Fifty years ago today, Sports Stadium had its first ballgame

The 1969 program cover for the Albuquerque Dodgers, who ended their stint at Tingley Field in the 1968 season.

It was 1969: Richard Nixon was the president of the United States, the country’s military was heavily involved in a war in the jungles of Vietnam, the Beatles were still recording, the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York would attract more than 400,000 young people for music and open use of drugs for three rain-soaked days and nights, and the “Miracle Mets” were about to win 100 games and head to their first World Series.

In Albuquerque, the “Official Souvenir Program” for the 1969 Albuquerque Dodgers said, “Welcome to My new Home.” It’s a $1.4 million “home,” made possible by passage of a bond vote by Albuquerque residents.

What a home it was: Billed as the first drive-in baseball park in the country, 320,000 cubic yards of dirt had been moved in 10 days to settle the field in a bowl of sorts that moved the pitcher’s mound 40 feet below the original ground level. The stadium was built with 5,000 cubic yards of concrete and 350 tons of steel structure, with 12,000 square feet of volcanic rock and 3,000 square feet of netting to protect the fans from foul balls.

Also, there was seating for 10,510 fans: 1,070 box seats ($1.75 each), 1,472 “preferred” seats, 3,714 grandstand seats and 4,254 bleacher seats. It’s 360 feet down the left-field line, 410 feet to dead center and 340 feet down the right-field line. The famed drive-in area, which can accommodate 102 vehicles, wasn’t completed until 1970, though.

On the afternoon of March 31, 1969, the first game was played at the new Albuquerque Sports Stadium, where 13,767 fans turned out for the game pitting the San Francisco Giants against the Cleveland Indians, setting an Albuquerque attendance record.

Before the “real” game, delayed a bit because of funeral services for the late President Dwight Eisenhower, city commission chairman Pete Domenici threw seven pitches to “Mr. Baseball,” Herman Schulman, who had seen to that point about 2,000 baseball games at Tingley Field, the park in Barelas that the team had called home from 1937-68.

Then it was time for Willie Mays of the “visiting” Giants to step to the plate; he grounded out to the first baseman and finished the game going 0 for 3.

After the game, Mays told a reporter, “It’s the greatest minor league ballpark I’ve ever played in.”

Tony Horton hit the first homer at the park, a two-run, two-out shot off “Sudden Sam” McDowell in the bottom of the first. Also hitting homers in what turned out to be a 5-5 tie in a game ended after eight innings, future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, who passed away recently, had gone 2-for-3 for the Giants.

About two weeks later, the Albuquerque Dodgers opened the Texas League season against the El Paso Sun Kings on Sunday, April 13, at 2. Pete Domenici, a former Albuquerque Duke (1954), threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

It was a successful debut, a 5-3 Dodgers win, as Charlie Hough and Kyle Carlin combined on a 10-hitter, Guy Rose got three hits and Marv Galliher drove in two runs. Ten days later, Gary Moore hit the first homer for a Dodger in a 10-9, 10-inning win over visiting Arkansas.

Despite a respectable 67-69 record, Albuquerque’s version of the Dodgers finished last in their division under manager Del Crandall, a former National League all-star.

Among the promotions for fans in the debut year of the Sports Stadium: Date Night, 10-cent Beer Night, 10-cent Hot Dog Night, Orchid Night and Perfume Night. For their game on June 12, the team celebrated baseball’s centennial by donning 1869 uniforms, complete with high collars and wearing handlebar moustaches, and more than 5,000 fans turned out to see it.

Southpaw Jim Strickland (11-10) led the league in strikeouts (137) and even hit a home run. Bill Buckner, remembered by many for his crucial error in the 1986 Fall Classic, batted .307 and drove in 50 runs in his only season here. Catcher Steve Sogge was elected by the fans as the team’s Most Popular Player. Sogge once was a quarterback at USC, where he often handed off to O.J. Simpson.

Attendance for the 1969 season was 176,671.

In 1972, the triple-A franchise in Spokane moved to Albuquerque and soon became known as the Dukes. Rio Rancho graphic artist Dick Moots designed the logo for the team, which played in the Pacific Coast League from 1972-2000.

After the 2000 season, the stadium was demolished, although some concrete was left intact and is part of the new ballpark on the site. And the large concrete baseball on the northeast corner of Avenida Cesar Chavez and University Blvd. SE that was once at Tingley Field and then moved to this spot when the Sports Stadium was built, is still there. Many fans meet their friends near this landmark, and children love having their photos taken while they’re astride the ball.

By the end of the season, more than 8.4 million fans had been to games at the Sports Stadium, 1,200 of them victories.

In the final season, 52 players wore Dukes uniforms, ranging from Mike Berry and Jorge Nunez — one game apiece — to future Isotopes player Chris Ashby, good for a team-high 134 games.

Chris Donnels, yet another Isotope-to-be, whacked 27 homers to lead the team; Hiram Bocachica wasn’t far behind with 23 dingers.

Albuquerque would go two full seasons (2001, ’02) without professional baseball — the first lull in pro ball since the 1959 season. In 2003, with a new stadium, the Albuquerque Isotopes began playing on that same location, this time the AAA farm club of the Florida Marlins.

Sports Stadium/By the numbers:

• Texas League championships: 1970.

• PCL championships (eight): 1972, 1978 (co-champ), 1980, 1981, 1982, 1987, 1990, 1994.

• Last active Albuquerque Duke: Paul Konerko (1997), later inducted into the Albuquerque Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame connections:

• Managers: Duke Snider (1967) and Tom Lasorda (1972).

• Players: Don Sutton (15-6, 2.78 ERA in 21 games here in 1965), Eddie Murray (.308, two HRs, in a nine-game stint here in 1997, at the age of 41), Mike Piazza (1992) and Pedro Martinez (1991-93).

Best Dukes of the PCL days

In 2000, the Albuquerque Journal sports staff chose the “Albuquerque Dukes All-Time Team, 1972-2000,” following the team’s final PCL season in Albuquerque:
Manager Tom Lasorda; 1b Tom Paciorek, 2b Davey Lopes, SS Jose Offerman, 3b Ron Cey, OF Raul Mondesi, Pedro Guerrero and Jeff Leonard; C Mike Piazza; starting pitchers Orel Hershiser, Pedro Martinez and Sid Fernandez, and relievers John Wetteland and John Franco.

Other exhibition games at the Sports Stadium:

• April 1, 1970: Dodgers-Cubs.

• April 5, 1970: Oakland A’s-San Diego Padres.

• March 30, 1971: Dodgers-Giants.

• April 3, 1971: Milwaukee Brewers-Padres.

• March 30, 1972: Dodgers-Cubs.

• March 29, 1973: The Dodgers-Brewers game was cancelled due to snow, rain and a chilling wind – the chill factor pegs the temperature at 20 degrees.

• April 5, 1975: Brewers-Cubs.

• April 5, 1978: The last time that the Dodgers, whose AAA affiliate was here through 2000 and then again from 2009-14, came to town for an exhibition game. The game, a 2-0 win over the Brewers, was played in 1:44, and 8,261 fans were on hand to see it.