The Future of our Sporting Past
By Bill Owens
IT'S CYBERNETICS MEETS ATHLETICS, and it promises to be one hell of a hall. The new San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum in Balboa Park will be a world-class winner—if all goes according to a game plan that involves a grand vision, serious coin and heavy hitters.
The idea is to raise about $12 million to relocate and modernize the current 18,000-square-foot facility, which has been in place on El Prado’s quarter-mile of museums since 1983. The original Hall of Champions opened 22 years earlier in what was then Balboa Park’s House of Charm.
The new and improved hall will be a house of honor, hope and high-tech. The HOC’s mission to “promote, recognize and preserve athletic achievement for the purpose of inspiring individuals of all ages to reach their full potential” will plug into state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and accessible gigabytes of sports data.
Come 1997, you can experience the whole mesh in the park’s historic Federal Building, according to hall higher-ups. Renovation of the Fed edifice starts nextyear, after new digs are secured for current tenants, such as U.S.A. Volleyball. The new museum will boast nearly 60,000 square feet of exhibit space on three floors.
While architects and exhibit-design pros close in on final schematics, money for the massive project accumulates. The city of San Diego has promised to kick in $2.3 million, and the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation came through with a $3 million grant. In May, Chargers owner Alex Spanos agreed to head a capital campaign to raise $6.5 million for the proposed hall—and launched the drive by donating $1.5 million.
Campaign chairman Spanos asked Padres principal owner John Moores to chip in, and he did. Big time. In August, Moores pledged $1.5 million to match the Charger chief’s ante. And while neither owner is exactly poverty-stricken, it should be noted that the largess leaped from their own wallets, not from franchise coffers.
Additional generous contributions are in the works, according to HOC project consultant and former San Diego Union sports editor Barry Lorge. “We have a couple of other commitments that just need to be buttoned up and have a few details worked out,” he says. Lorge believes the fund-raising efforts are going quite well. “We’re confident we’ll reach our goal of $6.5 million.”
But the Hall of Champions raison d’être has little to do with dollars. Making money off a sports museum is not what drives 76-year-old HOC founder and president emeritus Bob Breitbard. What Mr. B—as he’s affectionately called by some—is all about is spirit, values, life lessons and heart. Breitbard’s house of plaques and trophies is a monument to sweat ethics and human potential.
Seated in his office a floor above the HOC, Mr. B talks about hall history. He sports a snappy suit, a graying perfect-wave pompadour and a smile so wide it needs a floor of its own. From time to time, he fields a friendly, must-take phone call from one local VIP or another.
A native San Diegan, Breitbard attended Hoover High with born-for-Cooperstown baseball great Ted Williams (the two remain close friends, and Breitbard chats with the Splendid Splinter weekly). Hoover grad Breitbard, class of ’37, later coached at his alma mater and also at San Diego State, where he rebuilt the Aztecs’ football program following World War II.
His passion for sports and for recognizing athletic achievement took formal shape in 1946, when he established the Breitbard Athletic Foundation. “We started right then,” he says, “giving Star-of-the-Month awards to high school youngsters for football, baseball, basketball and track and field. Of course, we only had a dozen or so high schools back then, and now we’re up to 70 or 80 in San Diego County.”
These days, Breitbard prizes go to amateurs and pros alike, and categories have expanded to include such sports as golf, soccer, volleyball, boxing, hockey and swimming. The laurels range from certificates, plaques and trophies to reco gnition at the annual Salute to the Champions dinner and—the ultimate accolade for a local athlete—induction into the prestigious Bob Breitbard Hall of Fame. “We give more than 10,000 awards a year,” Breitbard says with a proud grin. “We get involved with everything.”
Regarding the San Diego sports scene, Breitbard’s been involved with damn near everything for the past half-century or so. As an early member of the Greater San Diego Sports Association (recently renamed the San Diego International Sports Council), Breitbard—along with civic-minded colleagues—helped build San Diego Stadium, bring the Chargers and pro Padres to town, and establish and nurture the annual Holiday Bowl. Mr. B, a pivotal force behind construction of the Sports Arena, was owner of its first tenant, the Western Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls. Those familiar with the Breitbard appeal know that the new hall’s as good as up.
“One of the most encouraging things to us,” notes consultant Lorge, “is that there’s such a reservoir of good will in the community toward the Hall of Champions. That good will’s been there for a lot of years, and it’s largely Bob’s doing.”
WHAT BOB’S DOING NOW is showing a visitor around his hall. A few yards from the gallery’s turnstile, Mr. B spots a couple viewing a small-screen video bite of former La Jolla Country Day star Rashaan Salaam in a gridiron rush toward the Heisman Trophy. “Folks,” he interjects politely, “Rashaan’s Heisman is just behind that partition over there. Don’t miss it.”
Breitbard moves through the chamber of sports artifacts, pointing out some of his favorite treasures in this who’s who of regional jock and jilldom. It offers mementos of athletes who were born in or moved to San Diego, as well as those of pros who played for local teams. There’s everything from heavyweight champ Archie Moore’s ring robe to the late Bill Muncey’s thunderboat. From Randy Jones’ Cy Young Award to jockey Willie Shoemaker’s boots and riding silks.
On hand are 25 exhibits representing more than 40 sports, with small homages paid to the long-ago likes of local 1940s hoops ace Milton “Milky” Phelps and Roaring Twenties UC halfback Albert “Pesky” Sprott. The memorabilia pool includes images of Florence Chadwick and Greg Louganis, Wimbledon winner Karen Hantze Susman, Olympian Billy Mills and hoopster Bill Walton.
Mr. B himself seems enlivened by the memories that surround him. For Breitbard, there’s more than framed photos and glass-encased kitsch in the hall. Standing at a tennis display, he points out one special racket and chuckles at a reminiscence. He says the item once belonged to Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly, first woman to capture the Grand Slam of tennis.
“That’s the racket she won Wimbledon with,” he says. “I used to have it sitting in my garage in Point Loma, along with a bat Ted Williams gave me. It was one he used in 1941, the year he hit .406. I had a lot of other things,” he continues, “including the Olympic gold medal Willie Steele won for the broad jump in 1948.”
Before Bob Breitbard could open the world’s first Garage of Champions, his wife, Lillian, intervened. “She said to me, ‘What are you going to do with all this stuff?’ I felt these things should be shown someplace, and I said to her, ‘Well, we’re gonna open up a Hall of Champions.’ That’s how it all started, back in 1961.”
Breitbard stops at a revolvable rack of black-and-white photographs, part of HOC’s Star-of-the-Month collection, displayed Automat style. He says that this gallery will be shown in a much more modern mode at the updated institute. He spins the wheel of fame. “That’s Don Larsen,” says Breitbard, aiming his finger at a shot of an impossibly young Point Loma High athlete. “In 1956, Don pitched the only perfect game in World Series history.”
Another face halts Mr. B. “And this is Bill McColl. We gave him an award for playing basketball at Hoover High in 1947. He went on to become a two-time All-American end at Stanford, then played pro football for the Chicago Bears.”
But there’s more to the Bill McColl story than playing-field heroics, adds Breitbard. While snagging spirals for eight seasons with the Bears, he explains, McColl also attended the University of Chicago medical school. From NFL to M.D.: McColl retired from football and gained a career as an orthopedic surgeon.
“He took his family—his wife and six young kids—on a two-year medical mission to Korea, working with lepers,” Breitbard says. While in Korea, McColl pioneered methods of reconstructive surgery for people with leprosy. “Isn’t that an amazing story?” asks Breitbard. “I love it. That takes a lot of heart. Today, Bill McColl is the hall’s current chairman of the board. To me, that’s a circle of success—the value of the Hall of Champions.”
INDEED, HUMAN VALUES will be emphasized in the new hall, maintains Barry Lorge. He says that the planned repository will still display bats and balls, rackets and robes, but “it’ll go a couple of generations beyond. We’ll try and bring those artifacts to life through interactive and multimedia exhibits.
“We want to get across to tourists and San Diegans alike the depth and breadth of the sports scene here, and how important it’s been to the community.” The hall monitors wish to turn young people on to new sports, as well as to the life possibilities athletics in general might open up. Says Lorge: “We want to highlight those who’ve been successful in sports and tell some of the human-interest stories that may give kids new people to look up to. We also want to show in very vivid terms how sports has helped men and women in the rest of their lives.”
The HOC organization influences lives through outreach activities such as its Say Yes to Sports program. Say Yes gives thousands of area youngsters the chance to engage in supervised after-school sports instead of hooking up with drugs, alcohol or gangs.
For his part, Bob Breitbard wants his third-generation hall to continue to source such worthy pursuits as Say Yes. Bob is also drawn toward the notion of what he terms a “gee-whiz facility”—a Pentium-plus palace in the park, a computerized, on-line sports clearinghouse accessible to kids and adults alike. “In this high-tech age,” says the Hoover alum, “we feel we have a golden opportunity to create something here that’ll be good through the next several decades. A museum we can change—it won’t be static.”
He says the architectural and design teams are intent on crafting structures with built-in technological flexibility. The Breitbard HOC squad must get out in front of the telecommunications curve. “I want it done right,” states Mr. B. “I’m not gonna be around to see the next one if it comes.”
The exhibit designer of the hall now on the drawing boards is Tom Ancona of San Francisco–based Ancona + Associates. One of his objectives is to “tell the story of sports in San Diego and bring it alive.” Ancona says attention will be paid to our city’s sporting past. He envisions “multimedia experiences” that would communicate the history of Balboa Stadium and the early prominence of military sports teams, or focus on Lane Field and the Pacific Coast League Padres.
Activities of today and tomorrow will also get prominent display, says Ancona. Stations on marathons and triathlons and a “dynamic” Chargers exhibit are planned. “The goal here,” he says, “is for the Hall of Champions to become the town hall of what’s become known as Sportstown, U.S.A. It’ll be an active place where people can come and participate, not only through the exhibits but through a series of programs, clinics and events.”
He describes a “center court” designed to accommodate everything from soccer and volleyball demonstrations to spiffy awards ceremonies. Ancona and the Breitbard bunch are also actively exploring the idea of a large theater showing live sporting events. They’ll invest in a bank of computers and an immense, Internet-linked database.
Among the challenges of the nouveau-hall consortium is that of generating a Disneyland-meets-the-Smithsonian sort of space. “We’re working very hard,” says Lorge, “to maintain a positive link between education and entertainment.” The HOC group will shun bogus sports-simulator setups and gimmicky arcade gizmos. “We’re trying to develop exhibit sets that are fun, engaging and still true to our mission,” he says. “At the same time, they have to be commercially viable, or people won’t pay to come in.”
Down on the floor of the old hall, Bob Breitbard isn’t what you’d call engulfed in paying customers. He’s happily pointing out the low-tech wooden stick once wielded by his slugging school chum, Ted Williams. Perhaps amid the outmoded room full of phantoms and sacred sports souvenirs, there’s a thought left unspoken: Try hitting .406 with a microchip.