Review of Remembering the Stick

Travers, Steven R. Remembering the Stick: Candlestick Park 1960-2013. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2017. Copyright: Steven R. Travers. Pp. 357. No index. Photos: Black & white (11). $18.95.

Reviewed by Richard A. Macales

“You can talk all you want about Brooklyn and New York, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Dallas and Fort Worth, but there are no two cities in America where the people want to beat each other’s brains out more than in San Francisco and Los Angeles.” –Joe Cronin, San Francisco native, president of the American League and a Hall of Fame player and manager, reflecting on the 1962 baseball season.

“With the Dodgers now playing in their new stadium, there was a distinct sense that 1962 was truly a ‘big league’ season, a debutante ball of sorts for the West Coast…

“The papers, particularly the provincial San Francisco dailies, began to give the pennant race a front-page space, alongside a huge stock market crash, the Israeli execution of Adolf Eichmann, the Kennedy administration’s obsession with Fidel Castro, and the Mercury astronauts.”—Author Steven R. Travers  

Lyons Press, 2017.

No intrastate rivalry can match the San Francisco Bay Area and Greater Los Angeles. Beginning in mid-20th century America, there was not only fierce competition for luring the best sports teams away from the East Coast (and, later, the Midwest), but for becoming the epicenter of high culture on the West Coast — two musts to attract the best and brightest talent in various professions and trades to build a successful city. The race was on between San Francisco and L.A. Like their growing populace, both the Giants and Dodgers were driven to succeed; two solid family-owned and operated clubs, scouting and signing the finest baseball talent ever assembled before their moves to California (most notably headlined by Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax).

Steven R. Travers, author of Remembering the Stick: Candlestick Park 1960-2013, is quite possibly the best suited writer to chronicle what he calls “the north-south” rivalry. He grew up in the Bay Area and later lived in L.A. as a student, having attended USC (B.A., Communications); later honing his gift as a wordsmith through the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. He knows both cities intimately, and is himself a former minor league baseball player. And nowhere does he express it more – literally and metaphorically — than through the two New York teams that transferred to California in 1958:  the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers.

For Travers, the apex of putting California truly on the big league “map” was the 1962 season, in which the Giants and Dodgers tied for first-place at the end of the regular season, forcing a dramatic best of three-game playoff series in the 2-year-old Candlestick Park and the brand-new Dodger Stadium. (This was before the divisional playoff system.)The Giants beat the Dodgers and lost a heart-breaker of a World Series to the New York Yankees in seven games. It was to be the beginning of a series of flukes and misfortunes for the Giants in Candlestick Park, known to the locals simply as “The Stick.”

Travers devotes almost 100 of 357 pages (which do not include an index or footnotes, unfortunately) to 1962. Included are separate chapters on the Giants fielding a multicultural lineup featuring some of the finest international talent before it was a common practice in Major League Baseball. The Giants featured Latino players from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba (most notably future Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, and the All-Star Alou brothers who played in the outfield at the same time in one game, a feat never duplicated). In 1964 and ‘65, the team brought in the first Japanese national, Masanori Murakami, as a relief pitcher.

Back to 1962: That season is most deservedly given the most attention in Travers’  lively prose, a fascinating look at how California sports — following the path of the Giants’ and Dodgers’ financial and competitive successes — evolved into an athletic mecca in pro and collegiate basketball and became home to one of football’s greatest dynasties, the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, who called Candlestick Park home from 1971 to 2013. For the baseball Giants, there would be only one more World Series appearance  at The Stick – the next one coming 27 years later, in 1989, along with the deadly Loma Prieta Earthquake, which struck just moments before the scheduled start of Game 3 versus the cross-town rival Oakland Athletics. The quake temporarily destroyed much of the city of San Francisco and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the major artery connecting the two sides of The Bay. The Dodgers, who won the World Series (vs. Oakland) the previous year (1988)  remained the iconic franchise of not only California baseball but also the most valuable sports team in all of American professional sports. 

San Francisco got the jump-start by opening Candlestick Park in 1960 (with help from future president Richard Nixon, working behind-the-scenes — which he was infamously known to do– with San Francisco’s political machine, comprised of both Republicans and Democrats, and without voter input). The opening of Candlestick was followed two years later (1962) by Dodger Stadium, the land gifted from the powerful L.A. City Council and the voters.  The critics couldn’t have been more opposite in their observations of the two ballparks: Candlestick got a unanimous thumbs-down; Dodger Stadium, across the board, viewed as the best ever. Travers asserts that the success of the Giants and Dodgers carried over to the state’s most prestigious universities, pitting Stanford and UC Berkeley in the Bay Area versus UCLA and USC, recruiting top coaches and athletes to build and sustain nationally ranked football and basketball (in particular) programs. And like the Dodgers, the L.A. schools prevailed. With newfound affluence, other growing American cities with minor league teams followed California as the national trendsetter, recognizing they needed major league sports teams to be recognized as major league cities. To some it was smart business; to others it smacked of corruption; more about that below.

Initially, as author Travers points out, L.A. won on the field, as well as in the “look” and fan-friendliness of Dodger Stadium. In their first decade and a half, the Giants finished second five seasons in a row (1965-69) and never won a World Series while playing in Candlestick Park; the Dodgers consistently finishing in first place (just enough to keep the L.A. mindset from shouting, “What have you done for me lately?”). The standings told the story of San Francisco as a whole during the 1960s and ‘70s. It was second to L.A. in every aspect. That would also apply to the NBA’s Lakers over the Warriors and the NFL’s Rams prevailing over the 49ers. But by the 21st century, San Francisco emerged as the dominant sports power. Going into the third decade of the century, the seismic shift may be going in L.A.’s favor (except in basketball and hockey, played in San Jose).

Baseball fans complained about the arctic-like conditions and location of Candlestick Park. Located above a landfill, today it probably could not have been built at all; it contained toxic waste, according to Travers. He tells us that the stadium was also located near a bad section of town (now gentrified); gang members demanding protection money from fans for safely parking their cars. The Oakland Athletics’ arrival from Kansas City in 1968 was the beginning of the rapid decline of the Giants. Until 1980, neither of the Bay Area teams drew 1 million fans per season, with a couple exceptions. The Giants bottomed out, drawing 512,000  fans in 1974 (the same year the Oakland Athletics won their third straight World Series, and the A’s drew only 845,000 – lowest of any championship club). Not since World War II in New York had the Giants drawn so few fans. Attendance figures, incidentally, are not listed in Travers’ book. Two years later (1976), the Giants were ready to move to Toronto when, at the last minute – literally — a local civic-minded businessman saved the team. A few seasons later, another move to Tampa was slated to happen but stopped again at the last moment. This time, the deep-pocketed new owner, Peter Magowan, owner of Safeway stores, began the upward turn of the team by signing Barry Bonds and building a privately financed stadium. Bonds and the steroid/performance enhancement controversy are discussed in a chapter by Travers. (He also wrote a book about Bonds.)

Wind was rarely an issue for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers fans, including, as Travers points out, Clint Eastwood, the hard-edge San Francisco movie cop, “Dirty Harry” who saw to it that The Stick be included in a rare cinematic scene. Dodger Stadium, in contrast, was used to the “star” treatment. Candlestick Park finally fielded a championship team featuring two of the greatest players EVER – the clean-cut quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice. The 49ers won five Super Bowls between 1981 and ’94 and hosted several NFC Conference Championship Games.

What is missing or only lightly touched upon in Travers’ outstanding look at San Francisco sports are non-athletic issues that affected dwindling attendance: the 1960s counterculture’s focus on social issues (mainly anti-Vietnam War, pro-civil rights and pro-free speech), the much glamorized yet destructive drug culture, a preference for live rock ‘n’ roll, the preponderance and lure of cults for young people (most notably and deadly Jim Jones’ People’s Temple), and the anarchist Symbionese Liberation Army which kidnapped San Francisco newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. The Beatles’ last live concert ever as a group took placed in front of a half-empty  Candlestick Park in 1966; the peak of their popularity. That deserved more coverage. San Francisco native and L.A. transplant O.J. Simpson, whose story is well known by most, was given a large chapter (10 pages) that could have been devoted to other topics in a more in-depth analysis.

Travers gives the reader an interesting factoid: The soon-to-be Las Vegas-bound Oakland Raiders actually played their first two seasons in Candlestick as a San Francisco –based team. The Raiders’ part-owner (Charley Harney) was the infamous owner of the beautifully named “Candlestick Point” landfill and self-appointed contractor for Candlestick Park who promised to build the stadium for $5 million. In the end it cost the taxpayers $15 million to complete, but was a tidy profit for Mr. Harney. It took an undertaker named Frank Yuell to bring the team to Oakland, much to the relief of San Franciscans who dislike the Raiders perhaps even more than the Dodgers. Yuell built the Raiders, in 1962, an erector-set-type stadium as a temporary home for the team until the Oakland Coliseum was completed for them in 1966. From their humble beginnings, the Raiders seem to have been involved in city swapping and stadium deals that leave a bad trail wherever they go.

Travers’ book does a wonderful job of detailing the rivalry between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Oakland, minus the Golden State Warriors (returning to San Francisco after a 48-year hiatus)that have surpassed the Lakers as the best in basketball, is another matter. It appears San Francisco, “The City,” has emerged all-around as the big winner in California north, south, or east. No more second-place for Silicon Valley.

(Richard Macales is a former longtime senior writer and public information officer for UCLA. For SAH, he authored Remembering the Los Angeles Sports Arena: One Year After a Cultural Icon’s Demolition. The article was a finalist for a National Press Club Award. He is a contributor to American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson [Greenwood/ABC-Clio]).

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