The Forgotten Ballpark was Ahead of Its Time

by | Feb 12, 2018 | Baseball, Marc Viquez, MiLB, News |

Today, ballparks are built to be the centerpiece of a burgeoning district or neighborhood, a venue that will bring people together for more of a social event than just a ballgame. Every year a new ballpark tries to further push the envelope for the ultimate social experience and modern comforts.

There was one such ballpark built in San Diego 50-year-ago that was ahead of its time in both modern comfort and style, however, the forward progress of the city in obtaining major league status would ultimately prove to be the death knell for Westgate Park.

Westgate Park would only be home to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League for a decade and has been overlooked by many in terms of sentiment, but it featured many amenities that are currently the standard for today’s stadiums.

Banker C. Arnholt Smith purchased the minor league Padres in 1955 in order to keep the team in the town after former owner Bill Starr ran into financial problems. The club was playing at Lane Field, an old WPA stadium that according to Smith was “slapped together with old lumber and falling apart”. The stadium was pretty “punk” and infested with termites that were eating away at the wooden structure providing it with its nickname “termite village”.

“We bought the team for about $300,000. Of course, after we bought it, then everybody started screaming that we needed a new stadium!,” said Smith in a 1992 interview in the San Diego Reader.

After being advised, Smith picked the pastoral land of the undeveloped Mission Valley to erect his new building. At the time, the area was known for its vast farmland, miles away from downtown. However, there must have been a vision of the area’s potential since the city council voted in June 1958 to rezone 90 acres of farmland along I-8 near where the Padres new stadium would be erected.

Smith financed the $1 million stadium out his own pockets in an era when many minor league ballparks were being torn down around the country. Attendance at ballparks was fleeting due to television and broadcasts of major league baseball games in numerous markets coast to coast.

Westgate Park would be a state-of-the-art facility that would be the envy of not only the PCL but the rest of the baseball world.  The 8,268-seat ballpark featured theater-style seating with armrests and a steel roof shaded the majority of the entire grandstand. Four light towers on the roof leaned forward at about a 60-degree angle.

The entire outfield was made up of grass seating for fans to lay out in the sun to watch the game.  The seating sloped down to field level behind the outfield fence. Photos of the ballpark show a similar setup that would be incorporated into various ballparks, roughly 35-years-later.

Accenting the ballpark was an array of trees, shrubs, flowers, and tropical plants throughout the exterior and interior. Perhaps the most exotic of all these trees and plants were the eucalyptus trees that were planted on both sides of the photographic scoreboard in left field.

“It was well engineered. We actually dug it down so as you walked in, you were about halfway up in the seating area and the field was below you,” added Smith. “It brought the audience right up close to the team’s activity. You could hear the players swearing and yelling at each other.”

When it came to concessions, the stadium provided a walk-in cooler for both beer and soda. There was a heat-control storage room for peanuts that would be set to 120 degrees and could reportedly hold up to 10,000 bags at a time.

Another unusual concept of the era, but very common today, was different and outrageous menu options. The park sold a hot dog shaped item called “tunies” that was made out of fish, basically a fish hot dog. Smith owned the Breast O’Chicken and the tuna company’s logo was featured on team programs, the scoreboard, and menu items. Thankfully, regular pork or beef hot dogs returned to the menu and the “tunies” were scrapped at the stadium.

Westgate at times had a carnival-like atmosphere with circuses, concerts, and zoo animals entertaining fans. These acts would soon relocate to the San Diego Sports Arena, now Valley View Casino Center, in 1966. The next year the San Diego Rockets of the NBA began operations; the times were changing rapidly, America’s Finest City was fast becoming a major league town.

When Major league expansion was taking place in 1961 and 1962, San Diego was optimistic on landing a team sometime in the future. That feeling only heightened when 9,000 fans watch an exhibition game between the Milwaukee Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers in April 1962 at Westgate Park.

The next year the Braves flirted with relocation to San Diego and blueprints were developed that would add a second deck to Westgate to increase capacity to 43,000. However, the Braves stayed in Milwaukee until announcing it would relocate to Atlanta for the 1966 season. The next year a bid was put up to move the Cincinnati Reds to town, but they were sold to a local group that the kept the franchise in Ohio.

Around the same time, the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League were threatening to relocate up the road to Anaheim if the antiquated Balboa Stadium, built in 1914, was not replaced. Soon there was a push, headed by San Diego Union sports columnist Jack Murphy, for a brand new 50,000 seat dual-purpose stadium.

One would only have to look at the team’s 1966 official program that featured the city skyline and small little banner on the cover that proclaimed San Diego as a city in motion. A few months before the season on November 2, 1965, a $27 million bond was passed allowing for the construction of a multipurpose stadium that would fit 50,000-60,000 people.

By the time San Diego Stadium’s, now SDCCU Stadium, was completed in time for the 1967 football season for the Chargers, Westgate Park had already hosted its last game. The Padres last season in the PCL would be played at the massive stadium that would serve as the home to the major league Padres from 1969-2003.

“So after we moved the team to San Diego Stadium, we said, what the hell are we going to do with Westgate?,” Smith asked himself. “Ernie Hahn, who was a director of U.S. National Bank, came up with the idea that we should build a shopping center on the site. It was centrally located, and everybody could get there.”

And with that decision, Westgate Park was torn down and replaced with the Fashion Valley Mall. The successful mall opened in 1969 becoming the leading shopping center in the San Diego area and boasting 1.7 million square feet of floor area.

The Padres were the top affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies during its last three seasons and were relocated to Eugene, Oregon. The theater-style seats and lighting poles would be sold to its new home at Civic Stadium that had to be renovated to be up to minor league standards of the day.  The 800-seats would remain at its new home until 1986 when replaced with blue, plastic seats.

Westgate Park demise came from San Diego’s forward progress in the realm of professional sports. When it opened in 1957, the city did not have a major league club, 13-years-later it had teams in the NFL, MLB, and NBA.  The City in Motion was no longer a minor league town.

Had a few things worked out differently: 1) the stadium issue doesn’t get past, 2) the Chargers relocate to Anaheim, or 3) Buffalo is awarded an expansion team in the N.L.–Westgate Park possibly could still be standing to prep for its 50th anniversary season this year.

One last nod to Westgate’s legacy is in Kissimmee, Florida, the blueprints were utilized in designing a new Spring Training park for the Houston Astros Osceola County Stadium in 1985.

The forward-thinking design of grass outfield seating, sunken bowl, attention to aesthetics, and detail to concessions would become hallmarks of minor league baseball clubs decades later in the 1990s and early 21st century. Westgate Park was is a forgotten ballpark in time, but one that was ahead of its time.

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