Territorial Rights - A (Not So) Brief History

[Wanted to make sure everyone saw this. The A's try to ride the high of taking 3 of 4 from the Angels with a win tonight back at home, against the Indians. Gametime 7:05]

Warning, much history ahead.

You may have seen that, once again, the A's stadium issue has been shrugged off by MLB. It was hoped that the territorial rights debacle would be brought up at next month's owner's meeting, but AN's favorite beat writer Susan Slusser recently reported that the limboed future of our beloved franchise will not be on the agenda.

When the territorial rights issues came up in the off-season, I began researching the history behind them. I did not know how deep a rabbit hole I was following. To gather my thoughts, I started making notes in a Word doc. That turned into an article and now is a five page essay. There was an interesting quote from Bug Selig in Slusser’s article:

Selig, in his discussion with Ringolsby, appeared to have some sympathy for the A’s arguments, saying, "It is different because in 1990 when Bob Lurie wanted to move the Giants to San Jose, Walter Haas, the wonderful owner of the Oakland club, who did things in the best interest of baseball, granted permission. What got lost there is they didn’t feel it was permission in perpetuity. He gave Bob permission to go down there. Unfortunately or fortunately, it never got changed. We are dealing with a lot of history here."

That last line forced my hand. When Selig says "a lot of history" I want you all to see just how much history we’re dealing with. The history of pro baseball stadium issues in the Bay Area is a long, long story. I’m trying to write it all but it’s taking me longer than I hoped.

Since this may be the last time territorial rights is a media buzz word for a while, I’ve decided to release my first draft of the essay. I don’t have tons of free time, so my editing was perhaps a bit shoddy on this go around and there are certainly parts that need filling in (such as the botched Fremont deal, which I barely touched on). I may never finish, so might as well show you all what I’ve done so far, right?

If you have any suggestions/corrections, please let me know. Otherwise, hope you find this subject as fascinating as I do.

Also, there's a lot of talk below about historical attendance. I want to repost a graph I made from a previous FanPost about the stadium and also give a shout out to David Fung for following up on my piece with his own (prettier) graph and discussion of A's vs. Giants attendance. My graph was always supposed to go with this article, so hopefully no hard feelings reposting? (I know it's internet sin).


Finally, I should mention there’s a tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) summation paragraph at the end of the article if you just want the highlights (though you’ll miss hilarities like the briefly considered Half Moon Bay Giants).

Enjoy and LET'S GO A'S, wherever you may end up.

Territorial Rights – A History:

I starting researching the Bay Area territorial rights issue when I realized I could not satisfactorily answer the following questions: Why is the Bay Area the only two-team market with split territorial rights? Why did the A's ever agree to give said rights to the Giants? Why do the Giants not give up their claim?

You may think the problem started in the early 90’s when the Bay Area was first carved up into two distinct territories. But to fully understand why the Giants and A’s are positioned as they are today, you have to look back to the very beginnings of pro ball in the Bay. Below is the long and winding tale of why we ended up in the mess we’re in today.

A couple notes: There is a LOT of history to dig through around this issue. There are some points that remain a mystery to me, so I consider this article unfinished. This is a long post, but I hope every Bay Area baseball fan, Giants supporter or A’s fan, takes the time to read up on this divisive issue. Enjoy, or be enraged, or both.

This story starts on a balmy morning at Hunter’s Point, San Francisco in 1958. Horace Stoneham, owner of the newly relocated Giants ball club (formerly of New York), was meeting with the San Francisco city mayor to decide upon the location where a new ballpark would be constructed for the new team. The picturesque area they stood upon seemed ideal. It was a warm, sunny morning with a panoramic view across the bay. After just that sole visit the two men agreed that Hunter’s Point was the best location for the new park. Construction began immediately. When Stoneham visited a couple weeks later, this time in the afternoon, heavy winds were rushing all through the construction site. Stoneham asked one of the workers, "Is it always like this?"

"No, it doesn't start blowing like this until about one o'clock," the worker replied.

By the end of the Giants’ inaugural 1960 season, Candlestick Park had already earned a reputation as the worst home park in the major leagues. It was cold, windy and basically unfit as baseball venue. In 1961, the All-Star Game came to "The Stick" and was most memorable for a moment when Stu Miller balked because the wind almost blew him off the mound in the middle of his delivery. Despite the brutal conditions, the Giants were perennial contenders (it was the heyday of the Mays, Marichal, McCovey squads) and darlings of the Bay Area. Right up until 1968.

The same year Candlestick Park opened, Charlie Finley bought the Kansas City Athletics. His first priority: move the team out of KC (sound familiar?). There were failed attempts to go to Dallas and Louisville (failed moves will be a recurring theme of this story) and finally in 1967 the MLB owners agreed to let Finley move the team to Oakland.

A’s any A’s fan surely knows, the Athletics left years of losing behind when they left KC. After the club’s arrival in the East Bay, they promptly won back to back to back World Series and became a favored franchise of Bay Area residents. The Giants meanwhile were fading into a period a rebuilding after being strong competitors for much of the 50’s and 60’s. With the A’s drawing fans away from baseball’s worst home park the Giants were ready to just up and leave SF.

Through the early 1970’s, Stoneham looked for someone to buy his flagging franchise. This was during Major League Baseball’s expansion era, a period of 17 years when the MLB swelled from 16 teams in 1960 to 26 teams in 1977. Baseball was expanding West, South, and North. Far north. In 1969 the Expos formed in Montreal, becoming Canada’s first MLB franchise. Toronto wanted to follow suit. Labatt Brewery (Labatt beer, the official beer of Ontario) made an offer to Stoneham, who accepted. But newly elected San Francisco mayor George Moscone worked to prevent the move. Moscone filed a lawsuit with the courts to block the sale. He then scrambled to find a local investor willing to keep the keep the team in SF, and brokered an 11th-hour deal with a group led by Bob Lurie and Bob Short to buy the team (this all would still require the approval of the National League, have not found a source detailing the aftermath of the court injunction, but the final result was Lurie and Short successfully buying the team). The new owners were committed to staying in SF. In Toronto, where all the pieces had been put in place to host a major league team in anticipation of a Giants move, instead were granted an expansion team in the American League the following year - 1977.

The later parts of the 70’s were also rough years for the Athletics. Finley had begun dismantling his championship roster in 1976, partly as a reaction to the onset of free agency in baseball. The result was staggeringly poor attendance at the Coliseum, which soon earned the moniker "The Mausoleum". On April 17th, 1979 the A’s set the modern MLB record for lowest attendance with just 653 fans present that day. That record still stands today. One problem with drawing fans was the team’s local radio contract. The A’s broadcast their games on UC Berkeley’s college radio station KALX, which could only be picked up in about a 10 mile radius. The situation looked dire. Finley, like Lurie just a few years before, decided the best option was to give up and start anew by relocating. He started courting buyers and the offers coming in included groups based in Denver and New Orleans. When talk surfaced of the White Sox possibly leaving Chicago, Finely was quick to suggest that the A's could be moved to the South Side to fill the void. However, all potential deals fell through when the city of Oakland refused to release the team from its lease in the stadium. At the end of the decade, both the A’s and Giants had seriously considered relocation but wound up staying put.

In 1980, things began clicking on the field for the A’s (the first of the "Billyball years") but ownership was in turmoil. Finley’s wife sued for divorce. As part of the settlement, he offered up the A’s but she refused to take on ownership of a baseball team. Needing cash, Finely was forced to sell. Concurrently, the Oakland Raiders had just announced their departure for L.A. The city of Oakland, not wanting to lose two big-league franchises in one offseason, demanded that Finley accept a local buyer for his emergency selloff, which is how Walter Haas came to own the Oakland A’s.

The 80’s thus featured new management on both sides of the Bay. Bob Lurie’s first act as Giants owner was to begin a campaign for a new SF ballpark. In 1981 the franchise released a report declaring Candlestick "unfit for baseball". This was a period when fans were awarded a special "Croix De Candlestick" pin for braving the nasty late-night weather conditions of extra-inning home games. The pin bore the phrase Veni, Vidi, Vixi – I came, I saw, I survived. The Giants wanted out of Candlestick, by any means possible.

Plans emerged to dome Candlestick, move downtown, or leave town altogether. In 1987 a proposal was put forth to SF voters to approve plans for building a park at 7th and Townsend in downtown San Francisco. The measure stated no public funds were to be used, but many skeptics doubted the claim. The general public at the time was very opposed to the use of public money for ballpark construction. Enough voters doubted ownership’s claims of 100% private financing that the measure failed.

Losing the vote prompted Bob Lurie to abandon the Townsend site. The search for new locations was broadened to include locations outside of San Francisco, including spots in the South Bay. One final push was made for another SF site (China Basin - where ultimately AT&T/SBC/Pac Bell Park was to be built) and a vote was scheduled for the autumn of 1989. But that fall would be remembered for a far greater and more tragic piece of baseball lore, the Loma Prieta earthquake. Rebuilding in aftermath of the disaster became the dominant issue of that time period. Focus shifted away from talks of new ballparks. Between that and the development of a late-breaking scandal involving a ballpark contractor, the fate of the second SF ballpark vote was sealed (the Giants lost) and Lurie was forced to again try something else. He was now committed on leaving the city of San Francisco. Next on the list was a move to the South Bay.

Over the next several years many Peninsula/South Bay sites were considered; there was even a plan for a stadium in Half Moon Bay! Two of the plans developed far enough to become ballot measures for public voting. The first was a 1990 vote for a Santa Clara measure and, when that failed, in 1992 there was a try for a San Jose stadium. Somewhere during this time period the territorial rights concept came into being. I've yet to find a source detailing exactly what happened, but essentially Walter Haas agreed to split the Bay Area into two territories of control. I cannot find an official source, but all reporting on the subject seems agrees that Haas asked for no compensation. It was believed this territory split would aid Giants ownership as they tried to get their South Bay referendums passed by voters. Ultimately the effort failed as neither measure was passed.

During this 80’s period of unsuccessful ballot measures for the Giants, the A’s were flourishing in Oakland. The Finley-era team had never drawn well at the gate, despite winning numerous division titles. But under Haas, A’s ticket sales soared. It was the A’s, not the Giants, who first reached the 2,000,000 attendance mark for a season. Routinely the A’s were outdrawing there counterparts and it was a high point in Oakland’s baseball history. They won another World Series, powered by the famed Bash Brothers, and were a cornerstone franchise for MLB in the late 80’s.

One would think, after the failed San Jose vote, that the Giants and A’s would rescind any territorial rights agreements and go back to business as usual. But a peculiar series of events rapidly unfolded and set the stage for the modern A’s and Giants being stuck in a bitter feud over the South Bay.

One has to understand the historical context both the Bay Area and Major League Baseball circa early 90’s. The Bay Area had just hosted baseball’s first cross-town World Series since 1956; an event forever etched in MLB history due to the earthquake that struck just as Game 3 was starting. The quake affected more than just baseball; it dramatically altered the political landscape of San Francisco. While San Francisco was coping with its crisis, Major League Baseball was suffering through its own loss.

A month before the '89 World Series, Commissioner Bart Giamatti tragically suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. Giamatti’s longtime friend, and at the time deputy commissioner, Fay Vincent was thrust into the role of acting Baseball Commissioner. It was unfortunate timing. After aptly handling the World Series earthquake interruption, Vincent was faced with an expiring Basic Agreement between players and owners. In early 1990 MLB went into a lockout. The hiatus lasted just one month and baseball managed to salvage the full 162 game season. Still, it marked the beginning of a tumultuous period for Vincent as MLB Commissioner. That same year, Vincent banned Yankee’s owner George Steinbrenner as a result of the Dave Winfield controversy (for paying a gambler to "dig up dirt" on Winfield). Vincent doled out another ban in 1992, to pitcher Steve Howe, on the charge of repeated drug offenses. The commissioner also came out strongly on the issue of collusion, famously stating to owners "The single biggest reality you guys have to face up to is collusion. You stole $280 million from the players, and the players are unified to a man around that issue, because you got caught and many of you are still involved."

Shifting historical focus more locally, 1992 was also critical year for the Giants. Recall that this was the year of the rejected San Jose vote, marking the fourth time Bob Lurie had failed to pass a public stadium proposal (SF '87, SF '89, Santa Clara '90, San Jose '92). Options around the Bay Area were just about exhausted, so Lurie starting looking at leaving the area entirely. He was quite successful in this endeavor and very quickly entered into serious talks with a Tampa Bay investor group. It looked like the Giants were finally going to escape cold Candlestick Park by heading to the balmy Southeast. A deal was reached and all it lacked was approval from the National League owners. On November 10th, 1992 the league declined approval by a 9-4 vote.

The 1992-1993 winter was a busy one for MLB. In that same offseason when the Giants move was rejected by the National League, Fay Vincent, always a controversial figure during his time, received a vote of no confidence from the owners and was forced to step down. Thus began the Bud Selig era. Selig enacted rapid and radical change after taking the reins, starting with the institution of the Wild Card. Also happening that offseason was the introduction of two expansion franchises, Colorado and Florida. Collusion was still plaguing baseball, so all told it was quite the busy winter. With all these events happening over a single off-season, I‘ve yet in my research been able to figure the politics behind the Giants move not being approved. What I can tell you is there was a solid deal in place, Lurie wanted it to happen, and the Giants weren’t allowed to move. One explanation was that MLB never did want a team in St. Petersburg, and were forced into eventually placing a team there in ’98. But that’s a different story.

Getting back to the Bay Area, with the Florida move a failure, SF Mayor Frank Jordan formed a consortium of local businesspeople to buy out Lurie. The group made a lowball offer and Lurie, now on his 5th failed attempt to find a new stadium for the Giants, gave in and accepted the offer; for far less money than the Florida group had proposed. From that SF investor group emerged Peter Magowan, who in 1993 quit his job as CEO of Safeway to run the Giants full-time. He embarked on an effort to improve all aspects of the Giants franchise, from adding better ballpark food in Candlestick to implementing urban youth baseball programs.

Still the stadium issue remained. We’ve arrived in this story at 1993 with the Giants still calling Candlestick home, 12 years after the initial report claiming the park "unfit for baseball" and 17 years after the attempt to leave for Toronto. With the backing of Mayor Jordan, who was vehemently in favor of keeping the Giants in the city of San Francisco, a new effort was made to find a stadium site near SF. China Basin emerged as the top plan (again) and this time great care was made to construct a deal using no city funds. Unlike the previous effort, no scandals of shady dealing emerged. The stadium was truly to be financed solely by investors. The cost issue solved, a proposal was sent to the voters in March 1996 that passed with a two-thirds majority. The Giants at long, long last were able to leave Candlestick. They opened Pac Ball Park in 2000 and it was soon regarded as one of the best home ballparks in the majors.

Great for the Giants, but what about the A’s? The stadium issue is largely about attendance. And it was at turn of the century where attendance, for the first time since pro baseball came to the Bay, started heavily favoring one team over the other. Attendance for both Bay Area teams greatly suffered in the wake of the 1994 strike. Across the majors fans were refusing to show up for games. The Sosa-McGwire home run chase in 1997 began to bring fans back but with losing teams on both sides of the Bay neither SF nor Oakland were drawing well. The Giants turned in around sooner, with a surprising division run in 1997 led by Barry Bonds. They would win 86+ games the following 7 years. The A’s were right on the Giant’s heels thanks to the rise of the Big Three. In 1999 they won 87 games, then followed that performance with four straight playoff appearances.

Both teams were good, but they were not drawing the same. With Pac Bell Park, the Giants were selling out every home game. With one of the oldest stadiums in the majors, the A’s were tarping off the upper deck. Beside the stadium issue, there were other differences between the teams. A management change ha d happened in Oakland in the mid-nineties. Walter Haas passed away in 1995 and the team was sold to Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann. Schott was notorious for refusing to dole out multi-million dollar contracts to star free agents. While Barry Bonds was chasing Ruthian records the A’s were saying goodbye to their MVPs Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada. Trades of two-thirds of the Big Three soon followed. It is hard to say how this affected attendance, but fans were displeased.

In 2005 the Oakland A’s were sold to the John Fischer-Lew Wolff group. Schott had already been talking about a possible South Bay move and when Wolfe took over he announced his plans to adamantly pursue a move to the South Bay. From 2006 to early 2009 a deal with Fremont pursued that ultimately falls through. After that failure a renewed attempt at moving to San Jose began. That is when Bug Selig announced the formation of the blue ribbon commission to analyze the Bay Area territorial rights issue and the various stadium relocation options for the A’s. Three years later, the panel has yet to report its findings.

To review, the South Bay has emerged as an obvious choice for Oakland to build a new ballpark. Only ... the A's had in the mid-nighties graciously granted San Francisco the rights to San Jose. Rights they no longer needed thanks to their glorious new downtown ballpark. Morality would dictate that after the 1990 and 1992 South Bay Giants votes had failed to pass, the Giants would give the rights back to Oakland. But it was with Bob Lurie that Walter Haas had made the initial agreement. Then Lurie sold his product to Peter Magowan. And from a business perspective, Magowan has an ironclad argument. He bought a product that included territorial rights. It is not his fault those rights started as what could essentially be viewed as a gift from Oakland.

And here's the rub: AT&T Park was clearly built with the Peninsula in mind. Anyone who has taken a ride on CalTrain knows that it is packed with Giants fans every game day. It’s a great experience. Easy parking at the local Peninsula train station, maybe have an alcoholic beverage on the train, and arrive within walking distance of the stadium.

Magowan has always taken the stance that territorial rights are a part of the value of the Giants as a franchise. And he’s correct. Despite lowballing Lurie on the Giants buyout, as a business entity the value of franchise included territorial rights. Ownership has now changed hands from both sides. Lurie and Haas are long-gone. It is in the hands of Bill Neukom and Lew Wolff to sort this mess out. A mess for which there is no blame. It is simply an unfortunate reality of a deal forged during an incredibly unstable time in Major League Baseball history. Neither side is fully in the right. So cast your blame where you may.

Lew Wolff bought this team in 2005, clearly with the intent of building a new stadium. It took the Giants three owners and a quarter of a century to move to a new stadium. The A’s are only in year 7. I hope, unlike Horace Stoneham, that our owner chooses a site carefully. This is a franchise with 9 World Series titles, third most in MLB-history. It is deserving of much better than the situation it is currently in.

A brief summation:

Why territorial rights? Oakland did SF a favor when they were trying to build a new stadium in the early 90’s and were considering the South Bay. Territorial rights were created in the hope that it would give the Giants the public votes to support a new South Bay ballpark. That didn't work out. Unfortunately, the territorial rights "favor" had financial value which was included in the price of the Giants franchise when the team was sold in 1992. The Magowan group bought the rights that were intended as a gift. Now the South Bay rights are a financial entity, and the Giants have actively worked to expand their Peninsula/South Bay fan base. There is real value in that, and the Giants have every reason to demand compensation if MLB revokes the territorial rights to the South Bay area. But there is a very strong moral argument that the A’s were originally under no obligation to give the rights to the Giants in the first place. So no-one’s fully in the right and it’s a mess. One would hope Bud Selig would work quickly to solve this mess and let everyone move on, but he’s instead waffled on the issue. This leaves the A’s unable to create a secure long-term plan and well, here we are.