San Diego Stadium farewell: 50,000-seat facility made for ‘major league city’

Category: News Comments: 0 Post Date: February 22, 2021

San Diego Stadium farewell: 50,000-seat facility made for ‘major league city’

Mission Valley stadium provided half a century of entertainment, millions and millions of memories

The biggest story in San Diego history was trusted to a 12-year-old.

It was election night in 1965 and one of the local television stations didn’t show up at the County Operations Center, so the spot was given to Robert Kenneth Brown, a seventh-grader at Roosevelt Junior High.

Brown, who lived at 1826 Lincoln Ave. (yes, they printed people’s addresses in news stories back in the day), was described as the “owner, operator, announcer, political and public affairs reporter for radio station KFRB.” The boy estimated his station had a broadcast radius of two miles from the transmitter located at his home.

Brown’s equipment was set up adjacent to the door election officials came through to provide the media with updates throughout the evening.

Each bulletin was handed first to Brown, who “rushed to the microphone and scooped the world with his reports.”

His biggest announcement of the evening: Proposition 1 overwhelmingly passed with 72 percent of the vote, paving the way for San Diego’s 50,000-seat multipurpose stadium in Mission Valley.

Less than two years later — on Aug. 20, 1967 — the Chargers christened San Diego Stadium in an exhibition game against the Detroit Lions.

Over the next half century, the stadium hosted everything from professional, college and high school football to minor league and major league baseball games. From international soccer matches to off-road races. From rock concerts to revival meetings.

In an emergency, the stadium served as a shelter for residents forced by fire from their homes.

Outside its walls, in the largest parking lot in North America, there was road racing, RV shows and swap meets. And tailgating.

Highlights included three Super Bowls, two World Series, two MLB All-Star Games and a college football national championship among the more than 10,000 other events that provided millions upon millions of memories. The stadium hosted more than 100 million spectators during its 54-year history.

The 166-acre Mission Valley site was officially sold in August to San Diego State, which plans $2.5 billion in development — including research and innovation buildings, housing and a hotel, a river park and, yes, a new stadium — over the next two decades.

San Diego Stadium was expected to remain open for SDSU football through the 2021 season, but it was determined to be uninhabitable two months after escrow closed.

Many fans expressed disappointment they never had the chance to say a proper goodbye.

They’ve watched from a distance the demolition that was not over in an instant with an impressive implosion but instead has required weeks and months, section by section, to reduce it to rubble.

The last section is expected to come down any day now, leaving only the scoreboard — for now — still standing.

Over the coming week, the Union-Tribune will take time to pay respect to the most significant structure in the city’s history.

Goodbye, farewell and amen.

Setting the stage

The idea for a state-of-the-art stadium may never have been promoted — certainly not so soon — had it not been for something that occurred nearly five years earlier: The Chargers moving from Los Angeles to San Diego.

Even before the Chargers completed their inaugural season in L.A., rumors swirled that team owner Barron Hilton already was entertaining the idea of relocating the franchise.

“The story will be denied and I’ll probably be denounced as a third-rate fiction writer,” San Diego Union sports editor Jack Murphy wrote in a Dec. 21, 1960 column, “but it comes on excellent authority that the Los Angeles Charger franchise is San Diego’s for the asking.”

The Chargers had drawn poorly in the 100,000-seat L.A. Coliseum, with the franchise losing nearly $1 million in its first year (equal to almost $9 million in today’s dollars).

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve got to get out of Los Angeles,” Hilton said. “We can’t compete in the same market with the Rams. A lot of cities would like to have us. … I’d prefer to put the club in San Diego.”

On New Year’s Day in 1961, the Chargers lost to the Houston Oilers in the American Football League championship game.

Four days later, Hilton and Chargers head coach and GM Sid Gillman visited with San Diego civic leaders and toured Balboa Stadium.

Three weeks after that, the move was made.

“The Chargers got off the longest quick kick in Civic Center history yesterday,” Jerry Magee wrote in the Jan. 25, 1961, edition of the San Diego Union, “booting themselves right out of apathetic Los Angeles and into eager, enthusiastic San Diego.”

The deal was contingent on expanding Balboa Stadium from 23,000 to 34,000 seats while making additional renovations, especially to the locker rooms.

The city was on the hook for the $700,000 in improvements, with the goal of having construction completed in time for the 1961 season.

It was done before the Chargers kicked off in their mid-September opener against the Oakland Raiders.

Construction delays and changes actually pushed costs beyond $1 million, with the city deferring other budgeted projects, including at police and fire stations, on Mission Bay and a library in Ocean Beach.

The Chargers regularly approached capacity crowds at Balboa Stadium while advancing to the AFL championship game four times (winning in 1963) in their first five seasons in San Diego.

The need for an even larger facility — which Murphy regularly championed in his column — coincided with overtures the Chargers received from other cities.

The strongest lure came from a city just 90 miles to the north, which, apparently, wasn’t satisfied with just being the home to Disneyland. Hilton had drawings of a proposed Anaheim Stadium on the walls of his office.

‘I Want a Stadium’

The square red stickers began appearing in car windows during a stadium campaign that began in late 1964.

“I Want a Stadium” were the words printed on them.

A year earlier, the Citizens’ Stadium Study Committee considered the need for a state-of-the-art stadium to keep its professional football team and potentially attract major league baseball to town.

Murphy also took up the cause in his San Diego Union column.

The committee recommended a bond issue for the November 1964 ballot, but that was delayed a year to provide more time for study and to build community support.

There was an important change made to the proposal over those 12 months, tying it to revenue bonds, which require a simple majority for passage, rather than general obligation bonds, which require a two-thirds majority.

The cost was pegged at $27.5 million, a bargain even in today’s dollars ($228 million adjusted for inflation).

The City Council gave unanimous approval for a stadium financing plan on Aug. 18, 1965.

The council insisted property taxes not be used in the financing. Four other revenue sources would be used to repay the bonds: “revenue from the operation of the stadium, sale and lease of city-owned land in the Midway-Frontier area (included the future site of the International Sports Arena), an unused reserve in the capital outlay fund and estimated increases in the city’s annual sales tax receipts.”

There was no organized opposition to the stadium proposal — imagine that? — when it was placed on the ballot, as Proposition 1, for the Nov. 2, 1965 election.

Businessman Albert Harutunian was among the civic and political leaders — and more than 1,000 residents who volunteered their time — who strongly supported a new stadium and what it could mean to San Diego.

“Without the Colosseum, Rome would have been just another Italian city,” said Harutunian, who was general chairman of the Citizens for a Stadium committee.

He was among the driving forces for the stadium, making hundreds of speeches throughout the city.

“Harutunian can charm the birds from trees,” Murphy wrote.

Crucial in his efforts was creation of a 16-page booklet that Harutunian oversaw to explain what was proposed, how it would be financed and the economic impact it would have on the region.

Among his comments in the preface of the pamphlet, Harutunian said, “Too often in the past, issues vital to the welfare of San Diego have failed at the polls because citizens have not understood them. When faced with a proposition in the polling place, the voter says to himself, ‘I don’t understand what this is, but it will probably cost money, so I’ll vote no.’ Please take the time to read this booklet so that this will not happen in the case of Proposition 1.”

Harutunian had 187,000 of the pamphlets mailed to residences throughout the city.

Hilton signed a 10-year pledge to keep the Chargers in town if the measure passed.

Support extended beyond civic leaders and sports team owners. At a luncheon a day before the election, business leader George A. Scott said he spoke with evangelist Billy Graham.

“He told me ask you to vote ‘Yes,’ on the new stadium proposition,” Scott said.

On election night, when early returns had the proposition leading by a 3-to-1 margin, Harutunian refused to get overconfident. When victory was finally in hand, Harutunian already was looking ahead.

“Our next step is to obtain a major league baseball team,” said Harutunian, voicing a vision that was realized 21/2 years later when big-league owners voted to add National League franchises in San Diego and Montreal beginning with the 1969 season.

Modern, bright design

Ground was broken six weeks after the election, with an aggressive 21-month construction timeline for the new stadium to be ready in time for the Chargers’ 1967 season opener.

The firm of Frank L. Hope and Associates had been retained for initial site selection and design recommendations.

Nine sites were originally considered — including a floating stadium concept on Mission Bay that was ultimately rejected because it would have cost 50 percent more than building on dry land — before deciding on the Mission Valley property located west of Murphy Canyon, between Friars Road and Interstate 8.

Key factors in picking the site were its central location in the city, potential for building an adequate road system for access and enough land for the project.

With all of the apartments and condos and shopping centers and other businesses that since have crowded Mission Valley, it’s difficult to imagine now how isolated the stadium site was at the time.

Dairy farms and agricultural uses dominated the landscape then.

The city acquired the land for $2.3 million in 1965, with most of the 166 acres coming in two large parcels owned by the Guglielmetti Dairy and the San Diego Pipeline Co.

Widening of Friars Road, a major interchange at Friars Road and I-15 and construction of interchanges at Mission Village Drive, Stadium Way and Mission Center Drive were among the road projects necessary to accommodate the additional traffic the stadium would bring to the area.

“Without those roads, we’d have to depend on helicopters and mules to bring spectators into the stadium,” William Gerhardt, the stadium manager, said at the time.

Multipurpose stadiums were coming into vogue in the mid-1960s and would open in nearly a dozen U.S. cities during the decade.

San Diego Stadium (a city park and recreation board had recommended naming the new facility Mission Stadium) involved a horseshoe-shaped design, the intent being to provide the best views for both football and baseball.

Gary Allen was the lead designer for Hope and Associates, which included a staff of as many as 50 others working on the project.

“I feel a stadium is a very festive place, one of exuberance,” Allen said in the days leading up to the stadium’s debut. “We have 50,000 seats. When the stadium is completely occupied, one of every 13 persons in the metropolitan area will be there. The place was meant to convey excitement; that’s why I chose exciting colors.”

The stadium’s facade was gray cement, but inside walls were painted in bright colors — purple, burnt orange and blue — and brightly colored seats — orange, yellow and red — filled the place.

It was quite modern for its time, beginning with what Allen called a “super circle,” that combined a circle and a square to accommodate views for a multipurpose use.

“The big problem was how to put two dissimilar shapes together,” Allen said. “The piece of pie of baseball and the thin rectangle of football.”

The light ring above the stadium was unique, as were the circular ramps (which were oval-shaped in early drawings), malls inside the gates and landscaping.

“I had thought about the major design problems of our society today,” Allen said. “We’re about to go to the moon and I feel the space in which we live should reflect that attitude.”

Allen considered a stadium one of four great challenges for an architect, the others being a cathedral, a capitol building and a museum.

The six circle ramps located outside the stadium were one of its most noted features at the time.

“The ramps could have been buried inside,” Allen said, “but this would have made the stadium more expensive, so I treated them as sculpture.

“This gave me the fun of designing a circular ramp with a hole in the middle.”

Added Allen: “Lights are always tacked on later. We tried to enclose them in the architecture.”

The light ring became one of the stadium’s signature features when viewed from the adjacent highways or hillsides.

“I try to make architecture fairly simple and have a recognizable form,” Allen said. “That’s why we put a dome on capitols and arches on churches. They have no real function.”

A grand opening

San Diego Stadium opened on time and within budget, debuting Aug. 20, 1967, with a Chargers exhibition game against the Detroit Lions.

“It might be the best stadium I have ever seen,” NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said. “This is the first multipurpose stadium actually built to serve both football and baseball.

“Other stadiums were built primarily for baseball before pro football became so prominent. Here, football gets an even break, at worst. Regardless of where you sit, even in the end zone, the view is superb.”

Said Detroit head coach Joe Schmidt: “I wish we could take this beautiful stadium back to Detroit with us.”

The Chargers’ 38-17 loss to the Lions did little to spoil the day for the 45,988 fans who turned out for the event, although perhaps it was for the best that the stadium’s $750,000 scoreboard — still in need of some electrical parts — was not operating.

Parking was $1 ($2 for the inner ring), with 15,000 spaces from which to choose.

There were just more than 4,000 empty seats, most of them in the club section. Apparently, fans deemed their $10 cost to be a bit pricey.

“We’re not going to lower the price for premium seating,” Chargers President Gene Klein said. “In time, the public will want those seats. It might take three years.”

The game not only marked the first contest in the new stadium, it also was the first time the Chargers took the field against a National Football League team (the AFL-NFL merger was still three years away).

Historians would note that Dick Van Raaphorst’s 47-yard field goal in the second quarter provided the Chargers’ first points at the stadium.

A 61-yard pass from quarterback John Hadl to wide receiver Gary Garrison in the fourth quarter delivered the home team’s first touchdown.

Hadl had four interceptions, three of them in the first half.

“To say I was bad is an understatement,” Hadl said.

The Chargers trailed 31-3 after two periods, bringing out the first boos in stadium history as they headed to the locker room to regroup.

Fans were quickly distracted by an elaborate halftime celebration. Newspaper reports say it included a 400-member choir and a 1,000-member band led by composer Meredith Willson, who directed the musicians for “76 Trombones,” Willson’s hit song from the Broadway musical “Music Man.”

Willson also presented an original composition titled “America Calling.” Sailors marched down aisles carrying American flags. Fireworks exploded overhead and 10,000 red, white and blue balloons were released.

It seemed no detail was spared in the grand opening. Almost.

“They don’t have any Crackerjack,” complained 16-year-old Becky Bloom.

That menu item would be added by the spring, when the Pacific Coast League Padres took up residence for a year before the National League Padres debuted.

The inaugural event coincided with Sid and Esther Gillman’s 32nd wedding anniversary. Not everyone sent well wishes to the Chargers head coach and his bride.

When Detroit’s lead reached 38-3, someone in the crowd shouted, “Gillman, you’re a bum,” prompting Murphy to write, “The acoustics in the new ballpark are first-rate.”

Hope, the architect, was particularly pleased with the new stadium.

“The greatest thrill is to see people in it,” he said. “We’ve been looking at it on the drawing board and under construction, but we planned it for people. It’s a great thrill.”

A color photo from the game dominated the front page of the next morning’s San Diego Union.

Film from Union photographers was flown by helicopter from the stadium to the downtown offices at Second Avenue and E Street, where a rooftop landing pad had just been constructed. The newspaper boasted that its front-page photo was being processed less than 10 minutes after it was taken.

Chargers players just wished they could have made a more memorable debut.

“Everybody was tense,” Garrison said. “Maybe we were too high; we didn’t play the game we wanted to play. Now that the stadium is dedicated and first-game jitters are behind, we’re bound to improve.”

“I’m just disappointed because an NFL team beat us,” said Ron Mix, the team’s offensive tackle and a future Hall of Famer. “For eight years people have been telling us we’re inferior, and I was waiting for this chance. What can I say? They killed us, but I know we belong on the same field. I’d gladly take a rematch.”

Murphy would remember the day not for a lopsided loss but for a huge moment in the city’s history.

“This was the day and the evening San Diego earned its credentials as a major league city,” he wrote.

Coming Monday: Chargers & Super Bowls

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Facts & figures

Total cost of the stadium was $27.75 million ($228 million in 2021 dollars). The breakdown:

Stadium construction — $15.5 million

Land acquisition — $2.3 million

Grading/site prep — $1.44 million

Parking lot — $1.17 million

Playing field development — $200,000

Architectural/engineering fees — $660,000

Contingency reserve (8 percent) — $1.6 million

Other (including offsite utilities, legal/administrative costs and bond payment set asides during construction) — $4.88 million

Expansion projects

The 50,000-seat stadium was considered perfectly sized when it opened 1967. In 1983, there were 9,000 seats added in the outfield area beneath the scoreboard, boosting capacity to 59,000. The stadium was fully enclosed in 1997 (at a cost of about $80 million), adding another 11,000 seats to reach 70,000 in time for Super Bowl XXXII in 1998.

What’s in a name?

The stadium’s names through the years:

San Diego Stadium (1967-81)

San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium (1981-97)

Qualcomm Stadium (1997-2017)

SDCCU Stadium (2017-2020)

San Diego Stadium (2021)

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