Strange and frequently momentous doings are almost always afoot in the gorgeous greenery of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a squared-off tract three and a half miles long that was once a shifting Sahara of 50-foot dunes. In the proper season hordes of young athletes are at large on Big Rec Field, their backs emblazoned with legends that read "Johnson's Tamales" or "Wally's Fork Lifts," identifying the sponsors of the park's sandlot league which has spawned three DiMaggios, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Pinelli, Willie Kamm and such current lights as Gil McDougald, Gerry Coleman and Gus Triandos.
In the mating season buffalo bulls fight it out for the supremacy of a herd that roams a great green paddock undulating over Golden Gate's northwest acres. Just down the curving South Drive, past the bowling green where septuagenarians in the blue blazers and white ducks of the Bowling Club roll spheroids down the Kelly-green grass, young tennists gambol on Golden Gate's orange-and-green courts. Knowingly or not, they tread on territory hallowed by that oldtime great, Maurice McLoughlin, and later by Don Budge, Alice Marble, Art Larsen and Tom Brown, all of whom began the long climb by bouncing up the rungs of the park's peppy tournament program. And while all these efforts are expended in behalf of glory, on autumn Sundays the 49ers, those hard-blocking Hessians, perform for pay in Kezar Stadium, home of the East-West football game, which occupies a corner of the park too.
From the California Academy of Sciences inside the park expeditions have departed, bound for the plains of Patagonia and the wilds of Manchuria and the Galàpagos Islands. Out of a mist-shrouded dell on foggy days, archers suddenly appear, like bowmen padding some strange Sherwood Forest-by-the-Sea. Fishermen perfect their fly-casting in practice pools, boatmen send magnificent model rigs across Spreckels Lake and converse with each other in a patois quite their own. Golfers tee off down fairways that are shielded by leafy boughs from any hint of the world of mortar that bustles just beyond the chlorophyll curtain. Polo ponies clump the Golden Gate turf on sunny Sundays, while, in another part of the forest, excursionists ply the lagoon in the shadow of a Norwegian boathouse that recalls strains of Grieg floating over some far-off fiord.
Whole hillsides are covered with hydrangeas in spring, and dahlias grow peach-colored and white, apricot, lavender and yellow, some of them a foot in diameter. Fuchsia flushes in dappled sunlight under serene cypresses, and elsewhere are stalwart redwoods, which are among the oldest living things in the world. With the late spring acacia trees around the horseshoe-pitching courts bloom yellow, peacocks rustle out of the punga tree ferns, and across the street kids suck the sugar from the nasturtiums that grow in orange clouds on the trimmed walkways.
It defies the imagination of a sometime Sunday planter to realize that in 1870 three quarters of the park was all shifting sand blown up from the bordering Pacific. It took years of experimentation and failure with barley and yellow lupine until a planting could be found that would hold the sands. Seeds of sea bent grass were imported from France by French bankers in San Francisco, and after years of nurturing in the park's hothouses they were finally planted in the dunes.
Most of Golden Gate's plants begin life grandly in a great glass palace called the Conservatory, which was shipped, knocked down, from England around Cape Horn by James Lick, a San Francisco millionaire. Inside this gingerbread hothouse an army of gardeners works not only for the park but for the city. The park supplies corsages for ladies invited to civic functions, sends potted palms by the hundreds to provide the shade and the decoration for municipal banquets. It honors visiting conventions and delegations with floral masterpieces inlaid on a slope in front of the Conservatory. Some designs require more than 20,000 plants, bouquets that cost the city a cool thousand dollars each.
The magnificence of Golden Gate's plantings is due not only to the salubrity of the weather but also to a San Francisco legend called John McLaren, who came to the park in its sand-dune days and served it as superintendent for 56 years until his death in 1943. McLaren hated signs, statues and automobiles, and fought to keep all of them out of the park. Riding his preserves in a horse cart, he battled the advent of the automobile, deplored the move to cut down the hedges so drivers would have better vision. Once, when the city sent diggers from a public works department to widen park roads, McLaren dispatched a counterdetail in the middle of the night to fill in the trenches that had been dug during the day. It was the heritage he left that caused San Francisco to rise in a body and kill the proposal to bisect the park with a freeway. Doubtless McLaren would have barricaded the roads had he lived to see the sports car races that were held in the park for three seasons from 1952 through 1954. Perhaps he might have relented if he knew the money was raised to send children to summer camp, for children were a prime consideration to him. "We're not growing grass, we're growing children," he once said.
He fought bitterly against the encroachment of statues, once warned some city fathers seeking to immortalize a patriot with a marble bust, "You plant those statues in, and I'll plant them out." And he did, letting his bushes grow long and straggly until the sculpted figure of Father Junipero Serra, a famous landmark, was thrusting his cross into a grove of untrimmed palm trees, and Beethoven, Verdi, Goethe and Cervantes lay as jungle-covered as the ruins of Angkor Wat. It is an oft-mentioned irony that McLaren himself should have been honored by a statue in the park. His image stands, however, on no pedestal, but on the lawn, like a dirt gardener, surrounded by his favorite rhododendrons, of which the park now grows some 500 varieties.
For McLaren's children there is a special playground, where the greensward warning says "This Lawn Is Reserved for Women and Children Only." In addition to a lawn a child can run on, unthinkable in many of the nation's parks, there is a barnyard full of lambs, peacocks, pigeons and rabbits, with a transient seagull or two swooping in occasionally for a potluck lunch of peanuts. San Francisco children are imbued early with the fanciful glories of the city's cable cars—there is an old one planted in the playground just to climb on. But there is a merry-go-round, too, just like other cities have, and a ride on it still costs only a nickel.
Outside McLaren Lodge, which is the name for park headquarters, two royal palms arise, and alongside them a giant Monterey cypress, which, when decorated with lights, as it is each holiday season, becomes the nation's tallest living Christmas tree, 105 feet to its highest branch. Out in Lindley Meadow, Golden Gate's herd of sheep becomes part of a living cr√®che, and the shepherds are dressed in Biblical robes and given staffs (and a tot of rum now and then to ward off the chill).
European red deer, white phase red deer and goats live in the park, too, most of them sharing the paddock with the score of buffalo, or bison, as they are more properly known. The buffalo first came to the park as an exhibit of the Mid-Winter Fair of 1894. The exhibitor owed money to a drugstore owner in Oakland, across the Bay, and the pharmacist finally attached the buffalo. Not knowing exactly what to do with a couple of tons of wild beast on the hoof, he gave the buffalo to the Park Commission, and that was the start of the herd. From time to time the park authorities have added a bison or two, obtaining them from the U.S. Government's Yellowstone preserve, which donates them free but charges a service fee of $37 a head—$2 for catching and $35 for crating.
Fall, which seems to be the busy season around the buffalo paddock, was also the time for a favorite prank of young San Franciscans: sawing the chain at the door to the paddock fence. Halloween might have been a traditional time for lighting pumpkin faces and invoking witch visits in other communities around the land, but in San Francisco it wasn't properly celebrated unless the buffalo herd, all 20 of them, were set free.
The Park Code, not to mention the citizens' normal sense of propriety, is specific about loose animals in the park. Section 43 prohibits any person to allow to "run at large" any "horse, mule, ass, cattle, goat, sheep, swine or fowl...." Moreover, it demands that "no person having in charge a dog shall permit, allow or suffer such dog" to roam leashless about in the park. It took strong representations by dog lovers to alter the rule in order to permit a new sport, dog obedience training, to be practiced, as it is today, on a fenced-in greensward on the park grounds.
Golden pheasant and great turquoise peacocks roam wild through the park, although the peacocks have chosen a home in which to roost and rarely stray far from it. Incredibly, it is the sewage conversion plant where they strut in their brilliant feathers like guests in evening clothes who have, inexplicably, turned up for a gala in an outhouse.
Up until the early '30s, the park was irrigated with raw sewage. McLaren, who was interested in growing flowers, was frequently at loggerheads with the city health authorities, who deplored the practice. When the health authorities occasionally dammed the flow of sewage to the park, McLaren despatched confederates in the black of night to open the ducts again. The game finally ended when the city installed intricate filters and treating plants. City sewage is now reclaimed in the park and used in dried flake form for fertilizer. All living matter has by then been killed except for tomato seeds which, having made a long and circuitous trip, occasionally sprout again in the park's enriched soil.
Even Stow Lake, with its wistful Norwegian boathouse, is reclaimed sewer water, and stickelbacks, a trash fish, and carp exist, apparently happily, in its chemically treated waters. A reservoir of reclaimed water fills a crater on top of Strawberry Hill, a small alp in the center of Stow Lake. When more water is needed on park plants, a big faucet is turned on. Water spills over the reservoir and becomes Huntington Falls, splashing over rocks and under bridges, wending its way eventually to Middle Lake and North Lake as it courses toward the ocean. Anywhere on route it can be drained off to irrigate a meadow. (Old S.F. wheeze: Where you going on your vacation this year? Oh, I'm going to Huntington Falls.)
Spreckels Lake was built by Claus Spreckels after the San Francisco fire for the express purpose of providing a sea for sailing model boats. Technocracy has brought an invasion of powerboats, too, and they swarm the water like angry aquatic bees. Despite the rivalry between devotees of sail and motor, both share a handsome clubhouse on the shore of the lake, which was built by the WPA. There are a dozen boats in the power division, 30 or more in the sail division, divided into an X class (1,000 square inches of sail) and an A class (1,500 square inches of sail). Some 40 members—barbers, shipwrights, insurance underwriters, naval architects, skippers of private yachts and retired sea captains—meet every second Thursday, pay $6 to join and 500 a month dues. They travel to other California cities for races, but on most Sundays Spreckels Lake is buzzing with power in the morning and glittering with sail in the afternoon. Powerboats that cost between $400 and $500 race around balloon buoys, guided by radio. They are off the water by midday, when the westerly trade winds begin to come up. In the afternoon session, model skippers in yachting caps pace up and down the shoreline like tethered bears, growling about the breezes and the trees that screen Fulton Street. "Flukey winds," one of them griped the other Sunday. "Ya should have a direct west wind. Hell, you have to luff up, come up, you don't know whether you're in or out of it."
Meanwhile, just a few yards down the road, the horsey set in its tweeds and its open cars is drawn up before the playing field of the Golden Gate Park Stadium. The San Francisco Polo and Racing Club is about to fulfill its promise: polo for the people. Its 30-odd members pay a $100 initiation fee, plus $8.50 a game. The park in turn gets $72 a game every Sunday in season. The club has also raced horses against cars, horses against men, as well as horses against horses. Probably it will soon have to share its 60 stalls with ordinary riding mounts—all because of a brouhaha about the bridle trails.
With the collapse of the last private riding stable on the periphery of the park, Golden Gate found itself laced with miles and miles of lovely bridle trails but no horses. The polo group, trying to help the park authorities get horses back into San Francisco, offered to build a new stable on the park's west end. But the neighborhood rose in a bloody class struggle. Manure, they cried. Flies. Dangerous horses. There are too many buildings in the park as it is, and besides horseback riders and polo players, even if they are playing for the people, are too classy for a public park. Now the park hopes to use the polo stables as a boarding house for riding horses at least half the year. That way no more park real estate will be appropriated for equestrian activities and the trails will be used again.
Strangely, no such outcry was registered when the somewhat esoteric sport of fly-casting was wedged into the limited park acreage. The Anglers' Lodge, home of the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club, is paneled like a fishing lodge in the north woods, has a stained-glass dry fly in the front door and a fireplace inside. Its over 200 members pay a modest $9 a year, may then use any of the three pools, one for practice, one for distance and the third for accuracy, using either bait or fly.
Nor have there been severe protestations over the money that is going into the handball and tennis courts three miles down the greening landscape. Under construction are concrete box-type handball courts, replacing the old wooden walls on which former U.S. champion Al Banuet and San Francisco policeman Bob Brady, this year's runner-up, learned the game. For northern California's active young tennists, the park is building a $70,000 tennis clubhouse, which will make Golden Gate's tennis program even more attractive to citizens and rising players alike. Even without such country club appurtenances Golden Gate was always an attractive place for young Coast players. Don Budge recalls how he started playing at Bushrod Park across the Bay in Oakland. At 15 he entered his first tournament at Golden Gate. "It was like going to Wimbledon," he says. "There were lots of tournaments. It was fun. It was a beautiful place to go for the weekend. You could have a picnic on the grass and take a little gal down the winding walks and through the Aquarium." Four years after he began working his way through the Golden Gate tournaments, Budge broke into the national rankings. Two years later he was No. 1 in the country, but he still went back to play the Golden Gate asphalt three or four times a year.
Baseball at Big Rec, a few yards away, has roots that go even deeper. Harry Heilmann, Mark Koenig and Babe Pinelli all played its sandlot leagues. And when they came home to San Francisco, they came out to Golden Gate and worked with such up-and-comers as Joe Cronin, then carrying the colors of Hills Brothers Coffee. It was a friendly kind of arrangement, Cronin remembers. Playing shortstop in one field, you always had the left fielder from another ball game nearby for conversation.
Tom DiMaggio, who runs the family's restaurant at Fisherman's Wharf, brother Dom and brother Joe all played Big Rec. As a 16-year-old Joe played for Rossi's Olive Oil and then for Sunset Produce. In his 17th summer he played the last three games of the season for the Seals.
For almost 35 years now, Golden Gate's biggest sporting crowds have been flooding into the open bowl of aging Kezar Stadium, which was opened by Paavo Nurmi on a May day in 1925. For years it has been the annual New Year's Day scene of the East-West Shriner's game and the home of the professional 49ers. Although sportswriters once voted its press box the worst in the country, the writers' roost, like the rest of the stadium, has recently been face-lifted and revitalized. Probably Kezar will remain the playground of the 49ers, who have been casting a flirtatious eye at the new ball park of the San Francisco Giants. The park people have made it clear that the bayside ball park will only hold 45,000 football fans compared with the 65,000 capacity of Kezar. Nobody, of course, is superstitious, but, as a park official was saying recently, look what happened to the University of San Francisco basketball team, vaunted holders of the NCAA and the NIT crowns, who moved from their home in Kezar's basketball pavilion into their own new million-dollar gym last fall, abandoning Kezar to high school teams. In their new home, far from Golden Gate's verdure, they rang up their worst season in history.
But all these athletic endeavors aside, Golden Gate is also, to borrow a favorite Russian term, a park of culture and rest. Culture is condensed in an enclave just behind the Big Rec ball grounds, where the California Academy of Sciences, with its Aquarium, Planetarium, North American and African Halls, faces the De Young Museum of Art across the Music Concourse. Not only can San Franciscans be art viewers, they can be art patrons by joining the De Young Museum Society, which offers private previews, lectures, receptions and concerts. Across the way in the Stein-hart Aquarium, the tanks are full of fire-bellied toads, aholeholes—Hawaiian mountain bass—and archer-fish, whose food is thrown on the sides of the glass tank so they can spit it down with jets of water. A sign invites the public to watch the archer-fish spit at 3 p.m. daily.
The academy, which runs two television shows a week, has sent its scientists to Australia for snakes, to the Galàpagos for tortoises and lizards (they brought back an iguana 3½ feet long), to Manchuria for insects that burrow into the redwood trees that grow in a small corner of China.
Music wells out of the Concourse on special days and floats over the celebrated Japanese Tea Garden, which, like the buffalo, is a holdover from the California Mid-Winter Exposition of 1894. Although its Japanese house sells barbecue aprons inscribed "Ichi Ban Cooksan," one can sit, nevertheless, amid bamboo, the Oriental cedars, the red pagoda, and the arching Moon Bridge and contemplate the goldfish while Japanese waitresses in obis fetch sugarless jasmine tea and Chinese fortune cookies. And no matter that an ambitious politician once filled the cookies with exhortations to vote for him for judge.
What can't you do in Golden Gate Park? Well, the rules are simple. For one thing, you cannot practice palmistry for compensation. Or land a dirigible. Or arrive by parachute, cause a balloon to descend, or use insulting language. Especially, you may not offer tobacco to a fish. But in Golden Gate Park you can sniff the medicinal effluvium of a drooping eucalyptus carried in the pouch of a rolling fog. You can amble out to the park's very beginning, where Murphy Windmill, imported from Holland, and Amundsen's sloop, the Gjoa, first ship to make the Northwest Passage, stand looking out across the flat beach to the Pacific beyond. The sea wind searches the creases of your face and rushes inland, only to be snared in the bending cypresses, standing like protective mothers just where the green begins.