April 17, 1979: The Night Only 250 Fans Showed Up In Oakland

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The Oakland A's averaged just (SHV/AP)
The Oakland A's averaged just (SHV/AP)

Despite making the playoffs for the third straight season, the Oakland Athletics finished among the bottom 10 Major League Baseball teams in 2014 attendance. This season, the A’s aren't faring much better at the gate: after their first two homestands, the A’s were averaging under 25,000 fans a night.

But it’s been worse.

Claire McNear has written about a night at the Oakland Coliseum that was historic for all the wrong reasons, and she joined Bill Littlefield to discuss her article.

BL: April 17, 1979. The Seattle Mariners visit the Oakland A’s and only 250 people show up. That can’t be right. I’m missing a zero — or two, right?

"[The players] could hear people ordering peanuts from the outfield."

Claire McNear

CM: No, no, it was a rough time for the franchise. It was kind of a moment of existential tension. They sold 653 tickets that night, but by all accounts fewer than half that number actually showed up. It was a rough time. The fans had kind of let go of the team.

The owner, this guy Charlie Finley, desperately wanted to get rid of the team, had sold off most of the marquee players. He wasn't paying for TV or radio contracts too much. In 1978, the first month of games was broadcast only on the UC Berkeley student station, which didn't even reach the Coliseum. So they just had college kids — those were the official A's announcers for a month there in '78.

BL: The attendance at A's games was bad throughout that season, but I understand there were some factors that made it especially bad that night.

CM: Yeah, that's right. I mean it was just a miserable night for baseball. It was a Tuesday night. It was early on in the season. It was already clear that it was going to be a bad season. It had been raining earlier in the day. By that night, when they finally started playing, the temperature was in the 40s, and it was just windy and foggy and just, you know, you didn't want to be sitting out at a baseball game that night.

BL: You write that the fans that night “huddled together behind home plate — for warmth it seemed like.” You spoke with some of the players who were on the field that night. What do they remember about the crowd — well, "crowd," that's not quite right, is it?

[sidebar title="The Doctor Was In, Sort Of" width="630" align="right"]Dock Ellis famously pitched a no-hitter after he dropped LSD. But, as the documentary 'No No' shows there was much more to Ellis's story.[/sidebar]CM: The first baseman came out on the field and saw how few people were there and started trying to count them. They could hear people ordering peanuts from the outfield. They were calling up to people, the few fans who were on the upper deck, calling and telling them to come on down to the lower deck, "Come get closer." So, just a massive empty place.

BL: The front office was pretty much empty as well, right?

CM: That's right. Charlie Finley fired just about everybody. At one point there were only six people working in the front office, one of whom was a local Oakland teenager who would later be known as MC Hammer. His name was Stanley Burrell. Finley hired him when he was in his teens and by 1979 he was executive vice president, so he would kind of strut around the clubhouse and do his thing.

BL: Well, tell me a little bit about the game itself, Claire — because I understand that the fans who did show up did see a pretty good ballgame.

CM: That's right. The A's got out to a quick lead. The Mariners tied it. It was 5-5. And then you've got your quintessential baseball moment: bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and the A's backup catcher, Jim Essian, walks up to the plate. And Essian just had a nasty flu that day. He said he didn't even think he could play baseball. But he gets up to the plate, and he singles, and it's the first A's walk-off victory of the year. The first of not very many.

BL: And, of course, the crowd, such as it was, went wild!

[sidebar title="What The Bleep?" width="630" align="right"]The MLB season has only just begun, but one manager already boiled over.[/sidebar]CM: That's right, they did, they did. And they were saying it was actually kind of nice because you could really go and interact with the players. You could get their autographs, you could almost have a conversation with them.

It was so quiet. So, you know, the third basemen went around thanking everyone for coming and for staying out in the cold.

BL: Do you think those former players with whom you spoke feel that they're heroes for being part of that game or are they a little embarrassed?

CM: To a man, they were all just saying that they were really grateful to have this opportunity to play in the majors, even if it didn't really feel like the major leagues at that point. And, you know, they were professionals, they were doing their job and happy to get to do it on at least a big stage, if not necessarily with a big audience.

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This segment aired on April 25, 2015.


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