What the hell are the Giants doing in San Francisco, anyway?

Doug Pensinger

Sure, the world champions are a great success now, but for decades it looked as if Horace Stoneham made a terrible mistake in moving his team to San Francisco -- and regardless of what happened later, maybe he did.

Andrew Freedman, the owner of the New York Giants from 1895 through 1902, experienced a personal crisis in 1907. The stock market collapsed that year, and Freedman was almost wiped out. He recovered, dying with a net worth of some $4 million in stiff 1915 dollars, but in his will he made sure that any other millionaires who might lose their nest egg would be protected from living rough. He created a trust that would build a great mansion on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, as the historian Caroline Bird put it, "a charity for the rich so they won't have to go to a public institution and live like other people if they lose their money."

When Horace Stoneham, one of Freedman's successors as owner of the Giants, had had his team in San Francisco for less than 20 years, it was losing so much money that he faced the possibility of moving into the Andrew Freedman Home for indigent millionaires himself. Stoneham was one of the old breed of baseball owners whose income derived solely from his team and by the mid-1970s it seemed clear that unlike Walter O'Malley, who had moved his team to Los Angeles and thrived, in moving the Giants to San Francisco Stoneham had sowed the seeds of his own destruction.

It is little remembered today, but in 1976 the Giants came within a hairsbreadth of moving to Toronto. They were brought to the brink of abandoning the city despite years of good teams and memorable players. The Giants' move to San Francisco coincided with one of the greatest flowerings of a farm system that the game has ever seen. In a short period of time they stamped out star after star including Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, all three Alou brothers, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. There was a second, small explosion at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s that produced players like Bobby Bonds, Dave Kingman, Gary Maddox, and George Foster. As a result of this influx of talent, the Giants were a good-to-great team in their early years in the city by the bay. They won between 90 and 103 games in seven of 10 seasons from 1962 through 1971. In the former season they won 103 games, beating the Dodgers in three game playoff for the NL pennant. In the latter, they won the NL West division title but failed to advance beyond the NLCS. In between there were a mess o' second-place finishes.

Despite these strong finishes and the presence of Willie Mays, attendance failed to keep pace with the team's results on the field. The turnstiles clicked frequently at first, though the Giants never got close to matching the league-leading 2 million fans a year the Braves got in their first four seasons in Milwaukee. After a few years of finishing second in tickets sold, the Giants slid down the charts, year by year, like a pop single that had fallen out of favor after heavy rotation: they finished third in 1964, fourth in 1965, fifth in 1966, sixth in 1967, seventh in 1968, skipped past eighth to finish ninth in 1969, a year they went 90-72 and finished second in their division, and continued inexorably downwards until they landed in the NL's basement, 12th of 12 teams, in 1974. They had been totally abandoned by their fans; a day game against the Braves in September, 1974 had an announced attendance of 748.

Once they hit bottom, the Giants stubbornly refused to move. They were weighed down by a series of poor finishes that came at the worst possible time, but the greater culprit was Candlestick Park. Sure, it had over 70 acres of parking, but it was a miserable place to see a baseball game, "ugly, badly designed, and besieged by bad weather," as one columnist put it. "We've got the worst ballpark in the country," said Chris Speier, the team's shortstop from 1971 through early 1977. He praised the team's fans, but added, "I wouldn't go there if it cost 50 cents."

The defects of Candlestick Park are legendary and there is no need to rehearse them here; suffice it to say the Giants, who approved all aspects of the publicly-funded ballpark, had saddled themselves with one massive disincentive to anyone wanting to take themselves out to the ballgame. Combine this with the arrival of the A's in Oakland and their rise to championship status and the Giants might as well have been the third team in a two-team town.

With no outside sources of revenue, Stoneham didn't have the cash to cope. He began selling off assets - minor league affiliates, the spring training complex in Phoenix -- to stay afloat, and thought previously a fairly solid operator of his team, began making a series of disastrous trades. Though his family had owned the team since 1919 (he had inherited it from his father when he was just 32 years old, becoming the majors' youngest owner to that point), he was ready to get out. A steady stream of rumors came out of San Francisco in the mid-1970s: The Giants would be moving back to New York. They would move to New Jersey's Meadowlands sports complex, then under construction. Stoneham was going to sell out to Japanese businessmen. The Giants would move to Minnesota, with the Twins relocating to Seattle, then suing the American League for peremptorily moving the Pilots out of town.

There may have been some element of truth to all of these, but when Stoneham finally did sell the club, it turned out its destination was not anywhere in the United States, but in Canada. The Labatt Brewing Company had purchased the team with the intention of moving them to Toronto. The official price was $13.25 million, but the real price was closer to $8 million -- $5.25 million was to be set aside to fight possible lawsuits related to the team moving; Stoneham had committed to playing at Candlestick through 1995.

Since the Giants are still playing in San Francisco, it's obvious that the move didn't happen. The city of San Francisco obtained an injunction holding the Giants in place, then went off in search of local ownership. At the last possible moment, a group fronted by real estate magnate Bob Lurie put up $8 million. It was the same amount, in practical terms, as Labatt had put up, and Stoneham had no choice but to accept it. (The 1977 expansion of the American League to Toronto and Seattle seems to have been initiated purely to defuse litigation from jilted cities.)

The club was not out of the woods yet, however. Voter referendums to help build a new park failed numerous times, even though the Giants (in a move that must have driven Bud Selig and the other owners simply nuts) offered to pick up most of the tab. Lurie claimed he was sustaining heavy losses, and as he too attempted to sell out there was another threat of moving, this time to Tampa-St. Petersburg. Sure, it all ended well, as their latest World Series victory attests, and presumably the team is now turning a healthy profit. And yet, it's still possible that Stoneham made a terrific mistake.

First, any decision that takes over 40 years to pay off might well be termed a mistake regardless of its outcome, but that's not even the point. Let's go back to 1957 and the decision to leave New York in the first place. Although the Giants had won the World Series as recently as 1954, the period immediately before the move was a down period for the franchise, with disappointing finishes and attendance that had plummeted from a franchise-high 1.6 million in 1947 to 654,000. The total was roughly half what it had been during the '54 championship season.

During this time, Stoneham was looking at all the usual things that owners think about: a decaying stadium (the last incarnation of the Polo Grounds dated to 1911 and had not been well maintained), the changing character of the park's West 157th-159th Street Manhattan neighborhood, and lack of parking. As with many owners, he was also looking enviously at the attendance miracle that had greeted the Braves upon their relocation from Boston to Milwaukee. Until Walter O'Malley seduced him, he thought he was heading to Minneapolis, where the Giants owned the American Association's Millers, to take his slice of that Midwestern baseball enthusiasm.

Regardless of his destination, Stoneham was resolved to go, perhaps even before O'Malley had conceived of his own plans to leave. There was nothing salvageable about their location. "There were times when the Giants couldn't guarantee their box-seat customers safety from armed robberies during night games," historian Lee Allen wrote. Commissioner Ford Frick wrote:

The famous old park had deteriorated. Transportation facilities, once adequate, no longer met the demands of a growing population. Ninety percent of the available parking space, never adequate, had been taken over for public projects -- the center-field area by a highway and a public school; the left-field area by high-rise, low-income apartments. Even more critical, the whole neighborhood had become so run-down that fans were afraid to walk even a block or two to see a night game, and equally reluctant to park their cars in the area, for fear of robbery, or mugging, or even worse. To cap it all, Stoneham was given official notice that his lease, about to expire, would not be renewed. The park was to be razed, and the land taken over for public housing.

As Stoneham said upon announcing the decision to move, "I feel badly about the kids, but I haven't seen many of their fathers at games lately." The same went for the city fathers. It is fair to say that New York City, in the persons of Mayor Robert F. Wagner (the same civil servant who allowed Penn Station to be destroyed) and the powerful city planner Robert Moses (the unelected official who designated the Polo Grounds for affordable housing), showed indifference to the possibility of the Dodgers and Giants leaving. O'Malley was offered the future site of Shea Stadium in Queens; emphasizing that his team was the Brooklyn Dodgers, he wanted the current site of the Barclays Center, a more expensive parcel of land. There was loose talk of building the Giants a ballpark on the west side of Manhattan (as there would be for the Jets and the Yankees decades later), but this was probably never seriously considered. Given that stadiums are almost inevitably taxpayer boondoggles, the position taken by Wagner and Moses might almost be seen as progressive.

And yet, the Giants gave up a lot to move to San Francisco. They left what was even then the country's top media market. They abandoned a metropolitan area which today is home to roughly 21 million people to go to one that at present hosts 7.2 million. Stoneham was the ultimate enabler of O'Malley's plans; someone had to go with him or scheduling logistics might have sunk the whole effort. Still, had the Dodgers picked another partner, the Giants would have been left with a monopoly on New York National League baseball, an established fanbase, and given their farm system every likelihood of executing a painless rebuilding and return to contention in their hometown, and more leverage with the city. All of the benefits that later accrued to the Mets -- and the Mets were a great draw from the moment they moved into Shea Stadium in 1964 and remained one until the team was disassembled by former Giants board member M. Donald Grant in the 1970s --- would have gone to the Giants.

Again, forget what happened once the Giants moved into their current park under a later ownership. For Stoneham, moving the team to San Francisco was inarguably a failure -- he had to sell the team to avoid bankruptcy. Conversely, had he remained in New York he still might have chosen to sell out, but it would have been at a higher price after a period of profitability.

None of this is to knock San Francisco itself, one of the world's great cities. It had a great baseball tradition in the Seals (and the less-cherished Missions), and the postwar boom of the Pacific Coast League demonstrated that baseball was out of step with the country in not having outposts on the west coast. In the 13 seasons since AT&T Park opened, the Giants have surpassed 3 million in attendance 11 times and just missed in the other two seasons. And though San Francisco remains smaller than New York, it bests its eastern counterpart in one key regard, per-capita income. Being there is a no-brainer now. It wasn't necessarily so then.

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