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Inheriting the then-New York Giants, one of the flagship franchises of the National League, from his father, Charles, in 1936, he oversaw four pennant-winning teams in his first two decades as owner. Then, in 1958, he moved the Giants from New York City to San Francisco, California, one of two National League owners to bring Major League Baseball to the lucrative West Coast territory. Although the Giants won only one pennant (1962) and one division title (1971) in the first 15 years after moving west, they were a consistent contender that featured some of baseball's biggest stars during their first decade and a half in the Bay Area. But, during the mid-1970s, they declined in on-field success and suffered significant attendance losses, forcing Stoneham to sell the team in 1976.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Stoneham was educated at the Hun School of Princeton and the Trinity-Pawling School. He briefly attended Fordham University, but soon dropped out to work in a copper mine in California and begin, at his father's insistence, his apprenticeship as a baseball executive and future owner. He worked on the Giants' grounds crew and in the ticket office and front office. When, at age 32, he succeeded to the team presidency on his father's death in January 1936, Stoneham became the youngest club owner in National League history.
His tenure witnessed three separate pennant-contending and -winning eras: the team that he inherited, the 1936–1938 Giants of Bill Terry, Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott; the 1949–1955 teams of manager Leo Durocher, including Monte Irvin, Sal Maglie, Bobby Thomson and Willie Mays; and the star-studded Giants of 1959–1971. During Stoneham's 41 years as owner, the Giants won National League pennants in 1936, 1937, 1951, 1954 and 1962, a division title in 1971, and a World Series title in 1954.
Stoneham employed at least two general managers during those four decades: Terry (1938–1942), who doubled as the Giants' field manager through 1941, and Chub Feeney (1946–1969), his nephew, who became president of the National League (1970–1986) after his December 1969 resignation. But Stoneham was known as a hands-on owner who was personally involved in player trades and transactions.
With the post-World War II Giants falling into in the league's second division, Stoneham boldly moved to replace the popular Ott as his manager with the hyper-competitive, abrasive Durocher on July 16, 1948. Giant fans reviled Durocher as the pilot of the arch-rival Brooklyn Dodgers, but he quickly produced an exciting, hard-playing team that—within 21⁄2 years, in 1951—won one of the most thrilling pennant races in history, capped by Thomson's come-from-behind, three-run walk-off home run in the final inning of the deciding game of the postseason playoff with the Dodgers. Durocher and Mays' 1954 Giants also took the NL flag, and won Stoneham's only World Series title with a four-game sweep over the Cleveland Indians.
Controversial move to San Francisco
New York baseball fans and media vilified Stoneham and Brooklyn owner Walter O'Malley when they moved their clubs to California after the 1957 season. Stoneham was alarmed by a dramatic drop-off in attendance during the 1950s. The 1947 Giants had drawn 1.6 million paying fans despite finishing fourth. But the 1951 and 1954 pennant winners struggled to hit seven figures in home attendance, and mediocre 1956–1957 Giants' teams had drawn fewer than 700,000 customers each season. It did not help matters that the Giants' park, the Polo Grounds, was not aging gracefully. The 46-year-old park had not been well maintained from the 1940s onward. Although Stoneham owned the park, he didn't own and the area around the park (in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan) had already gone to seed. All of these factors combined to hold down ticket sales. The thin gates hit Stoneham particularly hard since unlike most of his fellow owners, he had no income apart from the Giants. Stoneham's balance sheet took a further hit when the football Giants, who had spent their entire history as tenants of the baseball Giants, moved across the Harlem River to Yankee Stadium.
Impressed by the success of the Braves after their 1953 shift from Boston to Milwaukee, Stoneham decided to move his Giants to Minneapolis. He intended to set up shop in Metropolitan Stadium, which had just been constructed in nearby Bloomington for his Triple-A farm team, the Minneapolis Millers. The stadium had been built to major-league specifications with the help of public funds, and Stoneham had declared there were at most two major-league parks that were better. Under baseball rules of the time, the Giants owned the major-league rights to the Minneapolis area.
When Stoneham confided his plan to O'Malley, owner of the Millers' main rival in St. Paul, the St. Paul Saints, the Dodger chief revealed that he was negotiating to transfer his club to Los Angeles. He suggested that Stoneham contact San Francisco mayor George Christopher and explore moving his team there to preserve the teams' bitter rivalry. Stoneham soon abandoned his Minnesota plan and shifted his attention, permanently, to San Francisco. In 1961, the Twin Cities succeeded in getting their own MLB team when the the first incarnation of the Washington Senators moved there as the Minnesota Twins.
After the Giants' board approved the move to San Francisco, Stoneham was confronted by fans both angry—one sign at their last home game read: "We want Stoneham! With a rope around his neck!"—and grief-stricken. Earlier, after meeting with a group of weeping youngsters who begged the team to stay, Stoneham was moved, but said: "I feel bad for the kids, I've seen lots of them at the Polo Grounds. But I haven't seen many of their fathers lately." (In his book Five Seasons, Roger Angell quotes Stoneham as saying, "The last day we played [at the Polo Grounds], I couldn't go to the game. I just didn't want to see it all end.")
Writer Roger Kahn said years later, during promotional tours for his book The Era 1947–57, that the Giants' deteriorating ballpark and shrinking fan base made it necessary for Stoneham to abandon New York. He noted, however, that the Dodgers—a year removed from the 1956 pennant and two from Brooklyn's first world championship—were still profitable and O'Malley's move West was motivated by a desire for even greater riches.
The Giants' transfer to San Francisco was initially a rousing success. The team began to play winning baseball and drew 1.27 and 1.42 million fans playing in a tiny (22,900 capacity) minor league ballpark, Seals Stadium, in 1958–1959. Then the Giants moved to brand-new Candlestick Park in 1960 and attendance rose above 1.75 million fans. (Meanwhile, the National League returned to New York in 1962, with an expansion team, the Mets.)
Talented team produced one pennant
While Stoneham's San Francisco club produced only one pennant (in 1962), one National League West Division title (1971), and no World Series triumphs, the Giants of the late 1950s and 1960s were one of the most talented assemblages in the National League. They included five Hall of Famers—Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry—and many other stars. The Giants were the first big league team to heavily scout and sign players from the Dominican Republic and brought the first Japanese player, pitcher Masanori Murakami, to the Majors in 1964.
But the National League was so powerful and competitive—it had far outpaced the American League in signing African-American and Latin American players—the Giants had only one pennant to show for a decade-plus of contention. In 1962, the team won 101 games and forced another best-of-three playoff with the Dodgers, then prevailed in the final inning of the decisive third game. In another echo of 1951, they were defeated by the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Stoneham was partially to blame for the Giants' lack of sustained dominance, as he squandered the resources of his productive farm system through a series of poorly advised trades, usually for starting pitchers who could complement Marichal and Perry. He also hired as his manager from 1961–1964 Alvin Dark, who had a brilliant baseball mind but a poor relationship with at least some of his minority players. Dark was fired after the 1964 Giants fell just short in a wild, end-of-season pennant race; almost as notably, his dismissal came after he had made well-publicized and derogatory remarks to the press about Latin ballplayers during the season. (Dark later said he was misquoted.) Longtime Durocher aide Herman Franks, Dark's successor, then produced four consecutive second-place finishes through 1968.
In 1971, Mays' final full season with San Francisco, the Giants roared to an early lead in the NL West, winning 37 of their first 51 games to build a 101⁄2-game margin over the Dodgers through May 31. Then they fell to earth, going only 53–58 for the rest of the season. Still, they prevailed by a single game over Los Angeles to become division champions. In the 1971 National League Championship Series, however, the eventual world champion Pittsburgh Pirates handled Stoneham's club in four games.
In 1959, Stoneham began developing a spring training facility for the San Francisco Giants at Francisco Grande, in Casa Grande, Arizona. Francisco Grande hosted its first exhibition game in 1961, where Willie Mays hit a 375-foot home run in the fourth inning. Francisco Grande, now a hotel and golf resort, still houses various memorabilia of the San Francisco Giants of the 1960s.
Struggles during the 1970s
After their initial success, Stoneham's Giants fell on hard times after 1971. The arrival of the cross-bay Oakland Athletics in 1968 split the market. The Athletics themselves struggled at the turnstiles, leading to doubts about whether the Bay Area was big enough for two major league teams. Attendance at cold and windy Candlestick Park plummeted after 1971 to levels similar to those at the Polo Grounds in the mid-1950s; during Stoneham's final five years as owner, only in 1973 did the Giants draw more than 648,000 fans, causing Stoneham financial hardship. This was the same situation that forced him to move to San Francisco almost 20 years earlier.
Finally, in 1976, he put the team up for sale. The Giants very nearly moved back east, to Toronto, when a deal with Canadian investors seemed imminent. In addition, it was briefly rumored that they might return to the metropolitan New York area, perhaps to a new baseball stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands. But local real estate magnate Bob Lurie stepped in as the buyer, and the Giants remained in Northern California. Additionally, there was another unsuccessful attempt in 1992 to move the team to Tampa Bay. Both Toronto and Tampa eventually secured expansion teams.
Stoneham died at age 86 in Scottsdale, Arizona.