Fifty-three years of Candlestick Park: Cold place to play, but warm with sports memories

Brett Butler was in his first season with the San Francisco Giants when he walked into the spring training clubhouse in 1988 and found himself looking at Willie Mays.

Himself a center fielder, Butler, also a center fielder, recalled seeing an opportunity to start getting to know his new territory. He approached the Hall of Famer and asked: “Hey Willie, how do you play center field at Candlestick Park?”

Mays’ answer: “You gotta watch the trash.”

“I said, ‘What?’ ” Butler said in a phone call last week. “He said, ‘When the pitcher goes into his windup, look to the right. If the wind has the trash against the fence in left, you know the ball’s going to carry. But if it’s swirling, you’re going to have to wait and then go get the ball. Because the trajectory of the ball is going to change because of the wind.’ ”

It’s a lesson Butler said he never forgot, especially playing home games from 1988-1990 at a stadium perhaps equally known for its quirky conditions as for its iconic moments over its 53 years. Home to the Giants from its opening in 1960 until 1999 and to the NFL’s 49ers since 1971, Candlestick Park likely hosts its final major sporting event Monday night when the 49ers play the Atlanta Falcons in their regular-season home finale.

The 49ers are moving next season to state-of-the-art Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, and the oval structure that has been home to five Super Bowl winners and a handful of Hall of Famers – that was the backdrop for “The Catch,” a shelter during the Loma Prieta earthquake and the target of many wind-borne gripes – is slated for demolition as early as next fall.

Seven miles southeast of downtown, on the western shore of San Francisco Bay, Candlestick Park opened April 12, 1960, as the new home of the Giants, who beat the St. Louis Cardinals that day 3-1. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first pitch.

While the Raiders, then of the AFL, played home games at Candlestick in 1961, the stadium did not have a permanent football tenant until 1971, when the 49ers moved from Kezar Stadium. For a baseball fan like Skip Vanderbundt, then a linebacker for the 49ers, it meant dressing in the same locker room as Giants stars Mays and Willie McCovey.

Less thrilling was the change from Kezar’s natural grass to the Candlestick field that had recently been changed from grass to AstroTurf.

“Basically, it was asphalt with a one-inch foam pad under it, and it just tore you up,” said Vanderbundt, who played in the NFL from 1969 to 1978 and now lives in Sacramento. “I saw guys go headfirst on it, and they’d wear a hole through their pants where their pads would show.

“Thank God we didn’t practice on it. We worked out on regular grass. Otherwise, you would’ve cut some careers short.”

The playing surface was returned to Kentucky bluegrass in 1979 (it’s now Bermuda, which stadium officials say needs less water). But while Candlestick had also been enclosed in an oval shape by that point, there was no such definitive fix for the wind that whipped off the bay and into the stadium.

“Some of our punters and kickers just hated it,” Vanderbundt said.

Bruce Gossett became part of the latter group after being traded to the 49ers from the Rams before the 1970 season. He kicked for one season at Kezar Stadium, where “there was some wind, but it only blew one way.”

“Then we moved over to Candlestick, and I just couldn’t believe it,” said Gossett, who played for the 49ers through 1974 and now lives in Rancho Murieta. “You could be against the wind both ways.”

Gossett recalled coach Dick Nolan asking him before a game against the Dallas Cowboys which direction he wanted to kick off if the 49ers lost the toss, which they did. Gossett, noting the wind had been blowing toward the dugout leading to the 49ers’ locker room during warmups, answered, “Toward our dugout.”

“We went into the locker room, came out 10 minutes later, and the wind was the opposite way,” Gossett said. “I kicked off and the ball went to the 30-yard line.”

Summer nights typically offered little respite. Mike Krukow, the former Giants pitcher and now broadcaster, said he learned this as a 12-year-old in 1964.

“We had been up in the mountains and my dad had this idea, we’re going to go see the Giants play the Dodgers at Candlestick,” Krukow said. “We left the mountains in the morning and drove through Sacramento, no air conditioning, it’s 104 (degrees) in Sacramento and we’re dying.

“We had seats in the second deck behind home plate and it was awesome. But the thing I remember most is in the fifth inning, we had to go back to the car and put everything we had in the suitcase on, because we were freezing.”

Later, first as a visiting pitcher, then with the Giants (1983-89), Krukow could layer up when it wasn’t his turn in the rotation. And on days he did pitch: “I’d get the thickest, nastiest mineral oil and coat myself from the top of my feet to just below my chin,” he said. “You were totally insulated with that.”

Still, said Krukow, whose best season was when he won 20 games in 1986, “The days I pitched I hoped it was snowing. You couldn’t throw the ball straight … but if you knew how to read the yard, you’d pitch away from the live field and you could get outs.”

Krukow’s final year as a player also was the second and final time Candlestick hosted a World Series (the first was 1962, when the New York Yankees won in seven games). The A’s won the 1989 Series 4-0, but baseball took a backseat halfway through after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area on Oct. 17, minutes before Game 3 was to begin in San Francisco.

“I was on the first-base line running sprints,” Butler, the Giants’ center fielder, said. “I remember running and all of a sudden I felt like I was drunk. … There was (a sound) almost like pounding on the seats and then the generator blew, and all of a sudden you saw this wave going through the infield, through the grass.”

Butler said his brother-in-law had just left his upper-deck seat to get a hot dog when the earthquake, which caused 63 deaths but only minor damage to the stadium, struck.

“When he came back, a boulder had fallen on his seat,” Butler said. “He broke off a piece and still has it at his house.”

Also in the stadium was Joe Montana, the Hall of Fame quarterback who said last week on a conference call he at first downplayed his wife’s concern over the quake.

“I said we’ve got to stay and watch the game,” Montana said. “I still get grief about it today.”

Otherwise, Montana’s judgment inside Candlestick was usually pretty sound. He led the 49ers to four of their five Super Bowl titles during a 14-year span beginning with the 1981 season. That run of success often is traced to his game-winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC Championship Game, which the 49ers will celebrate Monday as the top moment in Candlestick Park history.

Just three years earlier, Dan Bunz had been a rookie linebacker on a 49ers team that went 2-14. Suddenly, the 49ers were in the early days of a dynasty.

“That was a tumultuous time – Harvey Milk, gay rights, all these issues in the city going up,” said Bunz, who lives in Rocklin. “And I think what really is memorable is that Candlestick, the Giants, us, we brought the city together and gave the city some calm in trying times. I think the first Super Bowl brought that city together, gave it an identity.”

While Montana said he doesn’t plan to be at Monday’s game, Clark will as part of a program of farewell events the 49ers have planned for the regular-season finale. Clark said on a conference call he plans to do a TV interview from the spot of “The Catch,” which he said still comes up on a daily basis.

That the site of that and so many other memorable moments will disappear from the San Francisco landscape, Clark said, is “bittersweet” – though not necessarily because of the building itself, parts of which Clark said “remind me of a basement in a house built in the 1920s in Chicago or something.”

“You’d walk out of the locker room into that corridor (to the field) and go, ‘God, I hope it’s warmer outside than it is in this hallway,’ ” Clark said. “It was just freezing. Then you get out there and it’d be damp; moisture would come through the soles of your shoes. The locker room wasn’t very big. It just wasn’t there to be a football field, I don’t think. It was makeshift a lot of the time.

“It was a dump. But it was our dump, and we had a lot of history there and a lot of success. It’s sad to see it go. But that’s progress.”