This is a great time of year to be thankful for what we have, where we have been, and what the future holds. Although the Chargers have lost their way a bit in recent years, the month of December used to hold such incredible promise! This advent calendar is an attempt to hearken back to these days of December joy. Each day will bring a new advent from the Bolts’ history that make it wonderful to be a Chargers fan.
Dec. 9: Barron Hilton and the Birth of the Chargers
Several finer points in this article are colored by a 2009 article in the LA Times.
But first, let’s set the stage.
In the fall of 1959, the AFL was just getting started. The established NFL was openly laughing at the attempts of this newcomer, but secretly fearing the competition. The first step for the AFL would be to hold a draft and attempt to invade what was previously a monopoly held by the NFL.
Texas oilman Lamar Hunt had started the AFL, this brave new league of professional American football. Among his owners were Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers and Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills. Hunt asked a friend, former tennis star Gene Mako, whom he might seek for ownership in Los Angeles. LA was a necessity to make the league a reality. Mako said Hilton, son of Hilton Hotel originator Conrad Hilton, and a successful entrepreneur in his own right, was the man for the job.
The AFL began play in 1960, and its wide-open style caught on quickly, although not everywhere. Hilton's Chargers were sharing the Coliseum with the Rams (Editor’s Note: History is cyclical), and LA seemed preoccupied with movies, beaches, and everything but upstart football.
"We were averaging 13,000-14,000 people," Hilton says, "and that looked pretty ugly in the Coliseum."
Hilton held a contest to name the burgeoning team, and the winner was "Chargers." An oft-quoted theory holds that he picked the name because he had a credit card company, Carte Blanche.
"It was after the trumpet call, followed by the roar of 'Charge,' [at USC games]" he says. "It never had a thing to do with the credit card."
He also had the lightning bolt on the helmet designed, being careful to avoid making it look like that of the Air Force Academy.
"I have a passion for flying, and that's why I wanted the bolt," he says.
The Chargers played only one season in LA. The pastures seemed greener in San Diego, and Barron hated sharing the spotlight (and fighting for crowdshare) with the Rams. By the time the Chargers had moved into their new stadium, the NFL had seen the financial foolishness of competing bidding wars for players and merged with the AFL. They cut the deal in 1966 and began playing as the current NFL in 1970.
Barron Hilton owned the team outright for six years. He eventually was ‘forced’ to sell to Gene Klein. He sold because the Hilton Corp. had asked him to take over the business, and to do so without spending time on football. His original investment had been $25,000 and the price Klein paid for controlling interest was $10 million.
Eventually, Hilton had to sell all of his interest in the team, largely because of his ownership of the Las Vegas Hilton and its successful sports betting business. Hilton sold another piece of the Chargers to the Spanos family in 1981. They agreed on the terms during a golf game at the Bel-Air Country Club.
"Between the eighth and ninth holes," Hilton says.
Barron Hilton is still a common sight at Chargers games. He has been honored more than once on the field. As recently as 2009, Hilton was quoted:
"I hope Los Angeles gets a team," he says, "but I sure hope it isn't San Diego. They gave me a home in San Diego, and I'll never forget them for it."
Although Hilton only completely owned the Chargers for six years, these formative years were incredibly important in forming the identity, location, and even the league that the Bolts play in.
Barron Hilton is 90 years young, a veteran of WWII, an entrepreneur, and an icon that made football what it is today for more than just the fans of California.
With the death of the Bills' Ralph Wilson in 2014, Hilton became the last surviving member of the Foolish Club – the nickname the original AFL owners gave each other, as they absorbed the start-up expenses and player salaries necessary to compete with the established NFL.
Without Hilton, there certainly would not be a Chargers—at least, as we know them!
-Jason “It’s Barron repeating how important he was” Michaels