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20TH ANNIVERSARY . . . : THE BIG A : A Place Where Billy Graham, Rockers and Angels Have Tread

April 19, 1986|JOHN WEYLER | Times Staff Writer

Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants were well on their way to spoiling the Angels' debut in Anaheim Stadium when an obviously weary gentleman was ushered into stadium General Manager Tom Liegler's office, then a trailer in the parking lot.

"He'd been directed in and out of the parking lot twice, paid to park twice and he wanted his money back," Liegler recalled. "He was trying to take his kids to Disneyland, and in our zest for making traffic flow, he kept getting directed into lines for the stadium."

It was April 9, 1966, and 40,735 other people \o7 intended\f7 to wind up at the Big A for its grand opening. And from that day on, Disneyland had to share the spotlight as Anaheim's top attraction.

The exhibition game was of little significance, of course. People came to see the concrete and steel giant that had sprung up on the 144 acres adjacent to Katella Avenue and State College Boulevard, where Camille Allec's orange trees, Roland Russell's alfalfa and John Knutzen's cornfields once had thrived.

Twenty years later, crowds of 40,000 and considerably more file into and out of Anaheim Stadium with remarkable ease. No one stops to admire the architecture anymore. They come to see the Angels and Rams and a variety of attractions ranging from Black Sabbath to Zubin Mehta, from Billy Graham to Willie Nelson, from mud-bog tractor pulls to motocross to recreational vehicle shows . . . and a whole lot more.

The Angels were the host team for the 1967 All-Star game and four American League playoff games--two against Baltimore in '79 and two against Milwaukee in '82.

The Rams lost to the New York Giants in a first-round playoff game in 1984, then beat Dallas in another first-round game early this year at the Big A.

Graham's two weeklong crusades attracted hundreds of thousands, and rockers such as the Rolling Stones, Foreigner, the Beach Boys and David Bowie have filled the facility with music and fans.

But those are merely events, footnotes to history. The 20-year metamorphosis of Anaheim Stadium--which has been called everything from a white elephant to the finest, cleanest, friendliest multisports facility in the land--is, of course, a story of people. People such as Rex Coons, who had an idea and brought it to life. People such as Gene Autry, who was willing to take a chance and found a home. And people such as Liegler, who helped turn a financial burden into a gold mine.

\o7 There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears mixed in with the concrete and mortar in this stadium . . . not the least of which are Rex Coons'. \f7 --TOM LIEGLER, 1978 It probably won't go down in history as The House That Rex Coons Built, but Anaheim Stadium might never have been erected if it hadn't been for the former mayor of Anaheim. And it certainly wouldn't be celebrating No. 20 this month.

Coons is 76 and has been retired for several years, but he said his memories of the days when his dream grew into reality are vivid.

In the spring of 1963, Bill Phillips, then chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Coons and about 100 other civic and county leaders went to Washington to solicit Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area status for Orange County.

"Up to that time, all the statistical information for Orange County was lumped in with Los Angeles and Long Beach," Coons said. "We had the population, the industry, the education facilities, everything you needed to qualify. And while looking over the statistics, I noticed that almost all the other SMSA areas had a professional sports team.

"We were awarded the SMSA standing, and on the way back from Washington, it occurred to me that the Angels weren't happy at Dodger Stadium. I figured, "What the hell, we'll make a pitch for 'em."

Coons' pitch was like one of Nolan Ryan's--hard, fast and effective. The Angels had just ended negotiations with Long Beach because they refused to change their name to the Long Beach Angels. Coons assured them that they could call themselves anything they pleased in Anaheim.

"Podunk Angels would've been fine," he said. "All the stories still would've been datelined Anaheim."

Less than a year later, in one of Angel owner Autry's Palm Springs hotels, Autry and his associates heard Anaheim's presentation and agreed to move if the city could erect a suitable stadium in time for opening day, 1966.

"After we told them we'd move, we went out to eat and talked," said Autry, whose team's game today will mark the 20th anniversary of the first regular-season game in the stadium. "We were excited about moving to Anaheim because we thought Orange County and Riverside County would keep growing by leaps and bounds. But we were worried about racing the clock. Del Webb told me, 'Gene, we'll work day and night to build it if we have to.'

"But we were still worried because we'd burned our bridges (at Dodger Stadium) behind us."

The fun was just beginning.

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