Registrato: 30/08/17 10:31
|Chargers president Barron Hilton, right, poses with GM Frank Leahy and running back Ron Waller in 1960 after Waller signed a two year contract to play for the team. (AP Photo/HF)
Show CaptionLOS ANGELES At the time, they were no more than a brief, insignificant blip on the city radar. Their short lived residence through the fall and winter of 1960 remains no more than a forgotten footnote in the city rich sports history, decades later. But for one anonymous season, 57 years ago, the Chargers called Los Angeles home. And even then, the city didn want them.
The Los Angeles Chargers were intended to be the West Coast flagship of the eight team American Football League. market was essential to the nascent league survival. So on the recommendation of a friend, he met with Barron Hilton, the 32 year old son of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. It took less than an hour for Hilton to agree to take the team for a $25,000 fee.
Hilton was convinced two professional football teams could succeed in Los Angeles. His football knowledge was limited, but his enthusiasm for the team was evident from the start. In October 1959, he sponsored a name the team contest, with a trip to Acapulco as the prize. He hired Sid Gillman who had recently been fired by the Rams as coach and stole away a handful of veterans from the NFL.
That March, Hilton threw a party at his beachfront Santa Monica estate to debut the team newly minted uniforms. He invited the team two most handsome players, Ron Mix and Jack Kemp, and had them model the new powder blue duds and lightning bolt helmets along Ocean Front Walk.
Hilton understood the first few years of a new league would be a struggle. In Los Angeles, unlike other AFL cities, the Chargers would compete for fans with the NFL Rams, who, despite a down 1959 season, still led the league in attendance. Nevertheless, Hilton was so sure of the Chargers potential he agreed to play in the 103,000 seat Coliseum as the stadium fifth tenant, behind the Rams, USC, UCLA, and the Dodgers.
Then, as quickly as they arrived, the Chargers were gone. After just one season, Hilton moved the team to San Diego. Los Angeles had responded to the Chargers existence with a collective shrug.
were kind of just a bump on a log, said Don Rogers, a center on the 1960 team.
Two weeks ago, when the team announced its return after nearly six decades in San Diego, the decision landed with an apathetic thud in Los Angeles. Ownership remains steadfast in its belief the Chargers will build a fan,base person at a time if necessary. is nearly as uncertain as it was decades ago, prior to its one season in the Southland.
Before the Coliseum crowds dwindled in the fall of 1960, leaving oceans of empty seats in their wake, the future seemed bright from where Paul Lowe stood. At 81, Lowe memory of the Chargers first game has dulled over time. But he could never forget that opening kickoff, Aug. 6, 1960, and the buzz in the building as he waited in the end zone.
Months earlier, Lowe had given up on football. He was working in the mailroom of the Hilton owned Carte Blanche credit card company when the Chargers new owner caught wind of his pedigree as a college halfback. It was a serendipitous turn of events for Lowe, who signed an $8,500 contract and soon became a three time AFL All Star. A Compton native, he grew up hopping the Coliseum fence on game days and hiding in the bathroom until the coast was clear. When it was, he watch the Rams for hours, soaking in the game as much as he could.
Now he stood on the Coliseum grass, glancing up proudly at the same bleachers. Twenty thousand more fans would watch the Rams opener six weeks later. As Lowe took the team first kickoff back 105 yards for a touchdown, it didn matter. A crowd of nearly 27,778 roared with approval.
It was a sound Lowe would never forget. It also happened to be the high point in the team short history in Los Angeles.
A month later, 10,000 fewer fans attended the Chargers regular season opener against Hunt Dallas Texans. Attendance flatlined from there. The team won 10 games, but the better the Chargers played, the more they seemed to be ignored. Only once more did attendance surpass 20,000. With each passing week, Hilton anxiety metastasized.
To his players, the lack of support was of little concern. Most were either straight out of college or passed over NFL veterans, just hoping to hang on.
I was young and dumb, Rogers said, I was just happy to be there. I would played in Alaska, said Dick Harris, a cornerback who had five interceptions that season.
Some Chargers players even poked fun at their dwindling support. Rogers remembered emerging from the tunnel with teammate Don Norton and staring up at vast, empty bleachers. Each week, they turned to each other and made the same joke.
just shake our heads and say, staying away by the thousands, Rogers said. Times years later a game in which he personally counted the fans in the crowd. got a great promotional idea, Barron, he reportedly told Hilton, who was standing nearby. introduce the people in the stands today, instead of the teams. be too embarrassed, Hilton responded. all bellhops and front desk clerks I let in free. worried what an empty stadium might look like on television. So the stadium staff grouped all the fans in attendance on one side of the field, behind the Chargers bench. That way, ABC cameras would give the impression that the crowd was much larger than it was.
To the few actually in the Coliseum, there was no hiding the problem. In old photos capturing the other three sides of the stadium, scattered fans look like specks against rows and rows of empty, wooden stands.
just knew it couldn last without more people, Lowe said. wondered if they could even pay the light bill. Dec. 10, the Chargers clinched the AFL Western Division, and with it, the right to host the inaugural AFL championship. But that day, the Coliseum crowd had diminished to just 9,928 fans. Worried about the optics of an empty stadium on national television, AFL commissioner Joe Foss suggested the Chargers give up home field advantage.
It was a sad symbol of where the franchise stood, but Hilton complied. On a Texas high school field, New Year Day 1961, the Chargers lost the AFC championship to the Houston Oilers, in front of a crowd of 32,000. It was the last game the team would play as the Los Angeles Chargers.
As early as October, Hilton had been toying with leaving Los Angeles. On Dec. 21, less than two weeks before the AFL championship, the public campaign began. In his San Diego Union column, sports editor Jack Murphy began lobbying for the team to move south. The Chargers, he wrote, were Diego for the taking. a total that, factoring in inflation, equates to more than $7 million today. He anticipated some losses, but was most concerned about the team total lack of buzz. had a second professional football team, he recalled.
San Diego, meanwhile, had no professional sports and was eager to dispel its reputation, Murphy wrote, as airport tied to a submarine. After Hilton simply accepted an invitation to discuss a possible move, local TV stations aired commercials and public service announcements to advertise the team. Boosters promised to buy thousands of Chargers season tickets. Some local businesses even put up ticket stands on site for fans. Before Hilton even met with city leaders, San Diego enthusiasm for the Chargers was universal. When Hilton finally came to San Diego in January, the city council swiftly agreed to his terms. lure a brand new professional football team, that was a big deal. This was a sleepy Navy town. This was our shot at the big time. deal came together in rapid succession. On Jan. 25, 1961, after just one season, the Chargers announced they were leaving Los Angeles.