Bill Lynch: The first and last of Sonoma’s ‘Friday night lights’
Off season, in the wake of an awful year, it is perhaps fitting that the Friday night lights of Arnold Field, so much a part of every football season here since 1952, went out with a whisper instead of a roar. The Sonoma Valley High School Dragons played their last football game at our town field in the middle of March, 2021. No fans were allowed.
How different it was nearly 70 years ago on Friday night, Oct. 3, 1952, when coach Clarence “Ed” Edsall led our high school varsity team onto the field for a home game, the first ever under the lights.
Prior to that time, Dragon home games (daytime only) were held on a cramped field behind the high school just west of Nathanson Creek, where classrooms and parking areas exist today. It was small, with very little room for spectators.
Because most of us didn’t own TVs and televised sports were rare, live games played by town teams, be they adult or youth, were popular forms of entertainment.
Our only public softball field, on West Napa Street where Sonoma Marketplace is today, was small, poorly lighted with an old rickety grandstand. It wasn’t big enough for a football field.
Local merchants, Dave and Don Eraldi, both former Sonoma High students and star athletes, played softball in the local men’s league and saw the need for a larger and better field for the growing number of teams and leagues.
In 1949, in cooperation with the city and county, they formed a local nonprofit, Sonoma Valley Athletic Club, leased a large parcel of the county land next to the Veterans Memorial Building and rallied the community in support of a new athletic field for baseball, softball and football.
The effort was enthusiastically endorsed by many community leaders, including my father, Robert Lynch, editor of the Index-Tribune, and second baseman for one of the town softball teams.
Some of my earliest childhood sports memories are of watching my dad and his fellow Sonomans playing softball on that old diamond. They were mostly veterans who returned home after the war to restart their careers and families. They were teachers, doctors, merchants, gas station operators, shipyard workers (at Mare Island), restauranteurs, bankers, lawyers and insurance salesmen.
They all wanted a better place to play for themselves and for their children, who were eager to emulate their dads. They were mostly for boys in those days, but girls would eventually be added. Back then youth sports did not cost parents a lot in fees, nor did a kid have to be an athletic prodigy. No matter the skill level, playing sports was good, wholesome, healthy activity. Parents wanted their children to have more of it. Building a better sports facility became a high community priority.
The popular field campaign included the selling of “Friendship Bonds” at $10 per share. Everybody bought them, and many businesses contributed a lot more. The all-out effort included many volunteer hours from locals who actually built the field.
In June of 1952, the first ball game was played on Arnold Field, named in honor of local resident and WWII hero General H.H. “Hap” Arnold. The opener was packed. Not only did our town softball teams play, so did Sonoma Valley Little League.
When the Dragon football team ran onto the field under the lights in October of that year, it was another occasion for a grand celebration and a crowd of more than 1,000 fans showed up. The opponent was Fortuna High School.
The starting lineup for the Dragons including Bill Sanders and Ron Metcalf, ends; Bob Kiser and Charlie DeMartini, tackles; Frank Frago and John Oakes, guards; Dave Hinton and Bill Martindale at halfback, Gary Ellison at fullback and Don Pellandini at quarterback. Unfortunately for Sonoma, star running back Bob Kyle broke his foot two days before the game and was unavailable. They lost 28-6. But redeemed themselves the next week at an away game by beating Tomales, then returned home to beat Ukiah at Arnold Field, their first home game win.
Attendance at Dragon Friday night home football games was strong and remained so for decades. Friday nights at Arnold Field were big community events.
Back then, I never missed a game, even when I was in grade school. My friends and I would watch the action for a while, but when half time came, we’d have our own wild game of tackle football, no pads, no helmets, on the grass behind the visitors stands. We all wanted to be real Dragons one day and play where the big kids were playing.
Five years after those lights were turned on, I realized that dream when I stepped onto Arnold Field to play football in a Dragon uniform. There was something very special about representing our community on our hometown field and hearing family, friends and neighbors cheering from the stands.
Several generations of Sonoma Valley kids have enjoyed the same thrill since then. It was one of those kinds of legacies that you hope will carry on forever. But like so many traditions, its time has come and gone.
Will the new, multi-million dollar, modern, artificially turfed field behind the high school develop the same kind of local fan attendance, loyalty and enthusiasm? For the sake of our kids, I hope so. To this day, I’m grateful to the Eraldi’s and all the people of my parents’ generation for building a community facility that gave so many of us a very special arena in which to play the games that gave us great joy.
I wish the same for all the generations who follow.