William “Bud” Cunningham helped bring the Oakland Coliseum to fruition 47 years ago when he served as the first stadium general manager.
Cunningham along with his wife Mary now live at the Prestige Retirement Home on East Louise Avenue in Manteca. He takes prides at having a baseball from the Oakland A’s first World Series win. It was signed by every player on the team from Catfish Hunter to Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi.
Cunningham came to Oakland in the middle of the Coliseum construction in 1964. He was chosen to fill the post after a nationwide search. He said the stadium was initially built on berms and the playing field was some 22 feet below sea level.
He had previously served as the assistant director of the Philadelphia Trade and Convention Center that had also been used as the home for the Philadelphia Warriors.
An Oakland developer found a rental home for the couple and their five children – four girls and one boy. They later moved to San Leandro to raise their family that are now scattered about the country, except for Teresa Sutton who lives in Manteca with her family including their two grandchildren.
Earlier in his career he had worked as a personnel technician in New Jersey before being tapped by the Philadelphia Police Department to be in personnel in charge of examinations for applicants filing for positions from chief inspector down to the lieutenant grade. There were 6,500 employed at that time in the police department. He was responsible for improving the testing and the structure of the department.
“With every promotion,” his wife Mary chuckled, “we had one more child on the way.”
Bob Nahas, who led the push for the Coliseum and brought the A’s to Oakland, asked Cunningham to set up and oversee the construction from dirt to its completion. He reported to a seven member non-salaried board. Nahas insisted it be a non-political effort and run on a completely business-like basis.
He explained that similar entities around the country are political in nature with not everyone treated fairly in their operations because of political connections. The Coliseum was not going to answer to politicians if he had his way, he noted.
“It was my job to make it financially successful with the A’s coming (to town) in April of 1968,” he recalled.
Before they came Nahas had all the arena programs and the Oakland Raiders signed.
“I was determined the Coliseum was going to be a multi-purpose and ready to go for baseball,” he added. “Charles Finley came out with his presence at the first Raiders’ game.”
Cunningham said he was told he was crazy thinking he could get a major league franchise like the A’s to come to Oakland from Kansas City. Chuckling quietly about Finley, he said, “The players used to complain that he took better care of his donkey than he did the team members.”
That donkey was brought to Manteca in those early years parading in the parking lot next to the Western Auto Store in the 100 block of North Main Street. It was a successful attention drawing promotion.
Charlie O. worried about flooding for World Series game
He remembers Dick Williams well as the first manager of the A’s in their opening game on the Oakland field when they played the Cincinnati’s Big Red in the World Series. It was pouring rain when they left for the first two games in Ohio, winning them both. Finley was concerned about the condition of the Oakland infield and outfield grass when they returned.
Because it was below sea level it didn’t drain well, Cunningham said, adding to Finley’s concern and anxiety.
When the team returned to Oakland for Game 3, Finley burst into Cunningham’s office demanding to know what he had done about the soaked field after the rain so they could play that next game on Tuesday.
Finley quieted his wrath when Cunningham told him his field crews had put tarps over the field and he had ordered up two helicopters to fly low over the grass in an effort to further dry out the turf. The effort was a success.
Manager Dick Williams brought him a game ball from Cincinnati saying, “Your staff did a hell of a job – the field is in great shape.”
Signatures on that ball included Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, Bert Campy Campaneris and Joe Rudi along with the rest of the team members.
That first game in Oakland saw fans fill the stadium – 50,000 of them – ordering hotdogs and cold drinks that thrilled Cunningham who was in charge of the finances. While the day looked great and the income for the vendors was fantastic, there was one funnel cloud that moved in and set right above the stadium before the game dropping hundreds of gallons of water on the field. There was no other cloud in the sky, Cunningham said.
When the rain stopped, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn walked out into the outfield with water up to his ankles. The game was called due to the excess water on the field, he said. That third game was played on Wednesday that year with the A’s winning the series.
Today in retirement Cunningham watches every football game on TV and every A’s game that is televised in Manteca. He loves his sports with his wife at his side.