Features & Columns

Umberto Abronzino

The reopened Watson Park serves as a reminder of Umberto Abronzino, the man who brought soccer to the valley
HEAD'S-UP THINKING: Umberto Abronzino spent decades running the Peninsula Soccer League out of his barbershop.

A movement is afoot to build a field house at the recently reopened Watson Park to honor one of San Jose's all-time legends, Umberto Abronzino, credited not only as being the founding father of soccer in Santa Clara Valley but also as the hero that operated the Bascom Barber Shop for almost 50 years.

Originally from Italy, Abronzino, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 85, started the Peninsula Soccer League when he first came to San Jose in the late '50s. Watson Park was his main turf. Officially sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the Peninsula Soccer League still exists today, and from 1957 until his death, Abronzino ran the league out of his barbershop.

Just about everyone who has ever played the sport in Santa Clara County owes a debt to Abronzino. He started everything. He created the royal soccer bloodline of San Jose, and his home, outside of the barbershop, was Watson Park. He was an administrator, a referee and a tireless diplomat for the game. During the 1994 World Cup in the United States, he was Italy's Ambassador to the entire tournament.

Anyone who attended the original San Jose Earthquakes matches in the old North American Soccer League (NASL) from 1974 to 1984 will remember Abronzino as the timekeeper during those games. At that time, the NASL was changing the rules of the game in order to placate confused Americans, so they actually used to stop the clock during matches. At Spartan Stadium, Abronzino was the old guy who sat there on a raised platform, on the west sideline, with a handheld cylindrical pushbutton switch to stop the game clock, upon the referee's request. Everyone knew him. He was an institution.

Watson Park closed in 2005 due to toxins in the soil—the place was originally a city dump—and Abronzino never lived to see the park undergo its new transformation. After six years of hard work, a painstaking collaborative effort finally culminated with the park reopening last year.

Along with a playground, a dog park, basketball courts, a restroom, picnic areas and other facilities, a new soccer bowl, renamed Abronzino Bowl, contains two new soccer fields, one grass and one artificial turf, both of which have lights to allow night play.

As a result, San Jose Parks Foundation and the Soccer Silicon Valley Community Foundation are now raising funds to build a field house at the park in Abronzino's honor. The field house will include restrooms, concessions, office space, storage and a permanent exhibit about Abronzino and the history of recreational soccer in Silicon Valley, curated by History San Jose.

With that, allow me to digress with a hysterical and somewhat mystical side note: last year, Team San Jose led a media tour of the old Martin Luther King, Jr., Main Library on San Carlos Street, as it was about to get demolished. The old concrete building had recently housed some the city offices that the new City Hall didn't have room for, particularly Public Works, so as we toured it, many remnants still remained inside the building, leftover from when the city employees had finally vacated the place. In one pile of garbage, I discovered the entire 60-page roll of blueprints for the new Watson Park renovation project. To save the prints from annihilation, I took the roll and donated it to History San Jose.

Perhaps it is symbolic of the endless cycles of creation and destruction that always seem to characterize San Jose's belligerent, ham-fisted suburban-planning (d)evolution: A park is built on a former city dump. Toxins close the park 50 years later, just as the City Hall moves back to downtown.

Since there isn't enough room in the new City Hall for all the employees, Public Works gets relocated to the old MLK Library building. When that building gets destroyed, no one even cares enough to save the Watson Park blueprints they'd been working on, so a newspaper columnist donates them to History San Jose, who just happens to be helping envision a new field house at the remodeled Watson Park. Welcome to San Jose, the "global epicenter of innovation," as the politicians keep telling us.

In any event, raising money for the new Umberto Abronzino Field House is a wonderful cause. Without exaggeration, he probably affected at least 500,000 people in this area, over the course of 50 years. I am certain the field house will be here to stay.

The Abronzino Fund