The Ballad of The Oakland Coliseum

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Photo by Timothy Malcolm
The history and present story of a ballpark on its way out

“Let me guess … Oakland?”

That’s the common response that people give me after they ask me for the current ballpark I have disliked the most. You know, they don’t give me the space to actually give my answer. Automatically they think I’m going to say Oakland. They have the conversation already queued up. They want me to say Oakland.

It’s not Oakland.

The answer might be Rogers Centre in Toronto. Or, and I’ll have to duck as I say this, it might be Yankee Stadium. These are for two altogether different reasons, as you may figure. I have my reasons, but also I visited the former in 2016 and haven’t been to the latter since 2015. Those parks have changed. My opinion may change, too.

But it’s still not Oakland.

This isn’t to say Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, or as it was called up until the second game of this season, RingCentral Coliseum, or as it was called in previous seasons, O.Co Coliseum, or as it has been called most recently, a place where there’s at least one possum and multiple feral cats walking about its skeleton, is one of my favorite ballparks. I’m not blind. Aesthetically the place is arguably the most unsightly ballpark in the majors. It has been neglected. It’s concrete surrounded by concrete. It doesn’t even whisper baseball, and even if it did the whisper would circulate the entire stadium because it’s such a cavern.

So no, it’s not great, not even good, not even mediocre. It is one of the worst. But as it makes news for all of the wrong reasons, and as its only remaining tenant prepares to skip town for the greener pastures of Las Vegas, where surely a glitzy downtown ballpark with drinking and entertainment experiences await, The Oakland Coliseum (see how many names it has?) should not simply be left to die unlovingly in its lonely complex of parking lots. It has a history. It has value. And even today, as possums and cats mingle upon the lower deck rafters, it has charm.

In 2019, the Athletics smartly brought in a number of younger fans thanks to a membership plan.
Photo by Timothy Malcolm

The Coliseum is representative of the ballpark that fans would like to forget, even if it was never constructed to be that kind of park. It was built during the early 1960s, mostly for three reasons: The football Raiders wanted a new home, Oakland was hoping to attract an American League baseball team, and the city was looking to improve its image through becoming a hub for professional sports. Initial plans had the park looking a lot like Dodger Stadium, which had opened in 1962 in Los Angeles. But the Coliseum would be tweaked enough to have its own distinct profile, more like other parks built during its era: Milwaukee County Stadium and Angel Stadium in Anaheim.

When it opened with its foul territory upper deck and its fair territory low outfield grandstand, its view from home plate showcasing the picturesque Oakland hills, The Coliseum did more than just serve as a perfect home for Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders and Charlie Finley’s former Kansas City Athletics, it also served as a source of community pride in a time of serious strife.

In short, Oakland was one of the many cities across mid-century America whose makeup had changed quickly because of white flight. As part of the evolution of white supremacist segregation, white lawmakers ignored urban areas and favored highway and rail projects that would allow white residents – who had already benefited over decades of structural racism – to invest in planned suburban areas. In turn, those ignored urban areas would receive less public funding and more policing. Distrust would reign and racism would be enforced.

That was Oakland at the start of the 1960s. It was similar to cities like Detroit and Philadelphia, which touted a perceived blue-collar, democratic character. But whereas the fires would burn even hotter and for longer in those larger cities, Oakland would become a center for positive change. The Coliseum would play a role in that, however small. Its opening, and the success that would follow almost immediately following, would bring a sense of positivity to Oakland that would help change the city in fruitful ways.

“The Coliseum didn’t erase educational inequity or lower poverty rates, but it did make Oakland feel more like a shared place. And in doing so, it instilled pride.” 

Dan Moore, The Oaklandside

For its first quarter-century, The Coliseum hosted some real local celebrations. The Raiders won the AFL Championship in their second season at the stadium, then won the NFL title in 1976 and ’80. The Athletics were more successful, taking the World Series in 1972, ’73, and ’74, then returning to win the anticipated Bay Series against the San Francisco Giants in 1989. The parties diminished after that, however; though the A’s had opportunities to return to the promised land, including after a memorable 22-game winning streak that propelled them into a playoff spot in 2002.

Since that season, the Athletics have had their moments, but overall they have been a disappointment. All the while The Coliseum has changed names and deteriorated. It didn’t help that in 1996, the city agreed to install a garish level of seats in the outfield in order to bring the Raiders back to Oakland from Los Angeles, where they had been playing since ’82. The seats were deemed “Mount Davis” and eliminated the view of the Oakland hills. But let’s be honest: It eliminated what made the stadium a ballpark.

In other words, it turned The Coliseum into the kind of enclosed, concrete hole that typified the era of stadium construction lasting from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. To some fans, The Coliseum was more like Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, and Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium than Dodger Stadium or Angel Stadium. And it was derided. It simply took a little time, with a lot of help from A’s ownership wanting to essentially get the hell out of Oakland, for the stadium to get to where it is now: Ineffective and infested.

The Farm teaches young fans and Oaklanders about urban agriculture. Photo by Timothy Malcolm

I am here to tell you, however, that Oakland Coliseum, or Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, or RingCentral, or whatever the hell it wants to be called, has had charm. I visited on Father’s Day 2019, before a pandemic, before things got really bad, maybe even before the animals started hanging out there, and I enjoyed my time thoroughly.

There’s a big ol’ bar and restaurant in the upper level of the ballpark called Shibe Park Tavern, named after the name of the park that was home to the A’s two before The Coliseum, way back when they played in Philadelphia. Shibe Park Tavern had one of the better beer selections of any standalone vendor that I have visited so far in my travels.

Also in the upper level is a farm, called The Farm, a collaboration with Acta Non Verba that allows children to learn about urban agriculture. Plus, the ballpark has one of the better areas for virtual children’s play (speed pitch, run alongside a major leaguer) in that upper level. Come to think about it, the upper level at The Coliseum is stacked with multiple features. It’s arguably the best upper level in baseball.

That’s a big thing for me. Every ballpark in America touts all of these bells and whistles, and most of them are on the lower concourse, packed with fans and too busy to navigate. Often, even better bells and whistles like specialty restaurants and top-shelf bars are hidden in suite levels and too-expensive seating areas, places where families, lower-income fans, and everyday casual folks just won’t be seeing.

But The Coliseum didn’t do that. Sure, some of that is because the A’s didn’t invest in it. But despite the whims of ownership, despite the fact that the A’s wanted out of the city that made them who they were, they at least listened to the fans when it came to the in-game experience on that very day. At least on Father’s Day 2019, The Coliseum was for the people. Families lingered everywhere. Fans stood in nooks and crannies drinking affordable beers and eating hot dogs. Many sat kindly in the upper reaches of the ballpark, while others simply milled around until they found a fun standing area.

That said, things have changed since Father’s Day 2019. In that 2019 season, the A’s introduced a membership plan called A’s Access, which gave fans secured seats to 10 games and discounts for just about everything else for the entire season. It allowed fans to buy in on going to multiple games for a low price. The result? A’s Access brought a host of younger Bay Area fans to The Coliseum. It was a massive hit.

But the A’s got rid of A’s Access after the pandemic; instead, they raised season ticket prices and parking costs. Proof that at the end of the day, it’s about the bottom line.

Still, The Coliseum isn’t like all the other sparkling, expensive, experience-laden ballparks of the modern day. It’s a throwback, a relic, a has been. And it certainly isn’t the best looking park out there. But it represents an Oakland that was, an Oakland that still could be, a place where people can congregate, enjoy themselves, and at the end of the day, watch a little baseball.

I’m not sure what will happen when the A’s start playing in Las Vegas. I imagine, though, that it won’t look anything like The Coliseum. For many reasons, that’s a good thing. But for more than a few reasons, it won’t be very good. The soul will be gone. The unifying presence will most certainly be gone. And that is something that can’t be replaced.

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