The Giants’ decade of frustration

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.

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  1. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I grew up in Northern California in a rural area about 70 miles north of SF.  I started listening to games on the radio in 1966.  I am a baseball fan and Giants fan to this day because of the way Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons could describe a game.  Finally made the trip down to Candlestick in early 1971 and got to see Willie Mays play in person.

    In addition to the players you mentioned, Bobby Bonds played his first MLB game in 1968 hitting a grand slam HR against the Dodgers.

    Another example of the frustration of the 60’s came in 1967 when Mike McCormick came back and won the Cy Young Award with 22 victories.  Adding him to a team that already had Marichal and Perry in the rotation should win you a pennant, right?  Wrong!  Marichal caught a virus during a pre-season trip to Japan and had a terrible season winning just 14 games, the only season he won less than 20 in an 8 season run.  Marichal came back to win 26 in 1968, but McCormick never came close to his 1967 season again so it was back to Marichal, Perry and 2 stiffs in the rotation.

    After cutting my teeth on baseball in that era then sticking with the team as a fan through the ‘70’s and everything that came since, the current era is sooooo sweet!

  2. Steve Treder said...

    “Marichal caught a virus during a pre-season trip to Japan”

    A quibble:  it was in 1970 that Marichal caught the virus in Japan.  In ‘67 he was cruising along at 11-6 with a 1.97 ERA through June, but then injured his right heel.  He tried to tough it out, but was in pain and getting hit very hard so finally called it a season in August.

  3. Dennis Bedard said...

    I always thought Koufax overshadowed Marichal even though the two were not that far apart in accomplishments from 1962 through ‘66.  And Marichal had some great years after Koufax retired.

  4. Andrew Reid said...

    Steve- I thought that Marichal’s injury in 1967 was a damaged hamstring that he injured, I believe, pitching against the Mets in early August. He made a start in late August, but had to shut it down for the year.

    Candlestick was really something- the radiant heating system had the piping 5 inches below the surface, but the specs were misread as 5 FEET below the surface, rendering it useless…

  5. Steve Treder said...

    No, the 1967 injury occurred in a game against the Mets, but it was on July 4th.  Declining to go on the DL, Marichal posted a 6.16 ERA in 6 starts and 38 innings that month, then finally gave it up after two starts in August.

  6. Randy Trautwein said...

    The Giants did not have three second place finishes in the 1960s-they had five. The Giants finished second five years in a row from 1965 through 1969.

  7. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Hard to say, for me, what would be more frustrating:  being so good and yet so far as they were in the 60’s or being mediocre with no hopes of making the playoffs most years as they were for all those years afterward.  Then the Humm Baby years when the Giants got oh so close and yet so far again, or 1993 when they won so many games and yet didn’t make the playoffs, as the Padres basically gave away McGriff AND the pennant to the NL West Braves for nothing much, or 2002 when they were just a few outs away from finally winning that elusive championship.

    I think I have to go with McGriff trade.  Kuhn had the balls to cancel Finley’s trades that didn’t make competitive sense.  The Braves gave up only Nieves, the other two were throw-ins, to get 2.5 years of McGriff.  And Nieves was only #39 prospect in pre-season, McGriff was one of the top hitters in the majors when they got him, the Padres should have also gotten either Klesko or Chipper or Javy Lopez in the deal.

  8. DrBGiantsfan said...

    @Steve Treder,

    Gotta admit that after all this time, those 60’s years sometimes blur together in the mind.  I just know I’m still PO’d that Marichal’s one down season happened to coincide with McCormick’s Cy Young season and I remember being PO’d that Marichal got sick on what seemed to me to be an unnecessary trip to Japan.  Somehow over the years I guess all those frustrations kind of run together for me.

  9. John Fox said...

    The 1961-1964 Giants had 5 previous Rookie of the Year players on the roster, Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Harvey Kuenn and Jack Sanford, and they were managed by 1948 Rookie of the Year Al Dark.

  10. Nat Pastime said...

    I also noticed the glaring error about the 2nd place finishes.  The Giants finished ahead of the 3rd place Cubs by 4 games in ‘68 and placed 2nd in the West Division in ‘69.  Although I grew up in Iowa, a 1962 trip to see my Great Aunt in California resulted in my catching Giants fever from her.  My brother and I packed our Felipe Alou and Orlando Cepeda Post Cereal baseball cards, gifts from her, to a matchup with the Braves at County Stadium later that summer, a game that saw Alou hit a homer and Cepeda collect two.  Even though Warren Spahn got the complete game victory for Milwaukee, we were cemented for life as Giants rooters, something that began to seem more of a burden than a gift after 48 years.  Those endless 2nd place finishes in the 60s kept us hopeful for years but by 2010 I’d resigned myself to a World Series championship never happening in my lifetime.  Two in three years seems an embarrassment of riches now, but oh so sweet!

  11. Mac said...

    The Bay Area is the king of generating RoYs. The Giants have 6 rookies take home the honors in 55 years. That’s good for one every 9.16 years. That’s already well above the expected value. Then there are the A’s.

    Oakland has seen 7 rookies win the award, that in just 45 years of existence. That’s a rate of one RoY every 6.43 years. Wow! They too accomplished the three in a row feat when Canseco, McGwire, and Weiss won the award back-to-back-back in the 80’s. And Cespedes was easily in line for the award until this Trout kid started his MVP run.

  12. Mac said...

    Sorry for the double post, but also wanted to point out a great article on Giants vs. A’s attendance through the last half-century.

    At the the end of the article is a graph depicting overall attendance through the years. The arrival of the A’s clearly split the Bay in two. Post ‘94 strike the Giants recovered quicker, but also had the better late 90’s teams. Then seems pretty clear that Phone Booth tapped into a new fan base, pushing overall Bay Area attendance to a new high.

  13. Philip said...

    In retrospect, the A.L. should have never approved the move of the Athletics from Kansas City to Oakland on 10/18/67. The approval of the move was voted on in the same motion as granting Kansas City an expansion franchise for 1969.

    The next day, U.S. Sen. Stu Symington (D-MO) slammed owner Charlie Finley’s move of the team on the Senate floor, calling him “one of the most disreputable characters ever to enter the American sports scene.”

    Though lamenting a year without MLB in K.C., Symington added, “This loss is more than recompensed for by the pleasure resulting from our getting rid of Mr. Finley.”

    MLB was unable to keep two profitable franchises each at the same time in Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis. Even today the A’s still struggle in Oakland.

    But some A.L. owners favored a transfer to Oakland to help ease their own travel costs, as West Coast road trips could be combined to play both the Angels and A’s.

    Others thought it would somehow create a A.L. rivalry version of the Dodgers-Giants. (Never mind that the Dodgers and Giants had 60 years of history to build on from New York, whereas the A’s would be playing in their third city in a decade and the Angels were only a few years old.)

    A’s Owner Charlie Finley had also been interested in moving the club to Atlanta (as well as Dallas) in the early 1960s. Had that Atlanta transfer been approved it is interesting to look back and see what that impact would have had on both leagues, including the Giants.

    If there was an “Atlanta Athletics” franchise, the Braves could very likely still be playing in Milwaukee. An A’s move to Atlanta would have disrupted plans of Braves’ ownership to move the franchise there and perhaps given local prospective buyers, such as Bud Selig, more time to purchase the club and keep the Braves in town.

    A.L. owners would still have likely voted to give the Angels a West Coast rival through expansion, but perhaps that might have been San Diego in 1969 instead of the Seattle Pilots.

    At the time of the A’s relocation approval to Oakland, Seattle had the inside tract on getting the other expansion team (besides Kansas City) and on December 1, 1968 the city was indeed awarded the other expansion slot. The N.L. had objected to unilateral expansion by the A.L., eyeing Seattle for itself, but ultimately decided on adding Montreal and San Diego.

    It’s not hard to see the A.L. giving up Seattle to the N.L. in exchange for San Diego, preferring a closer rival for the Angels. Dallas was also high on the N.L. expansion list, so if the league overcame the illogical objections from Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz then perhaps the Senators II stay in D.C., the Expos are still in Montreal today and Seattle’s first MLB club is the Mariners.

    ALE: Atl, Bal, Bos, Cle, NYY, Was (77-Tor)
    ALW: Cal, CWS, Det, KCR, Min, SDP (77-Sea)
    NLE: ChC, Mon, NYM, Phi, Pit, StL
    NLW: Cin, Dal, Hou, LAD, Mil, SF

    Certainly, some ALW teams would have benefited with the A’s in the ALE. But the impact for the Giants would have been very favorable indeed.

    (1) They wouldn’t have had to share the Bay Area.

    (2) They wouldn’t have had to play in the shadow of two A’s dynasties.

    (3) Local media rights, especially with the advent of cable, would have soared.

  14. Philip said...

    From the late 1970s on, the Giants would have been in a much better financial position to go after high-priced free agents just about the time the Dodgers and Reds were beginning to stumble here and there because of their reluctance to either go after free agents or re-sign their own players.

    Yes, the Giants signing of free agents Joe Morgan in 1981 and Reggie Smith in 1982 kept them into the 1982 division race until the final weekend. But each were signed to those contracts for seasons in which they turned 37 years-old!

    A financially-stronger SF team not only inks Morgan and Smith to those contracts but also either keeps Vida Blue or adds one more decent starter to an otherwise weak rotation and thus wins the NLW in 1982 with room to spare.

    In fact, the Giants payroll according to TSN BB Guide, was 8th in 1977 and not all that far behind the Dodgers and Reds.

    Retaining Gary Matthews for 1977 or signing just one of the many quality free agents available would have allowed SF to compete in 1977 and then win the division in 1978.

    In the first re-entry draft on Nov 4, 1976, the Giants selected the following free agents to negotiate with. (recall, in the early years of free agency, there were limits on how many teams could negotiate with a given player):

    Doyle Alexander (9), Sal Bando (6), Dave Cash (8), Rollie Fingers (1), Tito Fuentes (11), Wayne Garland (4), Bobby Grich (5), Richie Hebner (10), Reggie Jackson (7), Joe Rudi (2), Billy Smith (12) and Gene Tenace (3).

    (# indicates the round the player was selected by SF)

    In addition to not re-signing Matthews, how many of the above did the Giants sign? Zero!

    It’s also interesting that the Giants selected A’s relief ace Fingers and A’s 1B-LF Rudi, neither of whom played a position they desperately needed to improve at, with their first two selections.

    Re-signing leftfielder Matthews and either (1) going after Cash or Grinch, or (2) selecting and then trying to sign the Reds’ Don Gullett, or (3) selecting and trying to sign Reggie Jackson would have been a much more appropriate strategy than doing nothing.

    Instead of a decade of frustration, the 1960s could have been the building blocks that put the Giants on a firm foundation for success in the 70s and 80s.

  15. Dennis Bedard said...

    All those second place finishes makes for a “what if” from another angle.  A friend of mine reminded me that the last National League team to win a pennant that had the best W/L record in the NL was the 1986 Mets.

  16. Philip said...

    1987 Cardinals and 92 Braves had won pennants and had the best record in N.L.

    So did World Series winning 95 Braves and N.L. champ 96, 99 Braves and 04 Cardinals.

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