Surrounded by Tijuana to the south and Knott's Berry Farm to the north, San Diego, Calif. is an isolated community at the end of the western world, sort of a Key West with cowboys. No train runs through it, no airline goes beyond it. The Navy lives there and hates it. In particular it is the target of Los Angeles jibes, which all too often are directed at San Diego deficiencies as a sports town.
"San Diego is bush league," say Angelenos. "A nickel town. The only thing they'll support down there is the zoo. And kids get in free." Naturally, San Diego does not take this lying down. "Don't knock our zoo," says the chamber of commerce. "It's one of the finest in the world."
In truth, San Diego does not have to defend its sporting way of life. The smogless climate is magnificent and the beaches beautiful. The largest live-bait sport-fishing fleet in the world operates out of San Diego Bay. Mission Bay Park, one of the great aquatic playgrounds, has sent its fleet of racing sailors out to gain international fame, and water skiing is so popular that they have to keep traffic cops on duty there. Golf courses decorate the community, and tennis courts do a bustling business the year round. Bowling alleys run 24 hours a day, and it is sometimes necessary to make reservations a week in advance. The surrounding countryside is alive with riding stables and good hunting land. San Diego has such splendid recreational facilities, in fact, that eventually even the Navy learns to love it and thousands of retired officers return there to live.
None of which refutes Los Angeles' minor league charge. San Diego has never produced a surplus of spectators. The San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League have been struggling for years. The San Diego Skyhawks won the Western Hockey League playoffs in 1949, were gone a year later because of sagging attendance. College football does not draw. If a San Diegan is unable to control the urge to spend the afternoon sitting on a hard seat, instead of lolling in the surf, he would rather go to Tijuana for a bull fight—and spend the rest of the day drinking half-price booze.
October 22, 1961
Yet San Diego has suddenly found itself in possession of a million-dollar ball club, the undefeated Chargers of the American Football League, and what happens next is a test both of San Diego and of the AFL itself. For the million dollars represents not the value of the team but what Barron Hilton lost in giving unappreciative big-time Los Angeles a Western Division championship last year (the exact figure was $900,000), and San Diego may never have another such chance to thumb its nose at the noisy neighbor to the north.
If the Chargers click financially, then big league baseball may soon follow. The American League is anxious to establish a "natural" rivalry for the Los Angeles Angels on the West Coast—while decreasing travel deficits for eastern teams—and San Diego is the logical choice. Already there is talk of shifting the Kansas City Athletics out there, which shows how desperate some people can get. But failure to support the Chargers means the death of San Diego as a big league sports town. It may also bring a rattle to the throats of the AFL, for a struggling new league does not lose its strongest attraction and survive, and Hilton is determined to go no further.
"If we don't make it here," he says, "then we don't make it. I won't move again, I'll quit. Where would I go? Ensenada?"
The chances are that the baby-faced, 33-year-old heir of the hotel wizard will not have to dig too deeply into Conrad's pocket again. He estimates that he will lose only $250,000 this year. When the AFL was formed, each of its new owners was prepared to face a much heavier financial beating than that, probably for a period of two or three seasons, until the new league gained maturity. But already Barron Hilton has more going for him than the old carte blanche he carried last year.
In Los Angeles the Chargers were bucking the Dodgers, Southern Cal, UCLA and the National Football League Rams. In San Diego they are bucking only inertia and the zoo. In Los Angeles, Hilton insisted upon going first-class—straight to the cleaners. He paid 15% rental on the Coliseum for each game, another $1,500 in expenses and had no share in concessions, while maintaining a complimentary ticket list of almost 4,000 names. In San Diego he gets Balboa Stadium, enlarged to seat 34,500, for free during the 1961 season and then must pay only $2,000 a game in 1962—unless the gate exceeds $100,000, in which case he will pay 5% of the gross. He also rakes in all receipts for parking and concessions.
In Los Angeles, a diehard NFL town, the Chargers were looked upon as a grossly inferior product. Newspapers treated them as second-rate and the Times, most influential of all, ignored them. A heavy promotion campaign managed to sell 11,000 season tickets, but on the day the Chargers won the division championship by beating the Denver Broncos, only 9,900 people showed up. The Green Bay Packers, it seems, were playing the San Francisco 49ers that day for the NFL Western Division championship. The Rams were not involved—but the game was on TV.
In San Diego there are no Dodgers, there are no Rams. The Chargers are it. All to themselves, they have a city with a metropolitan population of 1,200,000, 16th largest in the U.S.—a population that has a history of doubling every 10 years. Two of the biggest boosters in town are Sports Editors Jack Murphy of the Union and Gene Gregston of the Tribune, who would like to write about major league sports and still spend their weekends at home for a change. With all of this support, the Chargers drew 29,210 to a game with the Houston Oilers three weeks ago and had to turn others away because improvements at Balboa Stadium were not yet complete. Most important of all, the Chargers seem prepared to present San Diego with that one great cure-all for apathy, a winner. At least, no one has been able to beat them yet.
The man responsible for this state of affairs is not Hilton, who only pays the bills, but his head coach and general manager, Sid Gillman, a refugee from the Los Angeles Rams. Gillman is a short, squat individual of 50 years with some sort of dynamo running inside him and a face that lights up like a jack-o'-lantern when he is happy. He was an all-Big Ten end at Ohio State in 1933 and has been coaching through the 28 years since with such results that he has resembled a pumpkin much of the time. He won an NFL Western Conference championship in 1955, his first season with the Rams, but when the record dropped to 2-10 in 1959—subsequent events indicate that not all the fault was Gillman's—he was fired. Hilton caught him on the first bounce.
Gillman's first job was to scrub together some football players. He beat the NFL to some high college draft choices, including one the Chargers had to go to court about, Mississippi's All-America Charlie Flowers. He divided the country into sections and sent his staff into every nook, cranny and coal mine, seeking out football players overlooked or passed up or turned down by the NFL. From this operation he mined such jewels as Paul Lowe, a brilliant, elusive halfback from Oregon State who couldn't adapt to the San Francisco 49ers system ("We adapted our system to fit him," says Gillman), and a freckle-faced kid with a cannon for an arm named Jack Kemp. Lowe was employed, fittingly enough, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Kemp was unemployed, having spent the three seasons since his graduation from little Occidental on the taxi squads of four NFL teams and one Canadian team. Gillman also held a tryout camp. "We invited anyone who could walk, crawl or ride a bicycle to attend," says Gillman. "We looked at 207 football players, if you want to call them that. We signed eight." The Chargers won 10 of 14 games and the division championship in 1960 and lost to the Houston Oilers in the playoff 24-16. Six games deep in the 1961 season they are undefeated.
This is a far superior product to the one the Chargers fielded last year, however, reflecting to a certain extent the improvement of the league as a whole. Gillman has always been an offensive coach, yet his greatest pride at the moment centers around his defensive team. It is worth looking at. The four middle linemen weigh an aggregate of 1,087 pounds, and Gillman doesn't mind feeding them if they continue to demolish opposing offenses as they have. Ron Nery, the lone holdover from 1960, is the smallest. He stands 6 feet 6 inches and weighs 244. Bill Hudson, the defensive captain, spent four years in Canada; he is 6 feet 4 and weighs 277. The other two are rookies. Earl Faison, a magnificent end on a miserable Indiana team a year ago, was the No. 5 draft choice of the Detroit Lions. He is 6 feet 4 and weighs 256. Ernie (Bigger than Big Daddy) Ladd, from little Grambling College, was the No. 4 draft choice of the Chicago Bears. He stands 6 feet 9, weighs 310 pounds and is agile enough to have been considered an outstanding basketball player. So far Ladd simply overpowers his mistakes; in another year, Gillman believes, he won't make any.
There are also three fine linebackers, led by a very tough rookie from Washington, Chuck Allen, who has grown to 219 pounds since his Rose Bowl days, and a secondary that has now spent a year eliminating some of its tendencies toward error. Pass defense was a scorned item in the AFL in 1960 when there were scores such as 50-43 (San Diego vs. New York), 41-35 (New York vs. Dallas) and 45-25 (Houston vs. Denver), but in six games the San Diego deep defense of Charlie McNeil, Bob Zeman, Claude Gibson and Dick Harris has intercepted 22 passes. "Don't forget," says Harris, "those four fellows up front are putting a lot of pressure on the passer. It's pretty hard to throw when you're flat on your back." As a unit, the Charger defense has allowed six opponents only 82 points.
Gillman will have nothing to do with the senseless argument that swirls around the relative merits of the AFL and NFL. "Of course we're not up to their caliber," he says. "Our progress has been amazing and maybe with one more draft we will be just as good, but not yet. Mr. Wismer sometimes talks too much." Harry Wismer, the enthusiastic owner of the New York Titans, has challenged the New York Giants to a game, while implying that his team would win without working up much of a sweat. But Gillman does believe that the Charger defensive line is NFL class and within another year will be the best in pro football. He is also very fond of Lowe, who is so good that Bo Roberson, the Olympic broad-jump silver medalist from Cornell, has spent most of the time on the bench. Last year Lowe had the best rushing average in the league, 6.3 yards, and was outgained in total yardage only by Dallas' marvelous Abner Haynes. And Gillman wouldn't take Johnny Unitas for Jack Kemp.
Kemp is 26 years old, a beautifully built athlete who stands 6 feet tail and weighs 205 pounds. Except for his size, he looks like the little boy down the block who one afternoon throws a rock through your picture window and the next morning comes back to sell you a subscription to The Saturday Evening Post. He has reddish hair, an engaging grin and that invaluable touch that puts a football team into high gear. "It's hard to describe," says Ron Mix, the 245-pound all-league offensive tackle from Southern California, "but whatever it is, Jack's got it."
Kemp was an All-Southern California Conference quarterback at Occidental, where he frequently made up pass plays in the huddle and twice earned Little All-America honorable mention. The pros received this information with overwhelming apathy, but the Detroit Lions drafted him, just in case. In Detroit, Kemp found two quarterbacks already in residence named Bobby Layne and Tobin Rote.
Kemp went to the Steelers, where he played behind Earl Morrall and Len Dawson. He went to the Giants, who already owned Charlie Conerly and Don Heinrich. The next fall the Giants signed young Lee Grosscup to a no-cut contract and decided to make Frank Gifford into a quarterback, too. So Kemp went to the Canadian League and spent half a season playing behind the All-America rookie from California, Joe Kapp. He finished out the '59 season at San Francisco, earning a few hundred dollars just to hang around waiting for something to happen to Y. A. Tittle or John Brodie. Finally it did. Tittle was injured in the Baltimore game, and Coach Red Hickey of the 49ers decided to activate Kemp. "You can't," said the late commissioner, Bert Bell. "It's illegal. He played half the year in Canada." So Jack went home to L.A. and waited for Gillman to call.
Last year Kemp was the all-league quarterback and runner-up to Haynes in the most-valuable-player balloting. He completed 211 passes in 406 attempts for 3,018 yards and 20 touchdowns. He ran for eight more. "The difference," says Jack, "is that I got to play. Sid went with me despite my mistakes. In the NFL, every time I got into a game, all I could think about was doing well enough to stay in the game. Last year I could think about touchdowns."
Kemp is very much like Unitas. He is quick and elusive enough to stay out of the clutches of charging linemen when his own pass protection breaks down; he fakes beautifully, and the passes he throws appear to have been shot out of a gun. He has very good receivers in Don Norton, Dave Kocourek and Luther Hayes, who must be good in self-defense. Most of the passes that Kemp fails to complete bounce off someone's nose. "You get your hands up when he throws," says Hayes. "You don't catch his passes against your chest."
Kemp can throw a football 90 yards in the air, quite an accomplishment for a boy with a chronic dislocated right shoulder. "I have to throw from here," he says, demonstrating his three-quarter style. "If I put my arm up over my head, it pops out of joint." Kemp has sometimes been criticized for throwing too hard, but the Chargers have made no attempt to change him. "If our ends can"! handle his throws," says Gillman, "we'll just find some new ends."
"Maybe I'll ease up a little when I know my receivers better," Jack says. "By throwing hard, I can wait just a split second longer, after they make their fakes and cuts to get away from the defensive backs."
"He didn't get to play for us," says Kyle Rote of the Giants. "He didn't have any experience but we all knew he could throw. I like that kind of hard pass myself, especially when I'm covered closely. Less chance of an interception. And he could throw the real long pass; you know, 60 and 70 yards. Not many quarterbacks, even in this league, can do that."
Kemp has been playing this season with an injured left shoulder, too, and a twisted ankle, a combination that prevents him from practicing during most of the week. Before a game he slips a harness onto the left shoulder, takes a couple of shots to dull the assorted pains, and goes out to murder the AFL. At the first of the season, until he learned to live with his injuries, Kemp was slightly less effective than in 1960. In recent games, however, he seems to be even better. Gillman's only worry now is that Kemp will be called up with an Army reserve unit, the 977th Transport Company. Kemp, for his part, is embarrassed by all the attention the case has received; he failed one pre-induction physical and next week must take another to definitely establish his military availability. The Chargers may also lose Mix, who passed his physical but hopes to receive a temporary deferment until the end of the season on hardship grounds—he supports a widowed mother—and Howard Clark, last year's star pass-catching end who is still unable to completely straighten one knee because of postoperative adhesions and has been kept on the bench.
"If we lose Clark and Mix," says Gillman, "we'll survive somehow. But if we lose Kemp, I'll probably have to play myself. I'd rather not think about it right now."
If the Chargers stay intact and healthy, they should also remain the class of the AFL, slightly ahead of the New York Titans, the Dallas Texans and the defending champion Houston Oilers, off to a miserable 1961 start. In fact, even critics of the AFL admit that the Chargers are good, so good that they may eventually cause their own downfall. The old bugaboo that keeps popping up is the infamous Ail-American Conference, which collapsed after featuring the Cleveland Browns and a horde of also-rans.
"A league cannot survive with a serious imbalance," said a National Football League official recently. "I wouldn't be surprised if the Chargers and a couple of other clubs kept improving to the point where we had to take them in." He gloated for a moment. "That would be the end of the AFL."
"No such thing is going to happen," says Gillman. "The rest of the league is improving, too. If we lose a weak franchise, there are a number of cities anxious to get in. As for a comparison with the All-American Conference, no such situation exists. The owners in this league have enough money that they don't have to throw up their hands and run at the first sign of trouble.
"Imbalance?" says the Charger coach. "I wouldn't mind a little imbalance. Just so long as we stay on top."