What was the smallest crowd in Bay Area sports history? (The 2022 A’s aren’t even close)

Willie Mays had retired. Willie McCovey was playing for the San Diego Padres. Candlestick Park was cold and windy, and the Giants were on their way to a disappointing fifth-place finish in the National League West.

But even with all those factors, it was still a stunning moment on Sept. 16, 1974, when just 748 fans showed up to a major league baseball game.

“Dusty Baker, from Sacramento, hit his 18th home run in the second” inning, The Chronicle’s Harry Jupiter wrote the next day. “And when somebody stood up and cheered, he was almost thrown out of the park for disturbing the peace.”

The 2022 Oakland A’s have been drawing embarrassingly low numbers. Just 2,488 patrons attended the game on May 2. But was that the most poorly attended game in Bay Area pro sports history? Our data team and The Chronicle archive provided a clear answer: not even close.

We looked at major sports teams that merit national television coverage: the Giants, A’s, Warriors, 49ers, Raiders and Sharks. Chronicle data editor Dan Kopf used public databases; when those weren’t available, I spot-checked analog sources in The Chronicle archive, at one point using a Reagan-era microfiche machine. Games where tickets were limited or unavailable to the public, including the recent pandemic games without fans, were not included.

The results took us on a journey.

On Oct. 4, 1972, the Giants played the San Diego Padres in front of fewer than 1,000 fans at Candlestick Park, at the time the smallest crowd in team history.

On Oct. 4, 1972, the Giants played the San Diego Padres in front of fewer than 1,000 fans at Candlestick Park, at the time the smallest crowd in team history.

Barney Peterson / The Chronicle 1972

The worst attendance for any game involving professional ballplayers was in 1905, when the minor league Oakland Commuters reportedly hosted the Portland Beavers in front of one paying customer. (We’re counting only modern professional football, basketball, baseball and hockey.)

The NBA’s San Francisco Warriors, in their third season since moving from Philadelphia, averaged 2,138 fans per game in 1964-65, often playing in arenas such as the USF gym and Civic Auditorium that seated only a few thousand fans. On Dec. 11, 1964, just 1,129 people showed up to watch Wilt Chamberlain come back after a broken nose and score 40 points in a 104-100 loss to the Detroit Pistons.

Football is harder to gauge, because (like modern baseball) the teams count attendance as tickets sold, not the number of people passing through turnstiles. I attended a 2016 49ers-Patriots game in the rain where Levi’s Stadium was at most one-third full, with the majority of fans cheering for New England. Official attendance for that day is listed at 70,178. But football crowds almost never drop below five figures. Even in the 1987 strike-year games with replacement players, more than 15,000 fans showed up for a 49ers road game against the New York Giants.

Oct. 4, 1972: The San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres in front of fewer than 1,000 fans at Candlestick Park, at the time the smallest crowd in team history.

Oct. 4, 1972: The San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres in front of fewer than 1,000 fans at Candlestick Park, at the time the smallest crowd in team history.

Barney Peterson / The Chronicle 1974

From available figures, the lowest attendance major league events by far were 1970s baseball games, when both the Giants and A’s finished near the bottom of their divisions and played in front of fewer than 1,000 fans. Chronicle archive photos from the period capture a comical scene, with just a few scattered bodies in stadiums with capacity for more than 60,000.

The Giants hit their low point on Sept. 16, 1974, when 748 attended a Monday game at Candlestick Park, including just 45 fans using the ballpark ticket windows. They got to see a pretty good, and mercifully short, 4-2 win for the home team over the Atlanta Braves. Jim Barr’s complete game took only 1 hour and 38 minutes from first to last pitch.

Among the attendees according to The Chronicle were a few retirees, Rev. Seraphin Muller, 70, of St. Anthony’s Parish and 13-year-old Tim Amyx, who cut school in Mill Valley to get Giants power hitter Dave Kingman’s autograph. The best detail came from The Chronicle’s Bob Stevens, reporting from the stands:

“As a hot dog vendor went to check out, a fan asked what would be done with the leftovers. ‘No problem,’ said the vendor. ‘The 49ers play here Sunday.’”

San Francisco Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain plays against the Detroit Pistons in 1964. The Warriors averaged just over 2,000 fans per game that season.

San Francisco Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain plays against the Detroit Pistons in 1964. The Warriors averaged just over 2,000 fans per game that season.

Joe Rosenthal/The Chronicle

The players were flummoxed but forgiving, including Bobby Bonds, whose two-run homer was the big hit of the day.

“This is Monday and this is a working man’s town,” Bonds said, “and we’re not going so good. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t giving our best every minute we’re out there. We owe it to the fans, regardless of how many — or how few — are in the stands.”

That record would stand as the most poorly attended Bay Area pro sporting event until 1979, when the Oakland A’s drew just 4,806 fans total for a three-game series against the Seattle Mariners, including 653 fans on a cold and windy Tuesday night at the Oakland Coliseum.

Unlike the 748-attendance Giants game, the Athletics fans on April 17, 1979, weren’t given much of a show. The teams combined for nine errors in a 6-5 Oakland win.

Oct. 4, 1972: The San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres in front of fewer than 1,000 fans at Candlestick Park, at the time the smallest crowd in team history.

Oct. 4, 1972: The San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres in front of fewer than 1,000 fans at Candlestick Park, at the time the smallest crowd in team history.

Barney Peterson / The Chronicle

“It’s discouraging as hell,” said Dave Heaverlo, the A’s winning pitcher. “But I think we should dedicate this one to the 600 who showed up and stuck with us.”

The media mined the A’s-Mariners series for humor. Chronicle correspondent Steve Rubenstein found one section where every fan got at least one foul ball, letting them bounce and settle on the ground so they wouldn’t hurt their hands.

He reported that players were able to hear fans clearly, even the ones who chose to sit back in the 20th row. (“‘Way to go A’s,’ a tipsy woman yelled, after first baseman Dave Revering fielded a routine grounder. He looked up, somewhat startled.”)

Sept. 23, 1979: The Oakland A's host a crowd with fewer than 1,000 fans during the team's worst attendance year in 1979.

Sept. 23, 1979: The Oakland A’s host a crowd with fewer than 1,000 fans during the team’s worst attendance year in 1979.

Mike Maloney / The Chronicle 1979

But for baseball owners, the attendance catastrophes — the Giants in 1974 and the A’s in 1979 — caused panic. Ownership for both teams openly griped that one team would have to move.

“One major league team would be very successful here,” A’s owner Charlie Finley said. “But it’s obvious now that there isn’t room for two.”

The statement proved overly pessimistic. The Giants, after opening now-Oracle Park in 1999, went on to win three World Series in five years and set a Major League Baseball record for consecutive sellouts. The Athletics have had their struggles in the deteriorating Coliseum, but the fan base has been surprisingly loyal, leaving little doubt that a new waterfront ballpark could be a success.

Attendance for Wednesday night’s A’s game was a robust 7,106, which would have been a bounty for the 1974 Giants or 1979 A’s.

It may be bad now at the Coliseum, but the worst moments are history.

Peter Hartlaub (he/him) is The San Francisco Chronicle’s culture critic. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

Oct. 2, 1974: The San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres in front of a tiny crowd at Candlestick Park on one of the most poorly attended games in team history.

Oct. 2, 1974: The San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres in front of a tiny crowd at Candlestick Park on one of the most poorly attended games in team history.

Clem Albers / The Chronicle


https://www.sfchronicle.com/oursf/article/sf-sports-history-17185728.php

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