The World Series seems all but permanently headquartered in Oakland now, but when it first surfaced there three years ago the thought occurred to the more perceptive of network news analysts that the rest of the country knew so little about the city that the A's could as well have been representing Katmandu. Sophisticated television viewers might identify Oakland as the butt of Gertrude Stein's celebrated jape, "There is no there there," but to most everyone else it was simply that amorphous municipality across the Bay from San Francisco.
So the TV people doggedly set about educating their public. One team of interviewers descended upon Jack London Square, where they collared, among others, Boots Erb, a former University of California quarterback whose Bow & Bell restaurant has been a gathering place for the East Bay sporting crowd for more than two decades. Erb recognized the interview as a golden opportunity to dispel the popular misconception of Oakland as a kind of Buffalo of the West. Last week he wistfully recalled his network television debut.
"I was prepared," he said. "I was going to tell them all about the museum, the symphony, the Kaiser Center, Lake Merritt, the views from the hills. I started out by going on about Jack London Square, its history and all that. Then some announcer asked me, 'Well, what else is there to do in Oakland?' And you know, even though I had all those things I was going to say, I completely drew a blank. All I could say was, 'Uh...' and that's where they cut the interview off. So when it came on the air, you got the guy asking about what there is to do in Oakland and me saying, 'Uh...' and then nothing. It didn't do much for the city's image."
Alas, it pretty much is the city's image, for Oakland appears to be one of those communities, like oft-maligned Philadelphia and much-abused Cleveland, destined never to be taken seriously. That Oakland survived the great earthquake of 1906 virtually unscathed was cheerfully attributed by San Franciscans to the certainty that "there are some things even the earth won't swallow."
May 19, 1975
Oakland's reputation is a bad rap not even its superlative baseball team can ward off, for the A's, too, have had difficulty upholding their dignity in the Marx Brothers scenario their owner, Charles O. Finley, has come up with. Even when they are comparatively serene, as they were last week, something embarrassing will happen. On Saturday, for example, Catfish Hunter, their old colleague who now pitches for the Yankees, returned to drafty Oakland Coliseum to shut them out 3-0.
"He's not in our uniform," said Team Captain Sal Bando, bravely confronting the obvious. "It's just like a trade. Except we didn't get anything in return."
When Hunter was heckled by an Oakland fan while warming up, he suggested to his antagonist that he would be better advised to boo Finley. The A's would dolefully concur.
Hunter's shutout was the second the A's suffered during the week. Two days earlier, California's Nolan Ryan set them down 5-0, but these were only mild inconveniences for a team that, even without Hunter, seems fully capable of winning another pennant.
As three-time world champs, the A's should be Oakland's pride and joy. For purposes of identification, they are, for as Oakland Tribune Columnist Bill Fiset has observed, "The favorite response of traveling Oakland people when asked where home is, had always been, 'I live near San Francisco.' Now they just say, 'I'm from Oakland,' and somebody will always come back with, 'Oh, where the A's are.' "
But the A's are hardly an integral part of the community, a condition evidenced by the team's perennially disappointing attendance. Last year, the world champions drew only 845,693—second-worst in the majors—and this year they should do about the same. The three-game Angel series drew a measly 12,045. Earlier in the week Finley had told the San Francisco Examiner he did not feel the Bay Area could support two big-league teams, reviving rumors that next year the A's will be playing in New Orleans or Seattle or Toronto or Katmandu, binding stadium contracts be damned.
The cross-Bay Giants are reportedly about to be sold to a group headed by Financier Robert Lurie. The Lurie combine is pledged to keep the Giants in San Francisco, so if, as Finley says, there isn't room for the two of them, the A's might be the ones to leave.
That would be a pity, because with their madcap ways the A's are reminiscent of an older, much crazier Oakland, a city that could zealously support the Pacific Coast League Oaks for most of their 53-year history. In 1946, playing in a ball park seating barely 13,000, the Oaks drew 634,311, or 114,324 more than the major league Giants attracted last year. One seven-game Oaks-San Francisco Seals series drew 111,622, or 54,266 more than the A's did in six home games last week. Casey Stengel managed the Oaks before beginning his Yankee reign, as did Charley Dressen before he started winning pennants for the Dodgers.
Oakland had a curious kinship with Flatbush at that time. Both communities were overshadowed by more glamorous neighbors and both had colorful, sometimes amusing baseball teams. In the 19th century parts of East Oakland were actually known collectively as "Brooklyn." The Dodgers had Babe Herman, who reputedly caught fly balls off his head; the Oaks had Smead Jolley, who once had a ball hit to the outfield roll between his legs, hit the fence and roll back between them a second time. In Mel Duezabou, the Oaks had an outfielder who, like Pete Reiser, tried to run through outfield walls in pursuit of fly balls. Infielder Artie Wilson was the first black—Jackie Robinson's counterpart—in the Pacific Coast League. And in fans such as the noisy "Mush the Ragman," the Oaks boasted eccentrics who would not have felt out of place in Ebbets Field. The Oakland ball park—which was not in Oakland but in neighboring Emeryville—was a shabby miniature of Ebbets Field. Built of wood in 1912, it nevertheless took five years to demolish in the 1960s.
The Ringside Bar, in a downtown neighborhood once known as "Bash Boulevard" because of the high incidence of cauliflower ears, is the closest Oakland has to a sports museum. Old photographs and newspaper clippings are its wallpaper, memories the source of its conversations. The proprietor, Eddie Butler, is the nephew of the late Jimmy Dundee, a fight promoter, who with Fight Manager Harold Broom opened the original Ringside 40 years ago.
"This is a good sports town," says Butler, a genial, garrulous Oakland chauvinist. "Always has been." He sought confirmation from a portly, mostly comatose figure seated down the bar beneath a blowup of a newspaper column written 32 years ago by the late Art Cohn, still the city's most revered sportswriter. "Isn't that right?" "That's right, Eddie." "No, the trouble here is Finley. A lot of people hate him with a passion. I go by what I hear. He just isn't around enough. In this town we need someone to go around glad-handing people. Finley won't do that. But I support the team. Always have. This town's had a lot of knocks but it's a good town. It's my town. But let's face it, it's a cheap town."
"I'm a Finley booster," says Erb from his somewhat more stylish establishment on the Square. "But he doesn't feel the pulse of the people here. If he lived here for a year, he might find that we're different from the people he knows in Chicago, where he lives. This isn't like L.A. with its weather and all those jillions of people. You could open a hamburger stand there, sell horsemeat and inside a week you'd make a million. Here, we're a little more choosy. You have to get these people out of the houses in all those little towns."
Those "little towns" would be the East Bay suburbs that stretch south to Hayward and Fremont, and east over the hills to valley towns such as Orinda, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, Pleasant Hill and Danville. Oakland is merely part of a larger entity, the "East Bay," and as near as the A's can tell, the fans they do have come from the peripheral communities and not from Oakland, where the average annual income is lower and where some 55% of the estimated 350,000 population is nonwhite. The money is in the suburbs, which the ballplayers themselves recognize because that is where most of them live.
"We might be better off having the stadium in the suburbs," says Bando, a Danville resident. "Baseball makes its money from the average-income people. There aren't enough of those in Oakland."
The Oakland Coliseum is not quite as windy as Candlestick Park across the Bay, but it is just as cold for night games. After Ryan shut out his troops, A's Manager Alvin Dark was asked if the Angel fireballer was more difficult to hit in the cold. "When it is this cold," he answered coolly, "it is hard just to play baseball."
The A's did not make it look all that hard. They won the first two games from the Angels 5-3 and 9-1, with a certain economy of effort, scoring all five of their runs in the last three innings on Tuesday and all nine in the seventh inning on Wednesday. Ryan did them in on Thursday, but they bounced back to defeat the Yankees 4-3 on Friday as Pinch Runner Matt Alexander stole second, moved to third on Catcher Thurman Munson's bad throw and scored the winning run on Sparky Lyle's wild pitch. The A's are down to two designated runners now, Alexander and Don Hopkins. They had three until Herb Washington, the professional sprinter, was released earlier in the week. Unlike Washington, Alexander and Hopkins can play baseball as well as run fast.
Hunter was masterful on Saturday before an encouragingly large crowd of 23,942 that cheered him as an old friend more often than it booed him as a new enemy. He threw only 88 pitches in a game that lasted but one hour and 37 minutes. He permitted only two hits, singles by Bill North and 20-year-old Claudell Washington, and he had the A's popping up so often that only three ground-ball outs were recorded.
His unlucky victim was Ken Holtzman, who now has a record of 1-4 although his earned run average is barely over two. Holtzman feels that with luck his record could just as well be 7-1, which is what teammate Vida Blue's is. Blue is having the sort of season he had as a rookie four years ago when he won 24 games and the Cy Young Award. "The difference," says Dark, "is that he's a better pitcher now." Blue has been asked so often what the reasons are for his early success this season that he now closes his eyes and recites by rote, "I am learning to mix up my pitches better."
Blue is the sort of fellow who enjoys turning straight lines into jests, which hardly makes him the quintessential Oaklander, who simply endures such wheezes as the one-liner a vaudeville comic delivered years ago: "The three worst weeks in show business are Christmas, Easter and Oakland."
A few years ago an Oakland man paid the premium price for his personalized California auto license plates. On them he had inscribed the single word THERE, which effectively put one there, although too late for Gertrude Stein's edification. There may yet be time for Charlie O. to find a there there, if only he stays around long enough.