More than 60 years ago, the Grape Bowl was the site of perhaps the biggest football game ever to be played in Lodi.
A crowd of 24,218 jammed into the stadium on Feb. 12, 1950 to watch two of the West’s best college quarterbacks face off to determine once and for all who was the best. It was the most highly publicized sports showdown in the city’s history and brought great attention to the small city of Lodi, which didn’t have a college team but had the biggest first-class stadium in the area.
Gov. Earl Warren was one of the many out-of-town spectators, and during a radio interview at half-time, proclaimed, “It’s a great day in Lodi.”
Today, the old stadium, built by Depression-era WPA workers in 1940, is undergoing renovations to meet Americans With Disabilities Act requirements. Construction delays have kicked Lodi and Tokay high school football teams off the field until further notice this fall, and the teams and fans are eagerly waiting to hear the whistles blow again in the stadium.
But in the early winter of 1950, Lodi’s Grape Bowl was a young facility that was the pride of the county and a big draw for big games.
The College of the Pacific in Stockton (today’s University of the Pacific) used Lodi’s stadium as the location for its home football games. The Grape Bowl had also been the location of two college bowl games in 1947 and 1948. But the biggest excitement came after COP’s 1949 season.
In 1949, quarterback Eddie LeBaron, a football sensation born in Oakdale, led the COP team to an undefeated season. After that exhilarating season, eager fans hungry for more football jumped at the suggestion that COP’s top quarterback Eddie LeBaron be matched up against the ace quarterback Bob Celeri, of the also undefeated team at University of California, Berkeley.
The sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle reportedly suggested that Celeri, the “mad engineer” of the Cal Bears, was a better quarterback than the Valley’s “excellent Eddie” LeBaron of COP. Angry fans confronted the editor who apologized and acknowledged LeBaron’s talents. A few days later, the Chronicle ran a front-page editorial calling for a showdown game between big Cal and the little college in the Valley.
Three University of California alumni — Ted Kenfield, Bob Holcomb and Jack Sterns — began promoting it. Details were figured out, and the game was set for Feb. 12, 1950 to be played at the Grape Bowl in Lodi.
The players were seniors and alumni from each college selected by each quarterback. Each quarterback was to be his team’s coach. LeBaron and Celeri were each paid $2,000, and other players were paid $575 each. Celeri’s team was to borrow uniforms from the San Francisco 49ers, and a sports shop outfitted LeBaron’s team.
Tickets went on sale for $2.50 each. It was decided that promotional expense would be limited to $3,000. Beyond that, all money made from ticket sales was to be split, with one-third going to each team and the remaining third going to the promoters.
The Jan. 31, 1950 Lodi News-Sentinel reported that ticket sales were soaring, with more than 6,000 tickets already sold in the Lodi, Stockton and San Francisco areas. Locally, tickets were on sale at Squire Clothiers Downtown. The paper reported that Celeri and LeBaron were nearly finished their rosters with seniors and alumni players from the 1948 and 1949 seasons. The patched-together teams would have little more than a week to practice.
In the days leading up to the big game, Lodi News-Sentinel Sports Editor Carl Underwood wrote about the team line-ups and the quarterback match-up. Both quarterbacks were small, with LeBaron only 5-feet, 7-inches tall and weighing 168 pounds, and Celeri only about 5-feet, 10-inches tall and weighing 175 pounds. But both were outstanding quarterbacks and played both sides of the ball, and were punt kickers, too. Underwood favored LeBaron, however, as “one of the trickiest ball handlers ever seen in T-formation collegiate football.”
Seats were sold out, and “standing room” tickets were sold. Radio announcers made arrangements to broadcast the game live. Police, boy scout troops and Lodi Grape Festival committee members made plans to handle parking issues.
Finally, game day arrived, and it was a bright, sunny February Sunday. The stadium was packed with 24,218 people. There were more than 100 photographers, newspaper and wire services sports writers, and radio announcers stuffed elbow-to-elbow in the press box stocked with coffee and bologna sandwiches.
It was a hard-fought, defensive battle, as Underwood predicted, but it was not a high-scoring game played that day on the muddy field. Since the quarterbacks were also the coaches, communication was key, but both teams of slightly out-of-condition athletes had very limited practice time. And LeBaron, who injured his throwing arm in practice, only threw six passes.
LeBaron got the ball to halfback Bruce Orvis, “the Oakdale Express,” who plunged over the line for the game’s first touchdown. Wayne Hardin kicked the extra point that was the difference in the game. The later touchdown by Celeri’s team wasn’t enough when the kicker’s attempt failed. The game ended with LeBaron winning with a score of 7-6.
After the big game, LeBaron served in the U.S. Marines and earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star in Korea. Beginning in 1952, he played professional football for the Washington Redskins for seven years and then for the Dallas Cowboys for four years.
Celeri went on to play football for the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Yanks and the Dallas Texans in the early 1950s and then played and coached in a Canadian league.
Vintage Lodi is a local history column that appears on the first and third Saturday of the month.