A Page from History: How Albert G. Spalding became the father of Sunset Cliffs Park
Every evening, the “sunseteers” descend on Sunset Cliffs. Yes, the selfie-popping, Instagramming throngs are keenly aware of the fact that the only legit place to watch the sunset is Sunset Cliffs.
The area has never been a closely guarded secret by any means, but it was nothing like this in the old days. Why, back in 2013, for example, the area was still eerily serene near the end of the day.
Who can blame the sunseteers though? The view is undeniably sublime.
That was certainly the opinion of Al Spalding, the former star pitcher turned sporting goods mogul who once owned most of the hillside south of Point Loma Avenue and gave the cliffs their enduring name.
So how did an internationally renowned business tycoon from Chicago come to own a sizeable chunk of San Diego coastline? That is one of the stories illuminated by Ocean Beach’s Kathy Blavatt in her new book, “San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs Park: A History.”
It seemed unlikely at the time — 1900 — that the most prominent sportsman in the country would remove himself from the hustle and bustle of thriving Chicago in favor of a very different life out in sleepy, dusty and remote San Diego.
Albert Goodwill Spalding, commonly known as A.G. or Al to his friends, was just concluding a very successful campaign as commissioner of the U.S. Olympic team. In 1900, the second modern Olympic Games were held in conjunction with the World’s Fair in Paris. Also in that momentous year, A.G. Spalding, a widower, was newly married to his second wife and childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Churchill Mayer.
Mayer was a serious Theosophist, a confidant of Theosophical Society leader Katherine Tingley, and was the superintendent of the society’s international network of Sunday schools, the Lotus Circle. When Madame Tingley moved the society’s headquarters to the crest of Point Loma in the last years of the 19th century, Mayer came along to become Lomaland’s first music director.
A look back at the Theosophical Society, Katherine Tingley, Lomaland and its Greek Theater, which remains today.
As the Theosophical community was beginning to take shape, newlyweds Al and Elizabeth built their unusual and beautiful home on the Lomaland estate high above the surf crashing against what soon would become known as Sunset Cliffs.
Spalding had more or less retired when he moved to Lomaland. His first 50 years had been remarkable and then some. He made a name for himself as a pitcher for the Boston Red Stockings (now the Atlanta Braves) in the early days of professional baseball. He was the preeminent pitcher of his era, the 1870s. Spalding was baseball’s first 200- and 250-game winner. His career winning percentage of .795 remains the highest of all time.
In 1875, Spalding went 54-5 for the Red Stockings. Let’s just say that was some years before bullpen pitching “specialists.” Spalding was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, the year it opened in Cooperstown, N.Y.
As a player, executive and later owner of the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs), Spalding was one of the organizers and founders of the National League. He posted a 47-12 record with the White Stockings in 1876 as a player-manager. That same year he started his sporting goods store, Spalding and Bros., in Chicago.
Having retired as a player at only 26, Spalding, with his younger brother Walter, sister Mary and brother-in-law William Brown, invented the sporting goods industry. Spalding and Bros. manufactured the first National League baseball, which continued to be the league’s official ball for a hundred years. Same story for the American League ball a few years later.
Al Spalding had not been the first player to wear a glove, but he was the first star player to wear one, a Spalding-brand fielders glove, naturally.
Spalding manufactured the first American football in 1887, the first basketball in 1894 and first volleyball in 1895. If you could throw it, kick it, catch it, shoot it, spin it, paddle it, ride it or bonk it, Spalding and Bros. manufactured it, or soon bought out a company that did.
Spalding’s Baseball Guide first appeared in 1878 and was published annually for 50 years. The Baseball Guides were soon followed by guides for all the other team sports. The guides included schedules, stories about the leagues, teams and players, and the official rules for the sport in question. The rules always stipulated that any contest would be deemed official only if official Spalding-brand equipment was used. The guides were published by American Sports Publishing, Spalding’s publishing company.
You can easily see how a fellow like Spalding would have been content to wile away his later years relaxing on the splendid veranda of his beautiful home in Point Loma, staring contentedly at the blue Pacific. But he did no such thing. While he continued to oversee his business interests at a distance, he fully embraced his new life and newly adopted hometown.
Between A.G. and Elizabeth they had five children, the two youngest enrolled at Lomaland’s Raja Yoga Academy. Spalding had been a real estate investor for 25 years around the Chicago area and later in New Jersey. The sale of 700 acres in a Chicago suburb netted Spalding a fantastic profit, which he began to invest in San Diego.
In 1903, Spalding bought most of the hillside that he could see north and west of his home, from present-day Ladera Street north to Point Loma Avenue, and from the ocean up over the top of the hill to Catalina Boulevard. At one point, Spalding owned more than 1,000 acres of San Diego real estate.
He turned the hillside immediately west of his Lomaland home, now a part of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, into his own nine-hole golf course. He developed the mesa north of his home, now the residential neighborhood above Sunset View School, into the athletic fields of Lomaland. He collaborated with his friend George Marston in the acquisition of the former Presidio de San Diego and surrounding acreage, Presidio Hill, later given to the city and developed into Presidio Park. As a strong and active booster for San Diego business and tourism, Spalding was an important member of the Panama-California Exposition executive committee.
As a bicycle manufacturer, Spalding had long been a champion of improved roads. As early as 1899 he urged makers of all vehicles to support the advancement of road building nationally and encouraged all “good citizens” to embrace the campaign for good roads. In 1906, San Diegans approved a bond measure to improve roads to the far-flung parts of the city, which included Ocean Beach and Point Loma. Spalding was a natural choice to take a leadership role in that effort, joining newspapermen E.W. Scripps and J.D. Spreckels on the oversight panel of the new highway commission.
As the San Diego Union reported: “Through the urging of San Diegans, Spalding built a series of roads connecting San Diego with Ocean Beach, Roseville and the U.S. Military Reservation on Point Loma which has become famous as one of the finest boulevard systems in America. It was largely through his efforts that the federal government was induced to spend $40,000 to extend this system to the end of Point Loma, thus creating one of the most magnificent drives in the world.”
In 1912, Spalding developed the 18-hole Point Loma Golf and Country Club on a gently sloping hillside just north and east of present-day Loma Portal. A remnant of that course was for years known as Sail Ho, now the Loma Club at Liberty Station.
For an encore, Spalding developed the coastal terrain of his Sunset Cliffs tract, along what he called the Albert G. Spalding Esplanade, into his fanciful and fabulous Sunset Cliffs Park. Investing a reported $2 million in the project, Spalding hired a Japanese architect to help create and install pathways, terraces, benches, gazebos, rustic bridges and cobblestone stairways from the foot of present-day Guizot Street north to Point Loma Avenue.
Below the cliff at the foot of present-day Adair Street, Spalding carved out a tub-like excavation in the sandstone, filled by the rising tide, which became known as Spalding’s Pool. Spalding reportedly told one Sunset Cliffs visitor: “Some artists work in paint, oil and canvas and others in marble, but I am devoting the evening of my life to carving in living stone and the earth, things of beauty.”
Sunset Cliffs Park opened in 1915 as scheduled, in conjunction with San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition. Successive strokes took Spalding’s life in September that year. Tingley eulogized him as “an inspiration to those of us who live for the betterment of humanity.”
Sunset Cliffs Park, which Spalding had deeded to the city of San Diego, was not maintained and instead was left to weather in the wind. In the mid-1920s, real estate development firm Mills, Pantages and Shreve acquired the Sunset Cliffs tract from the Spalding family, put in several subdivisions and worked to rehabilitate Spalding’s Sunset Cliffs Park. But to learn that part of the story, you’ll have to read “San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs Park: A History.”
So is Sunset Cliffs really a park? We asked the book’s author, Blavatt, whose enthusiasm for the subject is contagious.
“Yes, of course it’s a park,” she said. “Spalding wanted to give something to the public, and he loved that stretch of coastline. Plus, he wanted to attract visitors from the exposition out to the coast.”
We asked if people really used to dump garbage over the cliff at Garbage Beach. “The Theosophists used to have two dump sites out in the area that is now Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, and the city had a dump out there in the ‘40s,” Blavatt said. “Dan Dixon of the Villa Surf did dump garbage right over the cliff onto the beach. There is also the idea that local surfers wanted to keep the break to themselves by implying that the waves were ‘garbage.’”
We asked Blavatt what she would like people to know about Sunset Cliffs Park. “I think the park is being loved to death,” she said. “So I hope visitors will respect the park, try to stay on the trails and be careful ... look out for their own personal safety. And I hope people would be respectful of the neighborhood and park neighbors.”
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). OBHS board member Kitty McDaniel contributed to this article.