Now Batting: San Diego’s Top Baseball Historian

Now Batting: San Diego’s Top Baseball Historian

Baseball historian Bill Swank, who doubles as "Baseball Santa," points to a scale model of Lane Field that he helped build for the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum. Photo: Robert Benson

Friday, Aug. 7, 2009 | Bill Swank grew up as a Milwaukee Brewers fan, but he found a new team to root for when he moved to San Diego as a teenager in the 1950s. The Padres, still a long way from joining the major leagues, stole his heart.

But nowadays, he has a few more favorite baseball teams from San Diego.

The Bears, for one. The Pickwicks and the Aces too. Get him going and he might mention the Young Americans, San Diegos and Resolutes.

They’d all be forgotten if it wasn’t for Swank, San Diego’s preeminent baseball historian.

Since he retired as a probation officer in 1994, Swank’s been busy writing books about the nearly 140-year history of baseball in San Diego, where legends Ty Cobb, Walter Johnston and Satchel Paige all played for local teams. He has scoured century-old microfilm for details about how America’s pastime grew in San Diego, and he brought the minor-league Padres back to life by interviewing their surviving players.

In a chat this week at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, the 69-year-old Swank talked about the rear-poking splinters at Lane Field, the role of black players in local baseball history, and the legend of a homer to remember.

When did baseball first come to San Diego?

It was May 6, 1871. An ad appeared in the San Diego Union saying there should be baseball in town. Eighteen guys showed up and played baseball.

Baseball became a bit more official in 1936, when Lane Field opened at the corner of Broadway and Pacific Highway and the newly renamed San Diego Padres began playing. How did the ballpark end up being built?

Bill Lane agreed to bring his Hollywood Stars to San Diego in 1936, but there wasn’t a suitable place for them to play. This was during the Depression and remarkably, in two months time, the WPA built Lane Field for $20,000.

Lane Field was a typical wooden minor-league park of that era. Everything was painted green, and billboards were on the outfield walls. The Broadway entrance had some charm because it resembled an early California mission.

What was the ballpark like when you began watching games there?

When I moved to San Diego in 1955, it was starting to fall apart. By then, it was a good place to get splinters in your butt. Sections of the original bleachers had been condemned and removed, and termites had destroyed hundreds of reserved grandstand seats.

When it was finally razed in 1958, sportswriter Phil Colliers wrote, “The termites are crying. They lost their dinner.”

But it remains a place of beauty and charm to those who remember it as the original home of the Padres.

The setting was perfect, right on the water, and the view of downtown San Diego was quite different back then. The El Cortez, the Santa Fe depot and the smokestacks at SDG&E stick in my mind. Downtown San Diego was very small.

The ballpark was right next to the train tracks, right?

Yes, and there’s a legend that a Pacific Coast League baseball was found up in a boxcar in Los Angeles in the 1930s or 1940s. The train had just come from San Diego, and they realized that the track was right beside Lane Field.

A banjo-hitting first baseman told me that he was the one who did it, and he claimed it was in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” No, Babe Ruth did it, and it was an exhibition game in Pennsylvania and the ball went to Chicago. I think every ballpark that’s besides a railroad track has got that story.

If it actually happened, it would have been quite a homer.

It would have been a hell of a hit from a left hander.

The Lane Field Padres always had a lot of hard-hitting left-handers: The wind came off the bay, and it would blow the balls. A player named Minnie Miñoso who had a heavy Cuban accent said hitters Max West and Jack Graham killed a lot of cars on Pacifico — Pacific Highway. I thought that was a pretty good quote.

How did the Padres get their name?

You could say they took it from San Bernardino, which had a team called the Padres.

I think the Padres name is one of the best ones in the major leagues. It’s certainly better than Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants. I’m a traditionalist in that I think the name should represent the town — like the Oakland Oaks, San Francisco Seals, Los Angeles Angels and Hollywood Stars.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about baseball in San Diego?

The significance of black baseball was a real surprise to me. Teams from the Negro Leagues would come out and barnstorm out here, and Satchel Paige always brought his team out.

Rube Foster brought the Chicago American Giants out in 1913. They came out to play in the California winter leagues, but they were so good that the teams up in Los Angeles couldn’t compete with them. So they just ended up spending the whole winter in San Diego, where they played a total of 24 games. The San Diego Bears won 14, and the American Giants won 10.

The whole tone of reporting changed: Cartoons that depicted Foster as a big monkey just completely disappeared. And in the end, the newspapers were saying that these men were good ballplayers: they showed good sportsmanship and it was a shame that they weren’t allowed to play in the big leagues because of the color of their skin.

A religious order called the House of David also barnstormed in San Diego.

They played several times at Lane Field, usually against Negro League teams. They wore long hair and beards and put on a good show which included a pepper game that became the inspiration for the Harlem Globetrotters’ “Sweet Georgia Brown” routine.

I was invited to play for the House of David in 2003 at a minor league ballpark in Geneva, Ill.

Eddie Deal was a 98-year-old former catcher with House of David who lived in San Diego. He taught me the hidden-ball-in-the-beard trick. It worked successfully and even got written up in the Chicago Tribune. In fact, it worked so well the reporter thought I used a second ball.

The most famous baseball player from San Diego is Ted Williams, and you’ve been talking about finding a way to honor him where Lane Field used to sit.

When Ted Williams was a kid, he said, “When I walk down the street and meet people, I just want them to think, ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’”

And his prediction came true. There are many people who agree that he was the greatest. He was the last guy to hit .400.

I’d like to see his quote on a plaque at the Lane Field site beside a larger-than-life statue of young Ted in a Padres uniform. (He played for the team as a young man.)

Locals and tourists alike would want their picture taken with the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Did you ever think about being a baseball player yourself?

When I was a little boy, I dreamed of being a baseball player when I grew up. My dad would take me to Brewers games at old Borchert Field in Milwaukee. I’d wear my uniform. I thought that if enough players got sick or injured, they’d see me in the stands in my uniform and ask me to come down to play for the Brewers.

I still thought I’d make the big leagues until I struck out four times in an American Legion game in 1955. We played the reform school in Red Wing, Minn., and I’d never seen a curve ball like their pitcher threw. As the old story goes about the rookie writing his mother from spring training, “Dear Ma, I’ll be home soon. They started throwing the curve…”

— Interview by RANDY DOTINGA

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