Thirty-six years ago this Friday, the Oakland Athletics played the Seattle Mariners, and only 250 people showed up.
It was the worst-attended game in Oakland A's history, and one of the smallest crowds in the history of Major League Baseball—the smallest since 1979, according to the league, and possibly the smallest of all time.
When third baseman Wayne Gross walked onto the field that night at the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum, he knew that it was bad. There were so few people you could count them, which first baseman Dave Revering attempted to do. It was a weeknight, a bleak, gray Tuesday beset by unseasonable—and un-Californian—cold. Steve Vucinich, then the visiting clubhouse manager, arrived at the park at noon, and it was raining so hard he thought they'd call it. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the temperature slipped into the 40s, wind sweeping in from across the San Francisco Bay. It was no night for baseball.
By then, the once-triumphant A's were a shadow of the team they had been earlier that decade. The club had stopped winning. The fans had stopped coming.
Former A's captain Sal Bando took to calling the stadium the "Oakland Mausoleum," and his teammates followed suit. The nickname fit the building: all concrete, cold, and too often empty. Built for the Oakland Raiders a decade and a half prior, it had space for 50,000 fans. Today, the A's block off sections of seats to shrink the stadium to a more baseball-appropriate size. In 1979, they did not, and even on the Athletics' best nights, it stretched out into the night sky, huge and gray.
The Coliseum in better days. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
April 17, 1979, was not exactly the night they hit rock bottom: the A's would lose 99 more games that year on their way to a 54–108 record, to date the most losses in the franchise's 114-year history. They would finish with the second-worst record (a game above the 109-loss Blue Jays), lowest whole-season attendance (306,763), most errors, and the lowest batting average in the AL.
But the scene that empty April night drew coverage around the country. 653 tickets sold, but scarcely 250 people walked into the stadium who were not paid to do so; the San Francisco Chronicle's Herb Caen asked later, "Can you name them?" The 1979 Oakland A's were a team forsaken by their owner in a city on the verge, it seemed, of being forsaken by its team: these were the Athletics on the brink.
The game was one of the very first regular season games to air on television in Oakland. As the people of Oakland got home from work that day and hung up their coats, they looked out their windows, and checked the sports listings. Better to stay warm at home and see what your ballpark looked like on TV.
Those who chose to venture out to the Coliseum had a hard time buying tickets. The ticket office was seldom staffed outside game hours, so those arriving early had to bang on the shuttered window and hope somebody would come out.
As they made their way into the stadium, those same fans must have marveled at the rows and rows, sections and sections, of empty seats. Spectators were clumped along the first and third base lines, the occasional loner in green and gold traversing the upper decks. Mostly, they were huddled together behind home plate—for warmth, it seemed like.
The A's pugilistic owner, Charles O. Finley, once a passionate advocate, now made little effort to disguise his waning interest in Oakland baseball. The advent of free agency in 1976 had players suddenly demanding hefty salaries. The notoriously cheap Finley would have none of it. He slashed his payroll, so that by 1978 the A's salaries were less than half the league average. He fired most of his staff, at one point maintaining a front office of just six employees, including a frenetic 17-year-old named Stanley Burrell whom Finley had jokingly appointed vice president. (Burrell would release his first album as MC Hammer—a nickname awarded to him by Charlie Finley, who thought he looked like Hank Aaron—several years later.) Finley made noisy overtures to other cities—scheming at one point to replace the White Sox in Chicago, where his insurance business was based, by first having the White Sox move to Seattle—and publicly attempted to finagle his way out of a 20-year Oakland lease.
By 1979, Finley had successfully dismantled what had been a championship team, trading and selling off players like Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers until all that remained was a cohort of inexperienced rookies and middling veterans.
He had long since done away with the Coliseum's few frills, leaving only a couple concession stands open. At even the team's typically lightly attended games, this scarcity meant long, slow lines for the A's faithful.
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That's the paid attendance.
"Everything was terrible," says Rich Lieberman, a sports columnist and radio host who grew up going to A's games. "The amenities were terrible. There were like three things on the menu: there was a hot dog that tasted like it was made with jet fuel in a Moscow whorehouse, and then there was coffee, and then there was Coke."
Eleven games into the 1979 season, the Athletics had won only twice. The team had been in freefall since the previous season, when Oakland dropped 42 of its last 55 games.
"I think we were mathematically eliminated coming out of Spring Training," says former A's pitcher Dave Heaverlo, who took the mound that night. "We just didn't have the horses."
The year before, the Chicago Tribune commented, "They play baseball as if the Ten Plagues were visited upon them and changed to strikeouts, hooted grounders, passed balls, wild pitches, balks, rotten calls, dropped fly balls, bad throws, defeats, and last place."
Yet just a few years earlier, the A's were the best team in baseball. After arriving from Kansas City in 1968, the team swept to five straight division titles, winning the World Series in three consecutive years—1972, 1973, and 1974—a feat that has been matched only by the New York Yankees.
"It almost got to be expected by all of us kids: we tend to win every year," says A's fan Erik Hoffmann, an Oakland native who adopted the young franchise when it moved to town. "And when free agency came and the team just exploded, you'd have thought the world ended. And we hated Charlie Finley for that."
Alienated and convinced that the team was about to leave Oakland, fans stopped coming to the Coliseum. "We were always waiting for the shoe to drop that the team was going to be gone," Hoffmann says, "because nobody was going to the games. We were checking the newspaper every morning."
Average game attendance kept dropping: 13,000 in 1975, 10,000 in 1976, 5,000 in 1977 and 1978. In 1979, it was a dismal 3,787, by far the lowest in the majors. April 17 was a record, but it was hardly unusual: the following day, the A's would draw just 1,215 paying customers.
Even when the team dominated baseball, Finley struggled to fill the Coliseum. The team had cracked a million spectators only twice since its move to Oakland, and averaged 10,441 per game during its third straight championship year, 5,000 below the league average.
The Oakland Coliseum. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
"I think Charlie Finley came out and his idea of promotions was putting a mule on the field," says Steve Vucinich, now the A's equipment manager, of Finley's Missouri mule, which the legendary showman had bought and named after himself while the team was in Kansas City, trotting Charlie O. onto the field and into opposing teams' clubhouses during games. "He did these promotions that worked in the Midwest–Farmer's Day and all that. But we're talking about the Bay Area."
(Some promotions worked better than others: on June 27, 1971, the A's hosted Hot Pants Day, when 6,000 women in short shorts were welcomed into a doubleheader against the Royals for free.)
On April 17, the A's were coming off a rare victory—they had won the previous night's game, also against Seattle. The Mariners were also at the start of a miserable year: they would lose 95 games by the season's end.
"I don't think anyone really wanted to be there," says Wayne Gross, the A's third baseman that day.
Finley did little to ingratiate himself with the community. He was reluctant to spend money promoting the team, skimping even on radio and TV contracts: the first month of the 1978 season was broadcast on UC Berkeley's student-run station, whose signal didn't even reach the Coliseum. During the 1973 World Series, fans unfurled a banner that read "Finley, Get Your Ass Out Of Town"—referring, perhaps, to the mule. In 1979, the A's owner did not attend a single game, including during two team visits to Chicago.
"They didn't put the money or the effort in," says Jim Essian, then the A's backup catcher, "and you have to do that. If you're selling something, you've gotta sell, and make it a nice fan experience."
By 1979, the decrepit Coliseum was anything but. Oakland "has a present population of 330,651 immortal souls," wrote The New York Times' Red Smith that year, "most of them industrious, God-fearing, law-abiding individuals united by a common dislike for baseball."
The A's took the field under Jim Marshall, Finley's 17th manager in the 19 years since he'd bought the team. He would last barely a season.
"That whole night was so sad," Lieberman says. "It emblazoned this whole image of Oakland: how far can they go down?"
At one point during the A's lost 1979 season, Heaverlo made a suggestion: perhaps the A's could drum up attendance among fuel-rationed, oil-shocked locals by building a 24-hour gas station in center field.
"I don't think any of us ever walked out and expected 40,000 fans," he says. "We never expected sellout crowds when we'd go to the ballpark."
Still, that night against the Mariners—even for Oakland, even for a grim Tuesday evening, even for the downtrodden A's—that night was something else. It was so quiet, says Wayne Gross, "we were talking to people in the second deck: 'Come on down close to the field!' It was like a high school game."
Things would get better. Two months later, future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson would make his MLB debut with Oakland. Other young players like Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, and Steve McCatty would subsequently grow into stars. In 1980, manager Billy Martin would arrive from the Yankees and lead the A's to an 83-79 record; at the end of the season, Finley would at last find a buyer for the franchise: Walter A. Hass, Jr., a Bay Area native and heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, who was committed to keeping the team in Oakland.
Two years to the day after the team sold 653 tickets, the Athletics would again face the Mariners in Oakland. In the rematch, the blossoming team would enjoy a sellout crowd of 50,000.
In 1979, however, A's fans sought virtue in the emptiness. Erik Hoffmann didn't attend the record-setting Mariners game: it was a school night, he explains. But he did show up to some 50 games that year and remembers the solitude of those contests well.
"I kind of liked it," says Hoffmann. "It was really an intimate experience—when you're at the game with that few people you can go down, talk to the players, get their autographs."
Oakland. Photo via Wikimedia.
"I learned a lot about baseball because you could really study the game," he says. "There were no distractions. No dot games. You could really pay attention."
The players, too, found things to be grateful for: "If your wife was sitting in the stands," says Heaverlo, "and someone tried to hustle and pick her up, you could see who the hell it was."
Quickly, the A's took a 5–0 lead off the Mariners' Odell Jones, in large part due to Seattle's sloppy fielding. It was a messy game: together, the two teams racked up nine errors, three of them Oakland's.
But the A's rookies and castoffs, the ones who would lose 108 games before the end of September, couldn't hang on to their lead. In the 5th inning, Seattle began to mount a comeback, scoring three runs off four hits against A's starter John Henry Johnson, who came out after the next inning.
In the bullpen, Heaverlo and the other pitchers watched the game go by. "Every time somebody hit a foul ball we'd say, go find it! There'll be enough for everybody!"
In the 7th, the Mariners tied the game, 5–5. But where in another park this might have occasioned groans and howls from fans, the Coliseum was mostly quiet. "The atmosphere during this game closely mimicked that of a local library," according to 2012's The Baseball Stadium Insider, "with scoring plays receiving a reaction equivalent to that of a golfer who sinks a ten-foot putt during a practice round."
"It didn't have the atmosphere that you'd expect," concedes Heaverlo, who was called in to replace reliever Jim Todd after the Mariners tied the score. "It was more like going to a funeral or a wake."
Over 2 and 2/3 innings, Heaverlo didn't give up another hit. Headed into the bottom of the 9th, the teams remained deadlocked. And the spectators–what few had stayed as the night got colder and colder, the chance of victory somehow further and further away–began to whistle and cheer. Fans clapping and not thinking about work in the morning, their shouts echoing around the empty park, 10:00 on a frigid Tuesday.
In the bottom of the 9th, Odell Jones gave up a leadoff double to A's right fielder Joe Wallis and then walked the team's designated hitter, Mitchell Page. A ground out, a strikeout, and another walk followed.
With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th, backup catcher Jim Essian walked up to the plate. He felt terrible: he'd woken up that morning with the flu and had contemplated not turning up to the park at all. Two innings earlier, he'd been called into the game only after catcher Jeff Newman—who would be the only Oakland player sent to the All-Star Game that year—pulled a muscle in his back chasing a pop-up through the Coliseum's huge foul territory. "I didn't think I could play," Essian told the Ukiah Daily Journal after the game.
But he did, shooting a single past the waiting Mariners. As Essian closed in on first, Mitchell Page raced in from third. Seattle was too slow: Page made it home.
6–5 Oakland: their first walk-off victory of the year. The fans erupted.
"There may have been only 600 fans out there," Heaverlo told the Santa Cruz Sentinel, using the official attendance number, "but they sure made a lot of noise. I dedicate this win to them."
The 2015 A's share many of 1979's uncertainties. Though well above its late-'70s numbers, Oakland's attendance consistently ranks among the lowest in the MLB. Now, as then, the A's are helmed by a trade-happy GM, and are coming out of a flurry of transactions that sent many of their stars away: Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester, Yoenis Cepedes. And now, as then, it is a team whose owners would like to move it to fairer pastures—perhaps San Jose, perhaps elsewhere in Oakland—with the hope that a new stadium might bring more fans, more money, more championships, perhaps simply more.
Back on that chilly April night, the A's players and their fans simply had to make do with less. As the Mariners trotted toward the dugout, in search of coffee or something stronger—Heaverlo suggested a warm beer—the remaining A's fans, cold and stiff, pressed down to the field.
"We went around thanking people for coming," says Wayne Gross. "It was nice to be a part of history. What was it, the lowest attended game in baseball history or something?"
And then he laughs.