S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Roar of the Crowd,” Park talks about being a lifelong 49ers fan, going to games then vs now.
I went to my first Forty Niner game in 1950, when I was three years old. It was at the old Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and my father had season tickets. Pro football wasn’t televised then, so you had to attend the games to see the Niners play. Except for the 1957 season, when they lost the NFL Championship to the Detroit Lions, they were seldom contenders.
What made them exciting was all the colorful personalities on the team. Characters like Hugh “The King” McElheny, Leo “the Lion” Nomellini (a pro wrestler), Bob St. Claire (a 6’9” monster who ate raw liver), R.C. “Alley Oop” Owens and the quarterbacks Y.A. Tittle and (my all-time favorite) John Brodie. In my alkie years it was refreshing to see him looking like I felt before games, his eyes as red as his crimson jersey. (He later joined Scientology to sober up, foreshadowing my own path a decade later.)
And in a way all my Niner memories, like those of the San Francisco Giants (they moved to the Bay Area from New York in 1957 and my father had weekend seats), are alcohol-tainted. The baseball games were played in Seals Stadium and there was a Hamms brewery behind it. Atop it was a giant neon beer glass that would light up yellow and white as it filled with beer, then flick off and start over. Up and down, up and down, inning after inning. Years later, when my dad and I had one of our rare discussions about drinking (I was more comfortable being an alcoholic than he was), I asked him if he’d seen booze in my future.
“Oh, please,” he said. “I knew it when you were ten years old.”
“Really?” I said. “How’s that?”
“You remember the Giant games, and the Hamms Brewery sign?”
I grinned at the mere mention of it. “Oh yeah,” I said.
“Do you also remember that I’d sit you next to me at games so I could reach over and twist your head around? Make you watch the field instead of that stupid sign?”
“I … I thought I was there because I was your favorite.”
We both had a good laugh over that.
“No, son,” he said finally, “you were hypnotized by that glass. If you asked me once you asked me a hundred times: What does beer taste like, dad? You think your brothers cared about that sign, or asked me something like that? You had ‘drunk’ written all over you, Wilson.”
“And that’s not the worst part,” he added.
“I knew you’d be a boozer … and thought it’d be the least of your problems.”
We laughed even harder. And right at that moment, in my thirty-fifth year, I realized why I loved my father as deeply as I did, i.e. not only did he love me back, but he was genuinely grateful for me, he liked having a weirdo for a kid.
When I recall those early Niner games, however, what comes to mind is walking through the neighborhoods near the stadium. There were bars on every street and, though it was barely noon, the shit-faced fans spilled onto the sidewalk. They intrigued me (the way drunks did in films and Westerns), and when the late Sixties and early Seventies rolled around I had season tickets with my friends. We’d kick off game day with gin fizzes at eight a.m., then drop mescaline or acid to stay awake. (Or wait … maybe that was just me.) The only reason we made it safely to games was the other fans were as shit-faced as we were.
You could bring booze into the stadium then so we carried pony kegs under our arms. The hard part was the steep concrete steps: they were treacherous for anyone, much less drunks in blackouts. I’d shared the same stadium benches with my mother as a boy, so unlike my buddies I was reluctant to piss while sitting on them (shooting a stream of urine to the rows below).
You could bring booze into the stadium then so we carried pony kegs under our arms. The hard part was the steep concrete steps: they were treacherous for anyone, much less drunks in blackouts.
Then I fell down those steps a few times and decided my cronies were on to something. (Amazingly a couple of them even brought dates to a game, girls that none of us ever saw again.)
But that was the Niners experience: the outcome didn’t matter if you couldn’t remember the game. Then the team moved to Candlestick Park; it winnowed out the older drunks even as Boomer boozers came into their own.
The 49ers met the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs their second year in the stadium. As usual I was sitting high in the stands with my buddies, and their hero from the old days was the receiver R.C. Owens. Ned Gumbo said he’d met him earlier, even invited him to sit with us when a seat opened up at halftime.
We scoffed: Ned was always up to something. But sure enough, late in the fourth quarter R.C. came lumbering up the steps. I’d dropped two hits of windowpane acid at halftime and, as was usually the case when I was very drunk and very high (i.e. delirious), my friends kept their distance.
This meant the seat next to me was empty. Gumbo beckoned R.C. to sit in it, this giant, affable black guy with mitts like waffle irons and a big, shit-eating grin, and after shaking hands all around he turned to me.
His mouth dropped open and he withdrew his hand.
“Damn, buddy!” he gasped. “What’s wrong with your eyes? You look like a demon or somethin’!”
“R.C.,” I grunted, jaw clenched from the acid rush, “when did they dome Candlestick?”
He followed my gaze upwards, as if management had installed a roof when he wasn’t looking.
“Huh?” he said.
“How’d they get the concrete so blue!?”
He jumped up, bogeyed out of there, moving faster than he had in years. It disappointed everyone around us, even as Roger Staubach—the heartless Christian assassin—drove the Cowboys for the winning score.
It was just another day in hell for Niner fans. There’ve been plenty more since, but it was watching the 49ers play the Seahawks last December that rekindled those memories. I hadn’t planned on attending the game; at seventy-two I’m content to watch on television. But I was at a dental appointment in October when Donna, one of the office assistants and a rabid Seahawk fan, asked if I wanted to go to the December 2nd game with her and her husband.
I didn’t really, and my reasons were many: the Niners were a joke, Seattle had fans older than me who wore garish outfits to the games, it’s louder than a jet plane in that stadium, I loathe the Seahawks (particularly “Johnny Mathis, Jr.”, their quarterback), I was too lazy, etc.
On the other hand Donna was a sweet soul who’d waited years for those tickets and, more importantly, was still young and enthusiastic enough to appreciate them. I was that way once, and being around her reminded me of that. So I agreed to go.
As it turned out no “game” occurred, with the Seahawks routing San Francisco by a 43-16 count. (Which was better than I expected actually … I didn’t think the Niners would score at all.) The stadium experience was much more interesting. For openers the home team had such an easy time with the Niners that the fans did more laughing than roaring. And unlike Candlestick Park and Levi’s Stadium, CenturyLink Field was designed with comfort and accessibility in mind.
And yeah, there were too many old fat people in face paint and jerseys, and everything was way overpriced, but that’s true of most stadiums now. More unsettling was the sense of decorum, an offshoot (I presume) of having to sneak alcohol into the facility and the on-site hootch being expensive (a cup of beer was ten bucks).
So where it was hard to find a sober Niners fan back in the day, I sat in CenturyLink for four hours (amidst a crowd of 69,000) without spotting a single drunk.
I suppose “family entertainment” was part of it, too, the way the fan experience is totally scripted now. You’re told when to clap and when to yell in between loud music, giant video screens, prize contests, dancers, explosions and flashing lights.
It’s like cell phones: technology means people use their imaginations less. Which’d seem sad except, well, look at what my Niner buddies and I did with ours …