
The Pony is known for its sirloin steak, with soup or mixed green salad, baked or french-fried potatoes and hot biscuits and honey and filet mignon, 14 oz. market price. The restaurant's cornfed beef comes from Nebraska. The restaurant seats around 140 people. It is a three-block walk from Scottsdale Stadium, the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants.
Scottsdale Stadium is the best place to watch spring training in Arizona. The intimate brick-and-block park is surrounded by tall Shamel Ash and Palo Verde trees. The original stadium was built in 1956 and was the spring home of the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox and Oakland A's. The new stadium opened in the same spot in March 1992. Scottsdale Stadium holds 11,200 people, including 4,500 bleacher seats. The Cubs trained at Scottsdale Stadium between 1977 and 1979. This bleak version of the Cubs stayed in the colorful Hotel Valley Ho, just a few blocks from the Pony.
"When the Cubs trained here, every player was in every night," Briley says. "Charlie gave a free steak dinner to anyone who hit a home run. Jerry Morales saved his little free steak tickets and at the end of spring training he bought a crew in and said, 'Charlie, this night is on you.' Walking into the place is like falling into a Chicago steakhouse, circa 1960.
The inside of the Pony is pitch black, the drinks are strong and the tales are tall. "We haven't changed to the Southwestern look in all these years," Gwen says. "It's full of baseball things and that's the way Charlie wanted it." The walls are lined with authentic baseball jerseys, bats and hundreds of caricatures of baseball stars done by Don Barkley, a staff artist for Disneyland. Barkley's work also appeared in the Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles. After Barkley died, Charlie recruited his wife to try her hand at the caricatures.
"I loved to paint, but I wasn't into that," she says. "He asked me to try it. So he comes home one day and I'm doing A's pitching coach Art Fowler. He told me it looked like a photo. I said, 'Charlie, wait a minute. I'll get his nose red and his ears red.' After about two drinks Art's nose turned like a strawberry. Fowler was a fast friend of the late Billy Martin. Charlie liked it and I did them from then on. They're watercolor."
Charlie met Gwen in Riverside, Calif., where the she was selling mobile homes, specializing in the Fleetwood and the Westerner. Charlie's previous wife had died of an aneurysm. "Charlie was with one of his cowboy friends, calf-roping," Gwen says. "My girlfriend knew his friend, so we all went out to dinner. Of course, Charlie wasn't a cowboy. He comes walking out of the hotel in alligator shoes and a cashmere coat. We had more fun..." She stops, then says, "I wouldn't have spit on the best part of a man at that time." That is the best line in my journalism career. After I regain my composure, Gwen continues, "I had some bad experiences. It was like, 'Uh-oh, I don't need any of this crap.' We dated, going back and forth between Scottsdale and Orange County. After a year we got married. Before we married he told me I had to learn how to drink and I had to learn baseball.
"When we were dating we were watching baseball -- of course -- on television. They announced this guy was a switch-hitter. I said, 'I don't believe that on national TV they announced this poor guy was a switch-hitter.' He told me I didn't know what it meant, that a guy can bat left and right. He told everybody here at the Pony that story. He had more fun with that. We almost made it 30 years. I lost him right before Christmas."
Gwen tears up when she is asked what she misses most about Charlie. "I just miss him," she says in a rare whisper. "I really do. He was my soul mate. We laughed, we had our little arguments, too. He guided me in so many ways. Charlie was always there for me."
Charlie knew the depth of tradition and the breadth of a good time.
He was a baseball fan.
The Pink Pony is at 3831 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, (480) 945-6697.