Al Davis, Roller Derby, and me

Al Davis died at the age of 82.

Maybe some of you don’t know who he was.  He was the enigmatic owner of the Oakland Raiders, and if you look up enigmatic in the dictionary, you will find his name.

Roller Derby and the Raiders were contemporaneous in the Bay Area.  When the American Football League started it was announced that Oakland would have its own team, the Senors.  Well, that wasn’t even grammatically correct in Spanish, and they changed the name to “Raiders” and played their first season in San Francisco.  The team was put together and financed by a group headed by Wayne Valley, a successful builder of homes who brought in a bunch of his East Bay friends.  They hired Al Davis as general manager and coach.

On a piece of land in Oakland they put up temporary grandstands, called it Frank Youell Field and hosted the games awaiting the completion of the new Oakland Coliseum sports complex in 1963.  Our very own Peggy Brown was friends with their ticket manager, and we handled the tickets and day of game sale for the team.  The box office looked like an outhouse, a single light bulb dangling inside, and Peggy was able to pack the unsold tickets and receipts in the trunk of her trusty old Cadillac.

Al hated the NFL and it was largely due to his efforts that Oakland was one of the most successful teams in the new league, as well as demanding equality when the leagues merged.  He was a god in Oakland.  One night I was at Mitch’s, a popular neighborhood restaurant in Oakland, when Al and his wife came in.  Now it was a Thursday, and Al usually came in on Friday, and a couple was sitting in “his” table.  The owner hurried over, grabbed the people’s place settings and moved them all to another table.  They were stunned, but Al took it matter of factly.

Eventually Al took over all management of the team, which pissed Wayne off; he had financed the team, he had brought in the others and hired Al, but that appeared to be forgotten.  It became all Al Davis and no mention of Wayne and the other locals, and Al was the general partner and had complete control.

When the Raiders moved to the Coliseum, Al went to the board and suggested that since this was an East Bay complex, it should be restricted to events by East Bay sports and others.  That would have meant, of course, that circuses, ice shows, rock shows, etc couldn’t play the buildings…..for some reason it was turned down.  His concern was that if any extra dollars were around, he wanted them to be spent on the Raiders.  We weren’t concerned; the Roller Derby headquarters were in Oakland.

Roller Derby was the 2nd event in the Arena portion of the complex, and we had over 10,000 people.  We usually played on Saturday nights, and often the Raiders were there also.  The Coliseum management reluctantly informed us that we would always have to start after the Raiders so they would get all the parking.  And we often ran into situations like that… was never anything personal between Al and me; he just felt the Raiders owned the city.

A young writer named Frank Deford was sent by Sports Illustrated to do a feature on the three (eccentric?) owners of teams in Oakland, Charlie Finley of the A’s, Franklin Miuli of the Warriors (who insisted on calling them the San Francisco Warriors) and of course, Al.

The sports editor of the Tribune asked Frank if he was aware of Roller Derby in Oakland, and he came to see me.  He did the story on the other teams, but also got permission to do a feature on Roller Derby which became the longest piece to date in SI….look it up and read it.  Frank expanded it into his book “Five Strides on the Banked Track” and has become the best sports-writer, commentator and novelist in America……I humbly point out my small role.

Eventually the Raiders moved to Los Angeles after becoming a mainstay in the NFL, and lo and behold I was there with Ticketmaster and was able to obtain their single game sales.  Now ticket companies think backwards: if a team is super successful they sell out with season tickets and there are not single game tickets to sell; if they are not successful they start to rebuild and there is demand for individual tickets is what we would sell.  The Raiders were a great example.  They played in the huge Coliseum, initially had not too many season tickets, and it was a great product for Ticketmaster.

Many people disliked Al, but he was good for Oakland and for football.  And because of him I had another opportunity.  Wayne Valley was fed up with “The Genius” as he called him, and when it was apparent that the NHL team in Oakland was failing and the league wanted to get a new operator, Wayne contacted me to head up a group of the former AFL owners (Lamar Hunt, Ralph Wilson, and 4 others) to present a package and then become the manager of the Oakland Hockey team.  That is another post, but somehow the league awarded it to Charlie Finley, and it crashed again within a couple of seasons.

Al built a great franchise, hired John Madden when Davis wasn’t coaching anymore,  and there were the wonderful Super Bowls, which many cities never experience.  But time passed him by, he wouldn’t let go of the reins, and the franchise started to fail.  It looks like it could be on its way up now.  He was one of the last remnants of the old days of controversial icons in sports.  I look around, and there aren’t many left.

Unfortunately, to my knowledge he never came to see the Bay Bombers skate, or even to watch when we had the 49ers skate the Raiders in Roller Derby.  However, I can assume that he, like so many others who denied it, watched our telecasts on Channel 2 on Sunday nights.

9 comments on “Al Davis, Roller Derby, and me

  1. Al Davis was the ultimate lightning rod in sports. He was constantly gnawing on the hand that fed him (the NFL) and took the Raiders logo and turned it into an entity almost entirely it’s own. There was lot’s to love about Al Davis, and possibly even more to hate about him. But he left his unmistakable mark on not only the NFL, but in all of sports across North America and the World.

  2. It’s amazing how vanilla ESPN has become; they spent yesterday praising Al Davis as if he were a saint. I think the dude’s life is worthy of a movie, and it would not be PG. It’s too bad, Jerry, the owner of my Red Wings couldn’t stay awake. 🙂

    • gjdodger is referring to my presentation to the NHL board when I knew our cause was lost……I may have been lucky not to have bought the Oakland Seals hockey team… that time the stars were getting $25,000 a year.

  3. Hey Jerry…. memory lane I was a raiderette at frank yuell field!! Remember Al Davis,tough guy…remember the roller derby on TV…all good !!!Raiders are unique and special with a mystique that can not be copied!!!

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