LaMarre: Up close, personal since Oakland Raiders' first year
[Editor's Note: Tom LaMarre is a native of Oakland who has seen the Raiders play in every stadium they have called home – beginning with the team's first season at Kezar Stadium. LaMarre does not usually write in the first person, but as the Raiders prepare for what may be their final game in Oakland (Monday night vs. the Denver Broncos), it is appropriate that he tell the unique tale of his relationship with the franchise.]
My dad took me to my first Oakland Raiders game in 1960, their first season of existence, against the Buffalo Bills at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
That was nothing new, since he had taken me to watch the San Francisco 49ers at Kezar, plus baseball games involving the Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, and then the San Francisco Giants when they moved west from New York.
But this began my association with the Raiders that has lasted nearly 60 years, and I have watched their games at every stadium they called home – Kezar and Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Frank Youell Field and the Coliseum in Oakland, and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
My love for sports came from my Dad, Lt. Col. W.O. “Frenchy” LaMarre, who crossed France with the 5th Armoured Division in Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army during World War II.
Then he came home to raise his family in Oakland and when I was young, I would grab the Oakland Tribune off the front porch, sit on his lap and read the sports page with him as he sipped an Old Fashioned or Tom Collins to relax before dinner.
When I turned 18 in September of 1963, my Dad bought me a Corona portable typewriter for my birthday and set me on the path to become a sportswriter, something he would never experience because he died a month later at the age of 53.
With my typewriter in front of me, I would watch football games on television and then pound out game stories on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. My mom showed the stories to our friend, Lonnie Wilson, who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Tribune, who brought them to sports editor George Ross.
On Jan 31, 1964, I went down to the Tribune for an interview with Ross in the sports department, and not only did he hire me on the spot, he had me stay around that evening to take phone calls from high school stringers and write stories on the games played that day.
With my first paycheck from the Tribune, I bought 1964 Raiders season tickets.
I remember the first game the Raiders played at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, which was built specifically for them, on Sept. 18, 1966, against the Kansas City Chiefs. However, I wasn’t there because I was in the U.S. Army Reserve and was on active duty at Fort Lewis, Wash., so I watched the game on TV.
However, my future wife, Cheryl, was there and she was on the field with her pom-poms as a member of the Skyline High song girl troupe, as the Raiders had invited the spirit squads of the six Oakland Athletic League high schools to take part in the opening day festivities.
When I came back from active duty in the Army, Ross offered me a job as a full-time sportswriter with the Tribune and early in the 1971 season I became the Raiders beat writer at the age of 25.
The Tribune had the first four seats on the front row of the Coliseum press box at the 50-yard-line, right next to the glass booth where Bay Area legends Bill King and Scotty Stirling broadcast the games over Raiders Radio.
As sports editor, George had seat No. 1, while I had No. 2, and for me it was the best seat in the house.
From there, I watched some of the greatest games and players of the era, and for the Raiders that included Hall of Famers Jim Otto, Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, Willie Brown, Kenny Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff, Ted Hendricks, George Blanda, Dave Casper and Ray Guy.
This is where the Raiders beat Joe Namath and the New York Jets in the famed “Heidi Game,” and where Stabler threw the “Sea of Hands” touchdown pass to Clarence Davis that ended the Miami Dolphins’ two-year reign as Super Bowl champions.
And then there were all those playoff games, including victories over the New England Patriots and reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 1976 that led to the Raiders winning their first world championship in Super Bowl XI over the Minnesota Vikings at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
There was “The Black Hole” behind the South end zone, Biletnikoff’s corner on the right side of the same end zone, and Cliff Branch’s corner in the opposite end zone, with the homemade “Speed Kills” signs hanging down from the stands.
And there were bigger than life characters such as owner Al Davis, head coaches Davis, John Madden and Tom Flores, linebackers coach Don Shinnick, “Double-O” Otto, Big Ben Davidson, John “The Tooz” Matuszak, “Snake” Stabler, “Mad Stork” Hendricks, “Marvelous Marv” Hubbard, Jack “The Assassin” Tatum, Phil “Foo” Villapiano, Pete “Rooster” Banaszak, Bill Romanowski, Skip “Dr.Death” Thomas, Sebastian “Seabass” Janikowski, and Art Thoms and Otis Sistrunk, known as “Salt and Pepper.”
Raiders running back Clem Daniels, the AFL's leading rusher and most valuable player in 1963, was my P.E. teacher at Skyline during the off-season. After beating me up playing one-on-one basketball after school, he would drive me to work at the Tribune because I didn't have a car yet.
And the players and fans lived those slogans, “Commitment to Excellence,” “Pride and Poise,” “Just Win, Baby,” and “the Greatness of the Raiders is in the Future.”
Although much of Oakland and the East Bay still loves the Raiders, in those days they knew them because the players were part of the community and drank beer with them in the parking lot after games and hung out with the fans at Clancy’s in Jack London Square, Pier 29 in Alameda and the bar at the Concord Inn.
Fans bought their booze at Willie Brown’s Liquors on Fruitvale Avenue and dined at “The Flanker,” owned by Biletnikoff on Hegenberger Road near the Oakland Coliseum, or several Burger Kings owned by Otto.
However, those days are long gone and soon the Raiders will be too, as they probably will play their last game in Oakland at the Coliseum on Monday night against the Denver Broncos, another charter member of the American Football League in 1960.
I will be there for that one, too, although not in seat No. 2, but probably somewhere in Row 3.
My Dad and George Ross will be there, too, in my heart and mind.
A childhood fan of the Oakland Raiders, Tom LaMarre has covered the team as a professional journalist for the Oakland Tribune, KTVU television, Los Angeles Times, The Sports Xchange and Maven for 54 years.