Building on its history, this ‘neighborhood stadium’ has many more stories to tell – San Bernardino Sun

I would not be here to write this if there weren’t a Rose Bowl.

Check that — not quite true.

I would not be here to write this if some enterprising Pasadenans hadn’t taken advantage of a national craze for college football in the early 20th century and decided to hold an annual New Year’s Day gridiron contest right here in the Crown City, even before there was a Rose Bowl to play it in.

By enterprising I mean “interested in making money.”

The rich folks of the Valley Hunt Club who started the Tournament of Roses in the late 19th century already had their money, as do their descendants who still belong to the Valley Hunt.

The Tournament of Roses volunteers were increasingly of the burgher type, the entrepreneurs who came to Pasadena to serve the relatively old-money Midwesterners and Easterners who lived in the mansions on South Orange Grove Boulevard near their club.

The parade began in 1890, and by Jan. 1, 1902, the Tournament East-West football game was created as an additional enticement to bring tourists to Southern California in our lovely winters. Michigan beat Stanford so badly — 49-0 — down in the town lot, now known as Tournament Park, across East California Boulevard from what is now Caltech, that the game went into hibernation for 13 years.

But the chariot and ostrich races that during those years served as the sporting sideshow to the parade of flower-bedecked floats … well, let’s just say that chariot races were not creating a national sporting fad.

So in 1916, the tradition of a college football game here every New Year’s Day returned. Uninteresting pairing: Washington State, Brown. Seven thousand people attended.

However, the next Jan. 1, there was a very interesting pairing indeed: the Oregon Webfoots and the University of Pennsylvania Quakers. Twenty-six thousand people attended.

One of them was my grandfather, Elmer Wilson, age 17, who had hitchhiked across the nation from East McKeesport, Pennsylvania to attend. It was not that Elmer — we seven grandchildren were forbidden to call him granddad — was Ivy League himself. There is some doubt as to whether he graduated high school. What he was looking for was an excuse, any excuse, to get out of taking a job in the steel mill.

Earlier year view of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. (Photo courtesy Pasadena Tournament of Roses)

So he stuck out his thumb, he got here, and, reader, he stayed. Not only that — he went on to attend (what was to become) every single Rose Bowl Game for more than the next 60 years. Probably longer, but I do recall him dumping some spare tickets on me just before kickoff at the lackluster Washington-Michigan game in 1978 from his aerie atop Wilson Hill, site of his boozy pre-game picnic party on the golf course, telling me I could keep whatever above face value I got. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the market wouldn’t bear that, and that I actually had to dump them at a discount, and put a couple of bucks of my own in to make him whole.)

Elmer was certifiably the only one to have seen every Rose Bowl Game during that spread, as he was selected to be the Tournament’s representative at the post-Pearl Harbor game on Jan. 1, 1942, played in Durham, North Carolina out of fears of a Japanese bombing of the stadium and its large crowd. He took the train back East, playing high-stake cards each way, no doubt making some serious scratch, as he was essentially a professional gambler.

Yes, Elmer not only came to Pasadena. He joined the Tournament, working his way up the White Suiter ranks to become its president in 1955.

That was just 32 years after the stadium named the Rose Bowl by a Pasadena Star-News reporter was built to house the ever-bigger crowds who came to the big game and so much else.

And here we are celebrating the Rose Bowl’s centennial. Do I think the stadium has another 100 years in her? Actually, I do, against all the odds. I’m susceptible, of course, to the hype. There’s the family thing. Plus, I grew up on the eastern edge of the Arroyo Seco above the bowl, and have lived for over 30 years on the western edge. The Rose Bowl is literally in my neighborhood. It’s not just been home to a hallowed college football game to me. It’s been home to giant fireworks shows, the Rolling Stones and the joy of sitting up under the bowl’s northern lip with my AYSO-age daughter at the 1999 World Cup won by Brandi Chastain with a kick that changed women’s sports forever.

Just a few months ago, I was down on the stadium’s field for some reason with my friend Bruno, who is French. The turf was striped not as a gridiron but for soccer. There were three soccer balls in the middle. You have to kick the balls when there’s a French guy there. So I did. Even though I was wearing desert boots. One over Bruno’s head. One right to him. And the third, I stubbed my toe so badly that I could barely walk for a week. So it’s just also kind of a neighborhood exercise joint, for me.

I’ve been a reporter and then editor in Pasadena for the last 36 years, covering the Rose Bowl as similar stadiums around the country — the Cotton, the Orange — have turned to dust. Outdated, undomed, wrong shape for a modern Colosseum. Yet the RB has persevered. Through smart management and marketing, yes. But also through significant  investments in luxury boxes, seating, general shoring-up. That’s left Pasadena taxpayers such as myself on the hook with $200 million in debt.

The competition from SoFi and other pretty young stadiums in Southern California is fierce. But old age has its advantages. In a sprawling region that can seem ahistorical, valuing only the new, Pasadena has learned to market the old. Its bungalows, from cottages to the Gamble House. Its historic downtown, Old Pasadena. So old can be good. Absent Taylor Swift, stadium management has pivoted to Phoebe Bridgers, hosting concerts on the parklike grounds of the surrounding Brookside Golf Course.

At its 100th birthday, the Rose Bowl is in a delicate place, as is any other centenarian. Still, it’s got such good bones. External circumstances will change, from the national college football landscape to preferences for glitz in a rock-concert venue. But when you’ve kept it in good shape, you don’t kick your history to the curb. Hey, this is the place where Cal’s Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels almost scored an own goal in the Rose Bowl Game in 1929. You can’t buy or build a history like that. It takes time. Which my neighborhood stadium has a whole lot more of. More stories to tell. The Granddaddy of Them All.

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