What is it like working in a baseball stadium for 50 years?
I don’t really "know" this man, but in a way I’ve known him for most of my life.
Since I was in grade school, I’ve gone to A’s games at the Coliseum. The multi-sport facility has been as instrumental to my baseball fandom as the sport itself. And for folks like merchandise vendor Bob Rosenthal, it’s been his “office” for five decades.
At a game earlier this season, I stopped by a merchandise booth and remarked to Rosenthal that I was pretty sure I’d seen him around there for a long time. “Fifty years this September!” he exclaimed, beaming. That brief chat led to the discovery that there are a handful of other Coliseum vendors who have worked there for decades as well.
As fans, we go to baseball games as a fun escape or a break from the usual “routine” of the day-to-day. But for some stadium vendors, it’s the only career they’ve known.
“No way,” Rosenthal says when asked if he ever imagined he’d still be doing this 50 years after starting his career in 1968. “No way did I ever think I’d be here this long. As much as I love baseball, 50 years? That’s a long time.”
Rosenthal, who sells merchandise alongside his longtime co-worker and friend Robert Jacobs behind the A’s dugout near section 124, has been doing this as long as he can remember.
“I started over at Candlestick Park, then our union covered both places so they hooked me up over here, and it’s been that way ever since,” he explains.
Interestingly, working at baseball games for years hasn’t dulled Rosenthal’s interest in the game the same way you might think working at a theme park would impact your interest in the park itself. He still watches baseball when he’s at home, and he even cracked a joke about talking to his boss about getting TVs reinstalled at the merchandise kiosk so he can check on the game going on behind him as he sells Matt Chapman jerseys to excited fans.
Jacobs, who playfully gave me a hard time when it was time for our chat (“You’re taking me away from my job, let’s get this over with!”) also began his life in baseball in 1968 just as the Coliseum opened in Oakland. “Not in retail, but I was a kid selling soda, hot dogs -- Colossal Dogs -- and I graduated to beer. As I got a little older, I came into retail.”
He also couldn’t have imagined having this job so many years later, but it effectively became his vocation and it stuck. “My dream was to be a sports announcer, but I got into this and never got out. I’ve done well. I’m comfortable.”
Chatting with Jacobs, he brought up one of the most enjoyable aspects of maintaining this job: The intimacy of baseball as it pertains to the family dynamic, specifically how it’s passed down from generation to generation.
“I have people who come up to me and go, ‘You’re the only guy I’m gonna buy from.’ They’ve seen me over the years, they go, 'My god, I’ve seen you since I was a kid, and now I’m here with my kids!'”
Rosenthal’s comments mirrored those of Jacobs:
“People say, ‘Oh my god, I remember seeing you here when I was here as an eight-year old with my dad.’ Now they’re coming with their kids, and I’m still here,” he said with a hearty laugh.
Different vendor, same story from Rick Cowell at the C Gate team store: “A lot of fans come by as boyfriend and girlfriend, then they’ll come by again as a married couple, and then they’ll come back with kids in their twenties. You see a lot of that.”
Cowell’s story began in 1966 at the Oakland Auditorium (now the Kaiser Convention Center) before moving over to the Coliseum, where he’s been ever since. Had he not stayed in this line of work, he imagines he’d have pursued a line of work with IBM, but he has few complaints about where his life led him.
At one point in our chat, Cowell gave a shout-out to the A’s Access program the team put in place in 2018, offering fans unique and affordable types of ticket plans.
“More people are getting involved in baseball with all the perks and sales. It makes them happy fans, and happy fans spend more money, and that’s good for me,” Cowell said, raving about the boon it’s been for his business.
Unlike Rosenthal and Jacobs before him, though, Cowell could totally have seen himself still at this job back when he first began.
“It’s a job you either love or hate, a lot of people get into it for one, two or three years and leave ... we’ve been in it together for most of these 50 years or so. It’s just something where you’re enjoying yourself while you’re working.”
Attributing his personal career consistency to a mix of the interaction with fans and having a great boss, Cowell quoted the adage “If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Over at the A’s Team Store in D Gate, located around Section 125 of the field level, Donald Gohlke has also been selling A’s gear since the Coliseum opened in 1966 -- back when the number of items offered was significantly smaller and more modest than what the team sells in the present day.
“Programs were the main item. It was just a stand, not a big store like it is now.”
Gohlke, the fourth and final vendor I spoke to, said that had he not taken this job selling game programs in 1966, he could have foreseen a career as a math teacher … and sees himself potentially becoming a math tutor once he calls it quits at the Coliseum. He also touched on something the others did as well: Each cited the Bash Brothers era of the late 1980s as the time of A's baseball that brought with it the most feverish fan interest for player merchandise. After all, that was a time in which the A’s appeared in three consecutive World Series, led by dinger-mashing baseball superheroes Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.
Given his 50-plus years working A’s games at the Coliseum, Gohlke appreciates the generational aspect of everything as well, noting that several amazing eras of A’s baseball have excited fans over that span -- not just the 1980s teams. It's as much as seeing Gohlke and remarking, "Oh I remember you," with the warmth of an old friend reconnecting after years apart as it is about cheering for the players on the field.
Having myself experienced a baseball game, first as a wide-eyed kid taking it all in and then as a (still wide-eyed) adult returning again and again for that same experience, it’s easy to understand why the vendors all brought this up.
50 years is an uncommonly long stretch of time to stay at a job these days -- but for these vendors, it’s obviously much more than a "job." It’s a lifestyle, and one they’ve enthusiastically enjoyed for pretty much their entire lives.
Seems like a good deal to me.