Hughes Stadium’s legacy began more than 80 years ago

By LANCE ARMSTRONG

To add to the public’s enthusiasm of the new stadium, a “Pack the Stadium” on opening day campaign was launched in the late 1920s. (Photo courtesy)
To add to the public’s enthusiasm of the new stadium, a “Pack the Stadium” on opening day campaign was launched in the late 1920s. (Photo courtesy)
Among the many entertainment venues of the capital city, few can boast such a profound history like Land Park’s Hughes Stadium.

From football and baseball games and motor sport competitions to boxing, graduations and concerts, the stadium, which was originally known as Sacramento Stadium, has been home to many memorable local events.

Although the stadium is certainly not the major entertainment venue that it once was, as its formerly golden reputation and popularity has considerably faded in more recent years, its legacy undoubtedly continues to shine.

The story of the stadium dates back to the 1920s when efforts were being made for the selection of a site and the construction of the venue, which would become the only one of its kind in Superior California.

Prior to the decision to build the stadium on the campus of Sacramento Junior College – today’s Sacramento City College – an earlier proposal to construct the stadium in William Land Park had received considerable attention.

On April 2, 1926, The Sacramento Bee reported that efforts to build a stadium in the park had been abandoned.

With this decision, which was made upon the advice of several attorneys, including City Attorney Robert L. Shinn, City Manager H.C. Bottorff began to investigate alternative stadium sites.

 

Founding and funding

Following his eight-month search, Bottorff presented his findings to a group of local citizens and various officials at the annual Sacramento Service Club Forum banquet.

A large crowd observes an event at Hughes Stadium. (Photo courtesy of SCC Special Collections)
(Right to left) William J. Burkhardt, Sacramento City Unified School District superintendant, Hack Applequist, Sacramento City College football coach, Melvin Lawson, assistant district superintendant, and Ed P. O’Reilly stand underneath the stadium’s new scoreboard in 1954. (Photo courtesy of SCC Special Collections)
During the Dec. 7, 1926 gathering, Bottorff said that he felt that the new stadium, which he added should include a quarter-mile track and an accompanying, nearby parking lot, should be constructed on at least a 14-acre area on the junior college property.

Estimating that a 15,000-seat stadium could be built for $75,000, Bottorff added that it should be paid for by script, the municipal budget and the school board.

Bottorff’s plan was well received at the meeting, but perhaps the most important endorsement of the idea came from Mayor A.E. Goddard, who attended the banquet and pledged his support for Bottorff’s proposal.

Also attending the gathering was Robert G. Sproul, controller of the University of California, Berkeley, who described the importance of the stadium.

“A stadium is a social asset to a city and will certainly promote sport,” Sproul said. “With one, a city may give pageants, use it for graduation exercises and it will be invaluable for the schools of this vicinity.”

Additionally, Sproul suggested that the stadium be constructed as a “horseshoe-shaped arena” with sufficient space “to expand it without too much cost.”

 

Constriction and building

As the efforts to have the stadium constructed at the junior college site continued, the Sacramento Stadium Commission was formed and by April 27, 1927, the commission issued a statement in The Bee declaring that the commission trusted that there would be no delay in its plans to bring a stadium to the people of Sacramento.

A major event in the stadium’s history occurred in February 1928, as ground was broken for the new, 23,000-seat stadium, which would eventually be built for about $200,000.

Six months later, the stadium, which was designed by Dean and Dean and constructed by George D. Hudnutt, Inc., was nearly completed.

Midget car racers round the track at Hughes Stadium in 1962. (Photo courtesy of Tom Motter/Jerry Trueblood Photo)
Midget car racers round the track at Hughes Stadium in 1962. (Photo courtesy of Tom Motter/Jerry Trueblood Photo)
Final details of the stadium were finished as the venue was readied for its dedication and inaugural day’s events, which were to be held on Saturday, Oct. 13, 1928.

To add to the public’s enthusiasm of the new stadium, a “Pack the Stadium” on opening day campaign was launched.

So great was the drive to fill the stadium on this historic day that even local businesses participated in special efforts to encourage Sacramentans to support the campaign.

Retail sporting goods supplier, the Kimball-Upson Co., for instance, ran a large advertisement in The Sacramento Union, which included the following words: “To pack the stadium on its opening day should be a pleasureful duty of every resident of Sacramento city and valley who can possibly arrange to attend the formal opening – another victory marker on the highway of progress and a magnet that will draw to this city its full quota of the important athletic activities of the valley.”

 

The opening day

This memorable day in Sacramento history finally arrived as the Sacramento High School band marched onto the field at 12:40 p.m.

Twenty minutes later, the crowd roared as a gridiron contest between Sacramento and Modesto high schools began.

Following the game, a dedication ceremony commenced at about 2:35 p.m., as high school and college bands entered the field and began playing, followed by a drum corps performance and the entrance of a dedication party.

At about 2:50 p.m., the stadium was officially dedicated during a 20-minute ceremony, which included speeches by Dr. Lester R. Daniels, president of the stadium commission, California Gov. C.C. Young and Murray Hulbert, president of the Amateur Athletic Union and a director of the international Olympic Games.

The ceremony was also attended by the new stadium’s manager, Edward S. Loder, who formerly served as the manager of operations of Stanford Stadium and was in charge of large events at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

The historic day’s activities ended with a second football game, a contest between Sacramento and Santa Rosa junior colleges, thus concluding the earliest beginnings of the community’s long relationship with its cherished stadium.

 

The whole nine yards

Following its Oct. 13, 1928 inaugural day event, which featured a pair of football games and a dedication ceremony, the horseshoe-shaped Sacramento Stadium – later known as Hughes Stadium – continued to prove its value as a community asset, as it attracted many fans of sports, live music and other events.

The Sacramento High football team returned to the stadium on Oct. 27, 1928 for a game against Lodi High after opening the long-awaited city venue with a 33-0 victory against Modesto High.

The first Thanksgiving Day football game at the stadium was played between the gridiron squad of San Mateo Junior College and the Sacramento Junior College (today’s Sacramento City College) team, which beat the Santa Rosa Junior College team 24-6 in the second game of the stadium’s opening day games.

A large crowd observes an event at Hughes Stadium. (Photo courtesy of SCC Special Collections)
A large crowd observes an event at Hughes Stadium. (Photo courtesy of SCC Special Collections)
A soccer game was first played at the stadium in about January 1929 and in May 1929, the Far West Conference Track Meet was held at the stadium. This latter event was perhaps the first of what would be many such events held at the stadium, including the National Junior Collegiate Track and Field Meet on May 27, 1939 and the 1968 U.S. Track and Field Championships.

On May 25, 1929, about 10,000 Sacramento schoolchildren participated in a historical pageant with “historical episodes of early California” and “many beautiful floats depicting early events of national fame.”

By 1931, speedway motorcycle racing made its way to the stadium and remained extremely popular until the late 1940s.

Midget racing, featuring small racecars with high power-to-weight ratios, were also introduced to the stadium’s track in the 1930s.

Tom Motter, author of Sacramento: Dirt Capital of the West, said that the stadium served as a very historically important motorsports venue.

“Hughes Stadium’s prominence in the whole auto racing scheme of things came about probably because it was the only venue in the city that had the space to accommodate that kind of racing,” Motter said. “Hughes Stadium, being the largest venue for any kind of event, drew a lot of large crowds for motor sports events. And its importance in midget racing can’t be minimized, because it was the birthplace of midget auto racing (on June 4, 1933) and as such, it will always be at the heart of what we now know as modern-day midget auto racing.”

Motorsport events, including track roadster racing, continued at the stadium until about the mid-1960s.

Other events held at the stadium during its earlier years included boxing, a circus, a religious event, a rodeo and high school and college commencements.

During World War II, SCC’s campus served as a place to both educate and house soldiers as part of the Army Special Training Program and pilots were housed in tents on playing fields and in the stadium.

 

Field of champions

One of the most popular and well-attended events at the stadium was the annual Turkey Day Game, a Thanksgiving holiday football matchup between Sacramento and McClatchy high schools, which was first held in 1937.

The 1945 game between these two schools marked the first time the stadium had been filled to its capacity.

The rivalry, which later became known as the Bell Game and was relocated to Hornet Field at Sacramento State, was discontinued after the 1975 game.

The two teams reunited for a special reunion Bell Game at Hughes Stadium on Nov. 10, 2006. The game was won by the Sacramento High Dragons squad 52-20 before a crowd of 5,500 spectators.

Among the most notable parts of the stadium’s history occurred from 1974 to 1976, as the venue was converted to host the home games of the new version of the Sacramento Solons Triple-A, minor league baseball team.

As a baseball venue, which drew 17,318 spectators for its inaugural game, the stadium was famous for its short, left field line, which allowed many normally routine fly ball outs to instead become home runs.

Like many of the Solons teams of the past, their fan support was often more impressive than their won-loss record.

The Solons, for instance, led the nation in minor league baseball attendance during the 1974 season, while finishing in last place.

Nonetheless, the fans enjoyed the highlights of their team, as well as a June 5, 1975 Solons-Milwaukee Brewers exhibition game, which featured a long home run by the legendary slugger Hank Aaron, who was playing for the Brewers at the time.

Unfortunately for the 1970s Solons, part of their time in Sacramento was plagued by the possibility that the historic stadium where they played their home games might be torn down and replaced with a new stadium, which would not accommodate the team’s games.

Fortunately, for those who fought against the demolition of the old stadium, which was determined to not meet the Field Act earthquake safety standards for schools, a secondary plan was approved, as the stadium instead underwent a major renovation, beginning in 1977.

Nonetheless, the Solons were not victors with this alternative plan and were evicted and relocated to San Jose.

 

Football frenzy

The renovation of the stadium, which is the oldest existing structure on the SCC campus, was timely in the sense that the venue was readied for its rededication ceremony at the same time that it was celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Midway through the Oct. 28, 1978 football game between Sacramento City College and Fresno City College, the rededication was held with Dr. Robert Lynch, the emcee and a member of the Board of Trustees, Greg Van Dusen, the stadium’s manager, and Harry Devine, Jr., the project’s architect.

The 1970s also brought the extremely popular Pig Bowl between the local police and sheriff’s departments to Hughes Stadium.

The first of these fundraising games, which was complimented with entertainment by the Capital Freelancers and marching bands from Kennedy and Elk Grove high schools, was held on Jan. 11, 1975 and drew only the third sellout crowd in the stadium’s then 46-year history.

The Sacramento Police Department won the game 18-17 with a strong effort by the game’s most valuable player Mike Schuering, who rushed for 148 yards. Schuering was also the MVP of Pig Bowls II, III, VI and VII.

Although the teams enjoyed competing for bragging rights between the departments, it was always considered that there were truly no losers in these games, since the games were played for charities.

Today, the game is no longer played at Hughes Stadium and since 2003, has been known as Guns and Hoses – a matchup between the local law enforcement Hogs and the local fire service Dogs.

Although Christian Brothers won the 2009 Holy Bowl game 21-6 before a crowd of about 16,000 spectators, Jesuit leads the rivalry with 23 wins to Christian Brothers’ 15 wins. The teams have also tied twice.
Although Christian Brothers won the 2009 Holy Bowl game 21-6 before a crowd of about 16,000 spectators, Jesuit leads the rivalry with 23 wins to Christian Brothers’ 15 wins. The teams have also tied twice.
Predating the Pig Bowl is the popular Holy Bowl football game, which celebrated a special anniversary with the 40th edition of the game last September.

Played annually at Hughes Stadium, the Holy Bowl pairs the local Catholic educational institutions, Christian Brothers and Jesuit high schools.

Although Christian Brothers won last year’s game 21-6 before a crowd of about 16,000 spectators, Jesuit leads the rivalry with 23 wins to Christian Brothers’ 15 wins. The teams have also tied twice.

Many other football games have been played at the stadium, including Sacramento Capitals games of a long ago disbanded league, the Camellia Bowl college football games (1961-75 and 1980), San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders NFL exhibition games and many prep and college games.

In 1991, Hughes Stadium was also home to the Sacramento Surge of the now defunct World League of American Football. The team won the league’s World Bowl while playing at Hornet Stadium the following year, which was also the league’s final year with American teams.

 

A venue like no other

Also a rich part of the stadium’s history is its former existence as a musical concert venue.

The stadium once drew big name rock and country acts such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, the Eagles, Jefferson Airplane, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, Heart and Sammy Hagar.

An article in the Jan. 14, 1976 edition of Sacramento City College’s newspaper, The Pony Express, noted that many people around the community had made complaints regarding extreme noise level disturbances and that under the then-present conditions, “it would be very inadvisable to hold future concerts at Hughes.”

Concerts at the stadium continued for more than a decade following the publishing of this article, however, with the last of which, a Pink Floyd concert, being held on April 20, 1988.

The decline of events at the stadium also includes less prep games. The Sacramento Bee reported in 2008 that due to increasing per game costs, for the first time in the stadium’s history, no high school team used Hughes Stadium as its home field.

Although it is no longer used as frequently as in years past, Hughes Stadium stands tall as one of the city’s premier historic landmarks, where many memories were made that will surely not fade away anytime soon.

 

E-mail Lance Armstrong at lance@valcomnews.com.

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2 comments so far

  1. Mary Cox
    #1

    I have a program from a baseball game played at hughes stadium in
    1954. Would you be interested in
    it.
    Thank you

  2. Curtis
    #2

    Saw many high school football games there, but my favorite memories are the concerts. Saw a reggae festival there (Don Carlos, Pato Banton, etc) in the mid 80’s and then was front row center at the Pink Floyd show. When I heard the rumour they would play Hughes Stadium, I thought “no way that would ever happen”. Glad to have been proven wrong. What a great venue for a concert. Thanks for a wonderful article.

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