On May 27, 1968, San Diego was awarded a major league baseball franchise. The new National League team chose to retain the name of San Diego’s original Pacific Coast League team: the Padres. Since spring training would open in February 1969, choosing a training site was one of the most pressing decisions for team president Buzzie Bavasi. Yuma had been seeking to host a major league team in the years since 1954, the year the Baltimore Orioles reluctantly trained in Yuma. In the succeeding years, the Chamber of Commerce baseball committee negotiated unsuccessfully with several teams looking to relocate their spring training sites. Newspaper publisher Don Soldwedel, who chaired the committee, had established a friendship with Buzzie Bavasi in the late 1950s when Bavasi was a member of the Dodgers front office. This gave Yuma an advantage in 1968 when Bavasi sent the team’s traveling secretary Doc Mattei on a scouting tour of potential training locations. According to Mattei, “We looked at Borrego Springs, but Yuma was much more gung-ho. I said to Buzzie, ‘The people really want us there.’”
When Yuma officials signed a five-year spring training contract with the Padres, they agreed to construct a modern multi-field baseball facility by spring 1970. This was achieved by a 2% hospitality tax and by the sale of $100,000 worth of recreation bonds obtained with voter approval seven years earlier. Desert Sun Stadium, the 1970-1993 training facility for the Padres, was the envy of visiting players such as Andre Thorton of the Cubs: “Look at that facility in Yuma. Chicago ought to have the best, but I don’t find that to be true.” (The Cubs trained at old Scottsdale Stadium with its single field.) In the meantime, the Padres needed a training field for 1969. Municipal Stadium, where the Orioles had trained, was a 16th Street ballpark that had also been the home of Yuma’s Panthers and Sun Sox minor league teams in the 1950s. However, it was no longer suitable for professional baseball, since its right field dimensions had been shortened by 40 feet with the widening of 1st Avenue.
Keegan Field on 24th Street had a proud name—Frances Keegan had been a dedicated supporter of youth baseball—but it was completely lacking in the facilities needed by major league teams; bleachers, fences, dugouts, locker rooms, showers, batting cages, sliding pits, concession stands, a press box, and a PA system were all absent. Even the field itself needed leveling, and the pitching mound had to be raised to professional standards. The transformation of Keegan Field required an impressive community-wide effort. Again, quoting Doc Mattei: “The Marines built the lockers. The electric company took light poles and made a batting cage. Tanner Construction leveled the field. We raised $3,000 from a raffle, $3,000 from a barbecue, another $3,000 selling bumper stickers.” Bleachers were purchased at “going out of business” prices from a Las Vegas racetrack. An ad hoc group called the Community Baseball Boosters was responsible for many of the fundraising events, while the official sponsoring group of the Padres was the Caballeros de Yuma, a civic organization still active today.
While the Padres players used the showers at nearby Kennedy Swimming Pool, visiting teams had to use the locker rooms across town at Municipal Stadium. Pitcher Jim Bouton was a member of the Seattle Pilots team that played the Padres on March 27, 1969. In Ball Four, his classic “tell-all” baseball diary published in 1970, Bouton did not remember his Keegan Field experience fondly. He described the teams playing for “about twelve people . . . at a place that doesn’t even have a visiting clubhouse, so that we had to dress on the back of an equipment truck.” In reality, the Padres-Pilots game drew around 500 spectators, but attendance at other games was much higher. The March 7 home opener versus the California Angels drew 2500 fans, while on March 21 over 2600 witnessed the Padres’ loss to the San Francisco Giants and their superstars Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal.
There were no future hall of famers on the Padres’ 1969 roster. First baseman Nate Colbert was beginning his brief run as one of the National League’s top sluggers, while the Padres’ top pick in the expansion draft, “Downtown” Ollie Brown, was also destined for short-term success. Clay Kirby, at only 21 years of age, was the team’s most productive pitcher that year—even though he lost 20 games! The team member who ultimately achieved the greatest success was Clarence “Cito” Gaston, who won world championships as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993.
The 1969 Padres finished with a regular season record of 52-110, the first of nine consecutive losing seasons. In 1974 the team nearly abandoned San Diego (and Yuma) for Washington, D.C., but McDonald’s burger baron Ray Kroc came to the rescue and purchased the team. Many great ballplayers wore the Padres uniform during the “Yuma era,” including Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield, Goose Gossage, Steve Garvey, and Tony Gwynn. The high point of these years was the team’s 1984 World Series appearance, but, sadly, Ray Kroc had died earlier that year. Yuma’s Ray Kroc Complex was named in his honor.
The 1993 spring training season was a bittersweet “lame duck” experience for Yuma’s baseball fans. The Padres had already announced an agreement to train in Peoria beginning in 1994. The most cited reason was Peoria’s proximity to other Cactus League training sites. The Padres bid farewell to Yuma following their March 31st game with the Chicago Cubs. Throughout their 25 years in Yuma, Padres players and team officials occasionally made disparaging remarks about Yuma’s nightlife scene, weather, etc., but many positive memories were also shared. These were best expressed by longtime Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman: “We owned this town. Nobody has been treated better than we were treated here.”
Learn more when librarian Jim Patrick presents “Baseball in Yuma: Part 2″ at Yuma County Libraries!
Thursday, February 11th @ 10:30 a.m.
2951 S 21st Drive, Yuma AZ
Thursday, February 18th @ 10:30 a.m.
13226 E South Frontage Road Yuma, AZ
Thursday, February 25th @ 10:30 a.m.
350 S Third Avenue Yuma, AZ