Curt Flood was a son of Oakland, California. The thoughtful, troubled man whose enormous significance in the history of professional baseball far transcends his considerable on-field achievements was born in Houston, Texas, but his family had previously lived in Oakland, and would soon move back. Flood spent his entire childhood and adolescence, and much of his adult life, in Oakland.
The Oakland playgrounds and ballyards of the 1940s and 1950s upon which Flood learned to play baseball, and developed and honed his extraordinary talent, would not have been impressive to the uninformed observer. They would have appeared to be ordinary, workaday, city-tough spaces, perhaps a little weedy and run-down, the kind one might see in any blue-collar neighborhood in any mid-sized city. But those playgrounds and ballyards were, in fact, rich and fertile soil, growing a lush and bountiful garden of baseball players. They’d been doing so for decades before Flood’s time, and they’ve continued to bloom in the decades since. And in the post-World War II years, when the young Curt Flood was among their finest products, the humble ballyards of Oakland were at their lavishly productive peak.
Land of Oaks
Oakland occupies the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, across the water from San Francisco. The fact that the region is known as the “San Francisco Bay Area” and the prominent estuary is known as the “San Francisco Bay” may provide a hint regarding the status that Oakland has always held. From the very beginning of Spanish settlement in the 1700s, through the incorporation of the state of California within the United States in the 1850s, and ever since, Oakland has been “the other place,” the supporting player, the sidekick to the area’s glitzy, overbearing, egotistical star.
The name “Oakland” (in Spanish it was “Encinal,” which directly translates) implies a leafy, bucolic hamlet, and no doubt in the 18th and 19th centuries that’s what Oakland was, nestled between the blue bay to the west and the grassy, oak-groved hills to the east. But by the middle of the twentieth century, Oakland was anything but bucolic: it quickly grew to be a dense, slightly grim, working-class city. It became a huge seagoing port (larger than San Francisco in that regard), glutted with warehouses, train yards, and trucking depots. San Francisco developed as the picturesque tourist attraction, with the cute cable cars and fancy restaurants; Oakland the district of loading docks and lunch pails. To use a New York analogy, if San Francisco is Manhattan, then Oakland is Newark, New Jersey.
Bay Area Ballplayers
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bay Area began producing major league ballplayers at a steady rate, and it was San Francisco that delivered the biggest names: Harry Heilmann, Lefty O’Doul, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Cronin, Frank Crosetti, and of course the DiMaggio brothers. But Oakland (and its East Bay satellites Berkeley and Richmond) was keeping pace quite closely, sending Chick Hafey, Lefty Gomez, Ernie Lombardi, Cookie Lavagetto, and Augie Galan to the big leagues.
Also in this period the Bay Area was gaining its first significant African-American community. Propelled by the deprivations of poverty and institutional discrimination in the rural South toward the promise of a better life in the burgeoning California economy, African-Americans began arriving in the San Francisco Bay area in large numbers in the 1920s and 1930s. With the outbreak of World War II, a boom in shipyard and industrial defense-related manufacturing operations took place in the Bay Area, and the immigration accelerated. By the late 1940s, Oakland in particular had a very large and somewhat prosperous black population.
And, of course, the sons of these Oakland African-Americans played a lot of baseball. In 1946, a nascent West Coast Negro League operated very briefly, but with the integration of the minor and major leagues beginning in 1946-47, it never took hold. By the early 1950s, several major league organizations were actively scouting and signing young black talent, and in the Bay Area, particularly Oakland and its immediate neighbor Alameda (the island port town abutting Oakland to the west and south), they found a remarkably plentiful source. Flood was among this cohort emerging in the mid-1950s, and what a group it was: Oakland/Alameda players within three years of Flood’s age included Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Tommy Harper, and Willie Stargell. Coming along just a few years later was Joe Morgan.
The quality of baseball talent produced by Oakland in this period was simply extraordinary, as impressive a cluster as any coming out of anywhere at any time. The city and its close neighbors have remained a source of outstanding ballplaying aptitude in the succeeding decades, producing Dennis Eckersley, Rickey Henderson, and Randy Johnson, as well as young stars Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis. But the burst that came forth in the 1950s and early 1960s has never been quite matched.
The explanation for what happened is an intriguing question. Professional sports, baseball included, has always been an attractive pursuit of working-class young men, often the children of recent immigrants: note the high proportion of the star players from the Bay Area in the ‘20s and ‘30s with Italian surnames, products of the great Italian immigration to the Bay Area that took place in the 1890-1920 period. A similar dynamic prompted athletically inclined young Bay Area African-Americans coming of age in the 1950s to look toward professional baseball, as a means of economic advancement (as well as excitement, fun, travel, and fame—and yes, one might read all these as euphemisms for female attention) in an environment which provided few comparable alternatives.
Each player’s story is unique, of course, and there were particular combinations of circumstances and events that propelled each one. An extraordinary coach named George Powles at McClymonds High School in Oakland in the 1950s had a great impact. But clearly the phenomenon was larger than any single individual; something systemic was going on. An infusion of newly arrived families producing hungry, ambitious young men, eagerly embracing great challenges for an opportunity to enjoy great rewards never before available to people like them, combined with a sound economic infrastructure, and a rich baseball culture, produced an explosive burst of baseball achievement.
It was a moment in history, a time and place. Then things changed, as they have a way of doing. The Bay Area has continued to abundantly grow and prosper, but much of the inner city of Oakland, and the African-American population of Oakland in particular, hasn’t prospered accordingly. As in many other industrial American cities, the second half of the twentieth century wasn’t altogether a good one for Oakland. Low educational attainment, weak family structure, unemployment, poverty, drug abuse, violence, crime, and indolence have plagued much of the city. And to the degree that youth sports remains alive and well, the sport of choice in the African-American culture has dramatically shifted to basketball. Youth baseball still goes on in Oakland, but nothing like it did in the 1940s and 1950s.
The Honor Roll
We’ll close with a listing of many of the prominent and interesting major league ballplayers born and/or raised in Oakland and its immediate vicinity:
Buzz Arlett, born in Elmhurst (now a part of Oakland, in the vicinity of the Oakland Coliseum) in 1899. A longtime pitcher and then power-hitting outfielder for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, Arlett played only one season in the majors, in which he hit .313 with 18 homers.
Lew Fonseca, born in Oakland in 1899. A major league batting average champion, who then served as a batting coach at the major league level for many years.
Chick Hafey, born in Berkeley in 1903, and a graduate of Berkeley High School. A very dubious selection to the Hall of Fame, Hafey was nonetheless a terrific player, a power-hitting outfielder with a great arm. He had two nephews, Bud and Tom Hafey, who graduated from Oakland High School, and played in the major leagues.
Dick Bartell, born in Chicago in 1907, but a graduate of Alameda High School in Alameda. Played 18 seasons in the big leagues.
Ernie Lombardi, born in Oakland in 1908, and a graduate of Cole Elementary School in Oakland. A tremendous player, a legitimate Hall of Fame catcher, and a lifelong Bay Area resident.
Lefty Gomez, born in Rodeo (a very small town about 25 miles to the north of Oakland, on the San Pablo Bay) in 1908, and a graduate of Richmond High School in Richmond. A four-time 20-game winner for the New York Yankees, and a Hall of Famer.
Cookie Lavagetto, born in Oakland in 1912, a graduate of Technical High School in Oakland. A third baseman, played ten years in the majors despite missing four full seasons to World War II, then managed and coached in the big leagues.
Augie Galan, born in Berkeley in 1912, and a graduate of Berkeley High. Played 16 years in the major leagues, a three-time All-Star.
Joe DiMaggio, born in Martinez (a fishing town on the Carquinez Strait between the San Pablo and Suisun Bays, about 25 miles to the northeast of Oakland) in 1914. His older brother Vince was also born in Martinez. The family then moved to San Francisco, where younger brother Dom was born, and where the boys grew up.
Len Gabrielson Sr., born in Oakland in 1915, a graduate of Technical High. Appeared only briefly in the major leagues, but his son, Len Gabrielson Jr., born in Oakland in 1939, also a graduate of Technical, had a fairly substantial big league career.
Sam Chapman, born in Tiburon (a Marin County fishing village across the San Francisco Bay from Oakland) in 1916, and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. Hit 180 major league home runs despite missing four seasons to World War II military service.
Bill Rigney, born in Alameda in 1918, and a graduate of Oakland High School. A major league infielder for eight seasons, and a major league manager for eighteen.
Ferris Fain, born in San Antonio, Texas in 1921, but a graduate of Roosevelt High School in Oakland. A five-time American League All-Star and two-time batting champion.
Jackie Jensen, born in San Francisco in 1927, but a graduate of University High School in Oakland, and a football as well as baseball star at Cal Berkeley. The American League MVP in 1958.
Billy Martin, born in Berkeley in 1928, and a graduate of Berkeley High. Played 11 tempestuous seasons in the majors, and managed for all or part of 19 more. One of the most colorful and controversial figures in baseball history.
Andy Carey, born in Oakland in 1931, and a graduate of Alameda High School. Played 11 years in the majors, but never developed into the star it appeared he would.
J.W. Porter, born in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 1933, but raised in Oakland. None of my sources inform me of exactly where he went to high school, but Porter was an Oakland youth baseball legend.
The Oakland “Bill Erwin Post No. 337” American Legion team, coached by George Powles, won the national championship in both 1949 and 1950, and their star in both years was Porter. From the 1951 Sporting News Baseball Guide, page 161:
Another record was set by J.W. Porter, Oakland catcher, when he captured the national batting championship for the second successive year. The 17-year-old receiver, who hit .551 in ten tourney games the previous year, produced a .488 average in 1950 national tourney play to retain the Hillerich & Bradsby trophy which is awarded annually to the leading batter … Porter, who received a bonus in excess of $50,000 for signing with the Chicago White Sox organization in December, 1950, was named the No. 1 American Legion Junior player of the year.
The team photo in that Baseball Guide shows a smiling, freckle-faced Porter, kneeling in the front row. A younger teammate in the same row, tall and gangly, is Frank Robinson.
Despite his spectacular amateur performance, Porter was never more than a bit player in the major leagues.
Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, born in Oakland in 1933, and a graduate of El Cerrito High School in El Cerrito (an Oakland suburb, between Berkeley and Richmond). Was the first player of color for the last major league team to integrate, the Boston Red Sox of 1959.
Jim Landis, born in Fresno, California in 1934, but a graduate of Richmond High. A five-time Gold Glove winner in the American League.
Bill Russell, born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934, but a graduate of McClymonds High School in Oakland, where he was coached by Powles. (Russell credits Powles with directly rescuing him from a path leading to delinquency and despair.) Okay, he wasn’t a baseball player, but Russell did pretty well in a sport that better rewarded his 6-foot-10-inch stature. Generally regarded as one of the very few greatest basketball players in history, if not the greatest.
Ernie Broglio, born in Berkeley in 1935, and a graduate of El Cerrito High. One of the better pitchers in the National League in the early 1960s, but generally remembered instead as the guy traded for future Hall of Famer Lou Brock.
Frank Robinson, born in Beaumont, Texas in 1935, but a graduate of McClymonds High. An all-time great player, and the first African-American manager in major league history. A towering figure in baseball history.
Curt Flood, born in Houston, Texas in 1938, but attended McClymonds, and a graduate of Technical High. You may have heard of him.
Vada Pinson, born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1938, but a graduate of McClymonds. A significant star, played 18 years in the majors.
Tommy Harper, born in Oak Grove, Louisiana in 1940, but a graduate of Encinal High School in Alameda. Played 15 seasons in the big leagues.
Willie Stargell, born in Earlsboro, Oklahoma in 1940, but a graduate of Encinal. Had a 21-year major league career, was a seven-time All-Star, won an MVP award, and was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Aaron Pointer, born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1942, but a graduate of McClymonds. A brief major league playing career, but he’s notable as the older brother of the famed singing group, The Pointer Sisters, and also for being a longtime NFL referee.
Joe Morgan, born in Bonham, Texas in 1943, but a graduate of Castlemont High School in Oakland. Generally regarded as the greatest all-around second baseman in the history of baseball.
Rudy May, born in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1944, but a graduate of Castlemont High. Pitched 16 years in the majors.
Tug McGraw, born in Martinez in 1944, and a graduate of St. Vincent Ferrer High School in Vallejo (the port town across the Carquinez Strait from Martinez), and an attendee of Vallejo Junior College. A major star relief pitcher for the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. The father of country music superstar Tim McGraw.
Bill Buckner, born in Vallejo in 1949, and a graduate of Napa High School in Napa (the famed wine-producing town, about 40 miles north of Oakland). Amassed over 2,700 hits in a 22-year major league career, but will go down in history for his fateful error in the bottom of the tenth inning of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series.
Chris Speier, born in Alameda in 1950, and a graduate of Encinal High. Played 19 seasons in the major leagues.
Dennis Eckersley, born in Oakland in 1954, and a graduate of Washington High School in Fremont (about 25 miles to the south of Oakland). Pitched in the majors for 24 years, and made the Hall of Fame in recognition for his combined performance as a starting pitcher and closer.
Claudell Washington, born in Los Angeles in 1954, but a graduate of Berkeley High School. Played in the majors for 17 years.
Ruppert Jones, born in Dallas, Texas in 1955, but a graduate of Berkeley High. A 12-year major league career, and a two-time All-Star.
Dave Stewart, born in Oakland in 1957, and a graduate of St. Elizabeth’s High School in Oakland. Was a 20-game winner for the Oakland Athletics for four consecutive seasons.
Gary Pettis, born in Oakland in 1958, and a graduate of Castlemont High. A five-time Gold Glove winner in the American League.
Willie McGee, born in San Francisco in 1958, but a graduate of Harry Ells High School in Richmond. Played 18 seasons in the majors, a four-time All-Star and an MVP.
Rickey Henderson, born in Chicago in 1958, but a graduate of Technical High in Oakland. Played 25 seasons in the major leagues, and generally regarded as the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of baseball.
Lloyd Moseby, born in Portland, Arkansas in 1959, but a graduate of Oakland High. Played 12 seasons in the big leagues, was an All-Star and a Silver Slugger winner.
Randy Johnson, born in Walnut Creek (about 15 miles to the east of Oakland) in 1963, and a graduate of Livermore High School (about 30 miles to the south and east of Oakland). Widely seen as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.
Kenny Williams, born in Berkeley in 1964. Had a modest six-year career as a major league player, but went on to become the General Manager who built the 2005 World Series Champion Chicago White Sox.
Jimmy Rollins, born in Oakland in 1978, and a graduate of Encinal High. A three-time National League All-Star through the age of 27.
Dontrelle Willis, born in Oakland in 1982, and a graduate of Encinal High. The 2003 National League Rookie of the Year, and runner-up in the National League Cy Young Award vote in 2005, and a two-time All-Star though the age of 24.
References & Resources
The Baseball Cube (http://www.sports-wired.com/high_school/index.shtml) is a marvelous source for the high school and college backgrounds of ballplayers.
This article was originally written at the request of THT’s wonderful friend Alex Belth, and appeared in slightly different form on Alex’s website in early 2006 in conjunction with the publication of his Curt Flood biography, Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights.