Charles Harney

Charles Leonard Harney
Born May 12, 1902, San Francisco
Died Dec 6, 1962, San Francisco, age 60

Charles Harney, variously described as “big and brusque”, “loud and imperious”, and “a public-be-damned man in the splenetic tradition of Commodore Vanderbilt”, was born to build things. The scion of a long-established contracting family in San Francisco, he built the company he inherited into something like a local empire and by the end of his life it was said that you couldn’t go anywhere in the city without driving a road his company had paved. His biggest project, the building of Candlestick Park, consumed the final years of his life, proving everything that had ever been said about him, good and bad. He was also an avid sportsman, acting as the athletic director of his beloved University of San Francisco for over a decade, and was a member of the original group of owners of the Oakland Raiders.

The Harneys had been building the streets of San Francisco since long before Charles’s birth. His grandfather, Daniel, emigrated from Ireland just around the end of the American Civil War, settling in Boston, before following the frontier west to the San Francisco Bay. There he started a successful business building roads and later brought his sons, Charles and Joseph into the firm.

The company continued to prosper after his death and by the time the younger Charles was born to Joseph and his wife, Maude, the Harney Brothers was a leading contractor firm in the city. When the elder Charles died in 1910, at the young age of 47, he left his share of the business to his nephew, just eight years old at the time. There was some squabbling within the family over the disposition of what was described as “considerable wealth” but eventually the will was executed as written.

At the age of 12, Charles began to work for the company as a water boy and by 18 he was beginning to take a larger role in the company. That same year he had a brush with death. Driving his car up a steep hill in town, the automobile stalled. When he got out to check the gasoline level, the car started traveling backward down the hill. Harney hopped in the vehicle and tried to stop it, but already moving at a good clip, it hit a street pole and flipped pinning him underneath. He emerged unscathed, but the car was a total loss.

That adventure over and having graduated from high school where he played basketball and football, he enrolled in St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit institution that later became the University of San Francisco. A devout Catholic, he gave generously of his time and money all his life to his beloved school and church. It’s uncertain whether he graduated, though. A writeup published by USF says he matriculated in 1923, but another story suggests he left in 1922 after his mother died.

What is known, though, is that he got engaged in 1922, to Pauline Carroll, and they married early the next year. 1923 was also the year he helmed one of his first big jobs with the company, finishing the paving of the famous Embarcadero roadway in the northeast part of town.

For the rest of the decade, he continued to run the company with his father and began to earn a reputation for having a good business head and for stubbornness. His entire career was littered with lawsuits and disputes with the city and its citizens as he tried to maximize profits and minimize expenses. When his father died in 1929, Charles was left in sole possession of what was now the Charles L. Harney Company.

The Great Depression seemed to have little effect on Harney or his company, though there seemed to be an uptick in foreclosures resulting from his suing citizens for their failure to pay assessments for street improvements. Otherwise, he spent the 1930s paving streets and highways and building a major sports field on the USF campus.

By 1940, he was no longer just a contractor. While he never stopped bidding on any job that came along, in 1941 he took a post on the USF Board of Athletic Control, eventually becoming its chair, acting as the de facto athletic director and he held the job into the 1950s. He was also a patron of the arts, particularly the San Francisco Opera, where he and his wife occupied their own box for many years.

Contracting was still his bread and butter, though, and in 1944 he became president of the Northern California chapter of the American General Contractors organization and ascending to the national chair of the group in 1947. During the decade he increased the scope of his projects, graduating from simple roadbuilding jobs to taking part in major undertakings such as the Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River near Fresno and the building of an airfield at Camp Parks in Alameda County. By 1951 he was being identified as “the millionaire San Francisco contractor.”

In 1953 he made one of his most consequential decisions when he bought 40 acres of land, much of it submerged, near Bayview Hill on Candlestick Point in the southeastern part of San Francisco. Rumors followed that the site would be the terminus for another cross-bay bridge, but Harney demurred, saying that would ruin his plans for the area, which initially included the construction of some 25 residential lots.

In 1956 he first made his pitch to the city to build a stadium on the site and by February 1957 the San Francisco planning commission was on board and putting a plan together. He spent the early part of the year promoting the stadium and starting work on Trinity Dam, northwest of Redding, but took time out to watch his beloved Dons participate in the NCAA basketball tournament in Kansas City. While there he suffered a mild heart attack and was forced to take a short convalescent break. Following the scare, he changed his diet, lost about 50 pounds, and was soon back at work.

The stadium plan got a huge boost when the New York Giants of the National League announced they would be moving to San Francisco for the start of the 1958 season. Funding was the key. The city had passed a measure several years earlier authorizing the sale of $5 million in bonds to build a “major league” facility. At the time, this was thought to be enough to cover the entire cost, but by 1958 the projected cost had doubled. Harney jumped in to say he would sell the land to the city and provide the funding for additional costs. According to his plan, he would be repaid using revenue generated by the stadium’s use over a 21-year period.

While this solved the problem, to many city leaders it appeared Harney was taking them to the cleaners, profiting off both the land and the stadium. Several years of wrangling followed, including an extensive grand jury investigation looking into whether there had been improper dealings between Harney and mayor George Christopher’s office. Eventually, the grand jury issued a set of conclusions that criticized the deal, but no indictments followed. By the time the deal was completed, in the summer of 1958, it was clear that the Giants, now playing in old Seals Stadium, wouldn’t take occupancy any earlier than September 1959, if then.

As was usual for a Harney construction job, the project was marked by controversy and contention. There were work stoppages due to labor conflicts and then there was an extended period of rancor between Harney and stadium architect John Bolles as deficiencies turned up and each party blamed the other. On a more personal level, Harney had high hopes that the stadium would be named after him, but when it became clear that would not be the case, he seemed to lose interest in the project and work slowed down even further.

In October 1959, Harney declared the stadium, now called Candlestick Park, to be complete and demanded final payment from the city. Bolles and Giants owner Horace Stoneham disagreed, pointing out problems such as a lack of waterproofing that needed to be addressed. Harney said such things were not in the contract and refused to perform the work they required. The dispute lasted long beyond the Giants debut in the new facility in April 1960.

In the meantime, Harney had turned his attention to other sporting pursuits, namely, the purchase of an American League Franchise for Oakland. He, along with seven others, pitched in to get a team that would become the Oakland Raiders. The only one of the group without East Bay ties, he didn’t appear to have much input in the actual running of the team, though he was the lone vote against the hiring of Eddie Erdelatz as head coach.

The only remaining interest Harney appeared to have in the stadium was to get the money he thought he was owed. In August 1960 he filed a lien against the stadium in the amount of $2.7 million dollars, arguing that the city should sell the park and pay him out of the proceeds. The case would drag on for several years.

Late that year, it was clear there was dissension in the Raiders ownership group and Harney was named among those who wanted to sell out. In January 1961, he sold his share of the Raiders to the three remaining owners and went back to focusing on his construction business. Things took a dire turn that May. An unidentified medical condition, possibly cancer, necessitated major abdominal surgery followed by a trip to the Mayo Clinic for further treatment. There may have been more heart troubles, too, as he was under doctor’s orders to avoid getting “worked up.” Making that more difficult was news that Stadium, Inc., the non-profit corporation responsible for operating Candlestick Park, countersued him for $2.5 million dollars in damages because of unfinished work they believed owed to them by Harney’s company.

Early in 1962, he was elected as a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, also known as the Hospitallers, in recognition of his contributions to Catholic medical care facilities in the region. He continued to pursue new construction work with the same frequency as he had in the past, but he seemed to be winning fewer contracts. Whether it was because of his health issues, a diminution of his drive and competitive spirit, or simply better competition, it’s hard to say, but it all became moot in September. On the 23rd, he was admitted to French Hospital for a condition that was eventually revealed to be a major heart attack. He was listed in critical condition early on, but soon was said to recovering and was expected to leave the hospital shortly. He never did. On December 6, at the age of 60, some six weeks after first entering the hospital he died from what was described as a “prolonged chronic illness,” which may have been cancer or may have just been chronic heart failure.

His death was noted in the newspapers with attention to his generosity, but also describing him as “a man of huge drive, of massive stubbornness, a businessman of uncanny acumen, and a sportsman of sometimes frightening competitiveness.” Half of his estate, gauged at more than $15 million, went to his wife, with the other half, minus some small sums to various family members, going to a charitable foundation. He and Pauline never had children. She died in 1991, at the age of 86. In 1963, the University of San Francisco named its science building after him and in 1964 his lawsuit with Stadium, Inc., was settled out of court with his estate receiving $1.2 million.

Though he led many projects over the course of his life, his legacy seemed to be tied solely to the one he essentially disowned. Touted as the most modern of stadiums when it was built, it was often pilloried for its location, subjecting it to bone-chilling cold and high winds that made every baseball game played within its confines a wild adventure. By the early 1990s, any charm its quirks might have given it was gone and local scribes regularly clamored for its demolition and replacement, often singling Harney out for abuse. When the Giants to a new facility in 2000, its days were numbered. The 49ers, who had played there since 1971, moved out in 2013 and the stadium was torn down in 2014.

Fresno Bee
Hanford Sentinel
Los Angeles Times
Lodi News-Sentinel
Marysville Appeal-Democrat
Newhall Signal
Oakland Tribune
Pasadena Star-News
Petaluma Argus-Courier
Pomona Progress-Bulletin
Sacramento Bee
San Francisco Call
San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Examiner
San Mateo Times
San Rafael Daily Independent
Santa Rosa Press-Democrat
Santa Rosa Republican
The Recorder (San Francisco)
Ukiah Daily Journal
United States Census Bureau

Don Blessing

Donald C. Blessing
Born December 26, 1905, San Juan Bautista, California
Died July 4, 2000, Kentfield, California, age 94

Don Blessing made his mark as the animated, and often profane, coxswain of the gold medal winning eight-man rowing crew in the 1928 Olympic Games at Amsterdam. Growing up in the vineyard country of the San Joaquin Valley, he attended the University of California at Berkeley and through his rowing prowess became a lifelong insider and spirited backer of Golden Bear athletics. After college, he became a successful stockbroker and investment banker and by 1960 had amassed enough of a fortune to join the group that would land an American Football League franchise for Oakland.

Blessing was born on December 26, 1905 to parents Frank and Ivy and spent his early years in Hollister, California, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. When he was ten, his family, including younger brother, Roy, moved inland to Visalia where the elder Blessing owned and operated a vineyard and walnut orchard. The Blessings were well enough off to run in the loftier circles of the region and Don’s name was a regular mention in the social pages of the local paper. During his years at Visalia Union High School, Don played for the basketball team and participated in the school’s drama program.

After his graduation in 1923, Blessing enrolled at Cal. On the diminutive side, he wasn’t cut out for collegiate basketball or football, but he was perfect for the role of coxswain and as a freshman turned out for crew under coach Ky Ebright. Working his way up the ladder, by 1926 he was at the helm of the junior varsity boat, leading them to a victory over their arch-rivals, the University of Washington Huskies, in the annual Pacific Coast Conference regatta.

In 1927 he earned a spot on the top varsity boat, leading his team to another win over the Huskies, the first triumph for a Cal varsity eight over Washington since 1921. That year they finished third in the national regatta at Poughkeepsie, New York.

It was in 1928 that Blessing garnered international headlines. At the beginning of the crew season in February, observers thought the Bear crew had a shot at an Olympic berth at the summer games in Amsterdam. But in March, it looked as though Blessing might not join them when he steered his boat into a submerged piece of driftwood, wrecking the expensive rowing shell. After a stint of washing windows as penance, Coach Ebright restored him to the number one boat and for the rest of the season the team seemed to be charmed. The Pacific Coast Conference regatta, held that season on Lake Washington in Seattle, ended with a Bear victory, the first time the Huskies had ever been beaten on their home waters.  Blessing and company then took the prize at Poughkeepsie, setting a record for the four-mile course. That set the stage for their victory in the Olympic trials on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, earning the right to defend American honor in the Netherlands.

Blessing was now attracting attention not just for his skill in getting the most out of his rowers, but for the way he went about his business. Coxswains often performed their tasks of setting the stroke rate, operating the tiller, and keeping tabs on the other competitors in a measured fashion, but not Blessing. From the starting gun, he exhorted and upbraided his charges in a constant stream of invective, profanity, and boat-pounding, goading them to do their utmost, possibly in an effort to get him to shut the hell up, often startling rival boats. A signature move, one he borrowed from the Yale University team, was the waving of a white flag at crucial moments during a race, signaling those times when maximum effort was required.

And it worked. In Amsterdam they made quick work of the Belgians, Danes, and Italians in preliminary races then beat the Canadian team in the semifinals for the right to face Great Britain in the gold medal race on August 10. The contest was tight and tense throughout but, inspired by an almost apoplectic Blessing, the Americans put on a final burst of speed and won by three-quarters of a boat length. Upon their return to the Bay Area, he and his team were feted at length and their exploits would be celebrated in various ceremonies for the rest of their lives.

Having graduated from college in the spring, he entered the work world joining the brokerage firm of Grimes and Swift (later Henry F. Swift and Company). He also moonlighted as a crew correspondent for the Oakland Tribune. In October 1929, he married fellow Cal grad Nola Dillon and the couple settled in Berkeley. Over the next several years he continued to be active in the local rowing world both as a reporter and as an adviser to the Cal team. He was also active as a football booster, forming the San Francisco Grid Club in 1932.

Life was good for the Blessing family. Daughter Sherrell was born in 1933 and Donald, Jr., came along in 1936. The elder Donald made partner at Grimes and Swift in 1937 and earned membership in the San Francisco Stock Exchange. By the 1940s, they were doing well enough to purchase a cabin on Lake Tahoe and take a number of international vacations. Throughout these years they participated in all sorts of social and charitable events moving in their upper middle class circle with ease.

The years didn’t pass entirely without pain, though. Nola nearly drowned in 1932 while swimming in the ocean near Carmel and Don’s brother Roy died in a one-car crash just a few weeks later. His mother died in 1937, having divorced and remarried some years back and his father died in 1951, “after a long illness.” Otherwise, the family’s fortunes improved almost without interruption. By the end of the 1950s, Sherrell had married and the first of the Blessing grandchildren had arrived.

In 1960 Blessing was named to the Helms Foundation college athletics hall of fame in rowing, the first coxswain to be so honored, and in January, he joined the group of investors that brought an American Football League team to Oakland. That season, he weighed in on a number of issues, approving of the hiring of head coach Eddie Erdelatz, disapproving of the nickname “Senors,” but otherwise took a secondary role in the team’s operations. As the first season drew to a close, rumors of dissension among the owners appeared. Matters came to a head in January 1961. Blessing and four of his co-owners sold their shares back to the remaining trio and left the pro game.

Blessing continued his career in investment banking for another 17 years before retiring from Swift and Co. at the age of 72. Throughout that time and beyond, he continued to be a most vocal Cal alum, regularly communicating with whoever happened to be the head football coach at the time. Men like Joe Kapp and Steve Mariucci described him as “gruff and soft”, “bright and abrasive”, and “a bold dude” who would “tell you what he thought”, but they also said they respected him and never avoided his calls.

Nola died in 1985, but Blessing lived on another 15 years, saying “athletics is what keeps me alive.” He died on July 4, 2000, at the age of 94, the oldest living gold medalist in his sport at the time of his death having been celebrated for that accomplishment throughout his life. He was survived by Evelyn Dahlman, his girlfriend after Nola’s death, children Sherrell and Don, Jr., five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Butte Miner
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Fresno Republican
Great Falls Tribune
Johnson City Staff News
Los Angeles Evening Express
Los Angeles Times
New Castle News
Oakland Tribune
Paducah Sun-Democrat
Pomona Progress-Bulletin
Santa Ana Register
Shenandoah Republic-Herald
San Francisco Chronicle
Santa Maria Daily Times
Spokane Chronicle
Stockton Daily Independent
Washington Evening Star

February 7, 1961

Eddie Erdelatz had two spots open on his coaching staff and was hard at work trying to fill them.

“We’ve had applicants, of course,” he said, “and we are checking them out, but at this point we haven’t made a decision and the jobs are still open.”

The work of the staff continued, though, and the three men were busy watching the game film from 1960, evaluating strategy and players.

Up in the front office, acting general manager Bud Hastings was working on a preseason schedule for 1961. Adding a potential twist to his plans was news that the 49ers were planning to play just one of their five games at home in Kezar Stadium, going on the road for the other four.

Though that would give the Raiders more solo exhibition dates at home, Hastings said his team would probably play only one game at home, too, though he wasn’t committing to that plan yet.

“The primary point about playing preseason games away is the financial consideration,” he said. “If you can schedule these contests in cities or locations where there are no professional teams, generally you can count on very good interest in the one game. We’ve found that where you play seven league games at home, there’s not as much interest locally in the exhibition as there is in the league contests.”

While the 49ers plan would free up Kezar, Hastings said the team was committed to playing in Candlestick Park.

“We prefer Candlestick,” he said. “The response from a spectator’s standpoint has been very good. The fans told us the seating was much better, that the seats were much more comfortable with arm and back rests. As a matter of fact, in several recent letters from fans, quite a point was made of the comforts of Candlestick Park.”

Hastings was still waiting to hear if would get the general manager’s position on a permanent basis. The owners hadn’t made a decision yet, but signs were pointing in that direction.

Oakland Tribune
San Francisco Examiner

February 1, 1961

Ernie Jorge resigned his post as offensive line coach today, citing “the length of the pro season, the number of games, and the traveling” as his reasons. He had been hired by Eddie Erdelatz last February after having served under him at the Naval Academy in the 1950s and was the first of the four assistants he hired.  Jorge said he still wanted to coach and would “listen to any and all offers.” The news left the Raiders with just two assistants, Marty Feldman and Tommy Kalmanir, following last week’s departure of Ed Cody to Washington State.

 

Hayward Daily Review
Oakland Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle

January 27, 1961

Today the Raiders announced their biggest signing of the offseason so far, inking halfback George Fleming to a contract. From the University of Washington, Fleming was the team’s second-round pick and the sixth-round pick of the Chicago Bears. To convince him to sign with Oakland, Eddie Erdelatz traveled to Seattle to speak with him in person. After the deal was announced, the Raider head coach was “elated.” “Needless to say, we’re very pleased to sign our number two draft choice,” he said. “He’s an outstanding football player and I’m confident he’ll see plenty of action with the Raiders. We plan to use him as a flanker back and also expect to utilize his ability as a placekicker. He’ll help us in several spots.”

Fleming had played quarterback with the Huskies and had been named co-outstanding player in the 1960 Rose Bowl.

In other news, supporters of a multi-purpose stadium in Oakland received encouraging news. Word came out that the American League had identified Oakland as likely site for Major League Baseball expansion by 1964. In response, the chair of the Oakland Coliseum Committee, Robert Nahas, responded by saying, “This gives us a great impetus to proceed with all speed along the lines we are now pursuing with the construction of an all-purpose stadium.” The committee was, at present, trying to fill out the directorship for the non-profit corporation tasked with getting the project underway.

Hayward Daily Review
Oakland Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle

January 23, 1961

The Raider coaching staff found itself down a member when secondary coach Ed Cody announced his resignation to take a post under Jim Sutherland at Washington State University. In addition to his coaching duties he would be in charge of recruiting in Southern California for the Cougars. “I’ve been anxious to return to college football for some time now and I consider this an unusually fine opportunity,” he said. “It is with regret that I leave the Raiders and head coach Eddie Erdelatz.”

Hired on May 4, Cody had been the last addition to Erdelatz’s staff and took charge of a unit that lacked speed and occasionally found itself burned by strings of big plays, but also had a keen nose for the ball as exemplified by Eddie Macon’s nine interceptions. Erdelatz couldn’t be reached for comment, but acting general manager Bud Hastings said, “Cody has been a most valuable member of our organization and we accepted his resignation with regret. We wish him well.”

Erdelatz was now tasked with finding two new assistants, one to replace Cody and one to replace line coach Ernie Jorge, who had suffered a heart attack in September and hadn’t coached since. Jorge had recovered and was recently seen speaking at a banquet, but there was no word about his returning to the sideline.

Oakland Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle

January 15, 1961

It took a seven-hour meeting and intervention by AFL commissioner Joe Foss, but the long-rumored ownership shakeup finally happened.

The day started with the eight owners getting together to try and resolve the mutual antipathies that had built up among the various group cliques. Three hours in and with nothing settled, Foss arrived in person with a pair of league lawyers.

As Foss explained, behavior at recent league meetings had shown that “all was not well in Oakland. It was decided then that I should come to Oakland for the meeting. I was authorized to take away the franchise if the problems couldn’t be worked out. I got here after the men had been in session for three hours and had reached an impasse.” Everyone agreed they wanted to keep the team in Oakland, but Foss said, “they just couldn’t get along and it was obvious one group had to sell out. For the next four hours, I and the league attorneys listened to both sides of the argument and finally a sale agreement was reached. Everyone in the league feels that Oakland can become one of our great franchises.”

It was decided that Don Blessing, Charles Harney, Roger Lapham, Wallace Marsh, and Chet Soda would sell their shares to Ed McGah, Robert Osborne, and Wayne Valley. McGah would retain his position as president, with the vice presidency going to Valley, and Osborne assuming the treasurer role.

Afterward, Valley said, “The three of us have wanted all along to proceed in Oakland. We are all East Bay businessmen and we feel that we can succeed.” Asked about rumors that the team would pursue austerity, he added, “We want to win, and we are businessmen, and within those confines we shall move forward. We have lots of things to look into and personnel to evaluate. This is not to say that we are unhappy with the people we now have.”

One of those people was Eddie Erdelatz who, responding to the news that the team would stay in town, said it was “one of the greatest things to happen to the city of Oakland. We will make every effort to field a team Oakland can be proud of next season. The American League has shown what it can do on the field. Our fans were pleased with the wide-open style of play and I feel we’ll have much larger crowds next year.”

Oakland Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle

 

January 12, 1961

San Francisco Chronicle scribe Darrell Wilson wrote about the Raiders’ poor luck signing draft choices. Except for a couple of late round picks, the team had announced no other agreements. Of the first six choices, five had signed elsewhere: Joe Rutgens with the Redskins, Myron Pottios with the Steelers, Elbert Kimbrough with the Rams, Dick Norman with the Bears, and Bobby Crespino to the Browns. Only their second-round pick, George Fleming, had yet to sign and the Raiders were still hoping to nab him.

Player personnel director Wes Fry hastened to say the team had “signed about seven players. We’ll make the announcement soon. I think we’ll do a lot better from here on in. Things are looking up. As a whole, the AFL is doing a pretty good job. Of the league’s first 100 draft choices, we definitely have signed 29 and have lost 24 to the NFL and 3 to Canada. Of the first 50, we’ve signed 15 and have lost 15 to the NFL.”

Head coach Eddie Erdelatz, upon hearing that his team had signed seven players, asked, “Have we? Are they drafted players?” He said he wasn’t complaining, but said, “Any coach would be unhappy to lose five of the first six draft choices. We’ll be very happy to sign anybody. However, it’s really not my place to talk about these things. Ask the club officials.”

San Francisco Chronicle

January 2, 1961

In news that was not unexpected, Chet Soda stepped down as president and general manager of the Raiders today. “I have contemplated this move for some time,” he said. “I expect to stay with the organization and have no immediate plans to sell my holdings in the Raiders.” He said he had twice tried to resign earlier, but the board of directors had talked him out of it each time. There was no comment from the other owners and both Robert Osborne and Wayne Valley said they hadn’t heard of his decision until reporters tried to reach them for comment. “I haven’t been to my office in three days,” said Osborne. “The letter of resignation could be in the mail on my desk.”

No successor was named, but Eddie Erdelatz quickly removed himself from the running. “I am not old enough to quit coaching,” he said. “I don’t think any man could handle both the coaching and the business end of the Raiders. It is too much for one man in a new organization. I want it known that I’m still working for the Raiders and intend to continue as coach.” With no word from the owners and Erdelatz’s lack of interest, assistant general manager Bud Hastings was thought to have the inside track for the position.

Hayward Daily Review
Oakland Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle

December 29, 1960

Eddie Erdelatz finished second in the balloting for AFL coach of the year conducted by the United Press International. Voting was performed by 24 league writers with Houston’s Lou Rymkus getting nine votes to win. Erdelatz received six votes. The Chargers’ Sid Gillman finished in third with five votes and New York’s Sammy Baugh got two votes for fourth.

United Press International