PCL's Seals, Oaks: bitter enemies for half a century

by Chuck Barney, Contra Costa Times Staff Writer, July 2, 1997

In the golden age of the Pacific Coast League, professional teams representing the two cities routinely laced up their spikes and went to war. The heated rivalry between the San Francisco Seals and Oakland Oaks began in 1903, the same year major-league baseball christened its World Series. It finally died with the 1955 season, after which the Oaks moved to Vancouver.

Two years later, the Seals captured their 11th and final PCL pennant and then stepped aside as the Giants and big-league baseball arrived in the city.

"Now THAT was a rivalry. There were some very intense games between the Seals and the Oaks," said Dick Dobbins, a longtime Bay Area baseball fan and PCL historian. "Through much of that period, they would play each other in seven-game series and 28 times a season. That made for some real grudge matches. And it wasn't unusual to see fights break out in the stands."

Dobbins, a resident of Alamo, is the co-author of the book, "Nuggets on the Diamond -- Professional Baseball in the Bay Area." He points out that the Seals-Oaks rivalry featured a unique aspect that would never happen today: trans-bay doubleheaders.

"On Sundays, they'd play a morning game in San Francisco and then gather up their stuff, cross the bridge and play another game in Oakland," he said. "It was a way to generate two separate gates."

In many seasons, the quality of PCL baseball was considered close to or on-par with the majors. Joe DiMaggio began his professional career with the Seals as an 18-year-old in 1933 and enjoyed an incredible 61-game hitting streak. Through the years, stars such as Frank Crosetti, Lefty O'Doul and Paul Waner donned Seals uniforms.

The Oaks, who won four PCL pennants in their tenure (1912, '27, '48 and '50), featured such names as Ernie Lombardi, Casey Stengel, Billy Martin and Bill Rigney.

Never was the rivalry more heated than the period from 1946 through '48, according to Dobbins. That's when O'Doul managed San Francisco and Stengel piloted the Oaks.

"Both guys were big showmen. They hated to lose and they fired people up," Dobbins said. "Lefty used to carry a red and white bandanna in his back pocket. When he coached third base, he'd pull it out, wave it at the pitcher and incite the crowd. One year, he bought some for the whole team and San Francisco fans started bringing their own bandannas to the games."

In 1948, the Oaks were steamrolling toward a pennant when controversy erupted during an Aug. 14 game against the Seals. Oakland pitcher Ralph Buxton was within a strike of completing a victory when O'Doul persuaded the home-plate umpire to check Buxton's glove. The umpire found pine tar and confiscated it.

However, because Buxton was allowed to finish the game, O'Doul protested to league offices. Buxton was suspended for 10 days and the Oaks were forced to replay the ninth inning. After lots of wrangling, the Oaks traveled to San Francisco on Sept. 21 to play the single inning (before a Seals game with Seattle). The result was the same.

In 1909, one of the most remarkable games in PCL history was played between the two teams. Oakland's Jimmy Wiggs and San Francisco's Cack Henley hooked up in an epic pitching duel. Each threw shutout ball over 23 innings. As news of their battle traveled through town, what had been a small crowd grew bigger and bigger. Finally, the Seals scored a run with two outs in the bottom of the 24th inning to win the game.

Occasionally, of course, the bad blood between the two teams boiled over. In 1917, a season-long feud between Oaks catcher Dan Murray and Seals pitcher Casey Smith climaxed on the final day of the season. After the game, Murray waited for Smith outside the locker room and greeted him with a punch to the face. A wild fistfight ensued as teammates struggled to separate the two.

In 1955, O'Doul was hired to manage the Oaks. But even he failed to boost to the team's sagging performances on the field and at the box office. It was announced that the team would move. On Sept. 4, only 2,941 fans showed up at the tiny Emeryville ballpark to watch the season finale and the last showdown between the Oaks and Seals. San Francisco swept the doubleheader 9-5 and 3-0.

In the next day's issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, sportswriter Bob Stevens wrote that the "fans straggled out, peeking unhappily every so often at the lifeless diamond as they threaded their way home, never again to come back to the ballpark that for 53 years produced heartaches, thrills, champions and never a bum."