The county north of Oakland continues to bear the name that was originally given to the whole large area on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Contra Costa, the region was called, or, literally, the opposite shore. Even then, when the padres from Spain first settled the north of California and placed a cross in the hills above the Bay, the east shore was the other side. By the time Oakland was incorporated in 1852, San Francisco was already a worldly city across the Bay and a romantic notion that churned the imaginations and hopes of men across a continent. Oakland, if it was recognized at all, was nothing but an opposite shore, as it has remained, a city of limited attraction and no style.
It is unfair, perhaps, that Oakland always has had to suffer so in the shadow of a glamorous neighbor. Geography has not been kind, for most other American cities also would be damned by intimate comparison to San Francisco. Oakland, at any rate, has long believed this and found a comfortable pity for itself in the bargain. But, then, what has Oakland produced on its own?
Jack London lived and wrote and drank there; Don Budge left there to become the city's only world champion; many Negro athletes of more recent vintage have left there to gain a substantial national fame; Senator William Knowland might have been Ike's running mate in '52 if there really had not been a new Nixon then. Otherwise, Oakland seldom has received a mention, except in the intolerant calumny dispensed by San Francisco or in the intellectual sneers from its unprotected flank—Berkeley—where University of California students claim they enter Oakland only to picket or to drink in the bars along Seventh Street, since draft cards (singed or otherwise) are not closely inspected for proof of age.
Suddenly, however, as Oakland has begun to collect professional athletic teams in abundance—more teams, in fact, then almost any place—all of this has changed. The city's first plunge toward sporting fame came with the arrival of the Oakland Raiders, now patriarchs at the age of 8. Then last year, in bewildering succession, came the Oakland Clippers, Oakland Seals and Oakland Oaks. And last, the Oakland Athletics, who arrive for opening day on April 17 with a disreputable ball club from Kansas City and an executive vice-president named Joe DiMaggio, who probably counts for more than the whole roster.
April 1, 1968
Including the San Francisco Warriors—who lost their high scorer, Rick Barry, to the Oakland Oaks but who schedule half their home games in Oakland—the East Bay city has 5½ professional teams, which is more than twice as many as vaunted San Francisco and more than any other metropolis in the nation except New York and Chicago. And in company with New York this year, Oakland is also the site of a heavyweight championship fight—Jerry Quarry will meet Jimmy Ellis there for the WBA part of the world title on April 27. For a modest city of 400,000 which refused to support a bond issue that would have paid for high school extracurricular activities, including athletics, these are remarkable accomplishments—and perhaps overwhelming ones.
The teams all have come so fast that, among other things, Oakland has neglected to support them. People in Oakland tend to gloss this over. The point, they suggest, is just to have all these teams. Since Oakland also has a surfeit of mayors—one being in jail—explaining away excesses comes easy. The city gushes with pride as it has never dared to before.
"We're proud of Oakland and want people to know where we're from," said Charles O. Finley—who is from La Porte, Ind.—shortly after disembarking in town and announcing that the A's would wear OAKLAND on the front of their uniforms, home and away.
This was a very important thing to Oakland, for two of the other teams—the Clippers and the Seals—first had been named just California. Pressure, subtle and from the Oakland Tribune, was applied to the miscreants, who, seeing their sin, quickly changed their names to OAKLAND. This makes people happy in Oakland. Everybody knows where Oakland is now, the people say. And indeed everybody does. Oakland is located in all the standings.
In Oakland, as elsewhere, it goes unchallenged that, riots and mass murders aside, the best way for a town to make a national name for itself is with a sports team. A team, it is believed with a child's faith, puts a city on the map. Probably this sentiment is a delusion; certainly it is no more than a wishful expression that has become, after long and fervent repetition, a hoary axiom that must not be contested. In a world of television, mass communication and saturation entertainment it is doubtful that Oakland is truly recognized by the distant fan as a city. More likely, along with San Diego or Anaheim or other such average-size communities, it remains only a vague receptacle for the teams that play there, no more real to the nation than the Gotham of Batman or the Central City of Winnie Winkle.
Since the cities themselves are convinced, however, that a "major league" franchise is the price of municipal grace, the effect is beneficial. Men have bought such indulgences for years and died paid up and happy. The franchises swell Oakland with self-esteem and, prancing in its fresh swagger, the city sees itself in a brighter light. Today every time reference is made to the colossal Kaiser Center, the following appositional phrase is automatically triggered: "the largest office building west of Chicago." In fact, the Kaiser Center, the largest office building west of Chicago, really is the second largest office building west of Chicago (the largest is in Houston); but whatever its rank, the way Oaklanders make the point it would seem that the structure must be growing more massive all the time. Similarly, the citizens boast of their new museum—which was designed by Eero Saarinen—as if it were budding like a flower and not just being put together by men in overalls who carry hammers and union cards. They praise Jack London Square—its restaurants and night clubs—and talk of an evening there as if dining out were a whole new concept. They won't, however, mention that Western Pacific freights still rumble noisily right down the middle of Third Street, cutting the square off from the city.
Boots Erb, a former Cal quarterback and now the proprietor of the Bow & Bell, is referred to occasionally as the Toots Shor of Oakland. "When I came to the square in '54," he says, "it was known as Planter's Dock. There were just a couple of restaurants, and there was nothing but dirt for the cars to park on. Now we have validated parking and the whole bit.
"I remember one time a few years ago," he says—and when he sits by the window in the Bow & Bell, Candlestick Park looms behind him across the Bay—"when I was back East and I met Curt Gowdy, the announcer. I told him I was from Oakland, and he said he didn't know where that was, so, like always, I told him it was near San Francisco. Well, the night before we played Houston for the championship last December, Curt was right in here having dinner, and he saw me and winked. 'Well, Boots,' he said, 'I guess I know where Oakland is now.' "
For purposes of sport, Oakland essentially is a stadium complex. Completed late in 1966, the complex consists of a magnificent stadium standing beside a magnificent arena—twin jewels that were constructed for $30 million. A civic committee headed by Robert Nahas, a geologist and real-estate developer, handled the project with an efficiency seldom seen in such enterprises. Nahas, a proud, exacting man who used to play basketball at Cal Tech, kept the undertaking free of political meddling. He managed to raise most of the money through public bonds, ones that had to be sold in distant places because, though San Francisco is the finance center of the West, none of the bankers there would handle bonds for an Oakland-Alameda County project.
The complex is technically within the Oakland city limits, but its true location—as its own maps trumpet—is best defined as the center of numerous concentric circles that eventually embrace a total of 4.2 million people who live within 45 minutes traveling time. The problem is that while the maps and circles are valid enough, many of the 4.2 million residents included therein are Negroes who live quite near the complex but cannot afford to visit it, and even more are San Franciscans who would not go to Oakland under any circumstance.
As a result, although the complex has been successful and modest projections of attendance were almost doubled in the first year of operation, the local sports franchises have been largely ignored. It is the special events that have made the money, and the novelty of those may be wearing off. In fact, everybody is dying in this crowded sports market. Even the Giants and Warriors across the Bay are losing customers.
But it is Oakland that figures to lose the most—in money and image—because it depends so on its franchises for glory. It has shaken off one master only to bow to another. After being so long in San Francisco's shadow it now desperately needs the support of the rich and powerful suburbs around it to retain the only eminence it ever has had.
Unfortunately, Oakland has also sold itself to strangers, to Texans, Floridians, Hoosiers, Los Angelenos. In its rush to accumulate teams—any teams—each franchise has come in with absentee ownership that has no real empathy for Oakland, or even Alameda County, but only for that hefty stockpile of 4.2 million people within 45 minutes. Oakland's own money has hidden under rocks whenever the subject of buying (or saving) franchises for the old home town was broached.
The franchise in the least stable condition at the moment is the Seals. Like Romney, the hockey team threatens to be a case of in early, out early. The Seals' youthful majority owner, socialite Barry Van Gerbig, left his large leased house in San Francisco in January to return to the peace and warmth of West Palm Beach. Married to the daughter of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Van Gerbig is a fine golfer and at Princeton was an outstanding collegiate hockey goalie who probably was a better drawing card than his inept Seals were this year. But, from West Palm, the young owner spoke sadly: "I personally have lost $3 million in a year, and that is enough."
The Seals owe the NHL around $700,000 from a November loan that falls due May 15. There was, as usual, no local money available, and the bankers across the Bay were no more enthusiastic.
It is difficult to imagine whether the collapse of the Seals would be more shattering to the NHL—which has heretofore managed to maintain an image of absolute popular and financial éclat—or to Oakland, which may be the only city in the Western world that can't support a big-league hockey team.
So Oakland's Coliseum may not keep the Seals, and it probably cannot keep the Oaks. The ABA team (including Rick Barry) almost certainly will soon move to Los Angeles. And thus, if its teams depart, Oakland would die, in a way, by its own sword, for the franchises are simply looking toward different territory that offers the same cold lure which attracted them to Oakland in the first place—new arenas. The rink in Vancouver is up to NHL standards. The L.A. Sports Arena is vacant for the ABA Oaks, and the ABA Anaheim Amigos can move to Portland, which has a modern arena designed by the same firm that planned Oakland's. Such are the whimsical realities of modern professional sports locomotion.
The saturation of teams may also cost Oakland its most valuable personnel commodity: Al Davis, the shrewd young boss of the Raiders. The Raiders are the only locally owned team. They also are the celebrated champions of the AFL, the rags-to-riches heroes, the pride of the community, the flagship of the complex. In gratitude, 1967 season-ticket sales dropped precipitously to 17,500, and the Raiders did not consistently fill the stadium with front-runners until their championship was all but assured.
Davis is not happy with the influx of new teams. His critics—and there are a few in town—maintain that he would not be happy unless all forms of competitive entertainment, church bazaars included, were outlawed in Oakland. Davis is not really that demanding, but he is adamant about not permitting the other Oakland teams to use the public-address system for plugs while the Raiders are playing.
"The success of the Raiders may have built a monster," Davis says, beginning in a philosophical tone but building to a controlled simmer. "The city is making a great deal of propaganda out of having all these teams. I have told Oakland people all along that they were wrong. I'm a great believer in operating only when you have a solid foundation to start from. The way they chose, taking all these teams at once, is not my approach to life. It is quantity for its own sake, with no regard for quality. They are boasting about the whole area, too, at the expense of Oakland, and the Raiders worked a long time to build up this city's image and pride in itself. Now, all of a sudden, we are supposed to have this great big happy family of Oakland teams. The Raiders don't want any part of that. The way I feel, under the circumstances, and bearing in mind that I made my opinion very clear from the first, is that if an opportunity presents itself, say, in the next couple of years, for me to move on to somewhere else, I won't feel that I am initiating the breaking of any trust with Oakland."
With or without Davis, Oakland at least seems sure of keeping the Raiders. But its hold on its remaining teams is tenuous. The Clippers always wanted to play their soccer in San Francisco and are in Oakland on the rebound. So, in a way, are the A's. Finley certainly would have gone to Seattle had there been a stadium there. Already some people in Oakland regret that he did not go. He did not even sign a lease until February, but, on the other hand, from the first he solicited help for every kind of free promotion to boost attendance. Even his master stroke of hiring DiMaggio may yet backfire, for already at least once in public he has displayed a certain petty jealousy at the affection in which the Clipper is held.
The Oaks are another sort of problem, for they simply are a shaky basketball enterprise that needs a bank more than an arena. The owners tried desperately to give away TV rights for a few years to any station that would co-sign a note in excess of half a million dollars. In a television sports market that is jammed there were no takers. The team, which has been drawing home gates of only a few hundred dollars, may gross less than $100,000 this year.
Oakland must contend not only with outside cities trying to attract its teams, but with the competition that exists within its own magic concentric circles. Before San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto even took office in January he indicated that he wanted to build a giant sports complex downtown.
And a new lion is also prowling around—San Jose. A flaccid, sprawling urban adolescent, San Jose possesses people in abundance. Not bound by geography, as San Francisco (pop. 750,000) is, or trapped by suburbs that reject it, the way Oakland is, San Jose may well grow into the third largest city in California. Though it is hardly 30 miles south of Oakland, San Jose will soon be wanting its own teams to put itself on the map.
Franklin Mieuli, the canny owner of the Warriors, still lives in San Jose. He grew up there when it was a pleasant little county seat. His grandparents were from Oakland. "It used to be," Mieuli says, "that wherever you lived in northern California—Oakland, San Jose, Marin County, wherever—San Francisco was The City. You went to San Francisco. You wanted to, and whether it was a ball game or a show or shopping, it was an excursion, it was something you looked forward to, it was an event. There certainly was no feeling of disloyalty to your own town.
"Now, everybody's thinking is reversed. People feel they must swallow local pride to come to San Francisco. Or they're indignant. You know, 'Why the hell should I have to go to San Francisco?' People come from halfway around the world, breathless, to get to San Francisco, and the people around here are annoyed if they have to go 15 minutes."
But except for those like Mieuli, who are emotionally and financially involved, the deterioration of San Francisco sports fails to concern many natives. In a sense Oakland shows more interest in the problem, because it is so completely conscious of The City, so anxious for its approbation, so hurt by its aloofness. Oakland fans cheer louder, it seems, not when their team scores, but when it is announced that a San Francisco team is losing. A visiting half-time band at a Raider game once made the faux pas of playing I Left My Heart in San Francisco, and the jeering was vituperative. Tribune Sports Editor George Ross still refers to the "NFL snobs." His staff's day-to-day coverage of the San Francisco teams is both fair and adequate, but, editorially, the Tribune is never satisfied just to praise an Oakland accomplishment if it can, at the same time, find a way to demean San Francisco in the bargain. This response is, apparently, a natural one, and even newcomers to Oakland pick it up almost instinctively. Tim Ryan, a young Canadian who is the Seals' P.R. man and who does their play-by-plays, has already made mention of "the Oakland Bay area" on the air.
Al Davis shakes his head. "Haven't we passed the point of who is Oakland and what is Oakland?" he asks. "Too many people are still living on local color. They can't see past the Golden Gate. They keep telling me: 'Hey, we showed those 49ers.' I have to say, 'Look, can we show Green Bay? They're the epitome of football. Green Bay, not San Francisco.' "
Of course, in its own purblind, smug manner, San Francisco places itself far above the rest of this world, and of redemption, too, perhaps. "It is cosmopolitan to the world, but absolutely provincial to its neighbors," says Nahas. "I'll tell you," says Jerry Seltzer, who operates his Bay Bombers roller-derby team out of Oakland, "there is really nothing left for the people over there to do but go to the other side of the Golden Gate and look back in ecstasy."
Seltzer's office is in Oakland but he lives on the San Francisco side of the Bay. His Bombers play on both sides of the Bay, and he is one of the few Bay Area neutrals extant. "Even if the San Francisco people won't come over to Oakland to see anybody play," Seltzer says, "they are mature about the whole situation. The people over there have been absolutely fair in acknowledging Oakland's accomplishments. Perhaps this is what infuriates Oakland the most. Even when it at last gets something on San Francisco it still can't get San Francisco jealous. San Francisco is still able to look toward Oakland with confidence and humor. This is driving Oakland to greater frustration, and what you see is real bitterness in exchange."
Oakland is a city that has faced frustration from the first. But for a single errant sandbar that made access to the Oakland harbor hazardous, the East Bay would have been the more logical hub of northern California and all the West. Even history, it seems, is a game of inches. That Oakland had the more benevolent physical location was apparent early on and was already nagging Oaklanders by 1854 when the town's first mayor, Horace Carpentier, wrote: "Oakland's salubrity of climate, its ease and security of access, the royal aspect of its oaks, its enchanting solitudes, its facility of soil...its exemptions from the rough winds of San Francisco all conspire to make it a favorable place of resort and for residences for families who can escape the dust and turmoil of San Francisco."
Mayor Carpentier was not a man given to oversight. He was once elected to the legislature from Oakland with 519 votes out of 965 when a census just before had established that there were only 130 voters in the district. Another time he convinced the city to trade him its whole waterfront and all the rights thereto if he would build three wharves and a schoolhouse in return. Oakland did not win the litigation to get its waterfront back until 1910. In his lilting praise for Oakland the good mayor somehow neglected to mention that it was also an early center of sport—applying the term loosely and variously—long before the city established itself in other ways.
From the first, San Franciscans rated Oakland as a felicitous site for dueling and the town's reputation grew to the point that a Mr. Dorsey and a Mr. Bevin journeyed all the way from the village of Los Angeles to duel there on Sept. 21, 1854. Sunday bullfights were popular, and contests pitting bulls against bears were also much-approved diversions until an act in 1854 prohibited such "noisy and barbarous amusements on the Sabbath."
Spelling bees also were big for a time in Oakland, but baseball became the favored sport soon after its introduction. Apparently the first game ever played between the two largest Bay cities occurred in April 1866 when the City College of San Francisco nine ferried over to East Oakland to face the Live Oak Club. According to contemporary Oakland accounts, the visitors quit and returned to San Francisco after the eighth inning, refusing to complete the game. They trailed 84-39. The San Francisco bullpen situation has been alleviated only somewhat in the intervening 102 years.
San Franciscans maintain that the only viable rivalries with Oakland (i.e., rivalries that San Francisco will acknowledge) came on the baseball diamond. In 1887, thanks to inter-Bay competition, Oakland baseball attendance reached 150,000. In the 1940s, with Casey Stengel at the helm of the Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, Oakland drew more than 600,000 a year to its park in Emeryville, which had a capacity of only 10,700 per game. Sunday doubleheaders between the two Bay teams traditionally began in the morning on one side of the Bay, and then finished with an afternoon game on the other side.
Other serious competitions between the two cities have been rare, and many San Franciscans claim, most contemptuously, that the only development ever to cause its citizens to visit Oakland occurred after the earthquake, when the big city's bawdy houses had to be temporarily relocated across the Bay. On the other hand, as early as 1877 Oakland newspapers were berating their readers for planning Fourth of July celebrations and other such entertainments in San Francisco instead of staying home to relax and spend money.
Oakland's only remaining daily newspaper, the afternoon Tribune, does not choose to be so testy with its readers. It boosts Oakland unabashedly, blending Pollyanna and Goldwater under the guiding hand of its publisher, former Senator Knowland. In their pursuit of happiness for Oakland, Tribune staffers must use the Oakland airport, even though it is hardly more convenient than San Francisco's huge terminal and offers only a small percentage of the flights.
As the Tribune helps its airport, so does it promote the sport franchises as well Diligent Sports Editor George Ross is Mother Superior to the teams. Davis and many others single out Ross as the man most responsible for bringing all of the teams to Oakland. Keeping them there may be a greater task, though Oakland surely will prevail if no news is good news.
"We don't go out of our way to report every little rumor, every hint," Ross says. "We are part of this community, and we must consider that aspect. Sometimes if you spank a sick baby too hard it dies, and then what have you achieved?"
This laissez-faire attitude tends, others think, to mislead the teams initially and lull them into a sense of false security. Buoyed by Tribune euphoria, the Seals originally estimated that they would just throw open the gates and draw 9,000 a night. But nobody came to see them from San Francisco, where minor league hockey had drawn exceptionally well, and the people in Oakland were mad at them because they called themselves the California Seals. Averaging half their estimate, the Seals at last changed their name and agreed to try to get a few more bodies in the place with Tribune promotions, a desperation move that may have come too late.
Buddies to the end, the Trib has remained accommodating to the Seals and never questioned the failing operation. There was not even any protest when Burt Olmstead, the coach of the Seals, who has a reputation for being quarrelsome and rude to journalists, refused to be confronted directly by Tribune reporters Interviews had to be conducted through P.R. man Ryan.
"The delusions caused by the East Bay press—particularly the Tribune—create a serious problem," says Jerry Seltzer. "The Tribune has convinced the teams, and I guess itself, that there is something different about Oakland. This is ridiculous. The reason Oakland has all these teams is because of the stadium and the arena, not the people. Do you really think that the good folks in Hayward and Fremont and Castro Valley are any better fans than those in Passaic and Paterson? Look, put this complex in New Jersey or outside of Chicago or Boston and it would draw just as well as it does here—maybe better."
Senator Knowland, and his father before him, have run the Tribune since 1915 and, by and large, it is maintained, they have run the community in the bargain. The people accept that as a fact, anyway, and because of the Senator's right-wing views the Negroes in Oakland tend to be especially suspicious of the city's entire power structure. The Tribune handles the race issue gingerly, rather like a bear holding an egg. For instance, Negroes—and Tribune staffers, too—suspect that the paper plays down civil rights news in the first edition, the one that is home-delivered to many Negro residences in the flatlands of Oakland. Yet of all large California cities, Oakland has the largest percentage of Negroes in its population, nearly one-third. By percentage, it has half again as many Negroes as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Negroes constitute the one large segment of the population unimpressed by Al Davis and the Raiders, for the club has no Negro front-office personnel. Neither, so far, do the A's, and when six of the players arrived in town this winter to sell tickets, Negroes could hardly fail to notice that all six were as white as the ludicrous white shoes they also were required to wear. Unless Negro personnel are hired, a massive picket line is planned for the night the A's open their home season. "I mean, we'll get the thousands of blacks out of work in this city to ring that stadium," says one Negro. "Nothing token, baby."
Two years ago the Tribune failed to champion a bond issue to pay for high school extracurricular activities, including athletics. The bond issue was defeated, and while the Tribune then helped dredge up private money for school sports, the Negro community was angered. The school population has a higher percentage of blacks than the population at large, so there were racial implications to the voting. Besides, even though the stadium complex is privately financed, the combination of having a sports palace while refusing to support high school athletics struck Negroes as outrageous.
Bill Russell, the coach of the Boston Celtics, came from Oakland, but he holds no brief for his home town. "Don't worry about Oakland," he says facetiously, "it'll be a great sports town, just like all the right-wing cities. I don't know why that is, but it's a trend. This town builds anything for the amusement of the affluent but cares nothing for its poor. And worse, the whites really think that the Negroes can't see through them. That's what really galls you. Oakland calls the Negro an s.o.b. and really expects that he won't mind at all."
In Oakland, Russell attended McClymonds, once the most famous athletic high school in the country. Set amid the frail frame houses of West Oakland, McClymonds is a long, spare building, with rows of shutterless windows that make it look something like a factory. Inside the school, pictures of famous athletes hang in a glossy row—Russell, Frank Robinson, Paul Silas, Curt Flood, Vada Pinson and many more. Placed among them is a poster detailing the advantages of the early detection and treatment of VD.
There are 500 male students at McClymonds, but only about 150 participate in sport. Basketball is the game. "Football?" says Jack Drinkwater, who is white and the basketball coach. "There is no grass around here to play football on. It is strictly an environment thing. The kids don't know about football, so they come up here and say, 'I can't play football.' "
"Another thing," says Ben Tapscott, who is Negro and the track coach, "is that a lot of the boys don't have time for sports. They have to hold a job. Or they're just after that job so they can get that car and get that girl." Often, though, where there is interest there is no provision for the outlet. "We could have a 10th-grade basketball team with no sweat at all," Tapscott says, "but we have no one to handle it."
"What a shame," Drinkwater says. "The kids on the basketball team are the best ones I see in the school. They have something. They are something." The team practices from 2:30 to 6 every day, and the players ask for more. Five of the Mack seniors will earn college athletic scholarships this year.
"Last year when there wasn't any high school football," Drinkwater recalls, "we started to get scared that there might not be any basketball, either. The kids went out and sold candy bars to help. We told the best players, the ones with a chance at scholarships, not to panic, that if worse came to worse we could get them into Catholic schools. But what could we do with most of the kids, the ones who play but aren't that good, the kids who have athletics as their only diversion and sometimes as the only thing that keeps them out of trouble?"
Obviously a stadium complex and new pro teams were hardly the answers to anything in this area. Yet it is too easy to suggest that the question merely is one of bread and circuses. Oakland may have shown a curious sense of priorities, but that is not the heart of the matter. The basic fault remains, or rather a combination of two basic faults: the magnificent sports facility and the city's old trauma, its love-hate relationship with The City at the other end of the bridge.
So Oakland has two complexes now. It built itself the one thing San Francisco did not have and placed such emphasis upon it that it can be no surprise when fans and visitors—franchises and spectators alike—show fealty to the shrine and not to the life of the city.
The idea that the price of civic salvation is a franchise—or five of them—dies hard, as Milwaukee and Kansas City have learned. If life were that easy we only would need to make more leagues, and more stadium complexes, too, so that everybody could have one. Nor would we keep score at games, for losing would impair our neat delusions, fogging them over with the sad breath of reality—the kind of reality that Oakland is avoiding.
SAN FRANCISCO BAY
U OF C—BERKELEY