Annual Awards Luncheon – 2012

12th Friends of Balboa Park Annual Awards Luncheon

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Friends of Balboa Park Annual Awards Luncheon honors volunteer leadership and provides public recognition of people and projects in Balboa Park. Inspiration Awards were presented Balboa Park volunteers for their exceptional dedication. The 2012 honorees were:

  • Jane Cowgill – San Diego History Center and The Old Globe
  • Betsy Gardner – San Diego Junior Theatre
  • Kay Harry – San Diego Floral Association
  • Mary Toomey – San Diego Natural History Museum
  • William Swank – Community Christmas Center


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Soldiers with Mormon Battalion were the first Padres?

San Diego Union-Tribune
6 a.m. July 30, 2012

Today’s lead isn’t buried in verbal cotton candy.

I’ve got hardball news.

In 1847, Mormon soldiers stationed at Mission San Luis Rey in what is now Oceanside played the first baseball games in California’s recorded history.

Azariah Smith, a private with the famed Mormon Battalion, wrote the following in his journal:

“Sunday March the 6th. We drilled as before and through the day we play ball and amuse ourselves the best way we can. It is very cool weather and clothing scarce.”

So what’s the big deal?

“When I started research for ‘Baseball in San Diego: From the Plaza to the Padres,’ ” says local baseball historian emeritus Bill Swank, “I wanted to discover mention of baseball in San Diego before May 6, 1871. I remember practically going blind and even falling asleep while spinning old 1850-1860s newspaper microfilm reels at the downtown library searching for the word ‘ball.’ When I found it in a headline, it meant a ball where the locals could trip the light fandango.”

Stymied, Swank ended up downplaying the period before 1871: “Billiards, bowling and boredom helped pass the time in the sleepy watering holes of Old San Diego.”

So it was a thunderbolt out of right field when, last month, Bay Area historian Angus Macfarlane (Swank fondly calls him a baseball “prehistorian”) said he may have stumbled upon what he calls the “Holy Grail,” Smith’s entry in “The Gold Discovery Journal of Azariah Smith” by David Bigler of Utah.

In a note to Swank, Bigler speculated that “the Mormon Battalion’s members hailed from virtually every state in the Union at that time and any one of them could have taught the rest how to play baseball.”

Coincidentally, on March 6, 1847, troops from New York arrived in San Francisco and in April went to Santa Barbara. According to historian Donald Briggs, the men proved unruly, “galloping their horses or playing ball in the streets.

So that’s the box score. Mission Mormons beat New Yorkers by a month.

Though it’s conceivable that “ball” referred to another recreation, Macfarlane assures me that “ball” was the common name for what we know as baseball.

Smith, by the way, has another claim to fame. He was right there when gold was discovered in Northern California. Rejecting the lure of riches, the homesick ex-soldier returned to Utah.

Nevertheless, he appears to be San Diego’s first known “ballist,” a distinction that can’t be conferred upon a friar.

“I always thought Padres was a great name for our San Diego baseball team,” Swank says with an irreverent twinkle. “Maybe they should be called the Mormons instead.”

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Diane Bell column (San Diego Union-Tribune, December 17, 2011)

Claus for a cause: Bill Swank, a local baseball historian who doubles as Santa Claus during the holidays, took his campaign to get a statue of Ted Williams erected at downtown’s former Lane Field to the S.D. Port Commission board meeting Tuesday. Guards allowed the red-suited “Baseball Santa” to enter, but minus his candy cane-striped baseball bat and his “Occupy Lane Field” protest sign.

Swank delivered his plea Santa-style:

“T’was the night before baseball

and all through the town

Not a creature was stirring

when Santa took the mound.

He told the board members

I have a goal,

a statue of Ted Williams…

or I’ll give you all coal!”

Swank elicited a few chuckles but no comment on the statue. Given the current cold snap, coal might actually be much appreciated.

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Sportswrap with Jim Laslavic, KNSD-TV NBC San Diego (December 4, 2011)

Click on link:

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“Occupy Lane Field” A Statue for Ted Williams

Diane Bell column, San Diego Union-Tribune (November 22, 2011)

KUSI-TV Channel 9, San Diego (November 26, 2011)

KGTV Channel 10, San Diego (November 26, 2011)
Click here to find out more!


Push For Ted Williams Statue Downtown

Local Baseball Author and Historian Wants A Piece Of San Diego History Preserved

POSTED: 7:35 pm PST November 25, 2011
UPDATED: 2:42 pm PST November 27, 2011
SAN DIEGO — Bill Swank, a local baseball historian, says it’s time one of San Diego’s most prolific baseball players be honored with a statue downtown.
That slugger is Ted Williams who played for the Boston Red Sox, and became one of baseball’s greatest players of all-time.

Williams who was born in San Diego in 1918, began his pro career at the old Lane Field downtown, when the Padres joined the pacific coast league.

On Saturday, Swank stood at the corner of Pacific Highway and Broadway, and said a statue of Ted Williams should be placed there along with the home plate plaque and patch of grass that signify where the old ballpark once stood.

Williams was still attending Hoover High School when he played in that inaugural season of Lane Field back in 1936.

excerpt from Diane Bell column, San Diego Union-Tribune (November 29, 2011)

KNSD-TV Channel 7, Sportscaster Jim Laslavic interviews Baseball Santa about "Occupy Lane Field" protest on behalf of Ted Williams statue on Sportswrap (December 4, 2011)

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The story of “Baseball Santa”

As a little boy, I dreamed of being a ballplayer. Nobody dreams about becoming Santa Claus. This is the story about a skinny, redheaded kid who unexpectedly became robust, beer-bellied “Baseball Santa.” Life throws us a lot of curve balls. Charlie is hard to hit, but sometimes we connect… and sometimes dreams (and even non-dreams) do come true.

The following item is from a continuing series of photos that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune as part of “Faces of San Diego 2000.”

In 1949, our family moved to Columbia City, Indiana where my father became the Cub Scout Pack Master and Superintendent of the Presbyterian Church Sunday School. He was even Santa Claus for one year and a constant source of embarrassment to his family.

Santa and his Sons (Indiana - 1950)

Santa and his Sons (Indiana – 1950)

This is a photo of the skinny, redheaded kid…

Farmington High School (1955)

Farmington High School (1955)

After I turned 60, strangers approached me to offer jobs as a professional Santa Claus. I didn’t want to be Santa Claus. Then something happened to change my mind. My wife and I were having dinner at HomeTown Buffet. While loading my plate, I felt something on my leg and looked down. A little Mexican girl had both arms wrapped around my knee. She looked up and said, “I love you, Santa Claus.” A woman standing beside me asked if this happened often. I told her that the older I get, the more it happens. The look on that little girl’s face melted my heart.

"Will you be our Santa Claus?" (2002)

Shortly after that encounter, my wife and I attended a neighbor’s party. These two charming ladies (above) convinced me to be the replacement for their aging Santa Claus who was retiring following controversy between the Community Christmas Center and local atheists. I remembered their life-sized Nativity dioramas from when I first moved to San Diego. I took my kids to see the Christmas Story at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion when they were little. I gladly volunteered to be their Santa Claus, because the spirit of the CCC is low-key and non-commercial. Christmas has become too commercial. Santa should be about giving and not about making extra income during the Holiday Season. I was honored to become part of a great San Diego tradition in Balboa Park.

Baseball Santa (2002)

Baseball Santa (2002)

This little boy was afraid of Santa and wouldn’t talk. I asked if he liked baseball. He nodded, so I handed him my bat. I asked if he’d like to wear my baseball cap. Again he nodded, so I put it on his head. Next, I asked if he would do me a favor. Would sit on my lap so I could have a picture of him with my bat and cap? To my surprise, he agreed. I didn’t know it then, but I had become “Baseball Santa.”

My best friend and former basketball teammate, Rich Nelson, is an American Legion baseball commissioner in Illinois. In 2003, he invited the original House of David base ball team to play an exhibition game at Elfstrom Stadium, home of the Class A Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League. Secretary of Trustees and team captain Ron Taylor agreed to allow Santa Claus to play for the bearded religious colony. From the 1920s through the 1940s, House of David was a famous barnstorming team that played all challengers including the great Negro League teams of the era.

Chicago Tribune (July 27, 2003)

Chicago Tribune (July 27, 2003)

By the way, the hidden baseball mentioned in the Chicago Tribune article was not a fake ball. It was the actual game ball. Former 98-year-old HOD catcher Eddie Deal taught me the trick. It was part of their entertainment which included the renown House of David “pepper game” routine.

Captain Ron and Santa (2003)

Captain Ron and Santa (2003)

Ron Taylor and Baseball Santa are shown relaxing after the House of David game. Santa is drinking a nutritional supplement designed to maintain his santaesque waistline. Ron sent the following letter:

House of David (August 25, 2003)

House of David (August 25, 2003)

My wife, Jeri, saw an advertisement in the newspaper about a group of prominent Santa Claus artists who would be appearing at City Lights Christmas store. She thought the figures created by an artist named Peter Nourjian looked like me. While at the store, a pleasant woman approached and announced her intention to make a Santa replica of me. How did she know I was Santa Claus? She turned out to be Pipka, the 2003 “Santa Artist of the Year.

Baseball Santa and Pipka (October 2003)

During the 2003 Christmas Season, Santa stopped to visit his friends at the San Diego Hall of Champions. Founder Bob Breitbard wanted his picture taken on Santa’s lap as shown below in the 2004 Hall of Champions Journal.

San Diego Hall of Champions Journal (2004)

San Diego Hall of Champions Journal (2004)

In 2004, Leslie Macher, a television producer for Major League Baseball, wanted me to talk about San Diego’s early ballparks for their new HDTV series, “Cathedrals of the Game.” Halfway through taping, the host, Michelle Beadle, confided that when the crew pulled into the Hall of Champions parking lot that morning, she joked, “Hey look, Santa Claus is on vacation in San Diego.” They was surprised to learn that Santa was their baseball historian. Michelle referred to me as “Santa” during the interview, but the reference was cut when the program aired.

Cathedrals of the Game (2004)

Cathedrals of the Game (2004)

On December 11, 2004, Barnes & Noble and The Old Globe Theater sponsored an event known as “Million Books for a Million Children. Santa was invited to read “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and the Old Globe’s Grinch acted out the story. Afterwards, the Grinch himself autographed a copy of Dr. Suess’s Christmas classic for Santa. Then the Grinch asked for an autographed copy of Santa’s Baseball in San Diego: From the Padres to Petco. Santa laughed, “I didn’t know you were a baseball fan.” Without cracking a smile, the Grinch deadpanned, “I am.”

The Grinch and Santa Claus (2004)

The Grinch and Santa Claus (2004)

In 2005, the Surf Dawgs became San Diego’s entry in the newly formed independent Golden Baseball League. As a publicity stunt, the team held tryouts for the local media and Baseball Santa was invited to showcase his skills. Although not tendered a coveted professional contract, Santa did make the Channel 10 highlights when he backhanded a deep shot in the hole at short and fired a two-bouncer to first base.

East County Gazette (April 6, 2005)

East County Gazette (April 6, 2005)

Baseball Santa is shown below taking his swings during the Surf Dawgs tryout at Tony Gwynn Stadium.



In 2006, Baseball Santa again played for House of David in a doubleheader at Legion Park in Wheaton, Illinois. He is shown below watching a ball hit with his candy cane willow ricochet off the left field fence. With blinding speed, Santa was able to stretch a certain double into a single.

Santa connects (Wheaton, Illinois - 2006)

Santa connects (Wheaton, Illinois – 2006)

After the game, Rich Nelson and Santa went on the road to Sister Bay, Wisconsin to visit Pipka at her studio. It didn’t take long for her to decide to make a figurine with a baseball theme.

Baseball Santa and Pipka (Sister Bay, Wisconsin - 2006)

Baseball Santa and Pipka (Sister Bay, Wisconsin – 2006)

Later on the same road trip, Santa rejoined the House of David team at beautiful Eastman Field in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The Davids were scheduled to face the mighty Bonneyville Millers from Indiana. Santa is shown below with ballists from the Millers club.

Santa and the Bonneyville Millers (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2006)

Santa and the Bonneyville Millers (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2006)

A close play at second base (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2006)

A close play at second base (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2006)

Below is a rare copy of Baseball Santa’s Upper Deck baseball card.

Baseball Santa Swank (Upper Deck - 2006)

Baseball Santa Swank (Upper Deck – 2006)


The card appeared on the New York Post website.

New York Post (December 24, 2006)

New York Post (December 24, 2006)

Bill Swank Upper Deck baseball card

Bill Swank (Upper Deck - 1955)

Bill Swank (Upper Deck – 1955)

Upper Deck catalog

Upper Deck catalog

Upper Deck liked the “antique look” of the Farmington card so much that it was featured in their catalog. Antique look? 1955 isn’t antique!

Former Negro Leaguer Neale “Bobo” Henderson and Baseball Santa were invited to be Opening Day speakers for the Southeast San Diego Little League.

Baseball Santa, Neale "Bobo" Henderson, Alicia Gwynn, Joe Brown, Jr. (2008)

As a tribute to Buck O’Neil, Dave Winfield arranged for every Major League Baseball team to symbolically draft a former Negro League player during the annual amateur draft in June 2008. It was my privilege to travel to Orlando, Florida as a guest of MLB for this historic event.

Walter McCoy, Baseball Santa, John "Mule" Miles (June 5, 2008)

Walter McCoy, Baseball Santa, John “Mule” Miles (June 5, 2008)

Santa with 102 year old Emilio Navarro (June 5, 2008)

Santa with 102 year old Emilio Navarro (June 5, 2008)

When I gave my baseball card to the former Negro League players, rather than commenting about Santa Claus, they were impressed that I played for House of David. Several stated that when they first saw me, they immediately thought of the House of David. All appreciated the fact that House of David played against the Negro League teams.

In 1954, San Diego Post 492 won the American Legion National Championship. My good friend, Billy Capps, was the Legion Player of the Year in ’54. Billy invited Rich Nelson and me to join him and his wife, Sue, at the 2008 American Legion World Series in Shelby, North Carolina. I wanted to visit Shelby because its town leaders had allowed black ballplayers from San Diego Post 6 to play in the 1940 American Legion semi-finals.

Former American Legion Baseball Commissioner Lou Brissie, Billy Capps, Rich Nelson (2008)

Former American Legion Baseball Commissioner Lou Brissie, Billy Capps, Rich Nelson (2008)

Reverend Eddie, Zaiden, Baseball Santa (Shelby, North Carolina - 2008)

Reverend Eddie, Zaiden, Baseball Santa (Shelby, North Carolina – 2008)

While at the Legion World Series, a little boy named Zaiden asked if I was Santa Claus. He became very excited when I handed him my card. A short time later, Zaiden wanted to give me a dollar bill that his mother had given to him to spend on a snack. I thanked the boy, but explained that Santa doesn’t accept money. Then I thought about a Baptist minister I’d met earlier in the stands named Reverend Eddie. He had told me about his out-reach program for the poor.

I asked Zaiden if he would be willing to give his dollar to help poor people. He said, “If that’s what you want me to do, Santa, then I’ll do it.” I introduced the youngster to Rev Eddie, but wanted to make sure the kid understood what poor meant. Immediately he replied, “Yeah, them’s broken people. They ain’t got no money.” Yes, he wanted to give his dollar to help poor people. The preacher and the boy’s mother both started to cry. Zaiden, you’re a great little kid! Shelby is a great town!

The Shelby Star (August 25, 2008)

The Shelby Star (August 25, 2008)

As a goodwill ambassador at the Legion World Series, Capps usually makes the front page of the local newspaper, but I knocked him off the cover this time…

Alan Ford article about John Ritchey (Shelby Star, August 25, 2008)

Alan Ford article about John Ritchey (Shelby Star, August 25, 2008)

In September 2008, Rich Nelson was invited to play in the final doubleheader of the season for House of David. I gave him an old Santa Claus beard and wig, but Rich didn’t want to be another “Baseball Santa.” I was finally able to convince him to play as himself: 112 year old Richard E. Nelson.

Terry Bertolino wheels 112 year old Richard E. Nelson to the mound (2008)

Terry Bertolino wheels 112 year old Richard E. Nelson to the mound (2008)

As a tribute to the House of David’s relationship with the Negro Leagues, Rich would pitch the first game of the twin bill and, as the legendary Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe used to do with the Kansas City Monarchs, catch the second game

Richard E. Nelson pitched in the first game (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2008)

Richard E. Nelson pitched in the first game (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2008)


...and caught in the second game (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2008)

…and caught in the second game (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2008)

Note that Richard E. Nelson is playing catcher in a rocking chair to honor Negro League catcher Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett. Several “cranks” (fans) actually believed that Rich was 112 years old. HOD captain Ron Taylor told them (with a sly grin), “We just dug him up.”

Baseball Santa with Impostor (Benton Harbor, Michigan - 2008)

Baseball Santa with Impostor (Benton Harbor, Michigan – 2008)


The Hobart (Indiana) Deep River Grinders brought their own Santa.

Richard E. Nelson (112), senior Grinder ballist (70s), Baseball Santa (68) at Eastman Field (2008)

Richard E. Nelson (112), senior Grinder ballist (70s), Baseball Santa (68) at Eastman Field (2008)

House of David (2008)

House of David (2008)

2008 House of David team photograph (above) and, after all that, Rich needed his own baseball card (below):

Below is the cover of the 2008 House of David program. I was surprised to be included in the lower right corner.

As a favor to a friend who needed a Santa Claus, I agreed to take a “Santa job” during the 2008 season. I decided Baseball Santa would use the money to purchase baseball equipment for kids in Mexico. I learned about “The Christmas Train” which annually delivers 5,000 gifts packages to needy kids in Tecate, Mexico on El Dia del Los Tres Reyes . The train travels from Campo to Tecate. Because of bureaucratic problems with Mexican Customs, I could only smuggle a few jerseys and caps across the line at this time.

I met Tecate Mayor Donaldo Penalosa who is a big baseball fan. Arrangements were made to meet him in Jamul where we loaded his RV with gear for the Tecate Little League. Later, after learning the South Bay Little League in Chula Vista, California was experiencing problems, Baseball Santa took a carload of equipment to league president Art Diaz.

In 1972, the Madres were formed by San Diego Padres wives to support youth baseball. The theme of the 2009 Madres mid-summer meeting was “Christmas in July.” Almost $100 was raised for youth baseball by ladies posing for pictures on Baseball Santa’s lap.

Baseball Santa was interviewed by Randy Dotinga with Voice of San Diego in August 2009:

Pipka’s “Play Ball” figurine was introduced for the 2009 Christmas Season.

The following story is from the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau website:

On May 2, 2010, Baseball Santa gave equipment to the Rosarito Little League as part of their Dia de los Ninos celebration.

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How I became a baseball historian

When I retired in 1994, I received a plaque with a facsimile of my badge from the San Diego Country Probation Department. Later, I learned that my actual badge (#36) had been given to my friend and fellow supervisor Clyde Weston upon his retirement the previous year. Knowing Clyde, he wouldn't have known or cared that "36" wasn't his badge number. In 1993, I was given a small pin to acknowledge my 30 years of dedicated service to the County of San Diego. The County newspaper noted that Swank "worked his way up through the ranks." Now what?

I had planned to write a book about my probation experiences, but in the autumn of 1994, the San Diego Historical Society asked me to write an article about the Lane Field Padres for The Journal of San Diego History. "Runs, Hits and an Era," an exhibition featuring the Pacific Coast League, was coming to their museum in early 1995 and they needed somebody with a baseball background for assistance. 

William G. Swank and James D. Smith III wrote "This was Paradise" which was published in The Journal of San Diego History. Whitey Weitelmann was featured on the cover. At the opening of the exhibition, I was introduced as the Society's "baseball historian." I'd never heard of a baseball historian before then.


During this time, I joined University of San Diego history professor Ray Brandes and co-authored a two-volume history of the Lane Field Padres shown above. These books were published in 1997 by the San Diego Padres.

My own book, Echoes from Lane Field, was published by Turner Publishing in 1999. It contains interviews with over 150 Lane Filed era Padres ballplayers. The book won second place in San Diego Press Club competition and received an honorable mention from the San Diego Book Awards.

As a member of The Society for American Baseball Research, I wrote the biography of Gavy Cravath (below) for their 2004 publication, Deadball Stars of the National League. Cravath was baseball's first home run king. He set the modern season and career home run records that Babe Ruth broke. He was also San Diego's first major league ballplayer. 

Jeff Ruetsche, an editor with Arcadia Publishing, asked me to do a book about the San Diego Padres for their “Images of Baseball” series. I suggested a book about the history of baseball in San Diego before the Padres. We compromised. I would do two books, but the Padres book had to be first to coincide with the team’s 2004 move downtown to Petco Park. This book begins in 1936 with the Padres first game at Lane Field and ends with their last game at Qualcomm Stadium in 2003. The Padres began as a member of the Pacific Coast League and became a major league franchise when they joined the National League in 1969. 

This book begins on May 6, 1871 with the first pickup game of base ball on the present site of Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. Rare baseball photos from the San Diego Historical Society illustrate the early years of our national pastime in America's Finest City.

The next book was inspired by a SABR tribute to Ted Williams held at the San Diego Hall of Champions on March 29, 2003 following his death in July 2002. My contributions, including the story about the first color action pictures of Ted which were shot by an amateur photographer named Heber Epperson at Lane Field on October 5, 1941, are shown below the book cover.

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