On a wet gray day late in December 2015 I was driving north on 101, telling my wife about great childhood adventures in the sixties when our family journeyed to Candlestick Park to watch the San Francisco Giants. We would come in the other way, from Sacramento through the city by the bay, and I was always excited as we rolled closer to the best baseball player ever, Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid who dug in at the plate and smashed home runs, and on lesser hits tore around bases, challenging the arms of outfielders. On defense he patrolled a vast centerfield, sprinting left or right to complete stunning catches, and made routine plays cool by not lifting his glove overhead to catch the ball – that would’ve been mundane – but holding his mitt open at his stomach and letting the ball fall in, completing his basket catch.
Other stars joined Willie Mays on typically cold, windy days and nights at Candlestick. Willie McCovey, called Stretch at six-foot-four, launched towering home runs into the right field bleachers and beyond, and loped around the bases as fans celebrated. Orlando Cepeda, the Baby Bull, hit with the power of Mays and McCovey. Juan Marichal, the Dominican Dandy, had the highest kick of any pitcher in baseball and delivered pitches overhand, sidearm, and points in between while alternately overpowering and befuddling hitters and six times winning twenty-one games or more.
With four future Hall of Famers and a lineup of fine supporting players, the Giants seemed poised to win the World Series several times. I certainly felt that way attending the final game of the 1962 regular season when Mays hit a rocket into the left field stands to lift the Giants over the Houston Colt .45s and into a tie with the hated Los Angeles Dodgers, whom San Francisco then beat in a three-game playoff to win the pennant. A couple of weeks later, in the bottom of the ninth of World Series game seven against the New York Yankees, the Giants trailed one to nothing but with two outs had loaded the bases for big Willie McCovey. As elementary school friends and I huddled around a black and white television on a tall stand in a classroom, Stretch ripped a line drive that for an instant looked like a title-winning single but instead seared straight into the glove of little second baseman Bobby Richardson.
The Dodgers, featuring aces Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and their light-hitting but clutch teammates, who often singled, sacrificed, and singled again to manufacture a run, thereafter usually bested the brawny Giants, one of the most talented teams in history but fated to flounder amid wind storms and swirling dust that battered players and fans in the most unpopular stadium in baseball. Aficionados of Mays, in particular, regretted seeing scores of his blasts to left field transformed from home runs into outs.
I hated Candlestick until the 49ers moved there and a decade later started winning big games. Fall tranquility in the Bay Area had replaced frigid summers, and the turf at Candlestick became a hallowed gridiron in 1981 when Dwight Clark leaped and extended both hands to catch Joe Montana’s pass for a touchdown that enabled the 49ers to win the conference title and advance to their first of four Super Bowl titles in the eighties. This was also the place where Ronnie Lott delivered locomotive hits in the defensive backfield, changing the 49ers’ culture and style, and the field on which receiver Jerry Rice sprinted and cut and faked before catching passes and dashing into the end zone more often than anyone in pro football history.
“This is a special place,” I told my wife.
“Right up there.”
“I still don’t see it.”
“We will,” I said, cutting across two unoccupied lanes to take the Candlestick exit.
Where is it? It’s got to be here. But Candlestick Park had vanished, and the scene felt eerie, like I was driving toward a cemetery from which the Giants had moved in 2000 and the 49ers in 2013.
“We’ll find out what happened,” I said.
On a day cold and miserable enough to qualify as summertime at Candlestick, I wound along the bay, rough and a sickly shade of bluish green, to a muddy construction site offering this forlorn sign:
The New NFL Bag
Policy is in Effect
Bags Will Be
Caterpillars, bulldozers, and cranes rested nearby, waiting to move earth and build to the sky.
* * *
When we reach Fisherman’s Wharf it’s raining harder but the best part of San Francisco Bay is always stunning and we hasten to park for twenty bucks in a massive warehouse about a mile from the gates to the Harbor Cruise, open our umbrellas, and walk fast. Our arrival coincides with a Sail Around Alcatraz tour on a large red and white boat for about thirty dollars each. Money disappears fast around here but I don’t care. I’m introducing my wife to San Francisco, and thankful that a better-informed narrator – with prerecorded explicitness – is illuminating our voyage through fog now as well as rain.
Sailing west toward the Golden Gate we look to our left, as prompted, and admire the seaside Marina district, which I always remember as the place Joe DiMaggio lived many years. Fort Mason follows and prompts images of men and supplies being loaded for Word Wars I and II as well as the Korean and Vietnam Cold-War debacles. Now, in an evolutionary step, Fort Mason hosts theaters and art galleries. Next we peer through mist at the Presidio, surely the prettiest former military base on earth, and learn it was the northernmost point of the Spanish Empire and today functions as a national park. A few months later I’ll meet a man who’d been married there, having booked the affair two years earlier. Further west, passing Alcatraz to be discussed later, we hear over there’s the Barbary Coast where bars attracted hookers and criminals rich and poor.
A historical overview of San Francisco must include memories of the 1906 earthquake precipitating a firestorm that burned three days and two nights and destroyed twenty-eight thousand buildings, many of them elegant hotels and homes that had arisen after the 1849 Gold Rush, and rendered two-hundred-fifty thousand people homeless. Aroused and resilient, San Franciscans in three years constructed twenty thousand new buildings.
To our right, the north, we gaze at Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West where between 1910 and 1940 a million Asians were detained and questioned until authorities verified they had relatives in the United States. The price of a wrong answer, says the narrator, was deportation. The island also housed Miwok Indians, the Spanish army, the United States military, and today attracts tourists who enjoy biking and hiking.
We really haven’t seen it, not more than a glimpse of orange through the fog. But now we’re right under the legendary Golden Gate, symbol of the beauty and might of the Wild West. What sacrifices were necessary to create such a monument and critical passage from San Francisco to Marin County and points north: thousands worked five years until the May 1937 completion; eleven died during construction; nineteen were saved by safety nets; in that period, there was usually one death per million dollars of construction; the bridge cost thirty-five million; the net was a good idea.
Our boat turns under the bridge and begins chugging back toward the city. Now it’s time for the recorded narration about Alcatraz. It would have been a military base but was so cold and windy – like today – the idea was abandoned. The rock eventually became a “last-stop prison for the worst criminals…a tomb of humanity” where convicts arrived in train cars that had been loaded onto barges in San Francisco. The prison never held more than three hundred inmates, the most infamous being Al Capone, whose brain was devoured by syphilis during his time there. I also think about Clint Eastwood starring in the movie Escape from Alcatraz. His character may have gotten off the rock but, likely crippled by hypothermia, sank into a dark and frigid tomb.
Thrilled by the beauty and energy of San Francisco Bay and the stunning landscapes surrounding it, we dreamily drive down the peninsula to our motel in Mountain View and, the following day, Saturday morning, head back to the city and onto the Bay Bridge, conduit for three hundred thousand cars a day, and plan to head straight to Sacramento until I proclaim, “I’ve been visiting San Francisco for decades but have never been to Treasure Island,” host of the 1939 World’s Fair and the place where the bridge touches land, albeit landfill, en route to opposite sides of the bay.
The armed forces seized Treasure Island during World War II and maintained a presence there until costs and changing missions led to closure. Old naval buildings are sealed and blighted by bird shit, broken windows, and peeling paint. We drive out into the neighborhood where more than two thousand civilians live and see parents cheering the lacrosse and soccer teams of their children. It’s a sparsely populated haven in the middle of masses but will gradually become like the rest of the Bay Area as developers build houses and stores and offices. Views of San Francisco, Marin County, and the East Bay are breathtaking. I may spend a couple of million for a small place now before the island gets expensive.