After signing pro baseball contracts in the mid-1950s, Oakland products, from left, Joe Gaines, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, and Jesse Gonder pose at San Pablo Park in Berkeley. Courtesy Paul Brekke-Miesner via Ernie Goldsby.

When “Sell the team!” chants subside and another 100-loss season gives way to speculation over the A’s future in Oakland, Chick Gandil will still be banned from baseball.

It was a century ago that Gandil, a multisport athlete at Oakland High School, became frustrated with Chicago White Sox ownership and orchestrated the fixing of the 1919 World Series, known today as The Black Sox Scandal. Fifty years later, West Oakland’s Curt Flood was effectively blackballed for refusing a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals, taking his case to the Supreme Court and paving the path for free agency. A decade later, North Oakland’s Glenn Burke was the first active player to be outed as gay to his teammates. “Prejudice drove me from baseball,” he told the New York Times. Burke battled drug addiction and died of AIDS in 1995.

Oakland’s tumultuous relationship with our national pastime didn’t begin with Charlie O. Finley’s dismantling of a 1970s A’s dynasty, nor will it end with current owner John Fisher’s planned green-and-gold exodus into the Mojave Desert. The city’s baseball legacy is not bound to a club destined for another 100-loss season entering its final 2023 homestand Friday night against the San Diego Padres, nor to an absentee owner who blames Oakland’s politicians for the team’s demise and departure.

Oakland’s baseball lore is shaped by homegrown talent that altered the sport’s landscape on and off the field, and will be defined by youth coaches and players who refuse to sit idle as MLB gatekeepers abandon inner-city communities that produced its greatest stars.

A tale of two diamonds

Oakland’s baseball history can be told through two ballfields on opposite ends of the city, each dedicated to the greatest player Oakland has ever produced.

Rickey Henderson Field in North Oakland became home for the Oakland Technical High School baseball team in 2008 when a visionary coach and dedicated parents wanted better for their kids. The field sits within a roughly four-square-mile area of downtown, West, and North Oakland that has produced approximately 70 professional baseball players including Gandil, Flood, Burke, and of course Henderson, an Oakland Tech graduate and Major League Baseball’s all-time runs and stolen bases leader. Fifteen years after its opening, the baseball diamond on 45th and Telegraph Avenue hosts Little League, middle school, high school, and adult league games.

The other Rickey Henderson Field— in East Oakland on the Coliseum turf—was christened on Opening Day of the 2017 season after A’s president Dave Kaval emphatically stated that the team was “Rooted in Oakland.” The field sits at perhaps the most dilapidated stadium in major American sports, where possums and feral cats far outnumber prized free agents. The triple-decker concrete seating structure in center field, erected in 1995 by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, goes mostly unused with the Raiders now in Las Vegas and needlessly blocks views of the East Oakland hills while symbolizing all that has gone wrong in Oakland’s shrinking sports footprint.

It wasn’t always this bleak.

Fans cheer in the bleachers at Greenman Field, where Oakland Babe Buth Little League built a dynasty in the 1980s and 1990s. Courtesy Shirley Everett-Dicko

On a recent afternoon in North Oakland, Chris McClarty retrieved baseballs and cleaned batting cages beyond the left-field fence before a meeting with his Oakland Tech players, eager to work after losing to Skyline High in last spring’s Oakland Athletic League championship game.

As a child playing down 66th Avenue from the Oakland Coliseum at Greenman Field, home to Babe Ruth Little League, McClarty and his peers would mimic the headfirst slides of Henderson, who had returned to the A’s in 1989 after 4 ½ seasons in New York to lead a World Series sweep of the San Francisco Giants.

”Doing a Rickey,” the boys called it.

McClarty followed Henderson’s path to Oakland Tech. Just as it was during Henderson’s era, pothole-ridden Bushrod Park then served as the school’s baseball field and required a long trek, either on foot or aboard an AC Transit bus, from the North Oakland campus. McClarty returned from Alcorn State when Tech coach Eric Clayton helped turn a vacant lot only a few blocks from campus into the school’s new diamond, Rickey Henderson Field. After his pitching arm gave out while playing in college, McClarty embarked on his coaching journey, first at Greenman Field, and culminating in his taking the helm of the Tech program before the 2022 season.

“My dad says the A’s were the reason I wanted to play baseball,” said McClarty, who was 4 years old when the A’s won it all in 1989. The two most prominent A’s players on that team were Henderson, who hailed from North Oakland, and Dave Stewart, who like McClarty grew up in East Oakland. After the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck before Game 4 of the World Series, Stewart helped with relief efforts at the collapsed portion of Interstate 880 in West Oakland.

The A’s returned for their third consecutive World Series in 1990 (they’d played and lost against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988) but lost in a sweep to the underdog Cincinnati Reds—a series where African-American players accounted for 60% of runs scored. At Greenman Field, Oakland Babe Ruth Little Leaguers had built their own dynasty and joined the Reds as national champions in a White House ceremony. A’s owner Walter A. Haas Jr. and executive Sharon Richardson Jones, hired for community outreach, helped finance the trip.

Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott (left) with members of her 1990 championship team and Oakland Babe Ruth League batboy Jonny Ash at a White House ceremony. Courtesy of Wil Ash

Players like Henderson and Stewart and Cincinnati’s Barry Larkin and Eric Davis headlined that ‘90 series, but Black representation in the big leagues was on the cusp of a rapid descent. The percentage of African American players in Major League Baseball has dwindled from a high of 19% in the 1980s to around 8% today, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. Economic barriers to playing baseball have made basketball and football more enticing to inner-city athletes. Scouts who once hopped between Oakland Athletic League fields can now see more prospects at pay-for-play travel tournaments at large complexes in rural areas. Oakland Babe Ruth—which today serves primarily Black and brown children in East Oakland—has seen participation plummet to where McClarty fears for the future of the sport in many Oakland neighborhoods.

“It’s a huge loss for the city of Oakland,” the Tech coach said of the A’s potential departure. “It will affect the inner city because it takes away an opportunity to reconnect (with Major League Baseball) and dream again. We had dreams growing up at Greenman and seeing the Coliseum lights. That’s what I grew up playing. The opportunity to reconnect is now gone.”

A cradle of legends

Unlike Fisher, the billionaire A’s owner who inherited the Gap apparel empire, Oakland natives who ascended to Major League Baseball stardom mostly benefited from civic investment.

Before Proposition 13 passed in 1978, stripping state recreation departments and public schools of much of their property tax funding, Oakland sports historian Paul Brekke-Miesner likened city baseball fields to an MLB feeder system. “Elementary was Class-A, junior high was Double-A and the Oakland Athletic League (high school) was Triple-A,” said the author of Home Field Advantage: The City That Changed the Face of Sports, a chronicling of Oakland athletic achievements. “Once you graduated, you signed an MLB contract or played junior college.”

McClymonds High coach George Powles helped launch the MLB careers of three outfielders whose families came to West Oakland as part of the Second Great Migration of Black Americans from the segregated South: Frank Robinson, one of the game’s greatest right fielders and MLB’s first Black manager in 1975; Vada Pinson, a two-time all-star who placed third in the 1961 National League MVP race; and Flood, a three-time all-star and perennial gold-glove center fielder. Powles’ disciples nearly formed an all-Oakland outfield for the Reds, but Cincinnati traded Flood to St. Louis before Pinson was called up in 1958. It was Flood’s belief, as he wrote in his autobiography, that the Reds didn’t want an all-Black outfield.

“Almost every kid in Oakland, including myself, got their first coaching on elementary schoolyards,” said Brekke-Miesner, who was raised near the Chevrolet plant in East Oakland and attended Castlemont High with future Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. While attending Oakland City College (now Merritt College), Brekke-Miesner worked for the parks and recreation department. “I remember the leaders of the rec department bringing people from other cities to see what we were doing. It was the perfect storm to produce great athletes. That’s why I call (my book) Home Field Advantage. They had an advantage coming out of Oakland.”

Joe Morgan in his Castlemont High uniform in 1961. Courtesy Paul Brekke-Miesner via Castlemont High

The 70 professional baseball players with roots in the downtown, West, and North Oakland corridor rival the talent produced by any other United States region of its size, believes Brekke-Miesner, who began researching Oakland sports history when he was given access to The Oakland Tribune archives while serving as a high school sports reporter. 

Oakland’s first professional baseball team of record was the Live Oaks in 1866. Between 1889 and 1928, when St. Mary’s College was located at 30th and Broadway (before moving to Moraga), the university produced an estimated 30 professional players. The city’s first star baseball player was George Van Haltren, who somehow never earned a Baseball Hall of Fame induction despite scoring 1,642 runs (38th all-time) during a career spanning from 1887 to 1903.

Van Haltren managed the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, the equivalent of Triple-A. The Oaks first played at Freeman Park on 59th Street and San Pablo before Oaks Park opened in 1912 on San Pablo and Park Avenue in Emeryville (now Pixar Studios). Baseball was mostly segregated until the late 1940s, and Oakland had several professional Black teams dating to the 1880s, including the Oakland Larks of the West Coast Baseball Association, formed in 1945.

‘A silver spoon up his ass’

Finley, who purchased the Kansas City A’s in 1960, moved the MLB club to the newly built Oakland Coliseum in 1968 with slugger Reggie Jackson in tow. He surrounded Jackson with exceptional talent and, from 1972-74, Oakland became the first MLB franchise other than the New York Yankees to capture three consecutive World Series titles. Following the ’74 title, five years after Flood laid the groundwork for free agency, Cy Young Award winner Jim “Catfish” Hunter successfully gained free-agent status as the result of Finley violating a clause in his contract. Finley so abruptly dismantled the dynasty in 1976 that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whom Flood sued years earlier, voided Finley’s firesale in “the best interests of baseball.”

“Free agency history revolves around Oakland,” said Brekke-Miesner, pointing out the irony of Oakland A’s owners, outside of Haas, rarely entering into the free-agent sweepstakes. “Flood fought the battle and, of course, never reaped the benefits. Hunter was first to take advantage.”

After repeated attempts to move the ballclub, Finley sold the franchise in 1980 to Haas, then the chairman of Levi Strauss. Seeking to forge community bonds, Haas hired Richardson Jones as one of MLB’s first Black female administrators. With a young star in Henderson, the A’s had a homegrown talent thrilling fans and setting records on the basepaths. Richardson Jones helped the Oakland Babe Ruth League grow into a national little-league powerhouse. “Whenever we needed something from the A’s, we would go to Sharon,” Shirley Everett-Dicko, the Little League’s booster club president in the 1980s, told The San Francisco Chronicle.

“Finley and Haas are opposite sides of the coin,” Brekke-Miesner said. “Finley stripped down his promotional staff to almost nothing. Haas promoted the team and was involved with the community. The A’s first hit the 2 million mark in attendance (in 1988), not the Giants.”

Clockwise, from top left: Oakland Babe Ruth coaches, including Jameel Sabree, prepare a White House sendoff; the title team arrives at the White House Rose Garden; players meet World Series MVP Jose Rijo; and President George H.W. Bush talks with league President Ted Sanders. Courtesy Shirley Dicko and Wil Ash

In the summer of 1987, the Oakland Coliseum hosted the MLB All-Star Game, and Greenman Field, refurbished with the assistance of Haas and the A’s, hosted the Bambino World Series, which Oakland Babe Ruth won for the third time in four years. During a six-season stretch from 1988-93, the A’s won four American League West pennants and advanced to three consecutive World Series, winning in 1989. The A’s averaged more than 2 million fans in each of those seasons, ranking second in the American League in 1990 at 2,900,217 fans, according to The Giants, then at Candlestick Park, averaged 2 million fans for two of those six seasons and never more than 2 million from 1994 until PacBell Park opened in 2000.

Richardson Jones left the A’s to fight racism and sexism within the sport. Years earlier, while holding the phone before an executive conference call, she heard Reds then-owner Marge Schott use racial epithets and make disparaging comments about her Black players. Haas sold the club in 1995. Oakland Babe Ruth Little League had lost key allies within the A’s organization. 

Former A’s executive Sharon Richardson Jones, center, with Oakland Babe Ruth Little League booster Shirley Everett-Dicko. Courtesy of Shirley Everett-Dicko

The A’s remained competitive through the pioneering baseball analytics strategies of General Manager Billy Beane, despite a lack of payroll spending from owners Stephen Schott and Ken Hofmann (1995-2005) and Lew Wolff (2005-16). Fisher bought the team in 2016 and, like the ownership groups before him, leaned on Beane to remain competitive while spending little and planning his Coliseum exit strategy. Kaval joined the club as president in 2017, and the A’s assembled a collection of talented prospects led by Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and East Bay native Marcus Semien while pursuing several Oakland sites for a new stadium.

In 2021, Kaval announced a “parallel path” of negotiations with Las Vegas and Oakland. The A’s traded Chapman, Olson, and Semien for prospects. This April, Kaval informed newly elected Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao by phone of the team’s land deal with Las Vegas. Thao said her negotiating team had regularly been meeting with the A’s. After the call, she said she believed that negotiations with the team over the past few years had been “disingenuous.”

Oakland A’s fans stage “reverse boycott” to fill the Coliseum in protest of the team ownership’s intent to move to Las Vegas on Tuesday, Jun 13, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

“I think it’s sad that baseball has allowed Fisher to operate the way he does,” Brekke-Miesner said. “We Oaklanders are paying the consequences. (Finley) didn’t do anything in the community. He was basically an absentee owner. Fisher is the same. A San Francisco guy born with a silver spoon up his ass.”

A move to Las Vegas would require a two-thirds vote from the other 29 MLB owners. The A’s lease at the Coliseum runs through next season, and their 2024 schedule release indicates that the team plans to take advantage of its final year on the lease. With 2028 being the projected opening season for the Las Vegas ballpark, it’s unclear how the team will bridge the gap.

Fighting for players’ rights and battling discrimination

“I’m an old man by any standards,” Gandil wrote in a 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated, at age 69 giving his side of the Black Sox Scandal for which Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis permanently banned him and seven teammates despite the players’ acquittal by a jury. “I have worked the past 35 years as a plumber, mostly in Oakland, California,” he wrote. “Now I’m about to retire.”

Gandil admitted to being the ringleader of negotiations with a bookie to throw the 1919 Series but says the White Sox players nixed the plan when word of the fix was leaked. “I’m going to my grave with a clear conscience,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1969, a year before his death. 

Born in 1888 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Gandil’s family soon moved to Berkeley and he attended Oakland High (then located downtown) for two years before playing baseball across the American West, according to the book “Scandal on the South Side.” Gandil was no saint. “A wild, rough kid,” he wrote. He had collected 1,176 major-league hits over nine seasons before the fateful Series.

In Sports Illustrated, he wrote that White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey was a “belittling man who was the tightest owner in baseball. If a player objected to his miserly terms, Comiskey told him: ‘You can take it or leave it.’ Under baseball’s slave laws, what could a fellow do but take it?”

Curt Flood shown as a player for E. Bercovich & Sons American Legion team circa 1956. Courtesy Paul Brekke-Miesner via George Powles

Those frustrations were echoed by Flood, who after being traded in 1969 by Cincinnati wrote a letter to Commissioner Kuhn stating, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Kuhn denied Flood’s request to remain with the Reds. Coming off six gold-glove seasons, the 31-year-old center fielder sat out the entire 1970 campaign. He sued Kuhn but lost in court. However, Flood’s sacrifice led to free agency in Major League Baseball only four years later and strengthened players’ unions in other major American sports.

During Flood’s fight, Burke was a promising North Oakland athlete who honed his skills at Bushrod Park. He signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972, was called up to the majors in 1976, and the next season he and Dusty Baker connected on what is credited as the first high-five after Baker belted his 30th homer of the season. However, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda disapproved of Burke’s relationship with Tommy’s son, Spunky, who Lasorda later denied was gay. Burke paid a price for being outed. The Dodgers offered Burke money to marry a woman. He declined. Burke was traded to the A’s in 1978. In 1980, new manager Billy Martin, who graduated from Berkeley High two decades before Burke, called his outfielder homophobic slurs. After retiring in 1980 at age 27, Burke came out publicly.

In 2021, 26 years after Burke died of AIDS following a debilitating drug addiction, the A’s renamed their annual Pride Night in his honor. The Dodgers honored Burke in 2022. Today, the Glenn Burke Wellness Clinic on Lakeshore Avenue provides LGBTQ services, and MLB’s office of diversity, equity, and inclusion is led by the second MLB player to come out, Billy Bean (not to be confused with A’s GM Beane).

“If there had been a Billy (Bean) there in that position to help navigate in an honest way with all the cards on the table, there might have been a different outcome,” Lutha Burke Davis, Glenn Burke’s sister, told The New York Times. “But with Billy Martin, it was like leading a lamb to slaughter.”

‘So many memories’ of playing ball in East Oakland

While growing up on 85th Avenue in East Oakland, Sean Hutchens was regaled with baseball stories from his grandfather who played at Castlemont High alongside Morgan, a future two-time National League MVP during the Reds’ 1970s championship dynasty, and Rudy May, who would lead the American League with a 2.46 Earned Run Average in 1980 with the Yankees.

Sean Hutchens taking swings with his grandfather. Courtesy Sean Hutchens

One day his grandfather pointed to a window over the center-field fence of a field in Alameda, about 500 feet from home plate, that Frank Robinson had smashed decades earlier with a towering home run. Robinson would belt 586 more as a major leaguer, ranking 10th all-time.

Hutchens became an A’s fan and played tee-ball at Arroyo Viejo Park. The young ballplayer graduated to fast pitch at Greenman Field. When the A’s acquired Coco Crisp in 2010, Hutchens had a new favorite player. “He was Black, of course,” Hutchens explains, “but he was fast, too. He could hit.” On quiet nights at Greenman, Hutchens could hear the A’s public-address announcer introduce Crisp in the lineup.

But as Hutchens developed skills on the diamond, many of his Oakland Babe Ruth teammates quit the sport to pursue football or basketball. “They were told baseball is a punk sport,” Hutchens said. “Baseball is perceived as soft and, being from Oakland, you don’t want to be perceived as soft.”

To help Coach Nate Osborne field a team at Castlemont High, where a half-century earlier his grandfather played alongside future Major League Baseball stars, Hutchens begged football players to join him on the diamond once their season ended. He spent lunch breaks selling classmates on this “soft” sport. “I probably asked over 100 people, for sure,” he recalls.

Some practices had only a handful of players. Others were canceled. “It was tough on my coach,” Hutchens said. As Castlemont took big losses, Hutchens kept his teammates focused on the process. Across town at McClymonds High, where talent once oozed from Coach Powles’ diamond, the school has also struggled to field a baseball team.

“You have to learn to love another sport,” Hutchens said. “It’s an experience. They started watching baseball highlights and started to feel that it’s interesting.”

After graduating from Castlemont last spring, Hutchens hopes to play third base or shortstop for Laney College. While his passion for baseball remains, the East Oakland native won’t be rooting for the Las Vegas A’s.

“I have so many memories of the Coliseum, growing up there,” he said. “I’m not from Las Vegas. It’s hard for me to grow with someone that’s disloyal.”

Bringing baseball back to the inner city: ‘We have to figure it out’

McClarty’s coaching style is heavily influenced by Henderson, the famed Tech alum who collected all-time MLB records with 2,295 runs and 1,406 stolen bases, mostly with the A’s.

During a spring game at Skyline High, Tech senior Shaun Mante took a daring lead off first. When the Skyline pitcher lifted his leg, Mante bolted to second and dove in safely, headfirst of course. Moments later he swiped third, then received a pat on his helmet from McClarty.

Oakland Tech’s Shaun Mante steals third base against Skyline High in March. Credit: Nick Lozito

“Being an athlete you have to push the envelope,” McClarty said of his philosophy. “There are a lot of guys who can do a lot with their ability. My coaching style is old school. I’m a disciplinarian by the way I came up. The way I teach is Oakland Babe Ruth and Oakland Athletic League.”

Led by power-hitting outfielder Andre Hardy, left-handed hurler JoJo Salazar, and hard-throwing catcher Keanu Hennings, Skyline went on to victory with an extra-inning rally. Weeks later the Titans defeated Tech at Laney College to capture the league championship.

As Oakland Babe Ruth struggles to recruit East Oakland kids to Greenman Field, most of the city’s baseball talent now comes through travel-ball teams and North/South Oakland Little League, which primarily plays in the hills. Tech has players from across the city.

Coaches Alex Verduzco, left, Nick Jasso, center, and Will Davis address players during a junior high baseball camp Saturday at Greenman Field. Credit: Nick Lozito

“There is a huge disconnect between the A’s and the inner city,” McClarty acknowledges, in contrast to when he grew up in the shadows of the Oakland Coliseum. “We have five or six Pop Warner (football) teams, but there isn’t a lot of baseball in the inner city. The A’s aren’t talked about. There was a lot more talk about the Warriors leaving and the Raiders leaving.”

In a polling of middle school baseball players at Greenman Field last year, only one of the 10 kids quizzed could identify any of the three current A’s players shown in photographs. The players didn’t fare much better with Giants, identifying three players in 30 attempts. In contrast, the boys named 28 of 30 Golden State Warriors and 17 of 30 San Francisco 49ers.

Tyson Ross works on baseball fundamentals during his Loyal To My Soil free baseball camp in March at Northern Light School in Oakland. Credit: Nick Lozito

Increasing tee-ball participation and getting more assistance from community colleges and universities would help rejuvenate baseball, McClarty believes. Two Oakland professional players have recently opened academies and provide free clinics: Tyson Ross, a Bishop O’Dowd High graduate and former MLB All-Star pitcher, founded Loyal to My Soil; and James Harris, a Tech graduate who climbed to Triple-A in the A’s system, has teamed with Palo Alto’s BJ Boyd to create Backyard Boyz. Ross is a member of The Players Alliance, formed in 2020 by African-American players and funded by MLB in an effort to close racial inequities.

“You have a lot of kids being left out with no opportunity,” McClarty said, “and we have to figure it out. If we can come together, collaborate, and focus on ages 4 to 8, I think baseball could be alive and well. If people aren’t willing to work together, it will die like the A’s.”

Nick Lozito is a Sportswriter and designer whose work has appeared in The Oaklandside, Berkeleyside, KQED, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He is a graduate of Oakland Technical High School and Sacramento State University.