The Giants’ decade of frustrationby Frank Jackson
January 03, 2013
George Carlin (among others) used to joke that if you actually remembered the 1960s, you weren’t really there. Prominent in the public consciousness during that decade was the city of San Francisco, associated with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Haight-Ashbury, the summer of love, drugs, hippies, teenage runaways, topless nightclubs, and other counter-cultural miscellany guaranteed to nourish the nascent Dirty Harry in almost anyone.
Well, the Giants were really in San Francisco in the 1960s, and it was a memorable time for them. Still, despite the Giants’ winning ways, the decade was a bit of a bummer for Bay Area baseball fans.
The Giants were the new kids on the block in 1958, having just arrived from New York with a storied history but no suitable place to play. For the first two years in San Francisco, they took up residence in Seals Stadium, a former Pacific Coast League venue.
When Joe DiMaggio was tearing up the Pacific Coast League with a 61-game hitting streak in 1933, the park was only two years old and was considered state-of-the-art for minor league ball. A quarter of a century later, Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges described it as a “beautiful little watch-charm ball park, all green and cozy and freshly painted.”
The seating capacity was expanded for the Giants, but even so, there was room for only 22,900 fans, giving the Giants the smallest capacity in the majors at that time. Since they were going to be there for only two years, there was no reason to spend an exorbitant amount of money on the place. Indeed, the park was demolished in November of 1959, just weeks after the Giants ended their second season. Presumably, Ross Hodges was heartbroken.
Still, the 1958 and 1959 seasons had major ramifications for the Giants in the 1960s. They finished in third place both seasons with records of 80-74 and 83-71. This was surely a more copacetic way for Bay Area fans to become acquainted with major league ball than the expansion model, which, in the early '60s, all but guaranteed losing baseball. Since the locals had witnessed decades of Pacific Coast League ball, they weren’t exactly rubes.
Another key feature of the 1958 season was the arrival of Orlando Cepeda, who ended up as Rookie of the Year. He hit a tape measure home run off the Dodgers’ Don Bessent during the Giants first game in 1958 and went on to finish with 25 homers, 96 RBIs and a .312 average.
Willie McCovey made his debut in 1959. He broke in with a four-for-four day (including two triples off Robin Roberts) on July 30. He was so impressive that he won the Rookie of the Year award although he played in only 52 games. His .656 slugging percentage and a 22-game hitting streak doubtless caught voters’ attention. Like Cepeda, he would play a key role for the Giants in the 1960s.
The Giants made do with Seals Stadium for two years, but they must have felt some envy when they traveled to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers, their once and future rivals, and saw the cavernous capacity of the Coliseum. For example, when the Dodgers took on the Giants in the first-ever major league game at Seals Stadium (April 15, 1958), the crowd was 23,448. When the Giants visited L.A. three days later for the first baseball game ever at the Coliseum, the crowd was 78,672. Admittedly, the Coliseum was unsuitable for baseball, but it was without peer when it came to overflow crowds, such as the record-setting throngs of the 1959 World Series.
Though the Dodgers won the Series in 1959, the Giants probably felt they had the advantage as the 1960s dawned, for their new digs, Candlestick Park, expressly designed for major league baseball, was open for business. This was two years before the Dodgers unveiled their new playpen in Chavez Ravine.
The Giants’ opponent on opening day (April 19, 1960) was—who else?—the Dodgers. The festivities were tarnished by a familiar foe, Johnny Podres, who threw a shutout. That was an ominous beginning for a park that was soon to become the subject of jokes and criticism.
Candlestick was touted as the first outdoor stadium with a heating system... and also made ballpark history as the first outdoor stadium with a heating system that didn’t work. One fan sued for damages and received $1,597 to compensate him for his cold feet.
As the decade unfolded, Candlestick’s manifold meteorological problems (wind, chilly temperatures, dampness, fog) were difficult to hide. The gusting winds received national attention during the 1961 All-Star Game when they disrupted the wind-up of Giant reliever Stu Miller and he was called for a balk.
Privately, team execs would concede that the Hunter’s Point area (the southeast corner of the city) was a bad place to put a baseball park. Cleveland had the Mistake on the Lake, but San Francisco could boast of the Oy Vey on the Bay.
The 1960 opening of Candlestick Park was headline news, but it wasn’t the only important debut that year. That year also marked the arrival of Juan Marichal. He didn’t win the Rookie of the Year award, but he extended the Giants’ rookie-to-Hall of Fame string to three consecutive years. That might be a record, or at least a topic worthy of further research.
In fact, with Gaylord Perry’s arrival in 1962, that made four seasons out of five when a Giants rookie would advance to the Hall of Fame. Those old New York Giants scouts in the 1950s were clearly on the ball.
Of course, if you consider New York holdover Willie Mays, then the Giants had five future Hall of Fame inductees on their roster from 1962 through the trade of Cepeda to the Cardinals in 1966. In other words, the Giants were loaded—and the talent level would be borne out in their record during the decade. They had the National League’s best record in the 1960s (902-704, a .562 winning percentage).
Normally, when a team averages more than 90 wins a season over a decade, that translates into a title or two, or at least a few pennants. Not in the Giants’ case, however. Pennant races were almost an annual occurrence, as the Giants never failed to post a winning record during the decade. The result was one pennant, three second-place finishes, and four third-place finishes.
In 1964 the Giants finished fourth, but their 90 victories placed them just three games behind the pennant-winning Cardinals. In 1965, their second-place finish was a mere two games behind the Dodgers. In 1969, they finished second in the new National League West, just three games behind the Braves. Their only detour to the second division was in 1960, their inaugural year at Candlestick, when they finished in fifth place, albeit with a winning (79-75) record.
Today, of course, a decade of .562 baseball would be sure to net you some postseason appearances, thanks to divisional play and Wild Card teams. But in the 1960s, only the last year of the decade witnessed divisional play. Before 1969, there was one pennant-winning team in each league. The other teams went home after the regular season.
The one year the Giants won the pennant (1962), it did not come easy. They tied with the Dodgers at 101-61 and had to win a best-of-three playoff series to advance to the World Series. The Series, once it started, was plagued with successive rain-outs after Game Five.
When Game Seven finally arrived on Oct. 16, 1962, it was worth waiting for. The renowned contest ended in a 1-0 Yankee victory, with Bobby Richardson snaring Willie McCovey’s line drive bid for a game-winning hit and turning it into the last out. The Giants were literally inches away from a title. It was as close as they would get in the 20th century.
Even so, the 1962 season had a flashback feel to it. The Dodgers and Giants were duking it out for National League supremacy, and the Yankees were still waiting in the wings to take on the victor. As usual, the Yankees prevailed—but just barely.
Actually, the newest New York team played a big part in the Giants’ and Dodgers’ 101 wins during the regular season. The Giants were 14-4 against the lowly Mets, while the Dodgers went 16-2. Without the Mets (and the extra eight games added to the regular season), neither team would have hit triple digits in the win column.
While the Dodgers and Giants (among others) were beating up the Mets, would anyone have guessed back then that by the end of the decade, the team that had moved into the Polo Grounds would win a title before the team that had recently vacated the premises? The irony was probably not lost on Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham, who had engineered the move. Stoneham went to his grave in 1990 (he sold the team in 1976), knowing that the Giants had not won a title in San Francisco after more than three decades.
From 1963 through 1969, the Giants were good but never quite good enough. During the first six years of that seven-year stretch, they watched the Dodgers and the Cardinals take three pennants each, while the unlikely Mets went all the way in 1969. It was perhaps the most disappointing decade a winning team ever had.
To add insult to injury, attendance woes surfaced. The Giants had drawn more than a million fans during their first 10 years in San Francisco. The ardor had definitely faded by 1968. Also, they now had to share the Bay Area market with the Oakland Athletics, newly arrived from Kansas City. Thus began the longstanding debate as to whether the Bay Area could support two teams.
Giants attendance dropped to 837,220 in 1968, despite a third-place finish and a record of 88-74. In 1969, the Giants finished with 90 victories, just three games behind the Braves in the National League West, but the attendance crept up to only 873,603. Clearly, the fans were getting bored with the Giants close-but-no-cigar seasons. The attendance decline in the late '60s pointed to more ominous developments in the next decade.
The Giants won the Western Division in 1971, but the next season was their first losing season (69-86) since moving to San Francisco. Coincidentally, 1972 marked the first of three titles for the rival Athletics. The A’s weren’t exactly packing 'em in either (their attendance for their three-year run was 921,323, 1,000,763, and 845,693), but clearly they had stolen a lot of the Giants’ thunder. At least before 1968, the only competition the Giants had to worry about were National League teams.
The Giants were back in the plus column in 1973, but four sub-.500 seasons followed. Attendance plummeted again, bottoming out at 514,987 (worst in the NL) in 1974. Had Seals Stadium not been torn down, the Giants could have moved back there with room to spare. Needless to say, there were no future Hall of Fame members on the 1974 roster.
The honeymoon lasted a long time but now it was clearly over. The Giants were losers, making Candlestick Park an even less appealing place to spend one’s discretionary income. And, it’s not as though San Francisco was lacking in leisure time activities. Getting bundled up to watch a losing team might work for some NFL teams, but it definitely doesn’t work for major league baseball.
True, the 1960s had been disappointing, but the 1970s were downright depressing. There were even rumors the Giants were headed for Canada. The Toronto Giants? Sounds funny now, but diehard Giants fans weren’t laughing in the mid-1970s.
As we all know, there is a happy ending to all this. Given the frustrations of the 1960s, and how they segued into the train wreck of the 1970s, you can see why the Giants’ senior citizen fans would be especially appreciative of the Giants’ success during the 21st century, even though they had to slog through the 1980s and 1990s (and more relocation rumors, this time to St. Petersburg) to get there. Even that 1989 pennant was a downer, tainted as it was by an earthquake and a sweep by their cross-bay rivals, the Oakland A’s.
Clearly, PacBell Park (which opened in 2000) was a titanic upgrade over Candlestick Park. It was the first privately financed baseball park since 1962 when—guess who—the Dodgers opened their stadium.
Attendance at PacBell Park in 2000 was 3,318,800, and it has never dipped below 2,861,113 (2009). The Giants won their second pennant in San Francisco in 2002 and—finally!—their first title in 2010. Two years later they duplicated the feat.
Even in his heyday, John McGraw could not have asked for more.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.