By: Joe Furtado
April 8, 1969. Baseball’s centennial season and the Padres very first opening day. Although a crowd of around 30,000 was anticipated, only 23,370 chose to be in on a part of history.
As the Padres lined up along the first base line decked out in their brand new uniforms, there was an air of anticipation in the stadium. After Carol Shannon, C.Arnholt Smith’s sister and chairwoman of the board of the Padres, threw out the first ball, and as the final words of the national anthem sang out from the voice of Beatrice Kay, accompanied by the NTC band, one could hear the words, “play ball” ring throughout the half-filled ball park.
Finally, at a few minutes after 8:00 pm, the first pitch was thrown by right hander Dick Selma past Houston right fielder Jesus Alou. Home plate umpire Shag Crawford called it a strike and the game was under way. Major league baseball had arrived in San Diego.
The Padres first starting line-up was; SS Rafael Robles, 2B Roberto Pena, CF Tony Gonzalez, RF Ollie Brown, 1B Bill Davis, LF Larry Stahl, 3B Ed Spezio, C Chris Cannizzaro, and P Dick Selma. The first Padre hit off Houston pitcher Don Wilson did not come until the fifth inning of the game. It was a home run by third baseman Ed Spezio that tied the game at 1-1. Then in the bottom of the sixth, Ollie Brown doubled off the concrete wall in left to bring in Roberto Pena and give the Padres their first lead. Meanwhile, Selma was pitching a great game. He gave up just five hits, struck out twelve Astros, and San Diego had their first ever victory. Even though they were off on the right foot, a sign hanging from the upper deck reminded everyone of the reality of the long season ahead. It read,”Wait until next year!”
The next night, Johnny Podres and Tommie Sisk combined for a 2-0 victory before a much smaller crowd of 4,218. In game three, Dick Kelley had a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Frank Reberger and Billy McCool came in to preserve the shutout and the victory, 2-0. The Padres were off to a 3-0 start and their pitchers had a scoreless streak of 26 innings. Then the Giants came to town and won three straight, outscoring San Diego 18-2.
Embarking on their first road trip, San Diego headed into Los Angeles to play the Dodgers. In front of an opening night crowd of 22,200 at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles clobbered the Padres 14-0. The next night the Dodgers laid it on again by a score of 9-1. San Diego had put together a five game losing streak and people were beginning to feel sorry for them. They finished the month of April 9-14, in fifth place, but several players were emerging as pleasant surprises.
Youngster Nate Colbert was impressing everyone with the way the ball jumped off his bat. In a span of less than two weeks, Colbert had put together a 10 game hitting streak, with 5 homeruns and 11 RBI’s. Platooned at first base with Bill Davis early on, Preston Gomez stated, “It looks like we’ve found ourselves a first baseman.” Veteran Jack Baldschun, who was signed as a free agent on April 12, recorded three victories in relief in one week. Another veteran, Johnny Podres, struggled after his first start and was put in the bullpen and used as a spot starter.
Not satisfied with the current roster, Buzzie Bavasi continued to wheel and deal right into the regular season. He sent Tom Dukes to the minors to make room on the roster for Baldschun. He then signed catcher Chris Krug and made him a coach until a spot opened up on the roster. Later in the month, the Padres sent their opening day shortstop, Rafael Robles, to the minors and activated Krug. Pitcher Al McBean was traded to the Dodgers in exchange for infielder Tommy Dean and pitcher Leon Everitt. Dean was activated immediately and Everitt was sent to the minors. The next day Jesse Gonder was released and Everitt was brought up. The last move of the month was the most surprising. San Diego traded their opening day pitcher, Dick Selma, to the Chicago Cubs for pitchers Joe Niekro and Gary Ross, and shortstop Francisco Libran. In an ironic twist of fate, Selma faced his old mates on May 23 and shut them out on two hits, 6-0. In an effort to avoid serious injuries to the outfielders, the lower portion of the outfield wall was padded.
The month of May certainly had its share of fireworks. On May 2, against the Cincinnati Reds, Al Ferrara pinch-hit a grand slam homerun to help beat the Reds 8-5. The next day Ollie Brown highlighted a 9-run first inning with a grand slam homer to propel the Padres to a 13-5 win. It was the fledgling Padres fifth victory in a row against the Reds and it vaulted the team into fourth place, only five games from the top.
On May 10, Roberto Pena hit the Padres third bases loaded homerun in nine days when he launched one off Cardinals ace Steve Carlton in a 5-3 victory. Three days later at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Padres suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Cubs, losing 19-0. The 19 runs equaled the National League record for the highest run total ever run up in a shutout. Cub great Ernie Banks hit two homeruns and drove in seven runs in the game. The next day Banks hit another homerun and ten days later in San Diego, “Mr.Cub” hit a grand slam homerun to help Chicago beat the Padres 7-5. It was Banks’ twelfth career slam. Nate Colbert joined the grand-slam club when he poled one against the Cubs. In all, six grand slams were hit in the month of May, four by the Padres.
On the last day of the month, Al Ferrara and Nate Colbert each hit two homeruns to help beat the Expos. When they weren’t hitting balls out of the park, the Padres were making outs, usually strikeouts. Two months into their inaugural season, San Diego was on a record pace for being shutout and for striking out. They finished the month of May with a respectable 20-30 record. Although they were in last place, they were only 10 games out of first.
Back on the trade front, the Padres sent infielder Jerry DaVanon to the St.Louis Cardinals in exchange for catcher Johnny Roberto and second baseman John Sipin. In his first start as a Padre, Sipin hit two triples and scored the run that broke Cub left-hander Ken Holtzman‘s scoreless streak of 33 innings.
Military obligations forced several Padres to miss a number of games during the season. Unfortunately the two players who were affected the most were the team’s two best hitters, Nate Colbert and Ollie Brown.
June began well enough. The Padres won their first four games to extend their winning streak to a season high six games. Then Nate Colbert was required to be away from the team for 17 days with his reserve unit and the 1969 season began to unravel. The Padres proceeded to lose eleven in a row, including 4 shutouts in 5 games. At one point San Diego went 30 innings without scoring a run. The only bright spot was the hitting of third baseman Ed Spezio. In a span of ten days from June 6-16, Spezio clobbered 8 homeruns. But two weeks later, fighting a slump, Spezio was benched. He would remain there most of the remaining three months of the season. When Colbert returned, Ollie Brown left for two weeks. It might not have been so bad except that when Colbert returned he had lost the stroke that had made him one of the hottest hitters in the league.
The month ended in appropriate fashion. 23 year old pitching phenom Steve Arlin, fresh out of dental school, made his first major league start against the Dodgers in San Diego Stadium. In less than three innings, Arlin gave up six runs in a 19-0 rout by Los Angeles. The Padres aided the Dodger effort by issuing 12 walks, committing three errors, throwing five wild pitches and a passed ball. It was the teams second 19-0 defeat in less than two months. The Padres record for the month was an embarrassing 7-22, and attendance, what little there was in the first place, was starting to drop off even more. Looking for anything positive from the first three months of the season, the Padres needed only to look at their sister expansion team in Montreal. In May and June, the Expos put together a losing streak of twenty games. More roster changes occurred when outfielder Tony Gonzalez (.225), another opening day starter, was traded to Atlanta for C/Inf. Walt Hriniak, infielder Van Kelly, and outfielder Andy Finlay, the Braves #1 draft choice in 1967. Johnny Podres comeback attempt ended when he announced his retirement to become a minor league pitching instructor. He was 5-6 with the Padres and finished his career with a record of 148-116.
In the June free agent draft, the Padres selected seventeen year old first baseman Randy Elliott from Camarillo, California.
July began as April, May, and June had begun–on a positive note. On July 5, at San Diego Stadium in front of the smallest crowd of the year (2,309), the Padres went into the bottom of the twelfth inning trailing the Houston Astros by a score of 8-4. San Diego proceeded to get seven straight hits and win the game 9-8. The next night, lefty Dick Kelley pitched a one hitter, beating the Astros 1-0. The only hit was a leg single to deep shortstop by Denis Menke in the second inning. It was Kelley’s first win in a month and it was the second time he had flirted with a no hitter.
Outfielder Ivan Murrell was inserted into the lineup in July to replace the slumping Clarence Gaston and proceeded to hit in fifteen straight games. Later in the year, Murrell hit a ball into the fourth row of the second deck in deep left centerfield. He was only the second player to accomplish the feat, Richie Allen of the Phillies being the first.
Also in July, a very historic moment occurred. Unfortunately the Padres and major league baseball had nothing to do with it. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the moon, and thus man’s exploration of the solar system took, “one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.”
For the Padres, the season was progressing in small steps…very small steps. Attendance was embarrassing and the play on the field wasn’t much better. Since June 12, when Nate Colbert departed for 17 days of military service, the Padres had lost 35 of 44 games. At the end of July, their record stood at 34-71. They were now 25 games out of first place and sinking fast.
Things were so bad that the front office made a bid for problem child Richie Allen of the Phillies. Allen had been suspended for 26 days for not showing up to a scheduled game against the Mets in New York. He had also rubbed Padre fans the wrong way when he walked out on a post game interview with Jerry Gross when he found out his gift was to be postage stamps. Reportedly on the trading block, it would have been difficult to imagine Allen coming to a team mired in last place, playing in an empty stadium, and having a positive attitude. Buzzie Bavasi, in dire need of any player who could hit the ball, did not hesitate to voice his desire to obtain Allen. “I’d love to have the chance to suspend Richie Allen.” He eventually smoothed things over in Philadelphia and finished the season with the Phillies.
For the All Star Game, catcher Chris Cannizzaro was the lone Padre representative, and for the first time in its history, the game was postponed a day because of rain. When it was played, the National League won its seventh straight 9-3. Willie McCovey hit two home runs.
As August rolled around, word was out that the Padre organization was in trouble. Attendance was low and sitting on Bavasi’s desk were letters from interested parties in Buffalo and New Orleans inquiring about buying the team. But the Padre president remained optimistic.
In an effort to get people into the stadium, some interesting promotions were devised. There was a people-counting contest, held throughout the last two months of the season, teen dance night, camera day, back-to-school night, a Jai Alai exhibition, a “Be a Manager” game give-away, and date night, where prizes were given to selected couples who stayed after the game for a dance.
On August ll, Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale retired because of a chronic shoulder problem. Rumors immediately began to circulate that he would replace Preston Gomez as Padre manager. Bob Skinner, who had recently resigned as skipper of the Phillies, was also being mentioned as a successor to Gomez. Bavasi cooled all rumors with the ever-reassuring “vote of confidence” for his beleaguered skipper.
Down on the field, the team hit rock bottom, putting together losing streaks of nine, ten, and six games, and winning only 5 of 27 games. Injuries took their toll. Dick Kelley was put back on the disabled list with a bad shoulder, and back injuries sidelined Johnny Sipin, Ivan Murrell, and Nate Colbert. Sipin was told to go home and get ready for next season, and Colbert, whose back problems stemmed from a spinal defect at birth, just needed some rest.
To read all of Chapter 2, download this PDF: 2PlayBall