Oakland Coliseum

Oakland, California

Oakland Coliseum

(Flickr—Shawn Clover)

Correcting Gertrude Stein, there would be a ‘there’ there in Oakland once the Coliseum and adjacent arena opened their doors to a flood of interested tenants—including the A’s, who high-tailed from the Midwest and have called the laid-back facility home ever since, through great times and those awful, through latter-day stigmas of overflowed sewage and an Everest of a football expansion that has left a small but loyal fan base plugging their noses and covering their eyes.

Oakland Coliseum Exterior SignageSomeone once said the phrase, “Compromise in colors is gray.” That perfectly sums up the Oakland Coliseum, a drab, concrete mass of seating that looks rhythmic from afar but, as you sit down inside it to watch something quadrant (baseball) or rectangular (football), is unyielding and unsatisfying with distant sightlines that make you feel removed from the action. That’s the compromising dilemma of the Coliseum; everything is taken into account, but nobody is left happy.

The Coliseum has been called many different names. The more official ones have been corporate and profitable in nature, while those less official—and often less flattering—are what most people go by. Some just say “The Coliseum” because that’s the one that will win the visual flash card test every time. Others still mockingly refer to it as the Mausoleum, a putdown of the stadium’s gray personality and the difficulty filling the place up with people, especially for baseball. Sure, there are swathes of vernal décor draping the Coliseum’s exterior, from tree-lined grassy berms to circular gardens, but nobody walking off the seemingly endless parking lot, itself surrounded by seemingly endless warehouses and junkyards, is in much of a mood to stop and admire. If there were any urban planners in place when the Coliseum was built, they certainly had no interest in gentrifying the immediate area—and, hardly without surprise, none has ever come about by accident.

For baseball fans, the Coliseum hit its peak and actually achieved some subtle admiration when the Oakland A’s had it all to themselves during the 1980s and early 1990s, knowing that whatever was being done to upgrade the stadium was being done to upgrade the baseball experience. But football’s Oakland Raiders, who divorced themselves from town and took all their belongings to Los Angeles after 1981, received a fetching deal to return in 1995, ruining the Coliseum’s tranquil view of the East Bay hills with the building of the volcanic, three-tiered “Mount Davis” structure in place of the simplistic single-level bleachers, grassy knoll and eucalyptus trees beyond.

Baseball has since become a second-class experience at the Coliseum, and the stadium’s current status as the last remaining facility that strains to accommodate both Major League Baseball and the National Football League, compounded by its antiquated, outmoded condition at age 50-plus, has forced the A’s to start looking elsewhere. But the more they run into roadblocks in their quest for a new ballpark, the more they remain chained to the Coliseum, rusting armrests, broken sewage pipes and all. After all, when baseball fans are serenaded with a lengthy pregame presentation not of A’s history or player interviews but, instead, where to go in case of an emergency evacuation, you know it’s time for a new home.

To Become a Somebody.

Before the Coliseum, there was only Oakland, a place for which author Gertrude Stein famously once said, “There is no ‘there’ there.” On one side of the bay was San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Presidio and endless other landmarks. On the other side, it was Oakland, the Newark of the West Coast, with a nice City Hall, a nice park and some scattered chic culture on the waterfront at Jack London Square—but not much of anything else. There was baseball; the Oakland Oaks were a longstanding participant in the Pacific Coast League, but even they couldn’t hold the fort when the rotting condition of ancient Oaks Park, along with rotting attendance, forced a move to Vancouver after 1955. The old yard was torn down a few years later (the site is currently occupied by Pixar Studios) and Oakland was without a ballpark to attract any kind of baseball, regardless of classification.

There had been talk of a modern stadium as early as the late 1940s, and again in the aftermath of the Oaks’ move, with local politicians discussing the possibility of building an 85,000-seat domed facility; neither concept gained serious traction. Finally, in 1960 as expansion became a buzzword in the pro sports lexicon, there was genuine movement. A consortium of some of the city’s top power brokers, headed by real estate honcho Robert Nahas, developed a non-profit organization to seek private funding to construct a stadium-arena complex—on the condition that when finished, the City of Oakland and Alameda County would take ownership and be responsible for its upkeep. It took four years and the overcoming of some legal dissent to get it approved, but on a whole it was the best shot Oakland would get to become a somebody, to transcend its faceless, cellophane past.

There was some discussion on where to place the complex; an early concept showed the stadium situated just blocks from City Hall, a site now occupied by the city’s convention center. But in the end, the choice was to locate seven miles to the south of downtown, a hop, skip and jump across the Nimitz Freeway from the city’s airport at a 115-acre plot of land gained through the Port of Oakland, which acquired it from a regional parks agency in exchange for a larger chunk of bayside land located nearby.

Initially, a separate ballpark and football stadium was considered before deciding on a multi-purpose facility alongside an indoor arena to maximize usage. Taking charge of the architecture was Chicago-based Skidmore Owings and Merrill, whose sports portfolio to date consisted of only one major project, Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum (the first home of basketball’s Trail Blazers). The lead designer of that facility, Myron Goldsmith, was given the aesthetic reins on the Coliseum complex as well; whereas he had gone minimalist boxy and glass for Portland, Goldsmith was all circles with Oakland. The outline of the stadium and the adjacent arena were perfectly round, conjoined by two smaller, circular parking areas. The space in between these four spheres resulted in an elevated meeting area, above a 50,000-square foot exhibition hall that connected the two facilities underground.

To create the perception of equal weight, the larger stadium was sunk into the earth, with a playing field 21 feet below sea level; contractors dug so deep, they ended up unearthing the bones and tusks of a woolly mammoth.

The arena would be given a sexier look than the stadium, a circular wall of glass framed by concrete X-bracing with the open space behind exposing an undulating seating bowl. The stadium, by contrast, was a laid-back, concrete layout of three decks (or four, if you include the four-row sections that shared space on the press level) that encircled 70% of the field and reclined a good distance from the action. Some 25 years after the Coliseum opened—and shortly before it was bastardized by the Raiders’ return—the American Institute of Architects would praise Goldsmith’s unadulterated design as “a very simple set of buildings” that was “honest and straightforward with good proportions that will never get old.”

Oakland Coliseum before Mount Davis

Before the Mount Davis football expansion of 1996, the Coliseum presented this relaxing view of the East Bay hills. Not that it was a terribly sexy sight; note the excavated hillside to the upper left of the center-field video screen. (Jerry Reuss)

Here Comes the Mule and the Ass Who Owns It.

Finishing on budget and ahead of schedule, the Coliseum welcomed its first event in 1966 when the Raiders, Oakland’s only professional sports franchise at the time, christened the facility with a 32-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Among the 50,000 in attendance that day was Charles Finley, the owner of baseball’s Kansas City A’s—and he wasn’t there merely to lend support for his gridiron neighbors back in Missouri. He and Nahas had been quietly communicating on moving the A’s out to Oakland—and lest anyone believed otherwise, the Raiders tickets Finley bought were not of the single-game variety; they were season tickets. 

It was no secret that Finley eyed a move to Oakland. He tried as early as 1963 to relocate to the Bay Area, but the American League ordered him to stay in Kansas City, in part because there was no ready facility in Oakland (the San Francisco Giants refused to let him play at Candlestick Park) and it feared a legal backlash in Kansas City. But with the Coliseum now ready and waiting, Finley was finally allowed to make his move after the 1967 campaign—and even then he barely got his wish, as California Angels owner Gene Autry lobbied his colleagues to okay the move and develop an intra-state rivalry. The A’s were Oakland’s, Kansas City was appeased with an expansion team, and Missouri U.S. Senator Stuart Symington, who fought hard against an A’s move, warned the coming of Finley by famously remarking, “Oakland is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.” 

Baseball’s owners had desperately tried to keep Finley, an irascible, self-made millionaire in the insurance industry, from joining the major league fraternity. Once he lucked into buying the A’s in 1960, all they could do was keep a leash on him. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they didn’t. Finley was unapologetically meddlesome, saying the A’s were his team and could do anything he wanted with them. Oakland didn’t mind; it was just happy to land a baseball tenant—and one that was on the rise. When the A’s ended their maiden 1968 campaign at the Coliseum with an 82-80 record, it represented their first above-.500 finish in 16 years. That was followed by two second-place finishes, and then five straight AL West titles—the middle three of which resulted in World Series triumphs over Cincinnati (1972), the New York Mets (1973) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (1974). 

That the A’s were able to three-peat wasn’t the amazing part; tolerating one another while pulling it off was. Already tensed up from living through Finley’s overbearing servitude, a colorful collection of young stars—led by egotistical slugger Reggie Jackson, who walked the walk as convincingly as he talked the talk—fought one another, defended one another against Finley’s machinations, and charmingly brought the mustache back into major league vogue, in part because Finley was willing to pay each player extra to grow one. 

One would have thought the championship aura, enriched by the headline-making clubhouse drama, would have packed the Coliseum. It didn’t. The A’s drew 50,000 for their very first game at Oakland in 1968—and 5,304 for the second. Fantasy represented the former, reality the latter. When Catfish Hunter, barely 22, pitched the AL’s first perfect game in 46 years just three weeks into the A’s inaugural Oakland campaign, only 6,298 were on hand to witness. For their three successive world titles, the A’s only drew a million fans once—and barely, eclipsing the milestone by a mere 763 fans in 1973. Empty seats were a common sight even at playoff games; it was a total embarrassment when, in the winner-take-all Game Five of the 1973 ALCS against Baltimore, a crowd of 24,265—half the stadium’s capacity—showed up. 

Part of the problem was that the Bay Area just wasn’t ready for two major league teams. The Giants drew well while they were the only team in the market—being a constant contender with a roster full of Hall of Famers certainly helped—but when the A’s arrived, both teams suffered at the gate as a doubling of teams hardly lead to a doubling of ticket sales. Still, the A’s couldn’t ratchet up the turnstile clicks through all of their triumphs even as the Giants began a decline that led to some horrible gate numbers across the bay at Candlestick Park by the mid-1970s.

Bert Campaneris at the Oakland Coliseum

There was seldom a dull moment, on or off the field, during the A’s three straight world titles in the early 1970s—as shown here when Bert Campaneris launches his bat in anger at Detroit pitcher Lerrin LaGrow after getting hit in the 1972 ALCS. Despite the team’s success and notoriety, empty seats were easy to find at the Coliseum even during the postseason, as you’ll see here at far right; this particular game fell 18,000 short of a sellout. (Associated Press)

Finley did his best, in his own way, to bring in the fans, with enough promotions at the Coliseum to make minor league owners blush. Fans who did show spiced up the environment with vuvuzela-like horns and cowbells, embraced and encouraged by A’s broadcaster Monte Moore (who on the air referred to A’s home runs as “dingers”). 

The A’s glory years were but a distant memory by the late 1970s, thanks largely to the advent of modern free agency—which Finley refused to take part in. As a result, he lost his star players, had no money to sign others and resorted to a reliance on young players from his farm system. Finley himself was ready to get out, attempting to sell the team in 1977 to independent oilman Marvin Davis, who had designs on moving the A’s to Denver. Problem was, the A’s still had 10 years left on their lease with the Coliseum, and the city and county threatened a lawsuit against the relocation. Davis, not wanting to deal with the legal hassle, backed out of the sale. 

The post-dynasty hangover never felt worse than in 1979. The A’s drew a paltry 10,387 on Opening Day, and surpassed that figure only four more times in a dreadful season in which the team—by now referred to as the Triple-A’s—lost 108 games. On one chilly April night, the team drew just 653 fans, with reporters on the scene counting up just half that figure; a local TV crew moved through the sparsely populated field level during the game and joked—actually, they weren’t joking—how fans had their own personal concessionaires. Finley’s front office was just as empty; one of the few who were employed was 16-year-old Stanley Burrell, a team batboy promoted to executive vice president. A decade later, Burrell made for much greater fame as rapper MC Hammer. 

The Elusive Search for the Perfect Seat.

The A’s post-apocalyptic status to end the 1970s emerged as a low point to an otherwise heady decade at the Coliseum complex. You name it, the stadium and arena had it: The A’s, Raiders, basketball’s Golden State Warriors, hockey’s California Golden Seals, the circus, ice shows, roller derby, RV shows, outdoor soccer, indoor soccer, and numerous concerts both inside and outside—the latter highlighted with the enormously popular Day on the Green events, in which crowds of 50,000 routinely flooded the stadium turf and seats to watch a mini-Woodstock collection of rock artists. Perhaps the most famous—or, most infamous—Day on the Green took place in August 1977 when British rock band Led Zeppelin performed its last two gigs in America. Nobody knew that at the time, however; a backstage brawl between competing security detail, and the recent death of lead singer Robert Plant’s young son, led to the cancellation of the rest of the tour. Drummer John Bonham’s own death a few years later resulted in the band’s dissolution. 

While screaming rock fans could get up close and personal to the main stage for the Day on the Green, baseball and football fans restricted to the seats typically had a far more distant vantage point of the action. Their frustration was a response to the Coliseum’s main weakness: The permanent orientation of its seats. Most multi-purpose stadiums of the 1960s and 1970s swiveled their lower levels to conform to either baseball or football; the Coliseum didn’t, and it resulted in one of the most unsatisfying compromises to be found anywhere between the two sports. For football, this was partly resolved by removing seats and creating notches just past each dugout to make room for the end zones, while basic, temporary bleachers were built in the outfield to accommodate fans who ended up with the best views in the house.

Seats within the Oakland Coliseum’s Press Level

The press level, tucked under the third deck, also included small areas of regular seating for fans. Only a handful of these remain, with luxury boxes taking up much of the level.

Complicating the Coliseum’s baseball-football nexus, the temp football bleachers couldn’t even be erected until the A’s season was over, so the Raiders had to play their first few home games of the year with the football field turned 90 degrees, stretching from home plate to the center-field wall. This not only created frustration for football fans who felt they were sitting a mile away, but also migraines for Raiders front office personnel trying to reconcile different seating arrangements for the team’s season ticket holders. (On one occasion, the Raiders couldn’t even play at the Coliseum at all; the 1973 World Series bumped the Silver and Black from a scheduled home game, which had to be moved up the road to Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium on the University of California campus.) 

To this day, the Coliseum’s intractable seating has made baseball sightlines so remote, it’s not unusual to find fans on the field level reaching for the binoculars. The structure’s roundness led to the creation of, easily, the majors’ largest foul territory; it’s so vast, any player with world-class stamina catching up to a foul ball by the rolled-up tarps near the bullpens would, across the bay at San Francisco’s Oracle Park, be making that same catch in the 10th row. The point is not that Oracle Park is small; most other ballparks today are like it, and the Coliseum has, by a lack of evolution, become a far different animal in that regard. 

Pitchers love the voluminous foul territory; everyone else hates it. Infielders have to take every pop-up headed toward the seats seriously, and batters can only sigh every time a foul is caught when, chances are, that pop-up would be out of the fielder’s reach in any of the majors’ 29 other ballparks. Add to that the cool marine air that glides in off the nearby bay waters that deaden the ball at night, and the outs really begin to add up, making it difficult for any player to maintain a strong batting average. In fact, no A’s player has ever won a batting title since the team moved to the Coliseum in 1968. 

The A’s hitters are hardly the only ones to suffer. Visiting players, legends among them, have seen their career averages dented downward by the Coliseum’s hitting conditions. Wade Boggs, five-time AL batting champion, hit .241 in 90 games at the Coliseum—90 points below what he hit elsewhere. David Ortiz hit .219. Ken Griffey Jr., .236. Cal Ripken Jr., .233. The only visitor who managed to excel above average playing at the Coliseum was Ichiro Suzuki, who easily tops the list among those who played 50 or more games with a .358 average.

Expansive foul territory at the Oakland Coliseum

The Coliseum’s foul territory is easily the majors’ largest and has been cursed at by one generation of hitters after enough. No Oakland A’s player has ever won a batting title.

The Savior in Denim.

Charlie Finley finally gave up on the A’s in 1980. Out went the combative, frugal owner; in came Levi’s lord Walter Haas, who represented a 180-dgree switch by displaying kind generosity with both his personality and wallet. Haas was also astute enough to bring in young marketing wizard Andy Dolich to re-awaken the Coliseum from its emptied-out slumber of the Finley years. Between Haas’ loosening of the purse strings and Dolich’s ingenuity, the A’s transformed overnight. Haas seemed to spend more in a day than Finley did over a decade, clogging the airwaves with a spry, crackerjack TV commercial campaign that connected with savvy Bay Area consumers; one ad showed A’s manager Billy Martin working behind a ticket booth and encouraging fans to buy seats with his special brand of tough love. 

The new attitude didn’t stop once inside the Coliseum. Dolich realized that not everyone attending baseball games was there just for the game, and so he created side attractions such as play areas for toddlers and a youth baseball skills pavilion where, among other things, kids could see how fast and/or accurately they could throw a pitch. Sidebars like these are common at most ballparks today, but in 1981 they were trendsetting. “We kind of patterned ourselves after Disneyland,” Dolich would later tell the New York Times

Purists may have abhorred Dolich’s inventions, but business is business and the A’s were insistent on filling up the Coliseum. They succeeded. Season ticket sales went from barely a few hundred in Finley’s last years to 16,000 under Haas. Revving up the fans in the stands was Crazy George, an assertive cheerleader brought up from soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes who specialized in leading cheers and chants from the crowd while banging a drum and snarling at opposing players on the field. One of Crazy George’s more popular tricks was to get fans in three adjacent sections to stand up with their arms raised, one after the other; during one sold out game in 1981, the fans took matters into their own hands and continued the routine completely around the stadium. Though it’s fiercely debated to this day by people from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico, this was thought to be the birth of The Wave. 

The Haas regime not only was good, it was lucky. The Raiders, under the obstinate rule of Brooklyn native Al Davis, took a page out of Walter O’Malley’s money-versus-more-money playbook and moved the team to Los Angeles after 1981—dreaming, just as the Dodgers had back in 1958, of profit-laden bliss. Coliseum officials desperately tried everything to keep the Raiders from leaving, including a dubious claim of eminent domain, but Davis prevailed in court, packed up and left. 

The Raiders’ departure left the A’s with the Coliseum all to themselves—and they took great advantage. While the team wasn’t able to bring the fans closer to the action—that would have taken a rebuild of massive proportions—it did make them feel more at home. Concession choices were considerably widened with brand-name participants such as Round Table Pizza. A hand-operated out-of-town scoreboard was installed as “yuppies” increasingly yearned for old-timey baseball charm. And the Coliseum was one of the first major league venues to install Diamond Vision, a modestly sized video screen placed behind center field that showed bloopers, highlights and other entertaining features—which, unfortunately, also included dot racing. It may have paled against the massive hi-def boards seen today, but it was quite cutting-edge for the time.

Concourse and section wayfinding at Oakland Coliseum

People seldom speak wistfully of a ballpark’s concourse, but the Coliseum’s concrete-chunk look is especially unromantic—and not particularly wide.

Haas wasn’t afraid to spend—and lose—millions on the A’s; for him, the bottom line was the immense satisfaction enjoyed by the fans. And they weren’t just satisfied by the outreach, but also the product on the field. For much of the 1980s, the A’s were an entertaining, star-studded team, all but a dynasty by decade’s end with three straight AL pennants thanks to the hubris-hogging personalities of stolen base king Rickey Henderson, the synthetic “Bash Brothers” tandem of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and reclamation projects-turned-Cy Young Award prospects Dave Stewart and closer Dennis Eckersley—all under the direction of the intense, brilliant baseball mind of manager Tony La Russa. The only world title to come out of this brash period took place in 1989 when the A’s swept the cross-bay Giants in a series painfully remembered for the 6.9 earthquake that hit shortly before Game Three at Candlestick Park; as with the Giants’ stadium, the Coliseum survived the shaker all but unscathed, though only miles to the north lay some of the most traumatic damage when a double-decked section of Interstate 880 collapsed upon itself, killing 42. 

Mount Davis Arises.

The luster soon wore off the championship shine and, in 1995, an ailing Haas sold the franchise to local businessmen Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman under market value, but also under the promise that they’d keep the team in Oakland. However, the new guys immediately found themselves the victims of bad timing: The Raiders were returning to the Coliseum. 

Al Davis, unable to secure funding for a new football stadium in Los Angeles, came back to Oakland with his tail between his legs. But over-eager Coliseum officials saw it differently, treating Davis like royalty even after he so rudely turned his back on the city 15 years earlier. The deal he signed to return to the Coliseum had “sweetheart” written all over it. The city and county would sell $200 million in bonds to overhaul the stadium and make it more football-friendly; the exhibit hall between the arena and stadium would be reinvented as expanded locker rooms; Personal Seat Licenses (PSLs), a greedy little trick in which fans would pay for the right to buy season tickets, would be sold through a specially created public agency (yes—a public agency) that would run the team’s marketing; and the Coliseum’s tranquil persona would forever be ruined by a jarring expansion that would turn the facility into the Frankenstein monster of stadiums. 

As the Raiders did not want to return to the old days of shifting football field configurations and makeshift bleachers propped up in center field, a massive, permanent structure, with foldout seats for football, would rise where the outfield bleachers once stood. It would be an oppressive, angular jambalaya, sarcastically referred to as Mount Davis, featuring three levels of seating and three tiers of luxury boxes that sharply contrasted with and towered high above the existing circular stadium structure. Mount Davis would add 22,000 seats and 90 suites, while subtracting the Coliseum’s harmony, laid-back charm, outfield bleachers and eucalyptus trees behind that once gave way to a pleasant (if not sexy) view of the East Bay hills. It was as if the Coliseum attempted to disprove the old adage that you can’t put a square peg in a round hole. 

The A’s relegation to second-fiddle status at the Coliseum was instantly apparent as Mount Davis rose like the Tower of Babel in 1996. Intensive construction forced the team to play its first six games of the season at a 9,500-seat minor league facility in Las Vegas, but after its return they had to put up with nonstop jackhammering and sawing, even while games were being played. It all seemed so contrary to modern times; as major league teams elsewhere were moving into pure baseball palaces, the Coliseum expansion presented the Bizarro World case of a stadium moving back to the dark ages of multi-purpose misery. 

There would be a few silver linings for the A’s with the Coliseum’s new configuration. While the expansive foul territory remained, averages and home runs rose as Mount Davis’ presence put the kibosh on the breezes that once flowed through the stadium. And Mount Davis’ two lower levels of seating, doubling as the A’s new-look outfield bleachers, gave rise to some of the most vocal and loyal fans to be found anywhere in baseball. This was especially true behind the right-field wall in Section 149, where a group of young millennial types—the “crazies in right field,” as warmly described by A’s announcer Ken Korach—banged drums, waived giant flags and made best friends with the A’s right fielders.

Mount Davis, Oakland Coliseum

Mount Davis, in all its scorned glory. For the return of football’s Raiders in the mid-1990s, the monstrous structure rose behind center field, adding over 20,000 seats and 90 luxury boxes. A’s fans hate it.

Success on Schott and Hoffman’s austerity program was made possible with the hiring of Billy Beane as the A’s general manager in 1997. Beane transformed the game, relying on complex, cutting-edge statistics that confounded old school scouts and built winners of the franchise once again by the turn of the century. The height of the Moneyball era would occur in 2002 when the A’s, on their way to a second straight 100-win season, set an AL record by winning 20 straight games. The last of those victories, the record-breaker, brought out a Coliseum baseball-record crowd of 55,528—even the Himalayan reaches at the top of Mount Davis were filled—and it was a mind-blowing contest in which the A’s stormed out an 11-0 lead, had it completely erased by a terrible (62-100) Kansas City squad, then took it back for good on Scott Hatteberg’s walk-off solo homer in the ninth. The moment would be immortalized as the climactic scene in the 2011 film Moneyball—filmed at the Coliseum—with Brad Pitt portraying Beane and Chris Pratt as Hatteberg.

Arguably the most famous moment—or infamous, from an A’s perspective—in Coliseum baseball history took place a year earlier when Derek Jeter’s memorable shuffle relay to home plate caught the A’s Jeremy Giambi by surprise and tagged out standing, swinging the momentum of the game and 2001 AL Divisional Series 180 degrees in favor of the New York Yankees. It was a seminal moment that defined the Moneyball era’s total frustration in the postseason, as Oakland made five trips to the playoffs within a seven-year period but only won one of five series, never once reaching the World Series.

Cry of the Wolff.

Ten years after they bought into the A’s, Schott and Hoffman sold out; purchasing was Lew Wolff and John Fisher, who immediately made it known that the Coliseum would not be in their long-range plans—nor the short-term, for that matter. Trying to achieve either goal proved enormously difficult. They first looked at a waterfront ballpark in Jack London Square, but the Oakland political bureaucracy proved too prohibitive to deal with. They next looked at Fremont, a suburb parked 25 miles down the East Bay, but residents there didn’t like the idea—“they think we’re going to bring gangs into the community,” Wolff remarked. They finally looked further south to San Jose, an economic Shangri-La, the so-called “Capitol of Silicon Valley” with over a million residents. Wolff and Fisher had the land, local approval, and money (all private) to build a ballpark minutes from downtown. They would have proceeded without baseball’s permission, too—but 20 years earlier, then-A’s owner Walter Haas, in another generous fit of benefaction, gave away the team’s San Jose territorial rights to the Giants in the midst of one of their many failed attempts to flee Candlestick Park. The Giants, fearing a major dent in their South Bay fan base—to say nothing of a potential major loss of sponsorship and luxury suite sales from Silicon Valley corporations—have since been in no giving mood to return the territory back.

Upper deck tarped at the Oakland Coliseum

To increase ticket demand, the A’s reduced capacity to 35,000 by placing tarps on the upper deck. While the tactic forced fans to sit closer together, it didn’t increased attendance; after a few years, the tarps were put away.

So, the A’s remain stuck with the Coliseum, which has firmly reached old-man status. And the old man is not aging well. Metal armrests look like something left out in a junkyard. The concrete is chipped here and there. The stadium lacks the monster hi-def scoreboard that’s become standard at almost every other modern sports facility, because there’s no room to put it; instead, fans have to crane their necks to find twin video scoreboards perched high atop the third deck, with a video screen so miniscule, it could be mistaken for the smaller image in the picture-in-picture TV feature. And most notoriously, the plumbing constantly fails, leading not only to numerous sewage overflows in the clubhouse and dugouts but to a new nickname for the stadium: The E-Coli-seum. If only the place would get the same kind of makeover that Billy Beane got from Brad Pitt in Moneyball.

Toughing it out sans a new ballpark, Wolff and Fisher have tried to make the most of it at the Coliseum. They first tarped Mount Davis’ upper deck—after all, who wants a blimp-eye view of the action—and then, in a more surprising move, they tarped the upper deck of the original circular structure, reducing capacity to 35,000 while hoping to increase ticket demand. It didn’t work; a few years later, the A’s took them off.

While there are and always will be diehard A’s loyalists who will attend no matter where the team play, the A’s experience at the Coliseum has devolved into a cost-effective alternative for others who find it too expensive or difficult to nab Giants tickets across the bay at the far more glamorous, frequently sold-out Oracle Park. That’s why, amid the crowds that often number below 10,000, you’ll find a more roguish element—and metal detectors for all who enter, a practice long in use before MLB made it mandatory. Perhaps stadium security is just keeping sharp in preparation for the Raiders, whose fans are, shall we say, among the most interesting in all of sports.

So When Does the Whole Thing Get Tarped?

Lo and behold, there are some nice upscale touches to be found at the Coliseum. Above the second level along the right-field line is the Shibe Park Tavern, where any ticketholder can enjoy a nice drink behind tall windows and enjoy a view of the action—or they can check out historical items from the A’s days in Philadelphia, hence the pub’s name. Behind the left field bleachers, the Treehouse is a hipper alternative for people to drink, lounge or even play pool. For the 1% of us, five rows of pricey seats labeled the “Diamond Level” have been added behind home plate with perks that include free food, two free drinks per game, free Wi-Fi, exclusive parking, and the chance to reach your seat by accessing the same tunnel that visiting players use to get to the sewage-stained clubhouse. All of this could also be accessed by spending up to $12.50 to take a tour of the Coliseum, which surely can’t rate among the Bay Area’s more popular tourist attractions. But if the idea fancies you, just remember: There may be plumbers at work, so leave your best shoes at home.

Remember that early Saturday Night Live sketch, “The Thing They Wouldn’t Leave,” with John Belushi as an annoying houseguest who’s trying everyone’s patience? It’s kind of become like that with the Coliseum, but in inverse fashion. Everybody wants to leave the place. The Raiders became unhappy even after city and county officials performed all those cartwheels to get them back; their PSL-funded return to Oakland was such a failure, even they tarped the upper deck of Mount Davis to reduce capacity and avoid TV blackouts. Finally, in 2020, they made good on their 100th threat to (yet again) leave and departed, this time to Las Vegas. Next door, the Golden State Warriors have left Oracle Arena and moved to a luxurious new spot across the bay in San Francisco.

Oakland Coliseum Center Field Wall

The center field at the Coliseum seems to be a lonely place as a tall wall hides the rollout seats used for football. (Flickr—Ethan Bloch)

As for the A’s, they’ve conceded to plugging their noses and sticking it out at the Coliseum until a new ballpark is built, as progress crawls along for a new facility near the Port of Oakland.   

In this day of sports fans seeking optimal viewing choices—whether onsite or online—the gray, deficient compromises of the Coliseum simply can’t cut it anymore. It’s a stadium way past its expiration date, and it only exists by default. There are four older facilities being used by Major League Baseball. Three of them—Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium—have become so iconic that the very thought of tearing them down is blasphemous. The fourth, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, has been reworked over so thoroughly that it could be confused for a modern, post-Camden Yards ballpark. That leaves us with the Coliseum, baseball’s biggest eyesore, grayer than gray, appended into an albatross. 

The Coliseum was once as heralded as its Roman namesake during its heyday. “Home of Champions,” the façade proclaimed. Only the A’s now remain, but soon they’ll be gone—and soon afterwards, so will the Coliseum as we know it, the playing field surrounded by a much smaller seating capacity and newly-constructed mixed-use development. 

The glory days are behind in Oakland, but thanks to the Coliseum, at least everyone knows that it’s there. So take that, Gertrude Stein.

Shibe ParkThe Ballparks: Shibe Park In baseball’s landscape of horse buggies and wooden carts, Shibe Park emerged as the Model T of ballparks, a sparkling trendsetter that introduced steel and concrete to the game’s vernacular, beget rooftop entrepreneurs long before Wrigley and brought the game out of its lumbered, fire-cursed squalor. That it stood for generations while two tenants largely stank up the joint was a testament to its perseverance.

Kansas City Municipal StadiumThe Ballparks: Municipal Stadium It was a pit stop for the many who played there, but never a pit—an artless but fully pragmatic ballyard with the visual flourishes provided by its many colorful performers. From Muehlebach to the Monarchs to the Mule, Municipal Stadium was the constant over 50 years of Kansas City’s ever-changing baseball landscape.

Oakland A’s Team History A decade-by-decade history of the A’s, the ballparks they’ve played in, and the four people who are on the franchise’s Mount Rushmore.