The Oakland Coliseum.
The Oakland Coliseum. Credit: Amir Aziz

As a piece of architecture, it’s tempting to disregard the Oakland Coliseum as a relic—or, worse, an embarrassment. USA Today ranked it the worst stadium in Major League Baseball. Last year, The Guardian called it “a blight.” Before that, Deadspin, citing the Coliseum’s unfortunate tendency to flood with sewage, called it “a concrete toilet.” 

In truth, the Oakland Coliseum—which will admit baseball fans in a limited capacity this spring—is much more than its far-flung detractors realize. In its sheer scale and its gritty, utilitarian aesthetic, it is both a landmark and an emblem of Oakland. It has played an important role in the evolution of Oakland as a place. And before it was debased by Al Davis, former owner of the Oakland Raiders, it was objectively beautiful

This is worth noting now because it’s increasingly likely that the Coliseum won’t be around much longer. Over the last several years, the Athletics, Oakland’s last remaining professional sports team and owners of 50% of the Coliseum complex, have been vocal about their intentions to tear the thing down. Their plan is to build a futuristic “jewel box” stadium at the Howard Terminal and redevelop the Coliseum site into an enormous park with housing, retail, and office buildings. Some, including Mayor Libby Schaaf, delight at the prospect. But for those of us who love the Coliseum and consider it an important if unsung part of what makes the East Bay “home,” it feels like an occasion for mourning.

“I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life,” said Alex Hall, who covers the Athletics for SBNation. “I’ll be sad to say goodbye to the Coliseum. It’s a dump, but it’s our dump.”

To understand that sentiment—and to truly appreciate what the Coliseum means to Oakland—you have to understand its history. 

The Coliseum opened in 1966, amid a period of urban divestment and economic decline. A few decades earlier, Oakland had been a boomtown. By 1930, it was one of the fastest growing cities in the United States and among the most economically successful, referred to by some as “The Detroit of the West.” The Fox, Paramount, and Grand Lake theater houses were all built during this time. As Richard Walker, former chair of geography at UC Berkeley, writes in The Manufactured Metropolis, by the ‘30s Oakland “was no longer an outlier of the metropolitan core, but a distinctive industrial arena in full bloom.” After World War Two, however, white flight and racist redevelopment policies—like those undertaken by the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, which saw the demolition and displacement of the heart of Oakland’s Black community, specifically in West Oakland—poisoned the city’s progress. 

Eagerly embraced infrastructure projects such as the Cypress freeway segregated Oakland, incentivized suburbanization, and impoverished residents, along with discriminatory practices such as police brutality and redlining. According to Walker, by 1966, unemployment in Oakland stood at twice the national average, and nearly 25% of Oakland families lived below the poverty line. The Fox closed that year, with the Paramount soon to follow. West Oakland residents whose homes had been demolished still had not been offered replacement housing. 

The Oakland that the Coliseum was born into, in other words, was a city riven by racism, neglect, exploitation, and exclusion. The construction of the Coliseum, which concluded on budget, ahead of schedule, and in a manner that didn’t displace any neighborhoods, was arguably one of the only equitably beneficent investments Oakland made in its residents during the postwar era. 

At the Oakland Coliseum. Credit: Amir Aziz

“The stadium gave residents something to rally around,” said Henry Gardner, CEO of the Coliseum Board Authority. Gardner served as Oakland’s city manager from 1981 to 1993 and executive director of the Association of Bay Area Governments from 2005 to 2010. He’s been a resident of the city—and a fan of the A’s—since 1971. When he spoke of the Coliseum’s early years, he sounded wistful. “The stadium raised the spirits of the city in an important way,” he said. “It was uplifting. And ticket prices were reasonable. The Coliseum was a welcome thing.”

The Coliseum, along with what is now Oracle Arena, which makes up the other half of the “Coliseum complex,” gave Oaklanders a place to come together. It helped them begin to alchemize something of a new civic identity, one grounded less in picket lines and more in tailgate parties—an accentuation of the city’s blue-collar ethos. 

“Oh, what glory days!” said former Oakland resident Raymond Figueroa. “There were half-priced Monday night games in the bleachers, when there was more action in the stands than on the field. The metal steps in the lower sections were always slick with spilled beer. The organist played before each game, and Roy Steele’s stentorian voice boomed out the starting lineups. Classic Oakland.”

As Robert Self writes in American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, real estate interests in Oakland had long ago “carved the city into long, narrow strips that marked neighborhoods by income and elevation—flatlands, foothills, and hills—and embedded a class regime literally into the physical terrain.” But the Coliseum beckoned Oaklanders from all corners of the city. The Coliseum didn’t erase educational inequity or lower poverty rates, but it did make Oakland feel more like a shared place. And in doing so, it instilled pride. 

At a time when Oakland was keenly aware of its diminishing status—in comparison not only to the privileged suburbs but also to its glittering sibling across the Bay—the Coliseum’s mere existence reinforced the idea that Oakland was its own place, formidable and deserving of a world-class sports complex. Now we had a monument to make our own. San Francisco might have Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge. We had the black hole

The Coliseum was also a place to party. Oaklanders gathered there not only to watch sports, but to take in roller derbies, RV shows, circus acts, and concerts. In 1973, the Coliseum began hosting “Day on the Green,” a concert series featuring legendary performances, including Led Zeppelin’s final two gigs in America.

Of course, we came to watch the teams, too. The Raiders, Athletics, and the Golden State Warriors—who settled into the arena next door—quickly became sources of civic pride. The Raiders won a Super Bowl in 1977, and the Warriors won an NBA championship in 1975. The A’s earned legitimacy even more quickly. “The Coliseum hosted what we all called the city’s ‘annual party,’” said Gardner, who moved to Oakland in 1971. He was referencing the three consecutive World Series championships the A’s won starting in ‘72. “That was a glorious period.”

Figueroa was even more exultant. “I’m talking fireworks after every home run. Rick Monday, Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom, Sal Bando, and, of course, Reggie Jackson. Even Charlie O’ the Mule. We were part of the knothole and Reggie’s Regiment. We all loved it—both the Coliseum and those ‘Swingin’ A’s!’”

Far from a concrete toilet, the Coliseum was also hailed in its early years as an architectural triumph—winning an American Society of Civil Engineers Award of Merit in 1967 and recognition from the American Iron and Steel Institute for Best Design in Low Rise Construction two years later. It was considered innovative, one of the first stadiums in the country that could house two sports

It was also, in these years, truly beautiful. Symmetrical, harmonious, sheltered pleasantly into the landscape—22 feet below sea level, to be exact—with a humble lawn hammocked gently above the centerfield bleachers such that it welcomed a breeze (along with a view of the hills), the Coliseum was, in a way that felt uniquely Californian, picturesque.

“The Coliseum was about four or five miles from our house,” said Figueroa. “We could see the third deck from the back bedroom. Better yet, we’d climb to the higher limbs of our giant plumb tree, grab a pair of binoculars and my transistor radio, and settle in for a long Saturday afternoon game. We felt like we were almost there.”

The 1980s were something of a halcyon period. The Raiders had left (not for the last time), and while to many this was a bummer, their absence allowed A’s owner Walter Haas to invest in the Coliseum specifically as a venue for baseball, to its benefit. Haas added family-friendly amenities in the Coliseum’s open spaces and tucked-away pockets, such as a kid-friendly “skills pavilion” where younger fans could throw pitches into a plastic screen affixed with a radar gun to test their arms. He installed an old-timey, hand-operated out-of-town scoreboard above the grass in right field, along with a new-timey “Diamond Vision” screen in the center, which played footage of bloopers, highlights, and “dot racing” between innings. All this is commonplace now, but it was cutting edge at the time.

People loved it. More fans filled the stands and the A’s flourished, winning three American League pennant races at the end of the decade. The Coliseum was even chosen to host the MLB All-Star game in 1987. Oakland’s socioeconomic struggles—self-imposed and otherwise—continued, but the Coliseum remained, serving as a kind of bastion, its terraces and decks like bold ramparts protecting some uniquely Oakland kind of peace.

Before the construction of “Mt. Davis,” the Coliseum provided a panorama of the Oakland hills. Credit: Courtesy of the author

Then came the fall. In 1995, Al Davis convinced Oakland to not only allow the Raiders to move back to the Coliseum site, but to issue $223 million in debt to overhaul the stadium with an oppressive 22,000-seat expansion. (That money included $53.6 million for a relocation fee, made payable to Mr. Davis.) This was “Mt. Davis,” a massive addition of seating that obliterated the view of the hills, and which neither the A’s nor the Raiders would ever be able to fill. According to many fans, “Mt. Davis” mauled the experience of watching a game at the Coliseum. It certainly made the Coliseum less sightly.

Both Al Davis’s sweetheart deal and the expansion attached to it would go on to cost the city dearly. By the time the Raiders left Oakland for the second time—for Las Vegas, following the 2019 season—the city and county were still paying down the bonds. “The intent of the financing,” Gardner told me, a touch less wistful now, “was that the bonds would be serviced by ticket sales, luxury box sales, and personal-seat licenses. Those didn’t materialize.”

In the 1990s and 2000s the city and county, now desperate for new revenue, started selling the Coliseum’s naming rights. In 1995, the Coliseum changed its name from the bland but accurate “Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum” to the affectless “Network Associates Coliseum.” Since then, a rotation of spiritless corporate sponsors have paid to plaster their logos upon the Coliseum’s facade. These include McAfee Corp (2004–2008); Overstock.com (May 2011); and O.co (2011–2016). Last year, the Coliseum Board Authority sold the naming rights to a company called RingCentral.

Over this time, the Coliseum fell into disrepair. Mice began appearing in vending machines. The dugouts began flooding with feces. For some fans, one product of all this was disenchantment. It began to feel as if the Coliseum that we loved—and, implicitly, the city we called our own—stopped loving us back. 

I still feel a bit of this disenchantment now. Yet, almost in spite of myself, I also still love the place. The first baseball game I ever attended was at the Coliseum. I went with my dad when I was six. I was awed. The decks rising above the field like cliffs. The green sea of outfield grass. The towering industrial lights. It all framed the game as if it were a momentous event. And it helped spark not only a lifelong love for baseball, but something my dad and I could share. Some of our happiest memories together are in the Coliseum’s parking lot, before games, or in its upper deck, where we sat that summer day. One of my proudest moments came when my high school team made it to the Northern California State Championship game, and I got to play in front of my dad on the Coliseum’s field; this time, he was sitting above the dugout. 

I can’t wait to go back this spring—and I’m not alone. 

“The A’s have a core of rabid fans who embrace the Coliseum,” said Dale Tafoya, author of Bash Brothers: A Legacy Subpoenaed. “They grew up inside the Coliseum and they’re loyal to it. They understand the need for a new Oakland ballpark, but they respect the history of the Coliseum and make the most of it.” 

The photographer Carlos Soria, over Twitter, expressed a similar sentiment. “The Coli’ is all about what’s on the field,” Soria wrote. “There’s no bowling alley, slide or 5-star restaurant. Hell, we can barely get a cell signal, and what little WiFi we can get is spotty at most. It’s wonderful.” He went on. “Would I like to see a new A’s stadium? Yeah, I guess. I just know it won’t be the same house we grew up in. I tend to think about the Coliseum the same way Han Solo talks about the Falcon. She’s the most beautiful hunk of junk in the league.”

At the Oakland Coliseum. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Coliseum’s story isn’t over. It could still end a hero’s tale. It continues to serve a purpose beyond baseball, as evidenced by its federal designation as a vaccination site. And we appear to have learned from the Coliseum’s mistakes. Al Davis was not the first franchiser Oakland allowed to play the public for private gain. (See Horace W. Carpentier, who somehow managed to hoover up all the profits generated by the city’s waterfront for a staggering 30 years, back in the early 1900s.) Yet, when Al’s son, Mark Davis, tried to do it once again, demanding yet another new stadium, paid for out of the general fund, the city said no. “We were in no mood for that,” Gardner told me.

The construction of the new A’s stadium is expected to be 100% privately financed.

What happens next remains uncertain. What does seem likely, however, is that the Oakland Coliseum as we know it—a site of history, a hunk of junk, a concrete castle lost to time—won’t be around forever. Its story is coming to an end. And when it does, Oakland will be a different place. 

Those of us who live here will be different people, too.

Dan Moore

Dan Moore is a writer based out of Oakland. Follow him on Twitter @DmoWriter.