Back in 1967, Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds starred in a film called “Divorce American Style.” Renowned critic Roger Ebert called it “a member of that rare species, the Hollywood comedy with teeth in it.” In the movie, an affluent suburban couple loses the spark and splits up. Pathos and humor ensue as each partner tries to start over. True to Tinseltown, on the night the divorce is to become final, Van Dyke and Reynolds realize they’re still in love and decide to take another whirl.
Fast-forward to 1986. For three decades of mostly mediocre seasons, Redwood City had supported the San Francisco Forty Niners with humble but serviceable offices and a practice field at Red Morton Park. Suddenly, the Niners were flashing two Super Bowl rings and itching to trade up.
This time, there would be no Hollywood ending.
This story was originally published in the November edition of Climate Magazine. Click here to read the full digital publication.
Redwood City suggested options, including 12 acres in Redwood Shores. But the team demanded more than city officials thought affordable. The council said no. Two years later, the franchise moved its headquarters to Santa Clara. The new digs in the South Bay eventually included ultramodern Levi’s Stadium, opened in 2014.
But new homes bring new problems. Just months after construction began in 2012, lawyers for the city and the team were already tangling over $30 million in stadium-tax funds. In the decade since, the Forty Niners and Santa Clara have bickered over rent, property taxes, bowl-game sponsorship money and stadium-event receipts, among other issues.
Starting in 2019, city leaders began moving to cancel a 25-year stadium-management contract with a Forty Niner-connected firm. The resulting litigation remains before the courts. Meanwhile, a year ago, a team-friendly majority took office after a political action committee sponsored by Niners CEO Jed York poured approximately $3 million into Santa Clara’s City Council race, according to Politico. Three of York’s four favored candidates won. The new bloc, which includes two incumbents, has come to be called the “Forty Niner Five.”
During the campaign, the mayor and a Forty Niner executive exchanged insults in a feud that stretches on today. Then, two months ago, by a 5-2 vote in closed session, the council fired Santa Clara City Attorney Brian Doyle, who had been representing the municipality in its numerous lawsuits with the team. That led Mayor Lisa Gillmor, who voted to keep Doyle, to tell the San Francisco Chronicle that she was concerned the “council majority” would rather cut a deal than continue litigating.
Santa Clara’s ugly scene mirrors contentious talks between local governments and pro sports teams from Oakland to Chicago to Jacksonville. And for Redwood City leaders who were around more than 30 years ago, it just seems like old times.
As with other council members from the era, former mayor Georgi LaBerge has bittersweet memories – but few, if any, regrets – about letting the Niners go.
“They just wanted too much,” says LaBerge, now 85, who joined other council members in voting to say goodbye. Asked if she had felt emotionally invested in keeping the team, LaBerge replies, “Not terribly. I was more concerned about them doing the right thing with the City of Redwood City.”
Dick Claire, who still teaches accounting at local community colleges, was Redwood City’s mayor. He agrees the team was asking more than the city could prudently – or even legally – propose.
Eventually, Claire says, negotiations came down to the 12 city-owned acres in Redwood Shores. (Tim Harrison, owner of the Canyon Inn in Redwood City and a close friend of many Forty Niner players and staff who frequented his restaurant, believes the Red Morton site could never have been adequately reconfigured.)
At the Shores, two sticking points emerged. First, Claire says, the longest lease the city could legally offer would have run only an ironically numbered 49 years. The Niners wanted a longer term. Beyond that, Claire continues, the team preferred to own, rather than rent.
The city was amenable. Still, Claire, as an accounting professor, knew the value of a buck. He and others insisted on market value. Claire says the Forty Niners balked, and ultimately the council voted to part ways. Santa Clara and the Niners reportedly agreed to a 55-year lease of 12 acres near Great America, at $1,000 an acre and a 4% annual increase. At the time, Claire says, the team was paying Redwood City around $3,000 a month for the Red Morton facility, and was two years behind on the rent. (According to news reports, the Forty Niners and the city eventually settled accounts.)
“We didn’t wish to give the store away,” former council member Bob Bury told Climate magazine columnist Mark Simon in a retrospective that Simon wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1997. Bury, who served for 24 years and died in 2013, added, “We offered what we could.”
Even Harrison, whose nickname around town was “Mr. Forty Niner” and whose restaurant in Emerald Hills benefited greatly from its association with the team, offers a business perspective.
“As it turned out, that’s how it had to be,” Harrison says, adding that “maybe it’s for the best” because the city will soon be redeveloping the team’s old section of Red Morton Park. He also believes the Niners are now “right where they need to be, although Santa Clara’s kind of far away from San Francisco.”
But if Harrison is a realist, he was (and is) a fan, and a gifted promoter. Before the 1981 season, after the Niners had won just 10 games in three years, he pledged free meals to the players and staff for the whole week after every victory.
The Turnaround Team
“I thought it was a pretty safe deal,” Harrison chuckles. It was – for the Niners. In 1981, the team astonished the entire football world. Quarterback Joe Montana blossomed as a passer, young players became overnight stars, and Head Coach Bill Walsh constantly befuddled opponents.
For many fans, the breathtaking comeback against Cincinnati in the Super Bowl felt oddly anti-climactic; the Faithful were still recovering from “The Catch” by the late Dwight Clark over the Dallas Cowboys’ Everson Walls two weeks before. Walsh was crowned “The Genius,” and by the end of the 1980s, the three-time champions were the “team of the decade.”
Through it all, until the franchise moved to Santa Clara, Harrison says he made good on his promise – even intervening when a Canyon Inn employee doubted Bill Ring, a smallish running back, was a Forty Niner.
For those who believe in “doing well by doing good,” Harrison’s bet paid off in the long run. He turned the Canyon Inn into a Forty Niner shrine, attracting both publicity and customers. He started catering team events, including Walsh’s press conferences in Redwood City and game-day barbecues at Candlestick Park.
That led to more trade with local businesses, along with useful media contacts. Even now, 23 years after the team left, Harrison says he can phone a reporter or business person in just about any industry, thanks to his network that started with the Forty Niners. Cooks at the restaurant still flip the “Hacksaw Burger” – two patties with American cheese – named after retired Forty Niner linebacker Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds. Harrison says it remains one of his best-sellers.
For Claire, especially, the debate over whether to keep or not to keep created intense cross-pressures. He had rooted ardently for the Forty Niners since 1946, their inaugural season in the short-lived All-America Football Conference. (The team joined the National Football League in 1949, when the associations merged.)
Before coming to Redwood City, the Niners practiced at the University of San Francisco, where Claire was a frequent onlooker. His father had played briefly in the pros, and Claire had coached football at Sequoia High School. According to former Mayor Brent Britschgi, the Forty Niners gave the council complimentary tickets. The freebies may have generated more fun than influence. But of all the council members, Claire may have been the least immune to Forty Niner fever.
A Tough Call
Nonetheless, he stood firm. Like all political positions, this one exacted a cost. He says certain people – especially those who lost business – “demonized” him in the newspapers. Marine World/Africa USA, a theme park in what eventually became Redwood Shores, had left Redwood City in 1986. Around town, he says, many feared things were slipping.
“It was a tough time for me,” Claire admits. “People came up and asked, ‘How could you lose the Forty Niners?’”
Beyond the bragging rights after the team started winning, it was just a kick to have the players around. Townspeople enthusiastically recounted sightings in restaurants and grocery stores. Retired two-way player Alyn Beals, an original Forty Niner, lived near Britschgi. LaBerge resided a few doors from Charlie Krueger, an all-pro defensive lineman who spent his entire 15-year career with San Francisco. LaBerge says that in the 1970s, her son, Jeff, often played catch with Krueger, who died this year at 84.
Along with Harrison, other business people leaped into the parade. Merchants adorned their shops with Forty Niner decor. A Woodside Road pizza joint called The 5th Quarter was painted in the Forty Niners’ scarlet-and-gold. An appliance store in San Mateo adopted the popular slogan, “three-peat,” a hopeful reference to the team’s ultimately thwarted quest for a third straight Super Bowl victory in 1991. Harrison himself donated a sign to the city that celebrated the Niners’ first two championships.
But boosterism doesn’t get deals done. According to newspaper reports, the Forty Niners in 1987 were snubbing the city’s last-minute efforts to keep them. Not even a special commission that included Britschgi and former local congressman Bill Royer could bring the team to the table. A Redwood City priest, Monsignor Peter Armstrong, frequently held services for the Niners. He offered to help. Still, nothing. Britschgi quipped at the time, “When you have God on your side and can’t succeed, you know you have problems.”
Still, in the words of the old country song, “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” Released in 1990, just two years after the Forty Niners left town, the hit by Garth Brooks describes gratitude for a happy marriage after the pain of an unrequited high-school crush. The parallels with Redwood City and the Forty Niners are inescapable. And in the end – just as in the song – things worked out.
On the property in the Shores, kids attend Sandpiper School and play on Sandpiper Field. As for the Red Morton site, on Nevada Street near Roosevelt Avenue, Claire is delighted that Redwood City retained it for the public. He notes that real-estate prices, climbing even in the 1980s, now preclude the city from buying land in established neighborhoods. Recently, the old Forty Niner headquarters and two other buildings were torn down, to be replaced by a $51.1-million complex that will include a new veterans memorial building, a senior center, a swank YMCA clubhouse and a museum stuffed with Niner memorabilia.
The council’s resolve in the 1980s contrasts with the fervor of many city leaders around the country who seem near delirious to give away public land and potential revenues in their pursuit of major-league franchises. Numerous studies challenge claims that pro sports teams and sparkling new stadiums create lasting, widespread economic benefits. Moreover, in their rush to reel in a team, cities’ negotiators sometimes write sloppy contracts or indulge in questionable judgment.
In a famous example, a vague agreement about who owned the suites at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was blamed for a damaging dispute between public officials and the then-Los Angeles Raiders. Even in Redwood City, according to a news report, an oral agreement in 1984 to raise the Forty Niners’ rent never made it onto paper. That, too, led to acrimony.
A deal in Santa Clara almost a decade ago appears to have contributed to today’s mutual disgruntlement. In a call that attracted more than a few Monday-morning quarterbacks, the Santa Clara Stadium Authority in 2012 agreed to allow a Forty Niner-related company to operate $1.31-billion Levi’s Stadium, which is owned by the public.
Much of the current tension between the city and the team can be traced to that decision. In the past few years, the city has alleged mismanagement and conflict of interest.
The Forty Niners have countered that Santa Clara’s officials have misunderstood the contract and have engaged in a “petty political vendetta.” Team officials were unable to comment further in time for this article. A spokesman for the City of Santa Clara declined comment, citing the continuing litigation.
Starstruck City Leaders
What makes all this happen? Journalist and academic Charles Euchner, author of the book, “Playing the Field: Why Sports Teams Move and Cities Fight to Keep Them,” poses an intoxicating mix of infatuation, self-importance and money.
“They’re starstruck,” Euchner says of community leaders who chase major-league teams. “They’re full of ego, and they love to be associated with something that they consider glamorous, and something that they can brag about, and something where they can be recognized.” Euchner adds that the huge sums involved potentially allow local politicians to point rich contracts toward present and future friends who, in return, might support aspirations for higher office.
LaBerge agrees about people’s desire to share the spotlight with perceived bigshots.
“The idea that you would have sports celebrities in your community really does appeal to certain city officials,” she says. “I’m not enamored, I suppose, by celebrities in general. I like to focus on the everyday people who are making changes in the world and our community.”
On the notion of hitting the big time, LaBerge thought then – and thinks now – that Redwood City is pretty significant already.
“I think that there are lots of other values that Redwood City has that make Redwood City a very desirable city,” she says. “And we didn’t need to have the Forty Niners, who were trying to take advantage of us.”
LaBerge’s sharp assessment aside, most residents’ attitudes seemed to soften quickly. The Niners won three more rings, and appeared in two other Super Bowls. Local fans cheered them all the way, and City Hall’s blueprints for the new football museum suggest a long-ago reconciliation. Often, even when couples don’t kiss and make up, they nonetheless recall everything that brought them together. More than two decades ago, the Forty Niners and Redwood City moved on. Still, today, for the team’s many supporters in town, the warm memories remain.