Most sports memorabilia recall a favorite game or player. The autographed baseball sitting on my desk is different.
The autographs belong to the group that dubbed itself the SF Ballpark Five — Gregg Lukenbill, then owner and managing partner of the Kings; Maurice Read, his spokesman; and political consultants David Townsend, Jack Davis, and Richard Schlackman. Amid all the huffing and puffing in Sacramento about who or who's not giving money in the fight over the proposed subsidy to the Kings and their wealthy owners, their signatures recall a day when the Kings ownership itself was the shadowy "outside" force siding with taxpayers against sports extortion.
It was 1989 and the extortionist in question was Bob Lurie, owner of the San Francisco Giants. He was threatening to move the team to Tampa or some other eager town if the taxpayers of San Francisco would not build him a new stadium to replace the wind tunnel known as Candlestick Park. Mayor Art Agnos led the charge with a measure to do just that for the November ballot.
Unfortunately for the extortionists, the San Andreas Fault choose the wrong moment to slip. On October 17 the Loma Prieta earthquake knocked down a portion of the Bay Bridge, damaged San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway, and destroyed blocks of houses in the Marina District.
Agnos briefly put the ballpark subsidy push on hold but then resumed campaigning. Opponents of the deal replied on the final weekend with a mass mailing suggesting that, what with the earthquake and all, the city might just have more pressing uses of tax dollars than lining Lurie's pockets.
And here's where Agnos dropped the bomb he had been holding in reserve: The opponents' mailer, he charged, was financed by Gregg Lukenbill of Sacramento, who was trying to steal the Giants. "We haven't had any looting after the earthquake until now," Agnos proclaimed. In a front-page editorial the San Francisco Chronicle piled on: "A contemptible, inflammatory and highly inaccurate hit piece... stands exposed as a scheme by Sacramento promoters." (How much importance do newspapers attach to subsidizing the home team? In all my years of reading the Chronicle — through the threat of Cold War nuclear holocaust, the turmoil over the Vietnam War and civil rights, the crimes and impeachment of Richard Nixon, the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk — that is the only front-page editorial I can recall.)
Lukenbill denied any involvement. And despite Agnos's charges and the Chronicle's ranting, San Francisco voters turned down the subsidy plan.
But Lukenbill was lying.
Maurice Read, his spokesman, and David Townsend, the Sacramento political consultant, had met Davis and Schlackman, managers of the campaign against the subsidy, for lunch in San Francisco on September 29. They learned that the campaign was winnable but needed money for opposition mailers. They relayed the news to Lukenbill, who was deeply committed to building a privately financed stadium to bring the then-LA Raiders and baseball to Sacramento. Lukenbill knew that if the Giants stayed in San Francisco the team could block any competitor from locating in Sacramento, within its monopoly 100-mile territory. To improve Sacramento's chances, he called business associates and asked them to donate to opponents' campaign. One of them, a Woodland steel manufacturer, made a $12,500 contribution reported the day before the election.
"I made a few phone calls to protect Sacramento's interest in potentially getting a baseball team here," Lukenbill admitted months later. "I'm not ashamed of that. I'm proud of it. I want baseball in Sacramento and I'm proud of it and I'm not going to back off of it."
What Lukenbill didn't know was that Agnos and the Giants, their campaign failing in the wake of the earthquake, had been tipped off to his possible involvement within days of the first contact with the opponents, and had been itching to use the "outsider" threat in a last-minute push. Nor did he know that Agnos was a bad loser. The mayor urged San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith to prosecute his opponents; Smith, hoping to goose his campaign for state attorney general, complied. He got the grand jury to indict Lukenbill and the rest of the Ballpark Five on the incredible theory that their efforts to help the anti-subsidy campaign constituted a conspiracy to create a campaign committee that had failed to report its existence.
But this is the rare story with many happy endings:
- Having failed four times in five years, first in San Francisco and later in San Jose, to get voters to buy them a new stadium, the Giants, under new ownership, gave up their extortion bid and built their own privately financed ballpark. The team has gone on to win two World Series.
- Having protected their public resources for investments more potent than subsidizing sports owners, San Francisco and San Jose are now among the most economically buoyant big cities in the world.
- When the Ballpark Five reached court, the judge dismissed the case, saying there was no evidence any laws were broken and no grounds for the grand jury's indictment or the district attorney's pursuit of the case.
- Dogged by the judge's conclusion that he had been engaged in a political prosecution and hurt by revelations that he had sought to speed up the case to help his campaign, Arlo Smith was defeated in his campaign for attorney general.
The baseball on my desk freshly reminds that, in politics as in sport, the game is hardball, and though everybody mouths the bromide about "it's how you play the game," the spitball your side throws never seems as wet as the one loaded up by guy in the other dugout.