Harvey Binns

Harvey C. Binns
Born May 15, 1915(?), Rochester, Nevada
Died January 4, 1982, San Francisco, age 66(?)

Salesman, discount store executive, restaurateur, politician, private detective, bon vivant, and for a short while, Raider owner, Harvey Binns lived a full life. A born entrepreneur with the gift of gab he was the center of attention wherever he went and while he didn’t last long as a pro owner, he was a perfect fit for the spirit of the early AFL and it’s a shame he didn’t stick around to see it grow.

Binns’s early days are clothed in ambiguity. His parents and any siblings he might have had were never mentioned. For most of his life, stories about him that included his age suggested he was born in 1915, a date that matched his Social Security record. However, in the 1940 census, he listed his age as 27, indicating he was born in 1913 or thereabouts. Given his personality it’s not impossible that he knocked a couple of years off his age at some point, but who knows?

The story is also complicated by the possibility there were two Harvey Binnses running around the western United States with similar backgrounds. The 1940 census says Binns was living in Denver, but there were also newspaper notices of a Harvey Binns living in Salt Lake City around the same time. There’s also evidence that each (the same?) Binns had a child around then, with one child born in 1938, and the other in 1941, but later stories indicate he only had one child from that time. It’s possible that the other child died very young, but again, who knows? I’m proceeding on the assumption that the Salt Lake City Binns is a different person as there are no other indicators that this Binns ever lived there.

Binns probably spent most of his childhood in the Bay Area, attending Grant School in Oakland at one point. It appears that by 1938, he was married and living in San Francisco and had a child named Carolyn that year. His first wife was never mentioned in later stories about him, though Carolyn took the occasional bow. Soon after, he and his family moved to Denver, where Binns was a factory representative for the Remington Shaver Company. By 1943, they were back in Oakland, where his wife was a member of the Athens Athletic Club and a second daughter, Georgia, was born in 1945. He lived  in Honolulu for a while in the later part of the decade, but soon returned to the Bay Area, where he became vice president of a company called Movietime Products.

Sometime after the birth of Georgia, he and his first wife divorced, because in 1950, he married a second wife, Peggy. It was in 1952 that he first attracted wider notice in The City of San Francisco incident. The City of San Francisco was an express train plying the route between Chicago and San Francisco and in January 1952 a massive blizzard in the Sierra Nevada mountains blocked the tracks stranding the train without power near the Donner Pass. For several days more than 200 passengers and crew huddled together in the cold and dark with little food. Binns, one of the passengers, received attention for his role in setting up a “hospital” car where the sick and injured could be cared for until a rescue mission arrived.

The next year, his third daughter, Pamela, was born and that same year he and business partner George Talbott would start the venture that launched Binns’s entrepreneurial career. They formed Associated Government Employees (AGE), a chain of membership-only discount retail outlets located in Oakland and Vallejo, with membership limited to current and former government employees. The company’s revenues would enable Binns to pursue all sorts of additional opportunities. These included a clothing store and other retail shops in the swankier districts of Honolulu, a location visited often by the Binnses.

Life was good and getting better for Binns when, in June 1956, tragedy struck. Georgia and Pamela had accompanied their aunt and some family friends on a boat trip up the San Joaquin river when the boat capsized far from shore. One of the women aboard managed to grab two-year-old Pamela and make it to shore, but Georgia, and three others, including her aunt, drowned at the scene. Authorities blamed high waters and an overloaded boat for the mishap.

The next year Binns started another big venture, one that would regularly put his name in the social pages, The House of Harvey. This was a restaurant he built near the Oakland Airport, next to the AGE store and from the beginning he designed it to be the go-to place for high rolling executives and their families, and possibly, their mistresses. Boasting the best of fine dining, drinking, dancing, and luxury décor, including a crème de menthe fountain behind the bar, the restaurant gave Binns a chance to exhibit his natural showmanship and provided a focus for his interest in professional sports. The House of Harvey became a destination for 49er boosters and quarterback YA Tittle was regularly in attendance. Binns purchased blocks of game tickets that he sold on the premises and organized bus trips to games, complete with pregame meals and drinks.

Now with a fair amount of disposable income, he indulged even more expensive hobbies, such as his purchase of a private plane, participating in events like the Oakland-to-Reno and Hayward-to-Las Vegas air races. He also made regular trips to Hawaii with Peggy to enjoy vacation time and tend to his businesses there.

It was only natural that he found himself part of the group that would land an American Football League franchise in Oakland.  At first it seemed like a perfect fit for him, but he soon found himself at odds with several of the other owners, especially those who were building contractors, like Chet Soda, who were used to running on lean margins and a careful accounting of every expense. Arguing that a football team was entertainment and couldn’t be operated “with a slide rule and an adding machine” Binns bowed out on April 27, selling his share back to the other seven owners.

Still, he recognized the value of the team to the Oakland community and was a stalwart backer while continuing to maintain his friendship with Tittle and supporting both the 49ers and Giants across the bay. It also didn’t stop him from trying to unload a block of Raider tickets at below their printed value in December, earning the ire of his former partners, especially Soda.

All of this activity came at the apparent expense of his domestic life. In October 1960, Peggy filed for divorce, citing cruelty and asking for custody of Pamela with child support. They would reconcile over the next few months and by the next summer were vacationing in Hawaii again. Over the next couple of years he concentrated mostly on his businesses, though he kept his hand in sports matters, acting as an unofficial negotiator for the Raiders when they tried, unsuccessfully, to sign former 49er receiver RC “Alley Oop” Owens to a contract.

In March 1963, having achieved a high profile, he announced a bid to run for a seat on the Oakland City Council against incumbent Harry Lange. Running on a platform of fiscal conservatism and opposition to what he perceived as the council’s “catering to minority groups and people who don’t pay taxes,” he finished a strong second in the primary race in April, forcing a run-off in May. Binns was not above a little grandstanding, accusing the Oakland Tribune of sabotaging his campaign and insisting, unsuccessfully, on a televised debate. Lange, for his part, accused Binns of dirty tricks but prevailed in a close race.

Just days after the loss, Binns suffered a second blow. On the morning of May 23, The House of Harvey caught fire, sustaining extensive damage. Two employees who were prepping the restaurant for the day’s business escaped unharmed. It was a total loss and while there was some talk of rebuilding, Binns walked away from it in the end. During the next couple of years, he continued as president of AGE and expanded his operations in Honolulu, leasing an apartment at the posh Ilikai Hotel and opening a “liquor, drug, and gourmet” shop in its lobby.

In 1965 his marriage to Peggy fell apart again, this time for good. Filing for divorce in February, citing mental cruelty grounds, Peggy got custody of Pamela and child support in the settlement. Court documents said Binns was making $150,000 a year at the time.

In March he announced his intention to run for mayor, challenging incumbent John Houlihan, but in April, Binns was diagnosed with an ulcer and had to withdraw. In May he made plans to marry a third time, to Ruby Rogers, a woman fifteen years his junior, with ceremonies in both Honolulu and Las Vegas and a honeymoon in Hong Kong to follow but, probably for health reasons, these plans were postponed until next year.

In early 1966, he may or may not have had surgery that was life-threatening—the reports are contradictory—but he did marry Ruby in February in Honolulu and the following year he made another bid for a city council seat, this time challenging council veteran Dan Marovich. In a bitterly contentious campaign, Binns finished a close second in the primary forcing a run-off. In the run-off election he came out on top, winning by a 3-to-2 margin.

He quickly became the gadfly of the group, opposing any and all tax measures unless the money was to be used to pay police and firefighters. He took on anti-poverty efforts, suggesting that much of the money was going to the undeserving and arguing that whites were the real minority in Oakland. He also opposed measures banning the use of mace by police and prohibiting officers from shooting at fleeing theft suspects.

He continued to have health problems during this time, entering the hospital for a kidney infection in 1968, but felt well enough in August to go in with Oakland Athletics outfielder Rick Monday on a new restaurant, called The Loop, built near the former site of The House of Harvey. He claimed to be a silent partner in the deal and despite skepticism in the press didn’t speak much about it afterward. Late in the year, he again announced he would run for mayor in 1969, but later withdrew, saying he wanted to be a “team player.”

In 1970 he and Ruby divorced due to irreconcilable differences. He wouldn’t marry again. That year he added another plank to his shingle, offering his professional services as a business consultant. Coming up for re-election in 1971, he was on the ballot with nine challengers mostly from the left. Binns survived the primary but lost narrowly in the run-off to attorney John Sutter who was running on an environmentalist platform.

In a strange echo from 1963, just before the election, Binns’s house caught fire in the early hours of the morning. He and an unidentified male house guest escaped unharmed, but the house was a total loss. Having accepted the loss of his home and his electoral defeat graciously, he went on to run for a seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 1972 but finished a very distant third in the primary. Two years later he tried for a spot on the Bay Area Rapid Transit board of directors but again failed to generate much support and his political ambitions were at an end.

For the rest of the decade he tended to his business interests while taking a job as a private investigator  in San Francisco, working as a regional director for the John T. Lynch Company, a legal and security firm based out of Los Angeles.

On January 4, 1982, he died at the age of 66 “after a long illness,” survived by his daughters Carolyn and Pamela.

Bakersfield Californian
Denver Post
Hayward Daily Review
Honolulu Advertiser
Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Oakland Tribune
Reno Gazette-Journal
Sacramento Bee
San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Examiner
United States Census Bureau