Review of The Giants and Their City

Mitchell, Lincoln A. The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992. The Kent State University Press. 2021. Pp. 251. Acknowledgments, end notes, index, introduction, photographs, $25.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.

The Giants are a proud baseball franchise. With 23 pennants and eight World Series championships, the team is second only to their ancient rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in National League titles (24), and third overall behind the Dodgers and New York Yankees, who have won 40 American League pennants. The Giants won three World Series titles over a five-year stretch from 2010 to 2014, bringing the franchise its first overall title since the franchise moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958.

But in 1976, the Giants were in trouble. With only one World Series appearance in 1962 and a playoff spot in 1971 — plus Candlestick Park, a stadium that was cold, dank and windswept — the team was on the verge of moving, perhaps to Toronto. That is the focus of Lincoln A. Mitchell’s book, The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992Mitchell’s narrative is like a bookend, beginning with the Giants’ possible shift to Canada in 1976 and its near move to the west coast of Florida in 1992.

Mitchell focuses on the Giants during the ownership of owner Bob Lurie, who bought the team and kept it in San Francisco. Mitchell, a native San Franciscan who was in the stands when the Giants clinched the National League pennant in 1989, delves into gritty Bay Area politics that featured in-fighting, jockeying for position and a devastating pair of assassinations.

The Kent State University Press, 2021.

The Giants and Their City is Mitchell’s seventh book. He has written about the Giants before in his 2018 work, Baseball Goes West: How the Dodgers and Giants Shaped the Major Leagues.  But Mitchell’s latest book is a bit more personal. An unabashed Giants fan, Mitchell spins stories about the players who excelled during Lurie’s tenure in San Francisco — Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, Rick Reuschel, John Montefusco, Dave Dravecky, Willie McCovey, Vida Blue and others. Mitchell’s interviews also include Lurie, Blue, Mitchell, Clark, Dravecky and Mike Krukow. Mitchell also opens a window into the politics of San Francisco by interviewing former mayors Art Agnos, Frank Jordan and Dianne Feinstein. 

Lincoln Mitchell is an adjunct research scholar at Columbia University in New York, where he received his doctorate. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Mitchell has written about policy and politics, teaches political science at Columbia and was on the faculty of Columbia’s School of International Affairs from 2006 to 2013.

Impressive credentials as a scholar, but Mitchell’s passion is the Giants. And it shows. Mitchell started his work on the book by interviewing Lurie in January 2019. Mitchell’s interviews took shape in different places. He told the Pandemic Baseball Club that he interviewed Clark in the dugout of Oracle Park and that Blue even signed a baseball for him. The interview with Montefusco took place with Fox News blaring in the background, “which was a little disturbing.”

The team Lurie bought was “almost the definition of mediocrity” in 1976, Mitchell writes (p. 12). Mitchell gives the reader a year-by-year rundown of how the Giants did, but there were few shining moments early under Lurie’s stewardship. Certainly, the Giants’ run to the playoffs in 1987 and their pennant-winning 1989 season are highlights. So was Mike Ivie’s pinch-hit grand slam in a May 1978 game that helped defeat the Dodgers, a feat called “the most memorable moment in an oddly memorable season.” (p. 55). It was also the first “truly memorable” moment during Lurie’s years as the Giants’ owner and the first year that 10-year-old Lincoln Mitchell truly paid attention to the team. Another high-water mark was Joe Morgan’s home run at the end of the 1982 season that spoiled the Dodgers’ bid win the NL West title. “Morgan’s home run was one of the great highlights of a pretty rough period for the Giants,” Mitchell writes (p. 101).

As a side note, Mitchell brings up Will Clark’s memorable lip-reading episode against Chicago Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux in Game 1 of the 1989 NLCS. Clark knew what Maddux was going to throw after the Cubs pitcher and catcher Rick Wrona conferred at the mound, and he hammered an inside fastball for a home run that gave the Giants an 8-3 lead. “That was the read the lips deal,” Clark told Mitchell (p. 173). You will notice that pitchers now cover their mouths with their gloves when holding a conference with their catcher or manager.

Despite some successes, the Giants always seemed to disappoint. The ’87 squad blew a 3-2 series lead to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS and were swept by the Oakland Athletics in the 1989 World Series. The result in the ’89 Fall Classic, however, pales in comparison to the earthquake that rocked the Bay Area just before the start of Game 3 at Candlestick Park.  Mitchell writes that Commissioner Fay Vincent, eager to start the Series again, proposed finishing it in San Diego. The normally placid Lurie nearly came out of his chair and told the commissioner that something like that would happen over his “dead body.” (p. 196). “I didn’t have the first World Series in (27) years to go to San Diego and finish it,” Agnos told Mitchell, quoting Lurie’s reaction. (p. 196). That persuaded Vincent to delay the World Series and finish it in the Bay Area.

Mitchell’s narrative about the earthquake is particularly interesting, especially the reaction of the players and the media covering the event. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins tells Mitchell that hearing the earthquake as it happened was unnerving. “Lyle (Spencer of the New York Post) and I looked at each other,” Jenkins said. “This is it. We’re rocking back and forth. We can’t keep our balance. We’re grabbing a rail. This is it. This is the big one. We’re going down. Nice knowing you. And then it calms down.” (p. 188).

Mitchell’s examination of San Francisco’s political tussles is much more interesting and provides texture over the fight to replace Candlestick Park as the Giants’ home. Mayor George Moscone was a progressive, and Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk became the city’s first openly gay elected official. Both men were gunned down on Nov. 27, 1978, by Dan White, a Board of Supervisors member who had turned in his resignation but sought to rescind it. When Moscone decided to appoint Don Horanzy and create a 6-5 Progressive majority on the Board, White met with Moscone at City Hall and fatally shot him before walking down the hall and gunning down Milk. The city was already hurting from the mass deaths in Jonestown, Guyana, where the Peoples’ Temple had a large contingent of San Franciscans. Mitchell calls the tragedy “a mass murder,” rather than what originally had been characterized as a mass suicide. “The assassinations plunged a city that was already reeling into an even bigger crisis,” Mitchell writes (p. 72).

Mitchell explains the several failed initiatives to build a new stadium in San Francisco. Most disappointing to Lurie and Agnos was Proposition P, a ballpark proposal that was defeated on the ballot within weeks of the Giants’ loss in the 1989 World Series. The stadium, located in the China Basin section of San Francisco, would have provided easy access to fans through public transportation, and the view of the bay was breathtaking. The weather was nicer too. However, the measure was defeated, and its loss was “a statement of priorities,” Mitchell writes (p. 200). The possibility of economic revitalization in the city was offset by opponents who believed that AIDS, homelessness and education were more important issues. Plus, there were opponents of Agnos who did not want to see him succeed and believed that defeating his pet project would help sweep him out of office in the next election. “Had the earthquake not occurred, the ballpark initiative almost certainly would have passed,” Mitchell writes (p. 204). “Had the Giants beaten the A’s, even with the earthquake, it probably would have passed. We cannot know what might have happened if October 1989 had played out differently, but we know the effect that electoral defeat had on the Giants and their owner.”

While there were disappointments, the Giants were competitive during the late 1980s, thanks to manager Roger Craig and general manager Al Rosen, who would be “the most successful and stable leadership team” during Lurie’s stint as owner (p. 124). What was not stable was where the Giants were going to play. Santa Clara County had been mentioned, but then Lurie looked at a cross-country option. The final chapter, “Tampa Bound,” could have been fleshed out more. The Giants were heading east, it appeared. The Tampa Tribune sports department even put out a special section on a day’s notice in 1992 (I was a member of that staff), touting the Giants’ move to the Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field) in St. Petersburg. There was a lot more intrigue than Mitchell hints at.

In his 2011 book, Uppity, former player Bill White noted that he worked in 1992 to keep the Giants in San Francisco during his tenure as president of the National League, adding that “I had arranged for a Bay Area investors group to buy the team when it looked like they would be sold.” White experienced shameful racial discrimination when he played for the St. Louis Cardinals, who held spring training in St. Petersburg during the 1960s. White, never one to mince words, spoke out against segregated accommodations and his omission from a “Salute to Baseball” breakfast in the city in 1961. He later got the rules changed, and the Cardinals did away with segregated living quarters in 1962 by opening their own complex, similar to the way the Dodgers camp in Vero Beach accommodated Jackie Robinson and other Black players. Those indignities do not fade away quickly. White has always denied that keeping the Giants out of St. Petersburg was not personal and that maintaining a franchise in San Francisco was better for baseball. But, how could it not be personal? That’s an area that could have been explored, but to be fair, that was more about St. Petersburg than it was about the Giants.

Peter Magowan saved baseball in the Bay Area when he bought the Giants from Lurie. The team responded with a World Series appearance in 2002 — San Francisco made it as a wild-card team, along with the Anaheim Angels, who won the Series in seven games — and then finally struck gold with World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. The Giants would finally get their new stadium in 2000, too. They would field good teams after that, “while embracing a character and personality that reflected the quirky, evolving, and extraordinary city they called home.” (p. 230).

Mitchell’s well-researched account and easy-to-read narrative goes a long way in explaining the complicated dynamic that dominates baseball in San Francisco.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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