Robert Osborne

Robert L. Osborne
Born November 23, 1897, Cleveland
Died September 26, 1968, Oakland

A mechanical engineer by training and by trade, Robert Osborne moved to Oakland in his mid-thirties and turned his manufacturing business into a small fortune. His experiences as a businessman and industrialist led him to seek a seat on the Oakland City Council, a position he held for 11 years, and his wealth enabled him to be one of the eight original investors in the Oakland Raiders. Opinionated, outspoken, and sometimes reactionary, he was a staunch champion of his adopted city and may have been responsible for keeping the Raiders in Oakland through its darkest days when his fellow owners were ready to sell out or move out.

Born Bryan R. Osborne (or Bryan L. – see note), he was the third of six children born to Don and Agnes Osborne.[1] Don Osborne was a Cleveland attorney who later left law practice and formed a machinery manufacturing firm. His success in the field was marred by bankruptcy in 1912, but he weathered the storm successfully and kept the business going until retiring in the 1920s and moving to the Los Angeles area. Not much is known about Bryan’s youth other than he started going by the name of Robert sometime after 1910 and was a childhood friend of Bob Hope, whose family had moved to Cleveland from the UK in 1908. Though there is only tenuous evidence for it, it is likely that Osborne attended Purdue University after graduating high school, in pursuit of a mechanical engineering degree.

By 1920 Osborne had moved in with his sister and her husband in Cleveland who was an office manager for her father’s company. Osborne himself was probably working as a salesman in the firm. Sometime in the 1920s he married his first wife, Carolyn, and in the early 1930s they adopted a child. Shortly after the adoption, Carolyn filed for a divorce, citing gross neglect, and sued Osborne for lack of support. By this time, Osborne was out of the machinery business and running a Cleveland nightclub.

In 1935 his father died and that same year he and his brother, Don, Jr., traveled west, settling in the Oakland area. He found work as a salesman for a machinery distributor and soon met and married his second wife, Katherine. By 1941 he had started his own business, the Osborne Engineering Company, originally based in San Francisco, but just after the war, he built a $250,000 factory in San Leandro which became his base of operations for most of the rest of his career.

In 1949, Osborne and his wife, who had no kids at time, traveled to Ireland where they adopted a pair of children, Terry and Cecilia (called Teela by everyone who knew her).[2] In 1950, Osborne expanded his operations, acquiring the Malabar Manufacturing Company and building another large plant in San Leandro to house its operations.

Born into a Catholic family and a lifelong communicant himself, Osborne was a regular contributor to the Church’s charitable activities and in 1951 he was elected vice president of the Board of Regents of St. Mary’s College in Moraga. Through these activities he made the acquaintance of several like-minded businessmen, such as Art Beckett, Charles Harney, Ed McGah, and Chet Soda, who would later be his pro football partners.

In 1953 Osborne took his first crack at politics, running for a spot on the Oakland Board of Education, with a platform of increasing local control of schools, increasing teacher pay, and building more classrooms. He lost a close vote, but he wouldn’t give up on politics.

In 1954 he started his own newspaper, the Oakland Free Press, which may have been the start (or the result) of his long-running feud with the Knowland family who ran the Oakland Tribune. The venture never took off, though, and failed within a couple of years. That same year, he received an offer from Victor Morabito, one of the owners of the San Francisco 49ers, to purchase half the team for $275,000. The Morabitos were having money troubles, but were unwilling to give up any voting rights to go with the share of the team, and one of the stipulations of the contract offer gave Victor the right to purchase a new automobile every other year at the team’s expense. Osborne declined the offer, saying he thought Victor should buy his own cars.

In 1957 Osborne made his first fun at an Oakland City Council seat. Accused of running a negative, destructive campaign by his main opponent, he finished a strong second in the primary then easily won the run-off between the top two candidates. His election was characterized as breaking the hold ward politics had had on the council and he was soon described as a “fighting maverick” challenging long-standing practices and what he believed was a cavalier attitude toward taxpayer money. Throughout his time on the council he was regarded as something of a gadfly, opposing tax increases and poverty relief measures, and taking a dim view of the increasing power of racial minorities in city politics.

With a high profile in local affairs he was one of the leading figures in the effort to bring an American Football League franchise to Oakland. Along with many of his fellow leaders in the Catholic community and some other well-heeled acquaintances, he persuaded the league to give them a team and acted as an early spokesman on matters such as coaching hires and the building of a stadium.

Very much an Oakland partisan, he took serious issue with his fellow owners, especially Soda, when any of them suggested moving the team out of town in response to poor attendance and financial losses. Matters came to a head in January 1961 resulting in five of the owners selling out, leaving the team in the hands of Osborne, McGah, and Wayne Valley, with Osborne taking on the role of team treasurer.

Soon after the team’s reorganization, Osborne faced an election to retain his council seat and won by a better than 3-to-1 margin over his nearest competitor. With a comfortable win under his belt he continued his council work and that of running his team. Despite stronger leadership, though, the Raiders were still playing before sparse crowds in San Francisco and the owners were bleeding cash. While he was working to find a place to play in the East Bay, McGah and Valley were making noises about having to sell the team to outside bidders. Osborne again came out in strong opposition to the idea, but as the controversy gained steam, he began to have health problems, suffering a series of small heart attacks, including one while attending a game against the Chargers at Candlestick Park. As a result, he spent two weeks in the hospital followed by another three months of home convalescence, seriously curtailing his work with either the team or the council.

As a result of increasing differences with McGah and Valley and his health difficulties, he sold his share of the Raiders to the other two in May 1962. That same year he began to downsize his manufacturing operations, closing one plant and auctioning off the equipment, while continuing to act as a broker, buying and selling equipment.

Slowed, perhaps, but undaunted he continued his support of fiscal conservatism, taking on his biggest project yet, opposing the construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail network, complaining that the cost to the city was far too high and that the contract provided far too much latitude for uncontrolled spending beyond that called for in the contract. He would lose the fight, eventually, but he never tired of trying to slow the project down.

In 1964 he suffered another heart attack and spent two more weeks in the hospital but recovered and felt well enough to seek re-election the following year. This time he was unopposed and continued his fight against what he saw as irresponsible spending and catering to interest groups he thought didn’t contribute enough in taxes.

In 1967 he was joined on the council by former Raider co-owner Harvey Binns, whose brash style sometimes rankled Osborne, but they shared enough political goals to often end up on the same side of issues.

However, his health continued to deteriorate. He frequently missed council meetings because of illness and at the age of 70 was plainly in decline. On September 20, 1968, he entered an Oakland hospital and suffered a “severe” heart attack two days later. He held on for four more days but died on the morning of the 26th.

Eulogies praised his service to the city of Oakland and recognized his “vigorous pursuit of economy and fiscal control.” He was survived by his wife, two children, and one grandchild.

Chico Enterprise-Record
Cleveland Leader
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Mansfield News-Journal
Napa Journal
Napa Valley Register
Oakland Tribune
Pomona Progress-Bulletin
Sacramento Bee
San Francisco Examiner
San Mateo Times
San Pedro News-Pilot
Santa Rosa Press-Democrat
Santa Rosa Republican
Zanesville Times-Recorder
United States Census Bureau

[1] The 1900 census lists him as Bryan L. The 1910 census lists him as Bryan R. The 1920 census lists him as Robert L. I could find no explanation for any of the changes. Oddly, the Osborne’s eldest child was listed as Margaret in the 1900 census and Irene M. in the 1910 census, so somewhere there was a significant change of heart.

[2] Nothing in any of the stories says whether Terry and Teela, who were both a year old at the time of their adoption, were twins, or even siblings by birth.