By Joe Nunes
The Compass, August 2022
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In the 1960s, San Diego was growing up—developing from a Navy town to a noteworthy West Coast metropolis. And it seems almost nothing puts a city on the map more than having major sports franchises. In 1961, the American Football League Los Angeles Chargers relocated to San Diego. The National Basketball Association expanded in 1967 to include the San Diego Rockets. Two years later, the San Diego Padres became a major league baseball team in the National League. Finally, in 1970, the Chargers joined the National Football league in a merger between the NFL and AFL. In the span of a single decade, San Diego had gone from having no footprint on the national sports scene to having franchises in the top league of all three major sports!
But acquiring major league franchises was only part of the growth that needed to happen. The Chargers played their home games in Balboa Stadium on the fringes of the downtown area. It had insufficient seating, almost no parking, and was completely ill-suited to be home to a professional sports franchise. The Padres were a minor league team playing in a little bandbox of a stadium called Westgate Park on the western end of a new commercial development called Mission Valley. With no suitable major league venue, the city recognized they would need to invest in infrastructure to complete the transformation and take its place among the great cities on the Pacific coast.
Between Westgate Park at the west end of Mission Valley and the San Diego de Alcala Mission, (the very first United States mission established by Father Junipero Serra) much further to the east lay a tract of open land that would prove to be a perfect place to build a new stadium. The plans called for a modern stadium capable of hosting both football and baseball games and to be reconfigured from one sport to the other in a few hours. There were three tiers in a horseshoe shape and one of the best features would be a modern scoreboard at the open end of the stadium that would not only give the spectators the score and statistics they wanted but would allow for printed messages to be displayed throughout the game.
I lived up the hill from Westgate Park in an area called Linda Vista, up on the mesa high above the bay, the ocean, and Mission Valley. During the summer, my friends and I would often ride our bikes down the hill and spend most of the day exploring the wonders of San Diego. So it was that on one August day in 1967, we decided to check the progress of the new stadium where, in just a few days, they would hold their very first sporting event—a Chargers football game!
We took our bikes down the hill and past Westgate Park. We headed east along Friars Road, past the shopping complex anchored by Montgomery Ward. As we continued to the east, the valley spread out below us on our right and we could see the stadium gleaming in the distance. As we approached the stadium, we turned onto the long ramp, dropping us down into the parking lot, which completely circled the edifice that rose up in the center of it.
We circled the stadium and admired the beauty of it. It seemed there was no one in the world there except us and this magnificent edifice. Instead of just admiring it from the outside, the half dozen of us decided we wanted to take a look inside; to see the field for ourselves. We found a place near one of the gates that presented an opportunity to climb over the fence and enter the sporting venue. We walked through the dark passageways until we got to the seating area and were suddenly bathed in sunlight so bright that we had to squint to see the field.
I suggested we take advantage of the fact that we were all alone in the stadium and fully enjoy the experience. One of us always had some kind of ball with us and that day, someone had a football in the basket of his bicycle. So, we headed down all the stairs, until we reached the field and stepped out onto the grass. Smiling and laughing at each other, we impulsively ran to the middle of the field and began tossing the ball around. For a few moments, we took turns being John Hadl, Lance Alworth (Bambi), or Gary Garrison (the Ghost).
After a short time, one of us happened to glance up at the scoreboard and saw a message that read: “All right, boys, get out the same way you came in.” We looked at each other, none of us uttering a word before we sprinted back to the bleachers! We scrambled up the stairs, back to the pavilion and through the tunnel. As we approached the gate where we had climbed in, there was a security guard waiting for us. Our concern must have been strewn across our faces, but he simply smiled at us and opened the gate, so we didn’t have to climb over the wall again.
As we left, he grinned and told us that the only crew in the stadium that day were those who were working on the scoreboard ahead of the opening event coming up. He said they had been struggling to put messages on the scoreboard and that the very first intelligible message ever to appear on that scoreboard was the one telling us to get off the field.
I was almost 14 years old that summer (my birthday is in September). As I got older, I often attended Padre baseball games at the stadium. Every time I looked at the scoreboard, I was reminded of those glorious few minutes tossing a football in the middle of that sea of grass and of the small bit piece of unknown history that became part of my life.