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CELEBRATE! : Orange County's First 100 Years : COMING OF AGE : THE BIG A

May 21, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL | Bell, who writes a column for Orange County Life, has been faithful to the Angels for many years and feels he deserves a World Series every bit as much as Gene Autry. and

Oct . 12, 1986. Top of the ninth. Two out. Man on first. The California Angels, leading the Boston Red Sox by two runs, are one out away from their first World Series. Donnie Moore, their best reliever, is pitching to a journeyman outfielder named Dave Henderson who wasn't even supposed to play. The Angel dugout is crowded with police officers sent there to protect the players from delirious fans who are as hungry as the team for a championship. Moore delivers and Henderson swings. In the five seconds it takes for the ball to travel from Henderson's bat over the left field wall, Anaheim Stadium experiences both its greatest high and its most despairing low. The crowd of 65,000 sits in stunned silence as the Red Sox go on to win in extra innings. There seems a premonition that the Angels will never recover--and they

don't. Boston sweeps the last two playoff games at home--and Anaheim Stadium is still waiting for its first World Series.

In 1937, cowboy movie actor Gene Autry journeyed from Hollywood to Orange County to serve as grand marshal of the Fullerton Armistice Day parade, coming close to the site that 30 years later would provide a home for Autry's expansion major league baseball team. There were no freeways then, and Anaheim was better known for citrus than entertainment.

In those three decades, Anaheim grew up--and one of the principal signs of its maturity is the stadium that has repeatedly won recognition as one of the finest athletic and entertainment plants in America.

A number of people have had a powerful hand in the success of Anaheim Stadium, but there were two visionaries in particular who made it happen.

In the fall of 1963, the Los Angeles Angels base- ball team was unhappily playing its home games in Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers cast a long shadow, and the Angels saw no prospect of moving out from under. The mayor of Anaheim--a shrewd, progressive civic leader named Rex Coons--sensed the Angels' plight and foresaw both a solution for the Angels and a bonanza for Anaheim.

Disneyland had literally put Anaheim on the map eight years earlier. Now Coons envisioned a sports center to complement the Magic Kingdom. He contacted then-Angels-president Bob Reynolds and majority owner Gene Autry--who was to become sole owner in 1968--and planted the idea of the Angels' finding their own identity in Anaheim.

The idea flourished as the Angels' disenchantment with Dodger Stadium grew, and in 1964 the talks got serious enough that Coons sought tentative commitments from the City Council and the Del Webb Construction Co. to build a major-league stadium in Anaheim. (Del Webb, then co-owner of the New York Yankees, prepared preliminary plans for the 43,250-seat stadium at his own risk and was prepared to meet the Angels' timetable, which meant that the stadium had to be ready to open in April, 1966, because the Angels' contract with Dodger Stadium would have expired by then.)

Looking back a decade later, Coons, who died early this year, told reporters that it had been a "balancing act" in which he had to keep the proposed deal quiet as long as he could in order to prevent land prices on the tentative sites from escalating out of reach. But the word did get out and land prices did zoom, and 10 days before Coons, City Manager Keith Murdoch and City Atty. Joe Geisler were to offer a specific proposal to the Angels' board of directors, they still hadn't tied up the land on which to build the stadium.

Enter the second visionary: an Orange County real estate broker named C. J. Gill. Although he had no connection with the city, he had been thinking exactly like Coons--but with much less visibility. But, unlike Coons, Gill was able to act. He had quietly and efficiently acquired options on the nearly 150 acres of land where Anaheim Stadium rests today. And 10 days before that critical meeting with the Angels' directors, Gill appeared at Anaheim City Hall and offered the land at a price considerably below that being quoted to Coons.

The day was saved. Or almost. Before the Angels committed to Anaheim, Long Beach came in with a serious bid. But Long Beach made a major mistake: Its officials insisted that the team be called the Long Beach Angels. Reynolds and Autry wanted the team to be called the California Angels, and when they asked Coons if that was a problem, he told them: "I don't give a damn what you call yourself." So the California Angels agreed to come to Anaheim--and a stadium was born.

Recalled Coons in a Times interview: "All we had was a handshake, and each entity was out on a limb--the city for the $4 million we had spent on the land, the Angels for possible loss of attendance and Del Webb's company, which was proceeding with the plans."

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