Ballparks' Graceful Exits

Old stadiums make space for new California stories.

a's oakland colliseum
Daniel Shirey

There’s chatter these days about the future home of the Oakland A’s, California’s favorite underdogs. The conversations are filled with uncertainty and anticipation, fanned by the team’s leadership pursuing two options with equal attention: keeping the A’s in the area at a new, 34,000-seat waterfront stadium in Oakland’s Jack London neighborhood or moving the team out of state to Las Vegas. While baseball officials and city and county government hash out their differences, the clock is ticking on how much longer the team is able to play at its current location—the creaky, love-it-or-hate-it mid-’60s architectural throwback that is the Oakland Coliseum.

Despite the present state of the structure, the Coliseum’s cultural impact over its 55-year tenure is undeniable. It’s been home to the A’s in some of their most stunning seasons, including three consecutive World Series championships in the 1970s, as well as played host to dozens of concerts by notable artists of the ’70s and ’80s, some of which could be heard for free far beyond the walls of the arena. When it’s demolished after the team’s lease ends, the Coliseum will join other bygone structures where Californians gathered for decades, from San Francisco’s Seals Stadium and Candlestick Park, where the A’s beat the Giants in 1989 after being interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake, to Gilmore Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Balboa Stadium in Southern California, the latter of which hosted in a single decade the first presidential speech to be amplified on loudspeakers (Woodrow Wilson in 1919) as well as a rally where Charles Lindbergh did a low flyover for a crowd of over 60,000. Collectively, they’ve also been the site of unexpected upsets in individual competitions like boxing as well as all the most popular team sports.

That leaves a rather open question: Will whatever crops up at the Coliseum’s current site be able to fill its shoes? While at least one of its peers has given way to a strip mall, others, like Gilmore Stadium, have been replaced more thoughtfully. Between 1934 and 1952, the stadium was home to the baseball team Hollywood Stars; the Los Angeles Bulldogs, the city’s first professional football team; and a surprisingly successful midget car racing program. The oil-rich Gilmore family funded the stadium, their wealth coming from petroleum extracted from the same parcel of land in Los Angeles’s Fairfax neighborhood where the stadium was built. Given the strike-it-rich nature of the Gilmore land, it’s not surprising it was fated for another kind of gold after the Bulldogs moved to Long Beach and the stadium found itself without regular tenants. In 1952, the same year the stadium was demolished, CBS opened its studio Television City—which is still in use today—as the production home for dozens of quintessentially Californian shows and movies.

Those concerned about the fate of the 155 acres the Coliseum currently sits on can also look to Wrigley Field, which had historically been a thriving hub of Los Angeles’s Black community and which still upholds that spirit decades later. Wrigley Field was home to the Los Angeles Angels minor league team from 1925 to 1957. Each summer from 1945 to 1958, the stadium was also the backdrop for the popular Cavalcade of Jazz series, which showcased virtuosos like Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, Dinah Washington, and Lionel Hampton as they passed through town. In 1963, it also hosted Martin Luther King Jr. in front of a crowd of 40,000 in one of the largest civil rights assemblies in the country outside of the March on Washington. Today, the field is a city park and community center in South L.A. with baseball, soccer, and basketball programs for local kids. It seems fitting that the same plot of land that witnessed such history would now be a space for kids to play and learn before venturing out to become stars in their own right.

The Oakland A’s have released preliminary plans for the site, which includes a mix of housing and retail and a park immediately around the baseball diamond that would somewhat preserve the area’s athletic history. But it’s not totally clear how the plan will pay homage to the soul of the Coliseum. What do you think about the A’s proposal?•

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

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