Sports arenas

150 years of love for the city’s sports venues

Richard Nixon stood inside a three-quarter-length Candlestick Park finished on June 12, 1959, the wind whipping through his wavy hair and uttering perhaps the biggest untruth of his entire political career.

“It will be one of the most beautiful baseball parks ever,” Nixon told The Chronicle.

It was not beautiful, by any architectural or aesthetic standard. But it was definitely liked.

San Francisco residents can complain about just about anything from politicians and transportation to the quality of a cup of coffee. (There was a contingent of residents, no joke, complaining about Batkid.) But when it comes to its greatest cathedrals for sports and entertainment, even the cold and dirty Candlestick Park is treated with loyalty and respect. , like a dirty old dog that the family can’t bear to give up.

Candlestick’s current slow-motion demolition, along with plans to build a new Warriors arena in Mission Bay, is part of a circle of life in San Francisco sports arenas that dates back to the Gold Rush. . In the 150 years of the Chronicle’s publication, at least 18 stadiums and arenas in San Francisco have hosted high-level professional, minor league, or collegiate competitions. Many of those who left had quirks and flaws. But newspaper accounts show tears were still falling when the walls collapsed.

From the moment baseball arrived in San Francisco, residents began to demand a baseball stadium. This recurring phrase is taken from an editorial in the Chronicle of 1867, arguing for a space for recreation in the growing city:

“If we have in the Council a competent man, who has a little leisure and who wishes to render a great service to his fellow citizens, let him … oblige the Council, however reluctant he is to listen, to us giving what we need more than any other city of our size and importance: public recreation grounds.

The city’s first baseball stadium opened a year later. The Mission District recreation grounds could accommodate 12,000 fans and presented an odd mix of top-level sporting and baseball events that would draw the ordinary man sitting in the stands to the playing field. At the first Recreation Grounds event, a sack race was billed the same as the baseball game between the San Francisco Eagles and the Oakland Wide Awakes.

The next big baseball stadium, Central Park, opened in 1884 at Market and Eighth streets. Imagining acres of green grass there is impossible in 2015, as the site becomes a growing hub for tech companies. Central Park later became the first home of the San Francisco Seals baseball team, for just three years, before the stadium was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

Seals Stadium in San Francisco in the 1940s. Mission District stadium was home to the Seals and Giants.

Chronicle / The Chronicle

San Francisco became a two-stadium city in the first half of the 20th century, with Recreation Park in the Mission District in 1907 and Ewing Field in Inner Richmond in 1914.

The modern era of stadiums began when Seals Stadium opened in 1931. There were more superlatives (“The best stadium in the West and perhaps the most beautiful stadium in the United States,” wrote the Chronicle at the completion of the stage), but this time they were justified. With state-of-the-art lighting and an intimate design, Seals Stadium was San Francisco’s first location with a public address system to announce lineup changes.

“This announcement was made by Secretary Putnam, who is very excited about the idea,” the Chronicle reported. “Speakers are now almost a must in large football stadiums, and baseball fans will undoubtedly appreciate the service just as much. “

The Seals Stadium was demolished less than three decades later, an outrageous move that replaced the sacred outfield patrolled by DiMaggio and Mays with big box retail stores. But the stadium left behind two characteristics that are now hallmarks of the San Francisco sports arena:

• As the stadium got more eccentric, the San Franciscans loved it even more. Among other things, Seals Stadium featured female “openers” and a living sea lion named Major, who lived in a tank near the main entrance.

• Adorable characters and misfits including Lefty O’Doul and little outfielder Albie Pierson became fan favorites – just as Giants fans would adopt unique characters like Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence generations later.

Across town in Golden Gate Park, Kezar Stadium was built in the 1920s, but did not feature any top-level professional sports until the arrival of the San Francisco 49ers in 1946. the land, by building popular loyalty to the land. Later, when the 49ers moved in (and the Oakland Raiders played Kezar for a season), they retained their working-class atmosphere.

Kids would often go to Kezar games for free or at a discount, sit in the Christopher Milk section, and pick up seat cushions after the game for cash. A wonderful Kezar tradition that has almost been forgotten: For big games, including most 49ers games, the apartment buildings on Frederick Street would adopt a Wrigley Field vibe, with hundreds of fans watching for free from the rooftops.

The San Francisco Warriors arrived in 1962 and played at three venues across the city: the Civic Auditorium, the War Memorial Gym (still the home of USF basketball), and the Cow Palace. The latter, built in 1941 across from SF in Daly City, has become the Swiss army knife of local sports venues. The Cow Palace has hosted at least four hockey, roller derby and wrestling teams, as well as an 11-car Evel Knievel jump.

San Francisco has always been a tough place to build a stadium, but the rewards are well worth it. For a few years, a dysfunctional town hall made a new baseball park seem like an impossible business. And yet, in 2000, the Giants created an instant classic. AT&T Park at China Basin remains a physical and functional masterpiece, elevating the team’s stature while strengthening sporting ties among city fans. It was the perfect stadium at the perfect time – with its legacy cemented in the 2010s by three World Series victories.

Oakland residents won’t agree, but the Warriors can’t get back to San Francisco quickly enough. The 49ers moved to Santa Clara last year, and the slow drawing and quartering of Candlestick Park has left a void in the city’s natural order that Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Steve Kerr will fill well.

A first draft of the Warriors arena plan made the building look like a chest of drawers. Recent plans are a big improvement. But in truth, it doesn’t really matter. History shows that once a new park is planted on city soil, it will be cherished by fans unconditionally.

Chronicle Librarian Bill Van Niekerken contributed research for this article.

Peter Hartlaub is the pop culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub


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