Starting with the franchise’s earliest days and following the team up to recent World Series glory, Home Team chronicles the story of the Giants and their often topsy-turvy relationship with the city of San Francisco. Robert F. Garratt shines light on those who worked behind the scenes in the story of West Coast baseball: the politicians, businessmen, and owners who were instrumental in the club’s history.
Home Team presents Stoneham, often left in the shadow of Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, as a true baseball pioneer in his willingness to sign black and Latino players and his recruitment of the first Japanese player in the Major Leagues, making the Giants one of the most integrated teams in baseball in the early 1960s. Garratt also records the turbulent times, poor results, declining attendance, two near-moves away from California, and the role of post-Stoneham owners Bob Lurie and Peter Magowan in the Giants’ eventual reemergence as a baseball powerhouse. Garratt’s superb history of this great ball club makes the Giants’ story one of the most compelling of all Major League franchises.
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The Turbulent History of the San Francisco Giants
By Robert F. Garratt
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Robert F. Garratt
All rights reserved.
Sunset in New York
By the summer of 1955, Horace Stoneham began to sense the dire circumstances of playing baseball in the Polo Grounds. A true Manhattanite with genuine affection for the city and the urban life it offered, he had been willfully blind to the growing number of empty seats in his ballpark in the hopes that the Giants might catch fire and climb back into the National League pennant race. Stoneham's connection to New York was not just as a lifelong resident but also through baseball. Born in New Jersey, he moved with his parents to Manhattan as a young boy and except for a few years in boarding schools such as Hun and Pawling and a six-month stint working out west as a twenty-year-old, he spent his entire life in the city. His father, Charles A. Stoneham, bought the Giants in 1919. Soon thereafter young Horace began lifelong employment with the ball club, beginning in 1924 with ticket sales, gradually moving to field operations, travel arrangements, and eventually working his way into the front office in the early 1930s. He learned the operations of player personnel, salaries, and trades from his father, from John McGraw, a fellow owner and manager of the ball club, and from Bill Terry, who would succeed McGraw as team manager in 1932. When Charles Stoneham died suddenly in January 1936, Horace, now almost thirty-three years of age, became the youngest baseball owner in National League history. Given his family connection, Horace always felt that his ball club was an integral part of New York history. This assumption made the present circumstances of so many empty seats in the ancient Polo Grounds particularly troubling in a deeply personal sense.
Against that foreboding, Stoneham applied a strong sentimental feeling for New York, hoping that the previous year's championship season might signal the beginning of a shift for his club, in both on-field success and increased interest among fans. His thinking was not unreasonable or far-fetched. The Giants' 1955 roster was nearly identical to that of his World Series winners. With a team led by Leo Durocher and Willie Mays, lightning might indeed strike twice; the Giants could win another pennant. Baseball is a game of streaks and rushes; the 1951 team overcame an apparently all-but-insurmountable Dodgers lead to win the pennant dramatically.
But Stoneham waited in vain; the momentum of the Giants' championship season did not carry over and 1955 remained a big disappointment both on the field and in the stands. Part of the Giants' fate was due to fortune and the shifting ways of baseball history. It turned out that 1955 was Brooklyn's year. The Dodgers ran away with the pennant. The Giants would finish a distant third in the National League, eighteen and a half games behind their archrivals, despite a winning record of 8074. It was their plight that year to contend with what many called the greatest Dodgers club of all time, whose players finally gelled to bring down the formidable Yankees in the World Series and produce Brooklyn's only championship.
But Stoneham sensed something far more ominous that season in the Giants' third-place finish and dwindling gate receipts. He began to realize that his location, the aging Polo Grounds, was a great liability, dimming opportunities for his beloved club in New York City. Giants attendance for the 1955 season would total 824,000, down considerably from the 1,155,067 of the previous year's championship season. Although Stoneham could seek some solace in baseball's overall numbers — the mid-1950s attendance throughout baseball was down almost 40 percent from an all-time postwar high in 1948 — he could not deny the blunt fact that his New York Giants suffered the greatest slide among National League clubs despite playing in its largest market. In 1955 only the small-market teams of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati drew fewer fans.
Moreover, Stoneham could no longer ignore the fact that his attendance problems went beyond his team's wins and losses. He understood that where the Giants played had as much to do with the club's present circumstances as how they played. It dawned on him that despite its tradition and history, the Polo Grounds, both as a facility and a location, was past its prime. A dilapidated stadium situated in what many considered a deteriorating neighborhood, the Polo Grounds would require major renovations to bring it up to the standards of the day. One of the oldest parks in baseball, it predated even Ebbets Field and was showing its age in seating, fan facilities, façade, and pedestrian traffic, especially the egress, when after a game the crowd would pour onto the playing field to exit through the center field gates. Repairs and remodeling would be costly if Stoneham wanted to improve fan comfort, and these expenses would cut into his already dwindling bottom line. The stadium's famous horseshoe design, part of its charm, posed financial difficulties for Stoneham as well, severely restricting the number of premium box seats he could offer. Many of the so-called "infield" box seats were far away from home plate and the baselines, putting fans at a distance from infield action. The majority of the general admission seats were wrapped around the outfield. Those fans that sat above the bullpens in left and right fields were 450 feet away, and those in the center field bleachers were 460-plus feet from home plate.
Repairs and renovation of the ballpark, however necessary, were only part of Stoneham's stadium woes. Even more troubling was the changing nature of the neighborhood surrounding the park. In the late 1940s, a number of housing projects were planned for Harlem, the first of which was Colonial Park, which opened in 1950 opposite the Polo Grounds. By the mid-1950s the perception among middle-class white fans that the area around the park was becoming dangerous made a trip to the ballpark seem like a risky affair. Stoneham believed fans might feel safer if they could drive to the ballpark. Though he spent the majority of his life in Manhattan, with its extensive and reliable transportation system, including its famous subways, Stoneham sensed that future American life would be shaped and determined by the automobile. He watched postwar automobile production and sales boom, in large part to meet the needs of young families leaving the cities for the suburbs with their promise of affordable housing, convenient shopping centers, and new schools.
The movement that came to be designated "white flight," characterized by the largely white middle classes leaving their ethnically mixed urban neighbors, was most pronounced in northeastern cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, and especially New York, where there was a great shift from the city's boroughs to Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Knowing that these young families would come into the city with their cars for shopping and entertainment, Stoneham fretted more over the Polo Grounds' lack of parking than he did about the ballpark's aging facilities. It was becoming clear to him that regardless of the quality of the team he put on the field, attendance would continue to dwindle unless fans had a convenient way to come to the ballpark in their cars. Nowhere in the environs of the Polo Grounds was there space to develop parking.
The shift in postwar baseball attendance was also affected by a burgeoning television industry, whose meteoric growth in the 1950s would change American culture. More and more Americans were buying television sets and staying home for their entertainment, sending shock waves through giant industries such as American cinema, Broadway theater, opera companies, symphony orchestras, radio, and professional sports. Naturally, baseball owners like Stoneham, Walter O'Malley of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Dan Topping and Del Webb of the New York Yankees were terrified by what they imagined might be the consequences of the success of this new medium, and they scrambled to adjust. Like Stoneham, O'Malley was aware of his own problems in Ebbets Field, another aging ballpark, and was hypersensitive to attendance figures. Stoneham and Topping huddled to see about limiting the televising of home games. They also approached O'Malley about the problem. The three clubs had been televising a selection of home games from the early 1950s, but they were unclear about the practice's effect on home attendance. Indeed, the jury was out even in the commissioner's office on whether television increased or hindered interest in seeing live baseball. Though he held a fear about the place of television in the game, Stoneham certainly profited short-term from the Giants games that were broadcast; television revenue allowed him to post a profit even with sagging home attendance. But Stoneham and O'Malley knew that television deals would only buy them a little time while they sorted out their respective stadium woes.
At the end of the 1955 season, with all of these concerns troubling his daily operations of the team, Stoneham began to weigh his options on the future of Giants baseball in New York. One idea surfaced as a reversal of history and gave him some hope that he might remain in the city. Recalling that the Giants were landlords to the Yankees in the early years of his father's ownership, he pondered playing his home games at Yankee Stadium in the role of tenant. In his characteristic style of diffidence, reticence and, some would say, cunning, he approached Yankees owners Del Webb and Dan Topping indirectly, first through some offhanded remarks at an owners meeting in winter of 1955. He floated a vague idea of tenancy and told Topping that he would get back to him in the near future. Stoneham never followed up on his suggestion, however, and the two owners never met face to face to discuss the possibility. The primary contact between the Giants and the Yankees was conducted through a third party, the New York sportswriters, essentially orchestrated by Stoneham, who, through hints and intimations during interviews, set in motion the Giants' tenancy idea as a solution to his problems with the Polo Grounds. The rumors about the Giants playing in Yankee Stadium persisted for three years. Eventually the sportswriters bristled at their own role in the stadium wars. At one of the rare Giants owner's press conferences, one writer asked bluntly whether Stoneham would simply pick up the phone and call Topping or Webb directly.
Stoneham also had another card up his sleeve in the form of an idea for a new ballpark to be built and shared by both the Giants and the Yankees. The idea was more of a pipe dream, doomed from the start since it required public financing that the city could not provide and cooperation from the Yankees, who were happy in their present location. In his characteristic taciturn manner, Stoneham would be vague about details, hinting about the project in nebulous remarks. During the late spring and summer of 1956, he also entertained what was surely the most farfetched and elaborate scheme for a ballpark, even one intended for the Giants. The notion, put forth by Manhattan city politician Hulan Jack, was to build a one-hundred-thousand-capacity stadium to rise above the New York Central's West Side railway location that would also provide parking for about twenty thousand cars. Jack argued that he had planners and investors to advance the project and thereby keep the Giants in Manhattan. Stoneham is on record as showing interest, meeting with Jack and his committee but expressing his characteristic caution. As the costs estimates for the project continued to rise, the city's enthusiasm fell and the railway company remained distant; plans for the so-called "stadium on stilts" faded away.
These suggestions about Stoneham's solutions to the Giants' ballpark woes were always devoid of particulars and served as diversionary tactics, allowing him to play a waiting game and consider his alternatives and a course of action. Stoneham gave no public indication of real concern, and certainly none of panic; it was business as usual for the New York Giants. He simply behaved publicly as he always had done, generous to a fault, providing hospitality for sportswriters and standing rounds at Toots Shor's famous Manhattan saloon, which catered to New York sports celebrities, bantering hopefully about his ball club. He could be as enigmatic as the best of them, almost as inscrutable as his friendly rival and fellow owner across the river, Walter O'Malley, whose reputation for fogging a press conference was legendary. With rumors flying about the Giants moving out of the Polo Grounds, and even out of the city, Stoneham would calmly dismiss everything as speculation, saying he had a lease with the Coogan family and he planned to be in New York for "years to come."
At the same time he insisted that the Giants would stay put in New York and were committed long term to the Polo Grounds, he began entertaining a radical idea, something that just two years before would have been unthinkable. He gave serious consideration to moving the team out of New York. His first thoughts were to plan simply, minimize complications, keep costs manageable, and hold his cards close to his vest. Stoneham was well aware of the astounding success at the turnstiles of the Milwaukee Braves, leading the National League in attendance every year since their move from Boston when, in their last year there (1952), they drew a miserable 281,279. That the Braves' change of fortune came once they moved to a new city with an excited fan base was not lost on Stoneham. In early 1956, he knew he could not remain much longer in his present location. Minneapolis, home to his Triple-A farm team, the Millers, and a major midwestern city, seemed a very attractive option.
As a Giants franchise, the Minneapolis Millers granted Stoneham rights to the city's territory. With the recently transplanted Braves nearby in Milwaukee, and with St. Louis and Chicago as Midwest neighbors, there would be no travel objections from other National League owners. Minneapolis officials were eager to please Stoneham and approved plans for a new stadium that would offer plenty of parking. Stoneham and Chub Feeney, Stoneham's nephew and second in command of Giants operations, had visited Minneapolis off and on over the past few years to check on the Millers, had built good relations with the city's planning commission, and felt comfortable with the designs for the new ballpark, which could be expanded for Major League crowds. They went so far as to contact a steel company for a reconstruction of the Millers' present park to improve seating capacity, an interim arrangement until the new park would be ready. The move to Minneapolis, welcomed by the locals, with minimal disruption to the league, appeared to provide a soft landing for the Giants' flight from New York.
But as he contemplated his move to the Midwest, Stoneham did so in his customary wary and discreet manner. Making up his mind to move and selecting a date to do so were two very different undertakings for Stoneham. With his lease with the Coogan family for the Polo Grounds securely in hand, he could afford to sit back and let the action come to him. Whenever he was asked about the Giants' future, he responded as the loyal son he was, suggesting that things might work out somehow and the Giants could be in New York for a long time to come. Even with his awareness of the problems with the Polo Grounds, Stoneham was not quite ready to establish a deadline, nor to go public with any decision. Admitting to O'Malley in a confidential, informal conversation in March 1957 that he had made up his mind to move to Minneapolis, he did not feel an overwhelming urge for any public pronouncement just yet. His waiting game would prove momentous. In the late spring of that year, he would be lobbied by three different parties, each of them urging him to expand his horizons westward another two thousand miles to consider San Francisco and the lucrative California market.CHAPTER 2
Dawning in the West
As it was for Stoneham's New York Giants, the year 1954 was an annus mirabilis for baseball in San Francisco. The year's crowning moment came not from the exploits of the city's beloved Seals, who finished the 1954 season at an even .500, 84-84, good enough for fourth place in the Pacific Coast League, seventeen and a half games behind the champion San Diego Padres. It was rather an off-field, political event that proved so extraordinary. On November 2, 1954, after a long campaign in which newspapers, sports celebrities, and civic leaders such as Mayor Elmer Robinson and members of the board of supervisors touted its benefits for sports fans and businesses alike, Proposition B was approved by the city's voters, authorizing a five-million-dollar bond to build a stadium for the sole purpose of attracting a Major League Baseball franchise for San Francisco. The measure was overwhelmingly successful, passing at more than a 2.5:1 margin, 168,997 for and 63,282 against.
Recreational Center bonds, 1954. To incur a bonded indebtedness in the sum of $5,000,000 for the acquisition, construction and completion of buildings, lands, and other works and properties to be used for baseball, football and other sports, dramatic productions and other lawful uses as a recreational center.
Excerpted from Home Team by Robert F. Garratt. Copyright © 2017 Robert F. Garratt. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Part I. Horace,
1. Sunset in New York,
2. Dawning in the West,
5. Perennial Bridesmaids,
6. A Perfect Storm,
Part II. Bob,
7. "Bobby Thomson Lives!",
8. Learning Curve,
9. The Humm Babies: "You Gotta Like These Kids!",
10. Vox Populi,
Part III. Peter,
11. "It's Déjà Vu All Over Again",
12. The Improbable Dream,
Epilogue: "The Home Team",