CASA GRANDE, ARIZONA (KPIX) – The road sign says Candlestick. Never mind that the sign is exactly 806 miles from the site where the baseball stadium used to sit.
I am more taken aback by the immediate surroundings. Dirt fields that stretch for miles, and cactus that remind me that I’m not in San Francisco anymore. Then, just beyond the sign, a hotel. The Francisco Casa Grande, standing alone in the middle of the Arizona desert.
It almost looks like a mistake. Like something you’d see in Old Town Scottsdale 54 miles to the north, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of spring training.
Once upon a time, the sounds of baseball were here. The lonely, quiet desert oasis was home to Horace Stoneham’s dream. The former Giants owner who brought the team from New York to San Francisco, envied Branch Rickey’s Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
Stoneham brought this plot of land and built his version of Dodgertown beginning in 1959. He built one of the longest golf courses in the country. The parking lot was shaped like a catcher’s mitt, the hotel roof formed in the bill of a baseball cap and the swimming pool looked like a baseball bat.
For the business-minded Stoneham, the Francisco Casa Grande would be far more than a spring training site for his major and minor league players. Stoneham envisioned his desert paradise as a destination for stars, fans, and those who just wanted to escape to the peace and tranquility of the desert.
John Wayne always stayed in room 804. He used the hotel as his home-away-from home while shooting westerns. He would hang out at the lobby bar and he’d buy guests drinks and tell the bartender to keep the change.
Among Wayne’s hotel neighbors was Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, the only two Giants allowed to stay in the high rise. The rest of the roster was confined to what pitcher Jim Barr called, ‘the barracks,” small rooms with two bunk beds.
A walk down the hotel hallways takes you back in time. All those Giants greats adorn the walls. Gaylord Perry, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and the two Willies.
Outside are the remnants of all the baseball fields that surrounded an observation tower where the Giants brass could watch their talented players.
I stood on the observation tower for several minutes. My favorite Giants played here. They were my heroes. I imagined seeing a young Al Gallagher at third base or Ken Henderson in left field or Tito Fuentes flipping his bat at home plate. I wondered what their conversations were like. It was the glorious days before free agency where you literally grew up with these guys and the only player movement came in the morning paper with a headline, “Giants Trade Willie Mays!”
The baseball mecca that Stoneham envisioned never really materialized. The freeway that he thought would be built next to his resort was constructed miles away. The Giants left for Scottsdale in 1982.
Today, the Francisco Casa Grande is a golf resort. They tell me former players still come back to take their own trips down memory lane. Baseball fans sit at the bar and tell stories.
To me, the Francisco Casa Grande stands as a monument to Horace Stoneham’s dream.
Simpler times. Baseball. Just baseball.