As a young boy growing up in the 1950s without a father, my male role models all lived inside a termite-infested ballpark snuggled between the Sante Fe train depot and the San Diego harbor. It was a fanciful place where one's imagination could watch Navy ships and sailors arrive from faraway ports and trains depart with their whistling promises of adventure. It was a place where a kid could fall in love simply by watching grown men play baseball.
Lane Field was constructed in 1936 in just two months’ time by a Work Projects Administration program and $25,000 from the city of San Diego. When Bill Lane, who made his fortune in gold mining, relocated his Hollywood Stars 100 miles to the south, the San Diego Padres were thus born. For a city stuck in the Great Depression, its citizens welcomed the diversion of its first real baseball team as a member of the Pacific Coast League (PCL). A few years later, I would welcome the Padres as perhaps an escape from the loneliness and boredom of an only child. They were to provide much more in return.
The ballpark was reflective of the quirky and colorful nature of the PCL itself. The wind would blow off the bay, boosting home runs over the right field wall and sending them careening off automobiles and rail cars across a busy Pacific Highway. Some of the great sluggers of the day played here for San Diego. A scrawny local kid named Ted Williams signed a contract for $150 a month after a tryout while still finishing his final years of high school. His mother allowed him to play games during the summer months.
So many early Padre players still position themselves in the batting order of my memories. Minnie Minoso, Bobby Doerr, Vince DiMaggio, Luke Easter, Dick Sisler, Earl Rapp, Buddy Peterson, Harry "Suitcase" Simpson, Bob Elliott, Julio Becquer and so many more. I still remember the day I sat behind home plate and witnessed Rocky Colavito stage a special pre-game exhibition, throwing a baseball on a straight line from the centerfield wall to the catcher's glove. I can't remember seeing anything on a baseball field that had thrilled me as much. I spent the next week or so flinging rocks from my backyard as far as I could into a nearby canyon.
I remember our gang of knot-hole kids, who gathered outside the park during every game, day or night, waiting for foul balls to sail over the low grandstands which would then entitle the bearer to free admission to the game. (Of course, it was sometimes just easier to sneak into the stands past lazy gate attendants or unguarded entry holes circling the park.) Ushers knew all of us by our first names. Not always in a favorable way.
Those scrambles for wayward baseballs were legendary. Often balls would bounce onto North Harbor Drive and cascade into the San Diego Bay, requiring both bravery and aquatic skills to emerge with your admission ticket. Chasing home-run balls while dodging speeding traffic on Pacific Highway was another matter entirely.
Once inside the park, new wonders awaited. I quickly developed a 'working relationship' with the visiting team's bat boy, and after several seasons of diligence, was the proud owner of the world’s first and only collection of autographed cracked bats from the entire starting lineup of the 1956 San Francisco Seals. I was the envy of all my friends. Years later, when I went looking for Ken Aspromonte, Haywood Sullivan and Marty Keough, I learned that my mother had already granted them their unconditioned release, banishing their bats to the trash heap and leaving me, to this day, with searing regret.
Many endearing elements of the game from those halcyon days have long since vanished. I recall how players left their gloves on the field between innings. Home games would stretch an entire week, Tuesday through Sunday, the Padres playing the same team for seven games. I would listen to away games on the radio, not knowing that announcer Al Schuss was still in San Diego recreating the game from a Western Union ticker miles away, relying on recorded crowd noises and raping a pencil against a table to mimic a bat striking a baseball.
Sports writers of the day seemed to enjoy an exciting and dangerous life to this young boy. I would watch them walk a rickety and narrow wooden plank across the roof of Lane Field to arrive at their precarious reporting perch. They knew something the rest of us didn't and I eagerly awaited the next day’s newspaper to find out.
It is not just the players and street pals that I recall. I remember the time I sneaked into the umpires’ dressing quarters and introduced myself to the flamboyant Emmett Ashford, who 12 years later went on to become the first black umpire in major league history. He later bought me an ice-cream cone as we walked together to the waterfront between games of a Sunday doubleheader. Something a kid never forgot. An early lesson that replacement fathers would come in salient bits and pieces throughout my childhood and young adult life.
Lane Field is long gone now. The termites finally got the best of the place. Today, a small, grassy infield and a historical marker set into granite celebrate the spot. The Padres have lived on however, moving to Westgate Park in a revitalized Mission Valley, then on to San Diego Stadium, and now to beautiful Petco Park in downtown. Once again a ballpark by the bay.
I surmise that all of us have a field of dreams somewhere that sprang from the vacant lots of our childhood. Lane Field was mine. It was a special time in the life of a city... and a kid like me. We both had a team and a ballpark that, for the very first time, we could call our very own. I don't think I have ever experienced such pride of belonging to a sports franchise as I once did back then.
Even now, I swear I can still see the sight of a white baseball arching against the black night sky, sailing toward the awaiting hope in my heart. Or the sound of a broken bat signaling a dash down to the dugout steps for a useless souvenir.
I hardly knew back then that so many of the splendored things I would later go on to claim in the name of love and passion, had their first circular tracings in this magical place called Lane Field.
Harry Cummins is a former La Jolla native who currently resides in Oregon. In addition to his memories of the original San Diego Padres, he says his love for baseball started when he played little league for the La Jolla Lions.