The Green-and-Gold Tapestry on California’s East Bay: Memories of Major League Teams ‘Planted and Uprooted’ in Oakland, competed for attention and respect in shadow of San Francisco (Part I)

Sport in American History presents a two-part series on the beginning and end of Major League sports in Oakland. SAH reviews two books on the forgotten California Golden Seals and unforgettable Oakland A’s. Woven into the reviews––a look at the hockey Seals’ never-ending woes and the 50th anniversary of the Oakland A’s first World Series title (in the Bay Area)––is historical analysis of Oakland’s now-dwindling professional sports scene that goes beyond the books’ covers. The NFL Raiders and NBA Warriors, among other teams and leagues, are included in the reviews to provide a broader perspective. From 1972-76, Oakland, finally, had attained a measure fame and respect. The city enjoyed the prestige that goes with being a champion of sport, something which had eluded its cosmopolitan Bay Area arch-rival “neighbor,” San Francisco. And, then, each team in the Big 4 Major Leagues of sports began leaving

Currier, Steve. The California Golden Seals: A Tale of White Skates, Red Ink and One of the NHL’s Most Outlandish Teams. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. Pp. 498. Photos and Illustrations. Index. $24.95 paperback.

By Richard A. Macales

After the NFL Raiders won the 1980 Super Bowl, The New York Times ran a story headlined “OAKLAND, ‘A CITY OF CHAMPIONS,’ FIGHTS CIVIC INFERIORITY COMPLEX” (January 27, 1981; typeset in all capital letters for emphasis––ouch!). The Times wrote, “For years…Oakland has suffered…[as] a kind of Rosie the Riveter stepsister to San Francisco, the Baghdad across the Bay,” (a wordplay on a famous nickname given San Francisco by legendary columnist Herb Caen).

The timing of the story in The Times was probably not coincidental. On March 1, 1980, the Raiders had announced they were leaving Oakland and moving to Los Angeles. For the Raiders’ loyal fan base across the East Bay, their second Super Bowl crown was bittersweet, perceived by their boosters as a “dress rehearsal” for their forthcoming (and dreaded) “Hollywood premiere.” The Raiders’ move to L.A. was completed in 1982. They won the Super Bowl a year later. But after several unremarkable seasons and poor attendance in L.A., the Raiders made a U-turn and headed back to Oakland for the 1995 season. In 2020, they had a Las Vegas marriage.

While the Raiders may have been Oakland’s most famous and beloved team, they were not the first major league team to leave “The Town.” That notoriety belongs to the National Hockey League’s (NHL) California Golden Seals, who relocated to Cleveland in 1976, folded in 1978, and “transmigrated” back to the Bay Area in 1991 as the San Jose Sharks, playing in a hub of the then-fledgling Silicon Valley.

Seals evolved into Sharks. Welcome to California!

University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

Focusing primarily on the Seals’ years in Oakland, Steve Currier, an Ottawa, Canada-based hockey historian, relives “how not to run a sports franchise” in his book, The California Golden Seals: A Tale of White Skates, Red Ink and One of the NHL’s Most Outlandish Teams. The author carries us from the birth to the passing of the last major league team in the Big 4 of American sports to fold, as the Cleveland Barons faded into obscurity in 1978. To save face, the NHL called it a “merger” with the Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars). The Seals played in Oakland for nine futile seasons (1967-68 to 1975-76). In six of those seasons they finished in last place. The final two in Cleveland (1976-77 to 1977-78 in the Richfield [Township] Coliseum) were also spent in the cellar.

Before getting into the messy affairs of the hockey Seals, we must better understand Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area, especially as the East Bay city is on the verge of losing all of its major league sports team by the end of 2022. The Seals’ situation in Oakland did not emerge out of a vacuum, and their relocation out of The Bay Area was far from being an isolated incident. To the contrary, it began a trend of sorts, foretelling a change of sporting fortune in Oakland and its self-assured, self-proclaimed “superior” cross-Bay rival, San Francisco.

In the early 1960s, Oakland was obsessed with enhancing its gritty image. A group of politicos, powerful industrialists, and the media from the East Bay had a plan:  build a first-class stadium and arena in Oakland to attract the best pro sports teams from the Big 4 major leagues, drawing on the city’s proud athletic heritage and sports-minded populace. Many future pro sports greats were to be found in Oakland’s prep basketball gymnasiums, grid irons, and baseball diamonds. But ice hockey rinks and hockey players were almost nonexistent in the East Bay. The No. 1 name on the long list of sports legends that grew up in Oakland was Bill Russell, the NBA great and civil rights activist.

By 1966, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum outdoor stadium and indoor arena complex was completed on budget ($25.5 million) and on schedule. And it delivered championships––quickly! As such, Oakland finally earned bragging rights that San Francisco could not match. Back then, the football 49ers (who, incidentally, vacated San Francisco-proper, moving in 2014 some 40 miles away to Santa Clara, next to San Jose) had not yet won an NFL title, nor had the baseball Giants copped a World Series.

The four marquee major leagues of the era––Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL––were successfully lured to Oakland by civic leaders, bringing new or established teams as tenants into the Oakland Coliseum. And this ushered in the heyday of pro sports in Oakland. From 1972-76, baseball’s A’s delivered three World Series titles (1972, ’73 and ’74), basketball’s Warriors won their first NBA Final (1975), and football’s Raiders captured their first Super Bowl (1976). This impressive winning streak took place over five consecutive years. 

Upon the opening of the Oakland Coliseum, winning ways were initially delivered by two upstart teams and leagues in the stadium and arena (located just yards apart from each other), beginning with a title in 1967 by the Oakland Clippers of the National Professional Soccer League. The American Basketball Association (ABA) planted in Oakland the Oaks, who won the 1968-69 championship. However, by 1969, the soccer Clippers folded. And the basketball Oaks became the first team transplanted from Oakland to Washington, D.C. and Virginia, where they played until the ABA disbanded in 1976.

The hockey Seals were established in 1967 as an NHL expansion team. Initially named the California Seals, they not only failed in Oakland (and, at the end, in Cleveland), but failed miserably in league standings and in the stands. Hockey was relatively new to the Bay Area. The San Francisco Seals of 1961-66 and California Seals (in Oakland) of 1966-67 that operated in the Western Hockey League (WHL) won two championships (1963 and ’64). The WHL Seals, however, were a minor league team, an affront to proud San Francisco, which saw itself as “Big League” in every facet of civic, cultural and economic life. Nevertheless, the success of the Western League Seals in San Francisco (their home ice was the “smelly” Cow Palace in Daly City, to be precise) led its owners to attempt to bypass the NHL and go “Major League” on their own. The NHL called the bluff of the well-heeled maverick Western League owners and decided to expand to the West Coast (as well as to four cities in the Midwest and East Coast). In so doing, the NHL left out WHL owners who had operated successful teams in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  

From the NHL Seals’ inception, their owners’ publicly stated goal was to build an arena in San Francisco and to play their home games “where the hockey fans lived.” The implication was not-so-subtly obvious: all NHL players and most hockey fans were white, and Oakland was a majority Black city.  As such, Oakland was perceived as being an unsuitable long-term locale for the NHL. Talk about a real double slap(shot) in the face for East Bay hockey fans!

But it wasn’t just about the racial makeup of the NHL. In the case of Oakland, it was a never-ending identity crisis in marketing the Seals to the entire Bay Area. The Seals were quintessentially (and stereotypically) Californians of the era. Always seeking to “reinvent” themselves, they had hoped that by changing their look, their team name, and their roster it would lead to instant glamour, popularity, and winning ways. For various Seals’ owners and front office executives, however, it can best be described by the proverbial “too much smoke and mirrors.” Nothing worked, including giving barbers free tickets to talk up hockey to their customers. Most younger men on both sides of The Bay had long hair and loathed going to the barber shop back then!

The NHL’s “San Francisco Bay Area” expansion team was majority owned by a New York and Florida “socialite,” Barend van Gerbig II. When granted the franchise, he swore the club would never use the name “Oakland,” even when it became apparent that the only suitable facility was the Oakland Coliseum Arena (which, in later years, would be best known as Oracle Arena). Van Gerbig’s charm led the media to believe his team would compete for first place or a top playoff spot in the NHL. In a pre-season poll of hockey writers, The Hockey News picked the Seals to finish first. By season’s end, the Seals were dead last.

At first they were known as the California Seals. The compromise on the geographic name was to appease San Franciscans who loathed traveling to Oakland to attend sporting events, or anything else! By November 1967, van Gerbig changed his vow, rebranding his “San Francisco” hockey team as the Oakland Seals. During the season, the Seals wanted to transfer to Vancouver, Canada. The NHL Board of Governors rejected that move, in part because the league had a national television contract that required a team in the “San Francisco Bay Area.”

Management of the Oakland Coliseum also reminded the Seals’ ownership they had an iron-clad five-year lease. Counted among Seals owners were 52 people, many of whom we might find on a “social registry” in the Hamptons or Palm Beach, as well as Hollywood celebrities such as Bing Crosby, van Gerbig’s godfather. The author was able to interview van Gerbig’s PR man for the Seals, Tim Ryan, who went on to become a well-known sportscaster in New York.

Tarnishing the team’s image, two Seals players caused Bill Masterton of the expansion Minnesota North Stars to become the only player in NHL history to be killed as a result of an injury during a game. Masterton, an American-born college graduate (two rarities in the NHL in the 1960s), succumbed to a fatal head injury. This tragic accident, which began on the ice at Metropolitan Sports Center in suburban Bloomington on January 13, 1968, officially ended for Masterton on in a Minneapolis hospital on a neurosurgeon’s operating table on January 15, 1968.  Masterton’s death and the circumstances surrounding it were downplayed by the NHL. In a crisis PR maneuver, the NHL Board of Governors established the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey” in 1968.  (The Wikipedia entry for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy does not mention the Seals’ involvement or the cause of Masterton’s death.)  

Following three seasons of on-again, off-again, team sales by the original owners, the Seals were acquired by Oakland A’s owner Charles O. Finley in July 1970. NHL owners were won over by Finley’s strong Oakland sports ties, which they had hoped would bring the Seals stability. Upon receiving title to the Seals, Charlie Finley, the novice ice hockey club owner, used the same tactics as Charlie Finley, the clever baseball team owner. He fired talented front office executives and coaches, most notably GM Bill Torrey. In 1972, Torrey was hired by the expansion New York Islanders and built them into a Stanley Cup dynasty (winning four, between 1979 and 1983), earning him a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Finley dropped using the name “Oakland”; initially renaming his team the “Bay Area” Seals in an attempt to attract fans living on the San Francisco side of The Bay.  “Bay Area” Seals lasted for two games! From Game 3 until the end of the 1970-21 season, they became the California Golden Seals. While the Seals wore the green and gold uniforms (and white skates in some games and seasons) to match Finley’s baseball A’s favorite color scheme, the predominant color of the hockey team’s ledger book remained red, as in red ink. Finley introduced promotions and gimmicks, many of which were “outlandish”––just as they were with his baseball A’s––which author Currier carefully recounts. But they did attract notice from the media, which was always Finley’s objective.

In Finley’s third season in hockey, 1972-73, the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) was established. The WHA offered NHL players higher salaries if they jumped to the uncertain new league. Taking their chances, five front-line players, as well as a backup goalie, fled the Seals for the WHA. Raids by the WHA on the Seals decimated the team, which seemed to be on the rise (at the end of the 1972 regular season the Seals had come within three victories of earning a playoff berth). Some of Finley’s now ex-Seals players went on to become WHA all-stars and/or longtime fixtures in the new league.

Unwilling to pay higher salaries to build a serious contender, Finley sold the Seals back to the NHL on February 14, 1974. At the time, there were no other takers. But leave it to Finley, the shrewd businessman. The NHL gave him an estimated $2 million more than he had paid for the Seals in 1970. It seemed as if the additional cash paid by the NHL was an incentive for Charlie O and his Mule mascot to exit! Under the ownership of the NHL Board of Governors, the green and gold uniforms and white skates were gone, but not the club’s financial woes.

A San Francisco hotelier and other out-of-town investors purchased the team from the NHL in the middle of the 1974-75 season. In a last ditch effort to keep the Seals in the Bay Area, the new ownership lobbied to build an arena in San Francisco. Voters knocked down the initiative. A pair of billionaire sportsmen, the brothers Gordon and George Gund III, who were part-owners, relocated the Seals to their native Cleveland (suburban Richfield Township) on July 14, 1976. The Gunds renamed the team the Cleveland Barons, the same name of a club that had operated in the high-minor American Hockey League and won several championships. Their NHL namesakes, however, did not enjoy the same success. After two seasons in the NHL, and two more last-place finishes, the Cleveland Barons ceased operations in 1978. The NHL described it as a “merger” with the Minnesota franchise, which made the Gunds the new owners of the North Stars. The NHL shrank from 18 clubs down to 17.  

By the 1990s, the Gund brothers sold their share of the Minnesota North Stars so they could return hockey to the Bay Area. The vanity and ego involved in using “San Francisco,” “Oakland,” or “California” as the geographic name of the expansion team had become a moot point. The Gunds selected as the city name “San Jose,” and the fans there voted for the nickname––Sharks, a lot more menacing than Seals! The team would debut in the 1991-92 season. In an odd turn of events, the “smelly” San Francisco Cow Palace, which had been deemed unacceptable as an arena befitting an NHL team in 1967, suddenly was deemed suitable as a temporary emporium for the Sharks for their first two seasons. San Jose Arena (now called SAP Center) was completed for the 1993-94 season, and since then the Sharks have been a model of stability in the NHL. Fan interest in the Sharks has proved that the NHL could thrive in the Bay Area.

But, in fairness, the demographics of the Bay Area had substantially changed since the 1960s and 1970s when the Seals competed. By the 1990s, San Jose had become a hub of Silicon Valley hi-tech innovation and mega-wealth. Although the Sharks’ seasonal record has been respectable, they have never won a Stanley Cup. That is a “carryover” they share in common with the old Seals.

Every time the California Golden Seals scored a goal, the Oakland Coliseum Arena organist would play California, Here I Come. There weren’t too many opportunities to hear that song. It turns out Bay Area hockey was better suited for Dionne Warwick’s Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, a No. 1 hit single that just so happened to be recorded in 1967, the year of birth of the NHL California Seals. The latter song was of the times, but, perhaps, the Seals were ahead of theirs. Author Steve Currier shows us why in his entertaining look at professional ice hockey in the Bay Area.

Rich Macales, a native Angeleno, was a former longtime senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to the anthology/encyclopedia, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. During his years at UCLA, Macales attended meetings in Oakland at the University of California Office of the President, which furthered his fascination with the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and all of its major league sports teams.

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