After 35 years, the San Diego Padres have a home of their own. Today, the local nine will jog onto the field and play their first regular-season game in Petco Park.
It’s a mighty step from junior tenant in somebody else’s football stadium to overlord of one’s own custom-built ballpark, located smack downtown in California’s second-largest city, the nation’s sixth, on some of the most expensive property in the world. Indeed, the Pods have arrived. Whether their arrival will change a decades-long record of disappointment remains to be seen, but for today, Opening Day 2004, we’ll leave that question at the gate.
What follows are the words of Padres who came before, beginning with players who were on that first team, who played in that first game, April 8, 1969, recorded as a 2–1 win over the visiting Houston Astros. Of note, San Diegans were not starstruck by the arrival of Major League Baseball: only 23,370 customers paid their way into San Diego/Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium to witness First Opening Day.
Looking back, you could mark October 14, 1968, as the beginning of big-league baseball in San Diego. General William D. Eckert was commissioner of baseball. The 1968 World Series wrapped up four days earlier, with Detroit edging St. Louis in seven games. Major League Baseball closed out its 1968 season with 20 teams, 16 of them located east of the Continental Divide. On that 14th day of October 1968, baseball held an expansion draft for four new teams: San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, Seattle Pilots, and Kansas City Royals. The first player chosen by San Diego was Ollie Brown.
“What do you remember from the 1969 Padres?”
Ollie Brown says, “It was the first year of a major league team being in San Diego. For me, it was important because I was getting the opportunity to play on a regular basis. Most of the players who were on the team that year were excited about that.”
Ollie Lee “Downtown” Brown was born February 11, 1944, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He played 13 years of major league ball on six different teams, beginning with the San Francisco Giants in 1965 and ending with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1977. Brown spent 1969, ’70, ’71, and part of the 1972 season with the Padres. Currently lives in Buena Park, California.
On Opening Day 1969, Mr. Brown went to bat four times, got one hit, a double, which scored the second of San Diego’s two runs. We talked by telephone on a chilly autumn Sunday afternoon a few days before the World Series got under way. I wanted to know what he thought about leaving San Francisco for a first-year expansion club that had no chance of winning.
“It was good for me,” Brown says. “At the time, the Giants were pretty deep in the outfield, which is my position. The handwriting was on the wall. The question was, ‘Do you want to sit on the bench or do you want to get the opportunity to play every day?’ Everybody was excited in San Diego. I know the players were excited. I know the owner was excited. You couldn’t beat the weather.”
I ask about his hitting statistics. “In 1975, near the end of your career, you were playing for Philadelphia and hit .303, the best year you had. Unusual to peak near the end.”
“Well, towards the end,” Brown says, “I was playing on a part-time basis. I was platooning with this other guy who put up pretty good numbers, and I was able to put up decent numbers. So the manager [Danny Ozark] didn’t want to break up that combination.”
Danny Ozark managed the Phillies for most of seven seasons. One of his better instructional quotes is, “Half of this game is 90 percent mental.” I ask Brown, “How old were you when you first realized you were playing baseball better than anyone you knew?”
“I played baseball and I played other sports,” Brown says. “Whichever the season, that’s the sport I played. But once you get to high school, you have to decide which sport you want to go for. It just happened to be baseball. You go out and play hard, play the game the way you know how to, and if scouts are in the stands and you do something they like, maybe it’s good enough to get you to the big leagues.” Brown laughs. “It’s easy to get to the big leagues. It’s harder to stay.”
“Your first team?”
“I signed with San Francisco in 1962. My first pro game was in Rookie League in Salem, Virginia. At the time, baseball players were just numbers. Most organizations had three Class D teams, three Class B teams, A ball, double-A ball, and triple-A ball. So it was a numbers game. I made a lot of friends, and a lot of my friends were not able to advance. Once you get to a certain age, you gotta keep progressing or else you go.”
“Do you recall what you were paid?”
“Oh, man. I think, in 1964, playing Class D ball, I made $500 a month.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median wage and salary income for males living in the United States in 1964 was $5015, which breaks down to $418 a month.
I say, “Not bad for ’64.”
“No, it wasn’t that bad. My first year in the big leagues was 1966. At that time the minimum salary was $7500, and that’s what I made.”
“That’s bad.” In fact, that’s heartbreaking. The players’ union says the average major league salary for 2004 is $2,372,189. The minimum salary is $300,000. “It’s gotta hurt to see the money raining down on players today.”
“Yeah, but you know,” Brown says, “it was a different era. I can’t blame the players for getting all that money now, because only so many people are able to play in the major leagues.”