It was warm, clear, sunny and windless in Candlestick Park, and the large crowd was bursting with enthusiasm as the Giants defeated the Dodgers 4-2 on Opening Day of the 1976 baseball season in San Francisco. Now there, humdrum though it may appear on casual examination, is a piece of information that is extraordinary in every particular. Warm, clear, sunny, windless in Candlestick Park? Large crowd? Bursting with enthusiasm? Giants defeat Dodgers? Opening Day in San Francisco? Why, only a few months ago there seemed to be about as much chance of there being a baseball opener in San Francisco as there was of Ronald Reagan embracing Maoism. That it should open so auspiciously, considering the obstacles flung in its path, is nothing short of miraculous. And if we are to believe that the course of true love never does run smooth, then the Giants and the fans they have so successfully estranged in recent years should now enjoy a romance that will make the Brownings' seem little more than a peccadillo.
There is some evidence that this may be the real thing. When it was finally and officially announced last month that the Giants would remain in San Francisco after many months of speculation that they would move to foreign soil, 4,000 people crammed into a ballroom at the Jack Tar Hotel to celebrate. Giant players, unaccustomed to seeing so many people in one place, stared in bewilderment at the teeming mass. "This is very un-San Franciscan," said Shortstop Chris Speier. On the eve of last week's opener there was a parade through the downtown streets and a brown bag luncheon rally in Union Square, normally a refuge for pigeons, mystics and the dispossessed. All of them were dislodged this day by about 5,000 Giant rooters. "I like it, I like it, I like it," said the ebullient pitcher, John (The Count) Montefusco, as he addressed the multitudes. "You people are in my heart."
The next afternoon The Count provided the Giants' only Opening Day disappointment. He promised the fans a shutout, and San Franciscans have come to take Montefusco's boasts seriously, for last season he predicted he would be the Rookie of the Year and, indeed, he was. His shutout lasted only two batters before Dodger Centerfielder Dusty Baker hit a home run. From then on, Montefusco handled Los Angeles with ease and benefited from a rare outburst of slugging from his teammates. Rightfielder Bobby Murcer tied the game with a homer in the bottom of the first, and was aboard on a single three innings later when Leftfielder Gary Matthews hit one over the fence in front of the left-field seats to put the Giants ahead to stay. Matthews' swat was greeted by a tumultuous roar from the crowd of 37,261, the Giants' biggest Opening Day assemblage in a decade.
The crowd might well have exceeded 50,000 had not a strike of city employees placed pickets at the gates of municipally owned Candlestick. There was no regular bus service to the stadium, and because many of the union vendors would not cross the picket lines, almost no food or drink was served inside. But in a spirit that is truly San Franciscan, the fans brought their own refreshments and helped clean up the mess afterward. Even more impressive than its size and resourcefulness was the crowd's passionate regard for the home team. "There was a buzzing out there," said Matthews. "It was the same kind you feel in places like Cincinnati."
The buzz had been faint in recent years. In 1975 the Giants drew only 522,919 customers and had the lowest attendance in the major leagues. The year before they attracted 519,987 to windy Candlestick. The team reportedly lost $3.5 million in those two seasons and nearly $6.5 million in the last eight years. The stars of the 60s—Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal—had all been peddled away, and the front office, headed by patriarchal Horace Stoneham, had grown old, tired and indifferent.
The Giants obviously were ready to be sold. At first it seemed the team might go to Japanese interests who would keep it in San Francisco. Then, on Jan. 9, it was announced that an agreement had been reached with Labatt's Breweries of Toronto, which would buy the Giants and move them to Canada. Enter the first of a succession of real and would-be saviors, the newly elected mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, a former high school basketball star and an avid sports fan. Promising a "battle royal" to keep the team in town, Moscone obtained a Superior Court restraining order that temporarily delayed the sale. He also threatened the National League with a $10 million lawsuit if it approved the move to Toronto.
Moscone knew he would not have to look far for one potential local purchaser. Bob Lurie, a millionaire real-estate man and a member of the Giants' board of directors for 15 years, previously had tried to organize a group to buy the team. He was personally prepared to put up half the $8 million asking price. Moscone brought Lurie together with Bob Short, the flamboyant Minneapolis hotelman and former owner of the Washington Senators-Texas Rangers, who was anxious to get back into baseball. The two Bobs agreed to split the ownership equally, and on Feb. 23, Lurie and Moscone flew to the National League meeting in Chicago to close the deal. There a tentative agreement was reached, contingent upon the new owners fulfilling some conditions. The most significant of these was that Lurie should either be the team's majority owner or its official spokesman. Short, who had caused baseball embarrassment by moving the Senators from the nation's capital to Arlington, Texas, was regarded warily by the National League owners. He was not in Chicago to defend himself, having slipped on a patch of ice outside a Minneapolis church and broken his elbow and pelvis. It was Lurie's lot to bring his wounded partner news of the league's decision. Short was outraged, and on March 2, only hours before the final deadline set for sale of the team, he withdrew from the partnership.
Enter the final savior, Arthur (Bud) Herseth, head of the largest independent meat-packing company in Arizona. Several weeks earlier, Herseth had contacted Moscone's press secretary to advise him that if either of the Bobs should drop out, he would like to join in the Giants' deal. At 2:45 p.m., two hours and 15 minutes before the deadline, Lurie and Herseth talked for the first time. By five Lurie was in the office of National League President Chub Feeney with a new offer in which both owners would share equally. It was approved immediately.
Lurie and Herseth are an unlikely duo. Lurie, 47, is urbane and soft-spoken. His father was the late Louis Lurie, a multimillionaire patron of the arts, boulevardier and friend of the great (he celebrated his birthdays with Maurice Chevalier). Bob necessarily moved unobtrusively in the old man's shadow. Ironically, he now is probably more famous than his father ever was. He is the hero owner, cheered for so much as adjusting his necktie in public.
Herseth is a man of the range who is unfettered by social custom. "I've been standing in cow dung so long that I guess it's rubbed off on my language," he says. He speaks rapidly, loudly and most of the time, and he likes his associates to have the common touch. "I told my lawyer that if this Mr. Lurie was some kind of big shot the deal was off," he says. "But he's just a nice common little fella. His suits even hang on him." Herseth shares Lurie's unbridled exuberance for their new property, a feeling they have successfully conveyed to the community.
Recently Lurie has achieved a measure of ubiquity, appearing on radio and television and at countless public gatherings. He seems unfazed by trouble. While giving the press a sample of the improved food to be sold at Candlestick—some hot dogs, for example, will be served on sesame-seed rolls—Lurie invited the pickets pacing outside the gate to share the repast. When it was rumored that the Dodgers might honor the picket line and decline to play the opener, he shrugged and said, "I was wondering what the next challenge would be."
New Manager Bill Rigney also directed the Giants after they moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958. He has been welcomed back by the fans as an old friend, and he, too, has given the team fresh color. When the rain that had pelted down earlier in the week providentially ceased for the opener, Rigney stood in the sun behind the batting cage, nodded his thanks to the Creator, then pointed at the center-field stands, which were slowly being populated.
"When was the last time you saw anybody sitting out there?" he asked. "Never is the answer. I tell you, it's a new show here." Then he gestured toward his players on the field and said, "But the act better be good, too, or we'll lose the audience."
So far, so good.