Hardcore football fans in places like Chicago and Green Bay paint an effete picture of the 49er Faithful, scoffing at the Levi’s Stadium tech crowd who abandon their sun-baked seats for air-conditioned bars serving craft cocktails. Before that, they snickered at Candlestick tailgaters, who were known to partake in elaborate wine and cheese spreads before heading in to watch Joe, Ronnie and Dwight dismantle the opposition.
In honor of the 75th anniversary of the 49ers, a rough-and-tumble history lesson on Kezar is a fitting look back. Al Saracevic
That’s all well and good. San Francisco fans have enough rings for every finger, including the middle one. They also have Kezar Stadium, the rough and rowdy home that birthed the team and forged its fanbase. As the team prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary this season, let’s look back at San Francisco’s first professional sports venue and remind the haters where it all began.
Built in the 1920s, Kezar Stadium sat between the Haight and the Sunset, across the street from Golden Gate Park’s southeast corner. Its large concrete bowl could seat nearly 60,000 people and it served as the 49ers’ first home, from their inaugural game in 1946 to their last Kezar tour in 1971.
A lot of good football was played on that field. Hall of Famers like Bob St. Clair — who famously ate raw meat before games to prepare for battle — left their mark, literally and figuratively. The Million Dollar Backfield — made up of Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Joe “The Jet” Perry and John Henry Johnson — revolutionized the offensive game at Kezar. Later on, John Brodie led the charge, throwing both touchdowns and interceptions at an alarming rate. Those early 49er teams were quite good, but never broke through to the championship, often hijacked by the Cleveland Browns or Dallas Cowboys on the road to glory. But that didn’t matter to The Faithful, who grew to love the team that made San Francisco a big-league town.
Kezar was the place to be, for better or worse. Joe Hession, 66, grew up in the Sunset, attending high school at Sacred Heart. He was a regular as a kid at Kezar, continuing into adulthood. These days, he helps the 49ers as an unofficial historian and knows as much about the old stadium as anyone around.“I grew up pretty close to it. This was my introduction to professional sports. We used to go up there and the ushers would just let us in. It was a pretty loose organization in terms of ticket taking and security,” says Hession. “There was a notorious rowdy crowd there. I didn’t realize it until I was a teenager, how crazy these guys were. … There was a section called the ‘Christopher Milk section,’ which was set aside for kids. It was fenced off and you had to have a coupon from the milk cartons, which was [former mayor] George Christopher’s family company.”
Recalls Hession,“You could buy a quart of milk for 25 cents, throw out the milk and use the coupon to get in. But when you got to your seats, you’d see a guy smoking a cigarette and drinking a pint and realize he was no kid. The section was put aside to protect kids, but it was even pretty rowdy in the Christopher Milk seats.”
Booze played a big role in the Kezar equation. Fans were permitted to bring in their own bottles, and they took full advantage. Things could get ugly at times. So ugly, in fact, the team had to string chicken wire and fencing above the players’ tunnel where they entered and exited the field. Fans liked to bombard both the home and visiting teams with empty bottles. Brodie was a favorite target, especially when he threw a couple of picks. “The old 49er crowd at Kezar Stadium — I’ve been to Candlestick and Levi’s — there’s no crowd that’s really been like that,” says Hession. “People drinking. People coming to the game with their own liquor. People would bring bottles of whiskey and just drink there. There were a number of bars on Haight, Stanyan, and Irving … probably a dozen in close walking distance.”
“the old 49er crowd at Kezar Stadium — I’ve been to Candlestick and Levi’s — there’s no crowd that’s really been like that.” Longtime fan Joe Hession
Larry Simi, another son of the Sunset, grew up in the Avenues, near the corner of 20th and Quintara. He would walk to the games, the first of which he went to with his dad in 1955. They were playing the Los Angeles Rams, who featured Norm Van Brocklin and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch.
“It was a very different city, culturally and demographically,” says Simi, who went on to become a longtime political figure and public servant in the City, working as an aide to Mayors Moscone, Feinstein and Alioto. “It was much more working class. It was a blue-collar city then. It’s a white-collar city now. There were a lot of Irish, Italians and Germans. Culturally, they all drank a lot.”
Luckily, no one was driving… because there was nowhere to park. “That was the great part. You just walked right up to it,” says Simi. “Some people in the Inner Sunset would rent out their driveways, but most people just walked to Kezar.” He adds, “Once you got there, you were packed in. The widths of the average butts in those days were probably smaller, but it was still tight. No backs on the benches. Your ticket would say something like ‘Row WW, seats 1 and 2.’ That was great, because you were on the aisle. But if you were in seats 7 and 8, in the middle of the row, you’d be lucky to find any space.”
As the team and its fan base grew and evolved, so did the neighborhood. During the 1960s, the Haight became home to the hippies, and Sunday afternoons made for some strange scenes, with thousands of rowdy 49ers fans mixing with hordes of hippies on the outskirts of Kezar.
“It was quite a time,” says Simi.
Sure sounds like it. Luckily, Kezar still stands right where it always has. The larger structure was dismantled after the Loma Prieta earthquake. But the field is still there, named after St. Clair, and serves as a great place for folks to exercise while also hosting high school matchups and graduations.
Kezar Stadium is a monument to the City’s football team and the 49er Faithful’s first stomping grounds. Happy birthday to one and all.75
A TEAM ABOVE ALL
To learn more about Kezar Stadium and 49ers history, visit the team’s 20,000-square-foot museum at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. “Kezar is a historic venue not just for this franchise but for the Bay Area at large,” says Jesse Lovejoy, director of the 49ers Museum, presented by Foxconn Industrial Internet. “As our team’s home for its formative years and a beautiful site that fans can still visit to this day, Kezar is a treasure.” The museum offers a variety of historic and interactive installations that track the team’s 75 years of existence, including the team’s time at Kezar and Candlestick stadiums in San Francisco and a host of memorabilia in the Heritage Gallery. While currently closed, be sure to check levisstadium.com for info on the museum’s reopening, or take a virtual tour anytime.