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A FAN'S VIEW OF BAY'S BALL

Oct. 23, 1989
Oct. 23, 1989

Table of Contents
Oct. 23, 1989

World Series
Herschel Walker
Wayne Gretzky
A & M-Houston
Ironman
Art Shell
Mark Spitz
Football's Week
Business
Yesterday
Point After

A FAN'S VIEW OF BAY'S BALL

Despite the dedicated efforts of invading media hordes to rouse buried passions, I don't sense just yet a truly bitter rivalry between the Giants and the Athletics. Oh, it's not that the teams don't have strong feelings about winning the World Series. And it's true that the two cities don't much care for each other, San Francisco tending to look down from its lofty prominences at the supposedly dèclassè community across the Bay, Oakland glaring back at its preening neighbor. But in truth, there is probably less animosity between the two cities now than at any time in the past. There is certainly less than there was after the 1906 earthquake, when a San Franciscan remarked to a companion that Oakland seemed miraculously to have been untouched by the disaster. "Yes," replied the friend, "there are some things even the earth won't swallow."

This is an article from the Oct. 23, 1989 issue

The two cities, however, have too many problems in common now to remain distant, and neither is entirely what it seems. Oakland is not part hick town and part crack capital of the western world, and San Francisco, despite its undeserved reputation for effeteness, is a tough place, where you order Chardonnay in a neighborhood bar at your peril. In fact, if you accepted the images of the two towns, the Giants would be lordly and dominant, and the A's would be scrappy and resilient, instead of the other way around. What's more, blue-collar Oakland has the polite fans, while those at Candlestick are as rough and rowdy as any in baseball.

The Giants and A's actually share many fans. When both teams won pennants this year, a general rejoicing embraced the two clubs as one. But this duality of allegiance will probably not survive the Series. By the time the final out is made, loyalties should be much more clearly defined. There will be boasting from one side of the Bay, snarling resentment from the other. In other words, it will be like old times.

Indeed, when I was growing up in the East Bay, near Oakland, a baseball fan knew exactly where he stood. You followed either the Oakland Oaks or the San Francisco Seals, both of the old Pacific Coast League. The first professional game I ever saw was between those two teams at Oakland Ballpark in neighboring Emeryville. Built in 1913, the Oaks' park was a ramshackle wooden structure with fans comparable to those at Ebbets Field. The most memorable was a down-and-outer nicknamed Geranium because of the flower he wore in his frayed lapel. He alternately cheered and denounced the Oaks in a voice that could be heard all the way to Fresno. That old ballpark looked like a tenement compared with Seals Stadium, a sparkling-white concrete Taj Mahal that opened in 1931. But Oakland Ballpark was my home away from home, and not entirely because it was so vulnerable to gate-crashing.

I lived and died with the Oaks. When I first saw them, they wore garish uniforms with white caps and red sleeves, on which were emblazoned green acorns. First baseman Cecil (Dynamite) Dunn, shortstop Bill Rigney and catcher Billy Raimondi all wore glasses, which, because I was also bespectacled, endeared them to me all the more. Rigney, now an executive with the Athletics, used the basket catch at a time when Willie Mays, who often gets credit for inventing it, was—as was I—10 years old. The Seals were much more stylish, in their pin-striped uniforms. They were the Yankees of the Coast League; the raffish Oaks were the Dodgers.

On Sundays the Oaks and Seals would play morning-afternoon doubleheaders, the 10 a.m. game in Oakland's 12,000-seat park, the afternoon game at 22,000-seat Seals Stadium. The split twin bills were, quite simply, a means for gouging the public, but the fans, many of whom crossed the Bay by ferry, flocked to them. In one of those doubleheaders, in 1946, the Seals' Ferris Fain dropped a bunt down the first base line and, instead of running to the bag, climbed all over Oaks pitcher Henry (Cotton) Pippen as he fielded the ball. The melee that followed remains the best baseball fight I've ever seen.

Both teams were great successes in the late 1940s. In 1946 the Seals, managed by Lefty O'Doul, drew 670,563 fans, a minor league record at the time, and the Oaks, managed by Casey Stengel, drew 634,311. There was talk of the Coast League becoming a third major league. Instead, the National League moved its New York and Brooklyn franchises to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, in 1958, and the Coast League, as I knew it, was dead.

At first, the Giants had a distinctly Coast League look. Rigney was the manager, and in '58 and '59 home games were played at Seals Stadium, a ballpark that I, now a committed San Franciscan, finally recognized as the jewel it was. But it was too small, and when San Francisco almost won the pennant in 1959, major league executives shuddered at the thought of staging the World Series there. When the Giants did win the pennant in '62, they were playing in a larger but lesser stadium, the already infamous Stick.

In those early years the Giants were, as they have become again, the darlings of San Francisco. Even the society crowd embraced them. The same swells who attended debutante balls could be found, dressed to the nines, in box seats at blustery Candlestick. It was also the era of the transistor radio, and on game days the whole town seemed to be listening to the Giants. The opera house finally banished radios from the premises after divas complained that discordant yelps from entire rows of operagoers were playing havoc with their arias. At Kezar Stadium, where the 49ers were playing the Vikings on the last day of the 1962 baseball season, Niner quarterback John Brodie was pleasantly surprised to find himself being cheered lustily as he settled behind the center in an otherwise unremarkable game. He gratefully waved for silence, a futile gesture because the crowd was cheering not him but rather the news coming over myriad radios that the Cardinals had beaten L.A. to send the Giants into a three-game playoff with the Dodgers for the pennant.

I was a news-side reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle that year, and during the rubber game of the playoff, my city editor sent me out to get "color" on the city's reaction to this momentous occasion. I was downtown, in a bar owned by my friend Sam Cohen, when Mays flagged down the last out and fired the ball victoriously into the Dodger Stadium bleachers. San Francisco, "the cool gray city," went bananas. At the moment of victory, verger Charles Agnews of stately Grace Cathedral played Handel's Hallelujah chorus on the carillon. And Cohen, quietly disengaging himself from the delirious throng in his joint, snatched a bottle of champagne, made his way outside and, with great formality, popped the cork and poured the contents onto the asphalt. It was a time, he had decided, when champagne should flow in the streets.

We all know how the World Series against the Yankees turned out. Willie McCovey hit that line drive right at Bobby Richardson, and, suddenly, the celebration was over. The Series loss was the start of a measured decline for the Giants, punctuated by five successive second-place finishes in the mid-to-late 1960s. Then, in 1968, with San Francisco's attendance already falling, the A's moved to Oakland from Kansas City. The Giants drew only 833,594 fans that year, compared with the 1.5 million they had averaged in their first 10 seasons in San Francisco. They were no longer the only game in town.

The A's were owned by Chicago insurance man Charles Finley, a most unusual fellow, who regarded his ball club as little more than an extension of his flamboyant personality. Who else would have upstaged his team by ostentatiously kissing his wife atop the dugout after a World Series win? Finley had a pronounced need to humiliate his perceived betters. He hired Joe DiMaggio as a vice-president in charge of nothing, for no other reason than to say he was the Yankee Clipper's boss. In the course of writing about the A's, I was once invited by Finley to have lunch in his pied-à-terre in downtown Oakland. The man who prepared our hamburgers, under Finley's exacting instructions, was, to my astonishment, former Red Sox flash Jimmy Piersall.

But give Finley credit: He knew how to put together winning teams, and his A's won three straight Series in the early '70s. Despite their success, however, the A's never were much of a draw, attracting more than a million fans only twice, and it was generally agreed that the Bay Area could not support two teams. The big turnaround came when 1) Horace Stoneham sold the Giants in 1976 to native San Franciscan Bob Lurie, and 2) Finley unloaded the A's four years later to another local concern, the Walter Haas family. The new owners skillfully cultivated their markets and, more important, built successful teams. Together, the A's and the Giants attracted nearly 4.7 million fans this year. And if San Francisco voters approve construction of a downtown ballpark in next month's referendum, the Bay Area should retain both franchises for years to come.

So here we are with the baseball world in our lap. By all rights, I should be a fan whose loyalties are sorely tested by this trans-bay battle. The East Bay is where I grew up and went to school; San Francisco has been my home for more than 30 years. But let's put it this way: The Giants got here first, and I'm a stickler for tradition. Anyway, all of this is a far cry, I tell myself, from the days of Rigney, Raimondi and Dynamite Dunn.

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