By Joey Seymour
SAN DIEGO — What was just a bunch of “junk in the garage” according to Bob Breitbard’s wife, Lillie, turned into the vast collection of San Diego sports memorabilia, which is housed today in the sixty thousand square foot Hall of Champions Museum in Balboa Park. Bob Breitbard loved collecting sports memorabilia, especially items from great champions who came from San Diego.
In 1946, while president of the California Linen Supply, Bob decided to follow his passion of sports by starting the Breitbard Athletic Foundation, which honors local high school athletes. Breitbard himself was a star football player at Hoover High School and later became their coach. The combination of Breitbard’s collection, the Athletic Foundation, and later the Breitbard Hall of Fame (honoring professional athletes from San Diego), created the San Diego Hall of Champions, the largest sports museum honoring a single city in the country. Whereas the museum is one of the many incredible museums in Balboa Park, Breitbard who passed away of natural causes on Monday, May 17, was an original.
Robert Breitbard was born on April 28, 1919 in San Diego and grew up a fan and participant of sports. He excelled in football while at Hoover High and was great friend with baseball legend, Ted Williams, who called Bob “knucklehead.” They graduated together in 1937. Their friendship would remain strong throughout their lives. Many of Ted’s items, trophies and game used equipment are on display at the Hall of Champions, despite a law suit in 2006 by members of Ted Williams’ family who attempted to have Ted’s 1949 MVP trophy returned to them. After graduating from Hoover High, Breitbard went on to play football at San Diego State University. In 1945, he became SDSU’s fifth football coach. He would only coach the team for one year.
The desire to focus his life on bringing sports to San Diego escalated in 1966 when he built the San Diego Sports Arena and owned the buildings first professional team, The San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. A year later, he purchased the 12th team to join the NBA for 1.75 million dollars. They would be given the moniker the Rockets due to San Diego’s budding space age industry and the city’s theme at the time, “a city in motion.” Unfortunately, and with much contention, the Gulls folded and the Rockets were sold to an investment firm in Houston, Texas for 5.6 million dollars. The Gulls would return in other forms playing for different minor leagues and under different ownership, but the loss of the Rockets was upsetting to many San Diegans, despite low attendance numbers and poor performance on the court. Breitbard always contended that he did not want to sell the team, but due to major tax hikes on the Arena, Breitbard could no longer operate either team.
After the Rockets left in 1971, Breitbard continued to focus his attention on the museum (which officially opened in 1961), the Athletic Foundation, and the Hall of Fame. He was also a member of Tifereth Israel Synagogue giving much to San Diego’s Jewish Community. He also donated a great deal to the Sharp Hospital and Salk Institute while also sitting on the boards of the San Diego International Sports Council and San Diego Holiday Bowl. His efforts to persuade the Chargers to move from Los Angeles helped earn San Diego its NFL team in 1961 and his negotiations with Major League Baseball helped persuade the league to add the expansion Padres team in 1969.
Al Kidd, President of the San Diego Hall of Champions posted a video tribute on the museum’s website saying, “Bob had a big heart and he put a lot of his resources both personally with time and finances into a lot of causes here in San Diego, but in the end, the number one cause was the Hall of Champions.”
Breitbard lost his beloved wife Lillie on November 24, 1997. The two of them, however, will always have seats at the Sports Arena. Loge section 24, Row 1, Seats 11 – 14 are always saved for Bob Breitbard and will continue to be.
The San Diego Hall of Fame honors great athletes from or who represented San Diego like Dan Fouts, Ted Williams, Maureen Connolly, Greg Louganis, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Archie Moore, and Tony Hawk. Today San Diegans mourn the city’s MVP, Bob Breitbard for all that he did and for the conviction and passion in which he did it.
Joey Seymour is a Sports Historian and Author of “San Diego’s Finest Athletes: Five Exceptional Lives,” now Available through Sunbelt Publications at www.sunbeltbooks.com.