Review of Goodbye, Oakland

Dolich, Andy, and Newhouse, Dave. Goodbye, Oakland: Winning, Wanderlust and a Sports Town’s Fight for Survival. Chicago: Triumph Books. 2023. Pp. 256. No index or chapter notes. $28 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Richard A. Macales

“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.” – Robert Evans, investigative journalist and humorist.

Sixty-five years ago, fans began to discover that sports were no different from any other American big business; they were just more glamorous to own. A city’s “beloved” team was no longer perceived as a “community asset” to be held as a “right” in perpetuity. In the spring of 1958, Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, two fabulously successful and profitable teams, fled for even greater riches to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. 

On Opening Day, April 15, 1958, the geographically renamed San Francisco Giants hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers. Three days later, the Dodgers reciprocated, hosting the Giants. Both games were played in temporary stadiums until their permanent “sports cathedrals” were built. In San Francisco, the stadium was built atop a landfill; in L.A., 300 acres of land, expropriated by the city from the Latino community earlier in the 1950s for “modern” affordable public housing, were given to the Dodgers.

Less than two decades later, fans were then given another eye-opener when U.S. courts and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) allowed the athletes themselves to be granted free agency. The players had the freedom to leave their given team for proverbial greener pastures after their contracts were completed––against most owners’ wishes. Free agency eventually spread to all sports. These moves ushered in a new era of sports economics. While multimillion-dollar contracts would begin to go to the players, billions began to flow into the construction of new stadiums, as owners also raked in billions from TV revenue. 

Herein lays the saga of Oakland sports.

Moneyball, the Academy Award-nominated movie in 2011 starring Brad Pitt based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, highlights how the Oakland A’s managed to field competitive teams with low payrolls during the first two decades of the 2000’s. Billy Beane (now A’s part-owner) pioneered the so-called “moneyball”  executive, using his eye for scouting to groom young talent into Major League all-stars only to lose them to wealthier clubs in free agency. Under Beane’s leadership and use of “sabermetrics” between 2000 and 2020, the A’s made 11 trips to the playoffs, in addition to setting an American League record with a 20-game winning streak in 2002 (the season on which Moneyball focuses). 

Sports Illustrated/Fan Nation writer Jack Vita rates Moneyball as “one of the best sports movies in cinematic history.” Curiously, “moneyball” — the film and the book, as well as the concept — is minimally mentioned in a chapter about Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa, who doesn’t believe in sabermetrics. 

The competition between cities to lure pro sports teams and star athletes can be more intense and intriguing than the actual level of play on the field itself. And the city of Oakland, California––described as “across the Bay from San Francisco” by sportscaster Joe Garagiola during the A’s 1973 World Series––has felt the impact of the economic upside and downside of sports perhaps more than any other city. 

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Oakland fans had very good teams to root for in a variety of major league sports. But only the National Football League’s (NFL) Raiders regularly drew sellout crowds at their home games. Other Oakland teams performed in front of mainly sparse crowds, sometimes numbering in the mere hundreds (including last season’s A’s).  

As for the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Golden State Warriors, they only regularly drew sellout crowds in Oakland when they began their current dynasty in 2015. Previously, since their move from Philadelphia to San Francisco in 1962 and then on to Oakland in 1971, they were among the lowest drawing teams in the NBA, even as their first half-decade in San Francisco featured Wilt Chamberlain and Rick Barry in Warriors uniforms. When Chamberlain returned to Philly in a 1965 mid-season trade and Barry “jumped” leagues to join singer Pat Boone’s Oakland Oaks of the fledgling American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1967, the Warriors’ most recognizable face was their eccentric hippie owner, Franklin Mieuli. 

Which leaves Oakland with its colorful baseball team: the A’s.

Triumph Books, 2023

Goodbye, Oakland, by Andy Dolich, a former senior marketing executive with the A’s and NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, and Dave Newhouse, an Oakland sportswriter since 1964, teamed up to write a memoir on their years in sports in the Bay Area. Newhouse covered the 49ers for the Oakland Tribune, and is the author of several books, including Founding 49ers: The Dark Days Before the Dynasty. Dolich’s and Newhouse’s latest book covers the personalities that brought Oakland from fame to “wanderlust,” as they describe it. Authors Dolich and Newhouse did not write the book as a “history” of Oakland sports. It is too bad they didn’t. There is no index, no chapter notes, and only minimal sources cited in the bibliography.  This work is the authors’ close-up opinions and yarns of some of the owners, athletes, and pro teams that called Oakland home. 

Not all clubs reciprocated by using “Oakland” as their geographic team name. Dolich and Newhouse sum up the ingratitude: “Oakland saved [Franklin] Mieuli financially, yet he couldn’t deign to honor Oakland by name, conceiving of the ‘Golden State’ moniker. How ridiculous that was…He wouldn’t lower himself to say he was ‘Oakland’… He was hoping one day to put the team back in San Francisco.” Mieuli clearly “left his heart in San Francisco,” as Tony Bennet famously sings. But by 1971, he felt Oakland was the more suitable location for his Warriors. Current owners moved them back to San Francisco in 2019. 

The same situation arose with the National Hockey League’s (NHL) “California” Golden Seals, mentioned only very briefly by Dolich and Newhouse. Perhaps the Seals’ ineptness during their nine years in Oakland (1967-76), didn’t fit the authors’ narrative of the “City of Champions” so their existence is downplayed. 

The Oakland Clippers rate a full chapter devoted to this pioneering American pro soccer championship team (1967). Titled “First National Champion: No-Helmut Football,” Oakland’s soccer team began their existence as the “California Clippers.” Their primary investors, two Texas oilmen, wanted the team to play in San Francisco, but were told that suitable facilities were unavailable in “The City.” So, they begrudgingly found a soccer “pitch” in the recently-opened Oakland Coliseum. The owners, who had scant knowledge of “The Town,” initially refused to identify their club with “Oakland,” like the NHL’s Seals. At some point during their two-year existence (1967-68), they changed the team’s geographic name to “Oakland” Clippers.  Under either moniker, it spelled very low attendance. They folded in 1969. 

The Golden Gaters, of the original World Team Tennis (WTT) league (1974-78), also refused to use the name Oakland (revisionist history refers to them as the “San Francisco” Golden Gaters). In the WTT’s second season, the Golden Gaters, co-founded by Billie Jean King’s ex-husband, Larry King, hosted the league’s all-star game at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, home court of the Golden Gaters. This historic match included, for one night, some of the all-time greatest tennis legends in the innovative coed league: Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Tony Roche, Yvonne Goolagong, Tom Okker, and Virginia Wade, among others. The WTT press guide of 1978 does not mention Oakland as the location of the all-star game, played in front of “12,581, the second largest WTT crowd ever.” Oakland is the only all-star game host city omitted by name. Neither the historic all-star game, nor the Golden Gaters, who made it to the WTT championship finals in 1975 and 1976 are mentioned in Goodbye, Oakland. Rather, it lists two short-lived “Oakland” teams in “TeamTennis,” a de facto non-major league.

Dolich and Newhouse place the failure of major league sports in Oakland primarily on the owners, sans the Haas family (for whom Dolich worked as a marketing whiz). A fair share of the responsibility also lies on the steps of Oakland City Hall. Whereas previous mayors and city council members placed sports as a high priority (and still lost teams via moves to other cities), the focus in recent years has been on trying to resolve the city’s housing crisis and halt the further shuttering of Big Industry, traditionally the backbone of brawny Oakland. The authors write about the positive features of life and non-sports culture in Oakland. The book also delves into racial divides associated with Oakland, including its complex relationship with and negative perception compared to other Bay Area cities, most notably San Francisco. 

Back to the owners. The Haas family, of San Francisco-based Levi Strauss blue jean fame, owned the A’s from 1980 to 1995. In a chapter titled “Heavenly Haases: Ownership Paradise,” Dolich recalls the Haas family heavily investing in A’s teams, resulting in winning three American League pennants in a row (1988-90), including one World Series (in 1989 versus their cross-Bay rival, the San Francisco Giants, in the “Earthquake Series”). The Haas family, whose roots in California date back to its statehood in 1850, have always been civic-minded; they never considered or threatened moving the A’s out of Oakland as had other owners before and after them, according to Goodbye, Oakland

Dolich’s front office launch with the A’s came when their combative owner Charles O. Finley’s rein came to an inglorious end in 1979. In Finley’s final year of running the A’s, they drew a paltry 306,763 fans. Fed up with free agency and skimpy fan support during his team’s World Series championship years (1972-74), it was as if Charlie O wanted the A’s to fail in his final years in Oakland so he could punish all of Major League Baseball. He attempted to sell them for a tidy profit to a Denver billionaire. The would-be owner wanted to move the A’s to the Mile High City. But it wouldn’t be. The Oakland Coliseum would not let Finley out of his A’s stadium contract. When Finley owned the NHL California Golden Seals and ABA Memphis Tams, he cleverly made his teams, and his meddling presence, so problematic that he forced the NHL and ABA to directly buy him out at a hefty profit. This ploy did not work with MLB and Finley’s ultimate arch-nemesis, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. That forced Finley to sell the A’s to the Bay Area-based Haas family for somewhat less money (albeit still a large profit for Charlie O!).

When the Haases came aboard and provided life support for the A’s for Oakland, they brought in Dolich to bolster their presence in the entire Bay Area and beyond. He helped boost attendance to a whopping 2.9 million in 1990 during the A’s pennant streak. Dolich writes that of his many accomplishments in over four decades of sports management (which includes working with teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB and pro soccer), the A’s franchise attendance record in 1990 ranks as one of his proudest achievements.  This took place in the season immediately following the devastating Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, which put the Bay Bridge, separating San Francisco and Oakland, out of service to cars and trucks.  

As is invariably the case when a team relocates out of its home city to another, there is recrimination by fans and the media. Dolich and Newhouse punctuate this sentiment in Goodbye, Oakland. But do the facts back up their assertions? As referenced at the beginning of this review, there are three sides to a story

When discussing Raiders owner Al Davis, who died in 2011, they write that he was either loved or loathed by the fans and the media; the authors viewing him as the latter. But many would not agree with their assessment of Davis. Brief credit is given to him by the authors for his progressive hiring practices. As for Davis fostering positive and meaningful interracial relations on the team and within the community, some modest praise is made by the authors and the book’s contributing writers.  

Dolich and Newhouse briefly note that Davis hired the first Black head coach since the 1920s in Art Shell in 1989). He also hired the second Latino head coach in Tom Flores in 1979, who would coach the Raiders to two Super Bowl championships. Both were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for their contributions to the Raiders. Davis also championed the advancement of women in the front office, hiring the first female CEO by an NFL team in attorney-turned-TV sports analyst Amy Trask. All of the aforementioned “firsts” deserved more detailed coverage.

Davis vowed to boycott the Raiders’ participation in the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in then-racially segregated New Orleans, reported Sports Illustrated. Davis had the game moved to another city. Always the maverick, GM Davis also lobbied AFL owners to relocate exhibition game to other locales where segregation was not enforced; if not, the Raiders were no-shows. During Oakland’s most turbulent years in the 1960s and 1970s, Davis’ stance endeared him and the Raiders to the majority Black populace. 

The authors also fail to account for Davis’ significance to Oakland sports in ways beyond his relative racial progressivism. 

When Davis first arrived on the Raiders’ scene 60 years ago (1963) as head coach and general manager, he took over a team that was the laughingstock of the old rival American Football League (and which had played home games in an unwelcoming San Francisco their first two years!). Davis accepted the Raiders’ job on condition that he had complete authority to run all aspects of the team’s operations. The request was granted to him by the Raiders’ two primary stockholders back then, F. Wayne Valley, an unyielding construction magnate, and Ed McGah, who also ran a construction firm. Davis immediately turned the Raiders into winners. In their first season under Davis, the Raiders’ won-loss record was 10-4, earning him American Football League (AFL) Coach of the Year honors. Before Davis arrived, the Raiders had a cumulative record of 9 wins and 33 losses in the franchises’ first three seasons (1960-62). 

In Davis’ brief stint as AFL commissioner in 1966, he and Kansas City Chiefs’ owner and AFL founder Lamar Hunt were the architects of the AFL merger with the NFL. Hunt was the lead negotiator in the covert meetings with NFL hierarchy; Davis served as the tough “public face” of the league to the media. After the merger between the AFL and NFL was completed in 1970, Davis rose to become the Raiders’ managing general partner, and the primary stockholder by 1976. His efforts upgraded the stature of the entire AFL as a truly “major league” operation which affected the “bottom line” for the enrichment of pro football owners and the players who cashed in from free agency in later years.   

While the acclaimed HBO documentary, The Rebels of Oakland: The A’s, The Raiders, The ‘70s takes a highly favorable view toward Davis and a critical look at A’s owner Charles O. Finley, Dolich and Newhouse are highly critical of both of these outspoken owners.  Nevertheless, during the 1970s, the Oakland Raiders made the playoffs seven of 10 seasons, losing six times, five of them in the American Football Conference Championship Game, according to the authors. These were the Raiders’ glory years.

The authors’ critique derives from the Raiders’ transfer from Oakland to Los Angeles, from 1982 to 1994, which alienated many. This move, however, did not operate out of a vacuum. According to the authors, the Raiders’ founding co-owner, F. Wayne Valley, was influential in getting the Oakland Coliseum built. It opened in 1966, and the Raiders were the first major league sports tenant. Eventually, Valley and Davis became bitter foes. Valley sold his final shares in the Raiders in 1976. Whether or not Valley used his connections with Oakland Coliseum management to not have the stadium upgraded to NFL standards of that era is unclear. Not acceding to the Raiders’ stadium request may have been Valley’s countermove against Davis and McGah in Oakland. Or so he may have thought. In either scenario, this may have forced Davis’ and co-owner McGah’s hands, resulting in the Raiders’ move to large-market L.A.  

By 1980, when the Raiders announced their move, the Rams had just relocated to Anaheim, outside Los Angeles’ city limits in Orange County. Looking back on the Raiders’ years in L.A., the authors quote a former team “public relations aide” who claimed that a senior team executive told him privately that the move to L.A. “wasn’t working out.” The year of this comment is not stated in the book. In luring the Raiders to L.A., city officials did not keep stadium improvement promises to the Raiders at the Los Angeles Coliseum or at any other potential L.A.-area location for a new stadium. As a result, the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995, where they played until 2019 when they transferred to Las Vegas. 

In their treatment of the Raiders, the authors err in accepting the narrative of Wayne Valley and his deceased widow, Gladys, who died in 1998, without question or consideration of other perspectives. Since Al Davis’ passing 12 years ago, his son, Mark Davis, has controlled the day-to-day operations of the team. The senior Davis was gone when the son negotiated the move to Las Vegas. Carol Davis, Al’s widow, remains co-owner. Only time will tell if the Raiders’ Las Vegas move is successful in the long-term, unlike the team’s experience in L.A. 

After reading of Oakland’s travailing experience as a “major league” city, one wonders what Bill King, the legendary voice of the A’s, Raiders, Warriors and Giants, would say. He was close with the owners on both sides of The Bay. King passed away in 2005, so he couldn’t be interviewed. But at least he could have been acknowledged by the authors. Instead, legendary sportswriter Jerry Izenberg sums up the situation best in the preface: “The Raiders are Gone. The Golden State Warriors are gone. The Athletics [A’s] are on their way out. The saddest sign in all of sports will be Oakland’s municipal scoreboard. NO GAME TODAY.”  

Rich Macales, a native Angeleno, was a former senior writer and public information officer for 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. For Sport in American History, he wrote a two-part series, posted on the beginning and end of major league sports in Oakland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s