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How the Chargers Ended Up in San Diego

St. Louis Rams v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

In the late 1950’s, several cities across the United States were earmarked for possible expansion for the National Football League (NFL). Not that the league was going to expand – in fact it was adamant about not expanding into new territories.

Over the years several wealthy businessmen had inquired about being owners of an NFL team, mainly expansion into their hometowns. What the NFL told them instead was if they wanted into the league they needed to purchase an existing team. Period.

Lamar Hunt of Dallas was a young rich oilman. He had tried for years to buy the Chicago Cardinals but to avail. He again went to the NFL and was told by the league commissioner to stop his inquisition about expansion. So, he began his own league in 1959 and called it the American Football League (AFL). With his negotiations with the Cardinals he knew of a man from Houston who wanted in on the pro football scene by the name of Bud Adams. In addition to his own team called the Dallas Texans, he contacted Adams and asked if he had any interest in a pro football team. Adams’ new team would be labeled the Houston Oilers.

And so, the new league was off and running. Approximately 250 college football players graduate each year with only around 60 that make NFL squads. That left about 190 players available and football ready.

At this point, Hunt began to seek out potential owners for the AFL. He knew that for the new league to have credibility he needed franchises in New York and Los Angeles, but also had contacts from the cities of Denver and Minneapolis.

Hunt felt that the Los Angeles franchise was crucial to the new league. The NFL’s Los Angeles Rams had a foothold in Southern California, but that did not detract the infant league from awarding a franchise to draw from the area’s vast population.

But this brand-new team needed someone with stability, vision and more importantly deep pockets. Hunt contacted Barron Hilton, son of Conrad Hilton; which created the upscale hotels which bore his name. Barron was a Southern California guy having founded Air Finance Corporation. Two years earlier, Air Finance had introduced Carte Blanche, a credit card company. He agreed to purchase the franchise for the $25,000 entry fee.

At first Minneapolis was awarded one of the eight franchises but pulled out for an NFL expansion slot on the eve of the AFL’s initial college draft. After two months of searching for a suitable city for the eighth and final club, Hilton threatened to drop his ownership if another team was not placed nearby so that his club would have a natural West Coast rival. Not long afterwards, Oakland, California was selected as the league’s final squad.

At first, Hilton decided on the Rose Bowl for home games. Instead, in the March 4, 1960 edition of the Los Angeles Times the story revealed that Hilton had signed a lease with the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum because fans were used to attending football games there. Renting the Coliseum would become a horrible decision. At the time, it was already occupied by not only the Rams, but by two college football teams – USC and UCLA; and was also the temporary home of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club (until Dodger Stadium was completed). This placed the Chargers at the bottom of the venue’s schedule makers.

The club held a name-the-team contest to which Hilton chose “Chargers” from the entrants. His reasoning was that folks would associate the Carte Blanche credit card and become credit card chargers. Future Hall of Famer Sid Gillman (and former Rams head coach) was tabbed as the head coach with former Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy the General Manager.

And thus, the Los Angeles Chargers became a charter member of the AFL.

Gillman was a veteran head coach and an offensive mastermind. With the Rams, his teams ran 55% of plays in the run-happy NFL. With the Chargers, his squad flipped the norm by passing to set up the run. Coach Gillman suddenly had the freedom to experiment with the passing game and provide fans with an exciting all-out offensive assault.

Being the fifth team in Los Angeles was no picnic. The Rams had a foothold on the region since relocating from Cleveland in 1946. Plus, the Rams were one of the NFL’s best squads each season having gone to the playoffs five times in the last 10 seasons. This span included one NFL Championship plus two more seasons in the championship game itself.

And the Rams drew large crowds. In 1958 the average home game netted 83,681 (8-4-0 record) while a lousy 2-10-0 club attracted almost 75,000 per contest for the 1959 campaign. Famous actors, directors, producers and current Dodger players could be seen regularly at Rams’ games.

Not so with the Chargers. The new kid lured 17,724 to its inaugural victory over the Dallas Texans. The club featured Jack Kemp at quarterback, running back Paul Lowe, future eight time AFL All-Star OT Ron Mix, and one of pro football’s best kickers in Ben Agajanian. Despite the talent, the franchise only averaged 15,768 for seven home games despite its 10-4-0 record and a division crown. That was horrible attendance in the 100,000-seat Coliseum. The Chargers then lost to the Houston Oilers 24-16 in the first-ever AFL Championship Game.

Back then, the majority of income was derived from the gate. Although the AFL had a contract with the ABC television network, the league only netted $400,000 which was split equally amongst each club. After only one season playing the fifth wheel and losing over $900,000, Hilton had enough of his hometown. In addition, if the AFL and NFL ever merged, Hilton concluded that the NFL would only accept one team in the Los Angeles area and that his franchise might become worthless and be dissolved.

Relocation appeared to be his only option.

The City of San Diego surmised that having a pro football team - even if it was not the NFL-caliber - would suddenly make the city a major league entity. And to top it off, this new league was known for wide-open, exciting, high-scoring affairs. The citizens and boosters of San Diego jumped at the opportunity to get the Chargers and deduced what a wonderful opportunity to get their coastal city on national television on a weekly basis. The thought process was that if they offered their stadium at a reduced rate – or free – and pledge to buy enough season tickets then certainly Hilton would see their efforts and relocate his club.

Hilton had other options though. Seattle and Atlanta were both hot for the professional game and made him offers. Jack Murphy, a columnist for local paper the San Diego Union, tried to generate community support with numerous articles with the declaration “nothing could more effectively dispel the widespread notion that San Diego is an airport tied to a submarine than a pro football team.”

In the January 7, 1960 edition of the Lodi (California) News-Sentinel, Hilton had expressed interest in San Diego and made plans to bring some engineers to investigate the city’s only arena large enough for pro football, Balboa Stadium, and see what improvements could be made. Balboa was built in 1914, and Hilton had already made a trip south to see the aging facility His initial thoughts were he was not impressed by its condition nor the fact that it would only seat 26,000.

Instantly, ads and billboards were placed everywhere which excited boosters to come forward to buy season tickets in order to tempt Hilton into moving his franchise further south. Before Hilton even met with representatives of San Diego, over 4,000 season tickets had been sold.

Although he expressed interest, Hilton wanted certain guarantees. He requested a minimum of 9,000 season tickets sold, over $500,000 in renovations to Balboa Stadium plus a new stadium parking lot would have to be built. All of this, however, must be done at the taxpayers’ expense.

Murphy and his fellow San Diegoans had the idea that if the AFL succeeded, the city would have proven that it was indeed a major league city and other major sports teams would follow. If the Chargers did well but the AFL folded, then certainly the NFL would take notice and either submit their hometown franchise into the established league or grant an expansion team.

Local TV station KFSD promoted the city’s efforts with a telethon which produced over the 9,000 season ticket mark in just three hours. Next, the city council unanimously approved $526,000 in renovations to the stadium, plus issued a promise that within five years a brand new stadium would be constructed suitable for pro football as well as the lure of a major league baseball team.

Which is what swayed Hilton to move the Chargers to San Diego for the 1961 season.

As promised in 1967, the city proudly opened the $27.75 million San Diego Stadium which would house 70,561 fans for Charger matches and 67,544 for AAA baseball games. The outdoor arena has since had several name changes: Jack Murphy Stadium (1981-1997) and Qualcomm Stadium (1997-present). The Chargers would go on to become one of the AFL’s best teams taking five division titles in 10 seasons while winning the AFL Championship in 1963 with a 51-10 victory over the Boston Patriots.

Hilton sold his interest in the Chargers for $10 million in 1966 as he was named President of Hilton Hotels Corporation.

Last year, there was a movement to move the Chargers back to the Los Angeles area where the Los Angeles Chargers would be reborn. NFL owners approved the Rams move from St. Louis back to Los Angeles and gave the Chargers a one-year option to relocate.

The reason for the latest effort to relocate is blamed on the condition of the current 35-year old stadium; which oddly was the same venue that was promised to be built if the Chargers moved way back in 1960.