Westgate Park (San Diego)
The Pacific Coast League’s San Diego Padres had played in Lane Field since their inaugural season in 1936. By the mid-1950s, however, the waterfront ballpark’s wooden construction had been ravaged by years of San Diego Bay’s salty winds. Termites had also eaten away at the structure. In 1958, the brand-new Westgate Park opened its doors. The Padres, and their fans, welcomed the change
It had been a decade of hope and uncertainty. Ever since the Boston Braves had moved to greener pastures in Milwaukee in 1953, followed by the Philadelphia Athletics’ transfer to Kansas City two years later, there was a sense that it was only a matter of time before a major-league team ventured all the way out to the fertile California coast. Once that happened, the future of the Pacific Coast League would be anybody’s guess. San Diego didn’t want to face that future unprepared. Westgate Park was built to house the minor-league Padres, but it was also designed with the hopes of attracting a major-league team in the years to come. Upon completion, it only sat 8,268 fans, but a proposed expansion of the structure would give it a potential capacity of 40,000.
The Padres were owned by C. Arnoldt Smith, owner of the Westgate-California Tuna Packing Company (from which the new park derived its name). Smith used his own money to build the new digs for his team. In the end the final cost for construction came in at around $1 million. The location for Westgate couldn’t have been more different than that of its predecessor Lane Field, a downtown park just a windblown popup from the briny waters of San Diego Bay. Westgate Park, on the other hand, was built in Mission Valley, which at the time was a mostly undeveloped pastoral heartland of dairy farmers, watered by the San Diego River as it led to the Pacific Ocean. Despite the objections of the city’s planning commission, which was concerned about commercialization of the area, the San Diego City Council in the fall of 1956 approved a plan to build the park (after having rejected the measure twice previously).
Despite its small size, Westgate was a truly modern, not to mention picturesque, ballpark. It marked a huge upgrade from Lane Field, which was old and decrepit despite having been built just two decades before. Located near the intersection of Friars Road and State Route 163, the facility was bordered on three sides by parking lots able to accommodate up to 3,000 vehicles. It consisted of a single-decked, V-shaped grandstand covered by a metal cantilevered roof, which kept obstructed views to a minimum while protecting patrons from the baking afternoon sun of Mission Valley. A grassy berm ringed the entire outfield, for those fans who preferred to soak up some rays while they watched a game. Beyond the outfield, flanking either side of the scoreboard were graceful eucalyptus trees. According to Michael Benson in his book, Ballparks of North America, “The grounds were beautified with trees, shrubs, flowers, and tropical plants.”1 One of the more striking architectural features of the park was the four light towers on the grandstand roof, which leaned toward the playing field at about a 60-degree angle.
The concessions were ultramodern and included walk-in coolers for beer and other cold drinks. There was also an entire heat-controlled storage room for peanuts. The room was kept at a temperature of 120 degrees, and could reportedly hold up to 10,000 bags of peanuts (23 peanuts per bag). C. Arnoldt Smith, being a man who had made his fortune in the tuna industry, came up with the idea of selling what were called “Tunies,” actually hot-dog-shaped food made with fish instead of meat. They did not sell well, and soon were replaced by the more traditional franks.
The inaugural games (an afternoon affair, followed by a night game) took place on April 28, 1958. The Padres showed up wearing their spiffy new pinstriped uniforms. Comedian Joe E. Brown was the master of ceremonies. The Padres’ opponents were the Phoenix Giants, a team that featured future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. A crowd of 4,619 came for the daytime tilt, in which the Padres came out on top by 5-3. Later, under the lights, 7,129 customers watched as the Padres won again, 3-1. Actor Dick Powell threw out the first pitch to Leslie O’Connor, the president of the Pacific Coast League. But the real star of the day was former New York Giant Dusty Rhodes, now an outfielder for Phoenix, who hit the first home run at the new park.
Managed by George Metkovich, the Padres finished in second place their first season at Westgate, with a record of 84-69. Earl Averill (24 homers, 87 RBIs, .347 batting average) and Dave Pope (19, 96, .316) led the hitting attack. Also of note during that first year was the appearance of future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon on the roster. On the downside of his career, Lemon started eight games and finished 2-5 with a 4.34 ERA. He also played in the outfield and pinch-hit. He never made it back to the majors.
Westgate Park was praised from the beginning. Jack Murphy, the San Diego sportswriter who would later be a key figure in bringing big-league baseball to the city, was liberal in his praise: “Not even Yankee Stadium or Boston’s Fenway Park can surpass the comforts and conveniences of the Padres’ new home. … This is a real ballpark, built for the game of baseball, a ballpark in which the city of San Diego can take great pride.”2
Drainage was a constant problem at the park, particularly in right field, given the fact that the field was just above the high-water level of the San Diego River.
On August 20, 1958, the largest crowd in the history of Westgate Park showed up for one of the most bizarre promotions ever: Pony Give-Away Night. In the ensuing years, Westgate Park played host to more than a few such promos, including Musical Instrument Night (in which every fan bringing a musical instrument was given free admission), Disneyland Night (all the usual Disney characters were on hand), and Dairy Night (in which players took part in a cow-milking contest).
The Padres became a farm team of the Chicago White Sox in 1960. As a result, former Cleveland Indians phenom Herb Score played for one season at Westgate Park. The 28-year-old Score was toiling in the White Sox farm system, his once-promising career having been derailed after he was struck in the face by a line drive hit by Gil McDougald in 1957. In 1961, Score made 23 starts for the Padres, winning seven while losing six, with a 5.10 ERA.
In 1962 the Padres finished on top of the PCL, winning 93 games and losing 61. As the Triple-A club for Cincinnati, they featured future Reds Tommy Harper, Chico Ruiz, Sammy Ellis, and Jim Maloney. Also on the team that year was 33-year-old Joe Nuxhall, who had had a solid career with the Reds, but was struggling to make it back to the majors. Appearing in 15 games for the Padres, he sported a nifty 9-2 record. He would win 15 for the Reds in 1963.
For the 1963 season, the PCL was split into two divisions, North and South, with the Padres finishing a close second in the latter. But they edged out Portland to win the division in 1964, thanks to the help of a young Tony Perez, who slugged 34 homers with 107 RBIs while hitting .309. In years to come, Perez became one of the key components of Cincinnati’s powerhouse Big Red Machine teams of the ’70s before gaining a plaque in Cooperstown. In 1965 the Padres slipped to third. One of the lone bright spots on the club was the emergence of bopper Lee May, who homered 34 times that summer, with 103 RBIs to complement a .321 average.
The Padres won their final division title in 1967. Now a farm team of the Philadelphia Phillies and playing in the Pacific Coast League’s East Division, the team finished in first by a hefty 8½ games over second-place Indianapolis. It would also prove to be their last year at Westgate Park.
Despite its being one of the crown jewels of the PCL, the history of Westgate Park was destined to end nearly before it had even begun. The National League’s Milwaukee Braves, who had been looking for a new home since new ownership bought the team in 1962, dropped hints that they might want to relocate to San Diego. In anticipation, the long-proposed expansion of Westgate Park looked as though it would become a reality. Any hopes of the minor-league San Diego Padres becoming the major-league San Diego Braves, however, were soon dashed. In October 1964 the Braves announced that for the following season they would move to Atlanta, which boasted a brand-new multipurpose stadium capable of seating over 50,000 for baseball and 60,000 for football. Suddenly, a proposed 40,000-seat Westgate Park seemed tiny by comparison.
Meanwhile, in San Diego the Chargers football team was looking to move out of antiquated Balboa Stadium. In order to keep the Chargers and attract a major-league baseball team, it was decided that an expanded Westgate Park simply wasn’t going to be enough. By November of 1965, a bond was passed that would pay for a new multipurpose stadium for the Chargers and the Padres, to be built in Mission Valley not far from Westgate Park. The Padres played their first game at their new home, called San Diego Stadium (later renamed Jack Murphy Stadium), on April 16, 1968. Thus, the minor-league Padres were now playing at a major-league venue. On May 27, 1968, the National League announced that an expansion team would be awarded to San Diego for the 1969 season. They were to be known as the Padres.
San Diego at long last was now a major-league city. Tiny little Westgate Park had lasted only nine summers, but it was one of the finest minor-league baseball parks of its time. Today, the land is the site of the Fashion Valley shopping mall.
Benson, Michael, Ballparks of North America (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing, 1989).
Center, Bill, “Previous Homes of the San Diego Padres,” U-T San Diego (San Diego Union-Tribune), http://utsandiego.com/uniontrib/20040404/news_mz1x4previou.html, accessed August 4, 2013.
Crawford, Richard, The Way We Were in San Diego (Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: The History Press, 2011).
Crawford, Richard, “Westgate Park a Major Marvel as Home for Minor League Padres,” U-T San Diego (San Diego Union-Tribune), http://utsandiego.com/news/2009/apr/09/1cz9history191218-westgate-park-m..., accessed August 4, 2013.
Naiman, Joe, The San Diego Padres Encyclopedia (New York: Sports Publishing, 2002).
Swank, Bill, Baseball in San Diego: From the Padres to Petco (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2004).
1 Michael Benson, Ballparks of North America (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing, 1989), 361.
2 Richard W. Crawford, The Way We Were in San Diego (Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: The History Press, 2011), 117.