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Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Turns 50


It’s always timeless when inside a black hole.

For the past 50 years, time has stood still in Oakland. While new, shiny NFL stadiums have popped up across the country over the past 20 years, and more are in the works, the venerable Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum stands as a living monument to the historic roots of the NFL and a bygone era of multi-sports facilities.

The only remaining stadium to call itself home to both an NFL and Major League Baseball franchise, the Coliseum celebrates the 50th anniversary of its opening this Sunday, fittingly with an Oakland Raiders game.

The Raiders have long enjoyed the reputation as a league maverick fighting, often quite literally, for respect and acceptance. Part of that came from the brash personality of their longtime owner Al Davis, who brought the Raiders to Oakland and helped lead the fight to merge the American Football League into the NFL in the mid-1960s, just as the Raiders made the Coliseum their home.

But that image of the Raiders also comes from the city that it calls home, always looking for its way to distinguish itself from what is considered its more sophisticated neighbor across the bay, San Francisco.

In the early 1960s, Oakland city leaders determined that one way to compete with San Francisco, which had just lured the Giants baseball franchise from New York, was to build its own major sports stadium, in which to host both professional football and baseball.

Led in late 1960 by real-estate developer Robert T. Nahas, a non-profit group oversaw and developed a stadium plan that called for a stadium in East Oakland near the Nimitz Freeway.

By 1962, the Raiders were already playing its home games at a smaller stadium in Oakland and baseball’s American League was well into a western expansion that had led to the formation of the Los Angeles Angels.

The proposed stadium in Oakland was seen as a future home for both the Raiders and an American League team, and buoyed by that promise the city of Oakland earmarked $25 million in financing for the project, which also included an indoor arena to host an NBA franchise.

By the time the stadium was completed in 1966, Davis had already agreed to move his Raiders there, and Charley Finley, the flamboyant owner of the Kansas City A’s, eventually agreed to move his team to Oakland for the start of the 1968 season.

The Raiders played their first game in the Coliseum on Sept. 18, 1966 as a member of the AFL. Within two years, the Raiders would establish themselves as a league powerhouse, reaching Super Bowl II in 1968. As the Raiders continued their dominance, the Coliseum would host some of the most iconic games in NFL history.

The first, and most significant, took place on Nov. 17, 1968, when the Raiders hosted the Jets in a preview of the AFL championship game. The Jets led 32-29 with just over a minute to play. Because the game was running long, NBC, the broadcast network, switched away from the game at this point at exactly 7 p.m. EST, in order to show the children’s move, Heidi.

In those final 70 seconds, the Raiders scored a touchdown to take the lead, then recovered a fumbled kickoff in the endzone for a second score and a stunning 43-32 victory that was only seen by the fans at the Coliseum and the West Coast audience.

The resulting furor from spurned fans changed the way network television handled end-of-game scenarios, pushing back the start times of prime time shows until after a game’s completion. Reaction to the “Heidi Bowl” also signaled to TV networks and NFL executives alike the intense and widespread interest in pro football, ushering in the era of TV dominance and the creation of a billion-dollar industry.

That same year, the A’s began playing baseball at the Coliseum, the team having finally moved from Kansas City.

As a multi-purpose facility, which were popular throughout the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s, the configuration of the Coliseum made the baseball dimensions among the most unique in the Major Leagues, which vast expanses of foul territory behind home plate and along the infield lines, making the park a favorite of pitchers who earned more outs because of foul balls that failed to reach the seats.

The A’s would soon become a baseball dynasty, winning three straight World Series titles from 1972-74, joining the New York Yankees as the only franchise to win three straight titles in major league history.

The Raiders were also a league powerhouse throughout the 1970s, reaching the AFC Championship game seven times and winning the franchise’s first two Super Bowls in the 1976 and ’80 seasons. The 1976 AFC Championship game was played at the Coliseum, where the Raiders dethroned the two-time Super Bowl champion Steelers to reach Super Bowl XI.

But the most famous defeat of a two-time Super Bowl champion at the Coliseum came in the 1974 playoffs, when the Raiders beat the Dophins, 28-26 on Ken Stabler’s stumbling, last-minute desperation toss into the endzone to Clarence Davis, who managed to reach out and control the ball despite being surrounded by three defenders in a play and game forever known as the “Sea of Hands.”

But the success of the two franchises belied their mutual dissatisfaction with their building, as the Coliseum began to deteriorate in the late 1970s. A’s attendance dwindled into the low thousands by the end of the decade and Finley considered moving the franchise to Denver.

Al Davis also had re-location in mind even as the Raiders were winning Super Bowl XV in January, 1981. Before the 1980 season, Davis failed in an attempt to have the Coliseum renovated to include luxury boxes. Rebuffed, Davis signed an agreement to move the team to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which had recently become available after the Rams’ move to Anaheim.

When league owners voted against the move, Davis and the LA Coliseum filed anti-trust lawsuits against the league, with Davis winning the suit in 1982, allowing him to move the Raiders out of Oakland.

The Oakland Coliseum was able to retain its other tenant when Finley’s bid to sell the team to a Denver-based group was quashed by Oakland city officials who refused to let the A’s out of their lease. Finley instead sold to the Levi Strauss Co., who kept the team at the Coliseum.

The A’s enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1980s. After the Coliseum hosted the All-Star Game in 1987, the A’s, led by manager Tony LaRussa, who employed a new strategy by only pitching former All-Star starter Dennis Eckersley as an unhittable ninth-inning “closer,” and riding the power offense of “Bash Brothers” Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, again reached three straight World Series, from 1988-90, winning it all in 1989 against Bay Area rivals, the San Francisco Giants.

That Series is best remembered for the Loma Prieta earthquake, which struck just prior to Game 3 at Candlestick Park on the San Francisco side. The Coliseum was not damaged, but the series resumed at Candlestick 10 days later.

By 1989, Al Davis had soured on his Los Angeles experience and he began negotiating with Oakland officials about a return to the Coliseum. Those two-year talks stalled in 1991, but by 1995, an agreement was reached to make renovations to the Coliseum, and Davis returned the Raiders to Oakland for the 1995 season.

O.Co Coliseum, Oracle Arena

The new configuration of the stands at the Coliseum led to the creation of a fan section at field level known as the Black Hole, patterned after the Dog Pound in Cleveland. It also led to a less fan-friendly addition: a 10,000-seat upper deck that closed the open end of the stadium, eliminating a panoramic view of the Oakland hills. The section is known unflatteringly as “Mount Davis.”

The Coliseum also underwent a series of official name changes beginning in 1998. From 1998-2004, the Coliseum was known as Network Associates Coliseum before becoming McAfee Coliseum from 2004-08.

When McAfee’s naming rights were not renewed in 2008, the Coliseum retained its original moniker of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for three years, before bought naming rights in 2001, changing the name briefly to Coliseum before changing to Coliseum.

When that naming contract ended in 2016, the name reverted back to Oakland Alameda Coliseum.

In 2011, the Coliseum earned a bit of notoriety as the backdrop for the feature film Moneyball, which was based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling book about the early 2000s A’s, led by GM Billy Beane, who took Sabermetric theories and applied them to his roster in order to maximize on-field production with a limited payroll. The Coliseum was featured in several scenes re-creating the 2002 season in which the A’s won an American League-record 20 consecutive games, including No. 20 on a walk-off homer by Scott Hatteberg at the Coliseum.

Despite efforts to move both franchises out of Oakland in recent years, including a current bid by owner Mark Davis to move the Raiders to Las Vegas, the Coliseum soldiers on, remaining the only facility in the United States to still host both a major league and NFL franchise.

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August Publications