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

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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 intended 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.


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’. --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.

Less than two weeks later, the Orange County Board of Supervisors had a change of heart about a joint county-Anaheim project and backed out. Coons boldly and dramatically proclaimed that the city would go it alone.

“I guess you’d have to say I was just a dumb farmer, and no one had told me it couldn’t be done,” Coons said, laughing.

City Manager Keith Murdoch was no dumb farmer. His business acumen played a large part in the stadium’s rise to financial success over the years.


“I had a little warning (that the county would back out), about 24 hours,” said Murdoch, 67, who is also retired. “I was able to work with our finance director for most of those 24 hours to see if we could put it together without the county.

“Then they (the Anaheim City Council) came to me and said, ‘Well, Keith, can we go it alone?’

“After all the blood drained out of my body, I said, ‘Yes, I think we can.’ ”

The city established a nonprofit organization that has survived a decade of financial setbacks and two decades of controversy and litigation, and proved Coons a visionary in the process. Given the prosperity of Orange County and the surrounding areas today, it’s no surprise that Anaheim Stadium turned a profit in excess of $4 million in fiscal 1984-85.

Twenty-two years ago, though, the need for a stadium and the financial burden it would be to the city was a matter of heated debate. A great many opponents figured that the facility could never be built in time to meet the Angels’ demands, anyway.

The fact that it was conceived, planned and constructed in less than two years remains a miracle of sorts.

That’s exactly what C.J. Gill would have called it. Gill, a realtor, said he enlisted the help of God in gaining listings on the land the stadium now occupies.


“I’m a Christian Scientist,” Gill told The Times in 1980. “I talked with the Supreme Being--it helps clear my mind--and thought about where the logical site for a stadium would be.”

Gill then convinced Allec, Reynolds, Knutzen and other landowners to get out of the farming business and into the millionaire business.

Murdoch said: “Mr. Gill came to me and said, ‘I have a listing on almost all of the properties in the area you’re looking at and I can put together a substantial amount of property. Are you interested?’

“There was only one answer because we didn’t have any other location tied down and we were getting ready to start building.”

There seemed to be a special strain of spring fever in 1964. A wave of optimism swept those involved in the project, and even the most cynical businessmen were stricken.

“Three things happened in the spring of 1964 that had never happened before and I know I won’t live to see happen again,” Coons said.


“First, the Angels listened to our story and our sincerity and wrote a letter to the city of Anaheim, committing themselves to move if we built a stadium in two years. It was not only a calculated risk, but they knew it would kill them at the box office in L.A.

“The city of Anaheim went out on a limb and bought $4 million of land.

“And Del Webb’s construction company started the designing, engineering and all the preliminary work that had to be done without signing a contract.

“You had three entities, a municipal corporation, a private sports corporation and a construction firm, and all three had enough faith in the handshake of the other two to go out on a limb and start.”

Clearly, the stadium never would have been ready in two years without that kind of cooperation.

“I’ll always remember the ground-breaking,” Murdoch said. “We were out there in the orange groves and cornfields, (Los Angeles) Mayor (Sam) Yorty flew in on a Fire Dept. helicopter, Del Webb was there, and Gene Autry was there in his fancy boots.

“They had made a little path along one of the cornfields, and I noticed this lady, with one tot in a stroller and leading another by the hand, trudging along this dirt path. And that’s when it hit me: The community itself was really behind us. It was heartwarming.”


Years later, in 1982, the stadium gave Autry his fondest memory. The Angels won the American League West title and beat the Brewers in the first two games of the league championship series at home.

“That was my biggest thrill, sitting up there watching the fans swarm all over the field,” Autry said. “They even stole all the bases. At that moment, we all thought we were going to the World Series. We didn’t, of course, but we believed it then.”

Coons always comes back to the lump that was in his throat as he stepped onto the field on opening day and how his first view of the full stadium is etched forever in his memory.

“I’d been in and out of that stadium for two years while it was being built, but there was something special about that day, with all those people and that green, green grass,” Coons said. “It’s a picture, and a feeling, I’ll never forget.”

Liegler hopes that Coons and Murdoch aren’t forgotten, either.

“Think of the foresight those leaders had, to say: ‘We’ll build it ourselves,’ and the feat accomplished in getting it built, and what they have brought to Anaheim and Orange County in terms of dollar impact,” he said.

“But it’s more than that. I think they brought to Orange County and Anaheim something you can’t buy, public pride. People love this stadium because it offers sports, culture, art, music . . . It’s truly a hub of local community activities.”


And you can also thank Tom Liegler for that.

Tom Liegler never gives up. His biggest achievement was luring the Rams, of course, but the numbers and kinds of events he would track down were amazing. I think the only thing we didn’t consider for the stadium was hockey. At one time, Tom wanted to bring in bullfights, the bloodless kind. We gave it very serious consideration, too. --KEITH MURDOCH, 1986 Make no mistake, Tom Liegler was--still is, in fact--bullish on Anaheim Stadium. It’s a subject he never tires of talking about. For 20 years, the Big A was an obsession he hyped, watched over and personally cared for as general manager, a job he assumed on Jan. 22, 1965. He left last year to assume a similar position at the San Diego Convention Center.

Liegler’s soothingly calm demeanor belies the fact that he was as hard to please as a drill instructor when it came time for an inspection. He is almost single-handedly responsible for the stadium’s legacy of cleanliness.

He also wrote the book, literally, on crowd management. His 42-page manual, entitled “The Anaheim Way,” was written with the philosophy that there are no customers, only guests. Every employee is supposed to carry a copy with him.

Jim Dooley, former Big A operations manager, describes Liegler as a benevolent dictator.

“He’s a nit-picker,” Dooley said. “He’s always in your shorts. But personally, I like (him).”

Fan, foe or, like Dooley, a combination of both, all had to admit one thing: Liegler’s innovative scheduling helped the Big A make Big $. In 1978, according to a Sports Illustrated survey: “Only one public sports facility, Anaheim Stadium, home of the Angels, claimed a profit last year.”

But it was a long, uphill battle from the days when the facility annually ended up half a million dollars or so in the red.


“I was always very proud of trying to discover new ways of making the stadium pay for itself,” said Liegler, now 58.

In 1970, Liegler brought rock to the stadium, staging one of the first stadium rock shows after the Beatles’ tour in the mid-60s. A daytime concert featuring The Who also brought “longhairs like communicants of a religious sect to a revival,” according to an article in The Times.

The “longhairs” also brought marijuana and that brought on a public outcry. Murdoch still describes the concert as a travesty.

Liegler said at the time that he thought wine was a bigger problem than drugs, pointing out that the crowd was otherwise orderly and law-abiding and that the city was about $30,000 richer. But rock didn’t return to the Big A for six years.

“Tom and I always had a pretty good relationship,” Autry said. “I wasn’t crazy about all the events he brought in here, but I knew the city needed the revenue. We shared the place with the California Surf (of the North American Soccer League) and the Sun (of the World Football League) before they both went broke.”

There were a lot of people who thought the dream of a pro football team in the Big A--and the financial success it would bring--was lost when Barron Hilton decided to keep his Chargers in San Diego in 1965. Even Coons and Murdoch harbored doubts about overcoming the early deficits. The stadium didn’t turn a profit until 1977-78.


“They were calling it Coons’ folly in those days,” Coons said. “But I always had faith, even though we had some rough years. Losing the Chargers was a big blow.”

Murdoch admitted that some of the city fathers were “perhaps a little more optimistic than we had a right to be in the early years.” But they had good reason to believe that a pro football franchise would soon be helping the stadium support itself.

“The Chargers were almost a given,” Murdoch said. “When we were building the stadium, Hilton had his general manager and some assistants came over and designed the Charger offices for the floor above the Angels. Then the people of San Diego got concerned and built a stadium, and he stayed. But prior to that, he often referred to Anaheim Stadium as his stadium.

“After we were unable to bring in the Chargers, Tom got busy trying to interest the Rams. Every time they had a trouble with traffic or parking, he’d give them a call.”

Murdoch wasn’t exaggerating. Liegler is persistent, to say the least. Six years--and a great deal of talking--after Carroll Rosenbloom had acquired the Rams, the deal to expand the stadium for the football team’s 1980 move to Anaheim was set.

The Rams and the city signed a 30-year agreement that meant a $1.8-million annual boost to the city’s coffers, and $33 million later, the Big A became the Bigger A, to the tune of about 28,000 seats, some luxury suites, new sound and lighting systems and a football press box. That brought the seating capacity to 64,573 for baseball and 69,007 for football.

Part of the agreement included a plan to construct a $200-million high-rise office complex on the Orangewood Avenue side of the parking lot. In 1983, the Angels sued the city for $100 million over development of the project, and the case is currently being heard in Orange County Superior Court.


“I was tickled to death that the Rams came to Anaheim,” Autry said. “I never had any objection. Our only objection was with the deal the city officials made with the Rams, giving away part of the parking lot that is guaranteed in our lease.

“I’ve been to practically every baseball park in both leagues and I don’t think there’s a finer facility around. A lot of that has to do with our ground-level parking that makes it easy to get in and easy to get out. I would think the Rams would be concerned with handling the crowds, too, but we have to play at least 82 games a year here.”

And then there’s the controversial plan for a new County Jail adjacent to the stadium, which Autry predictably terms “a bad idea for the Angels and the city.”

But Liegler doesn’t think anything can tarnish the Big A’s image now.

“It continues to be the finest multipurpose stadium in America,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The only shortcoming was that the original plans called for a sports arena on the stadium site . . . and, who knows?

“I think probably the greatest reward in my life would be to stand in the press box and look out over a full stadium and see people enjoying themselves and see a winning team, a world champion, in Orange County.”

On that subject, the Rams, Angels and all their fans wholeheartedly agree.


EVENT DATE ATTN. 1 Billy Graham crusade July 28, 1985 80,600 2 Foreigner concert July 17, 1982 73,259 3 Supercross Jan. 28, 1984 68,382 4 Supercross Jan. 30, 1982 68,043 5 David Bowie concert Sept. 9, 1983 67,336 6 Rams-Cowboys Dec. 23, 1984 66,967 7 Rams-Raiders Dec. 23, 1985 66,725 8 Supercross Feb. 2, 1985 66,655 9 Supercross Jan. 29, 1083 66,489 10 Rams-49ers Oct. 23, 1983 66,082