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Former Giants owner Lurie receives local honor

Man who kept team in San Francisco elected to Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame

SAN FRANCISCO -- If somebody were to graph Bob Lurie's era as owner of the Giants, the highs and lows alike would stray off the charts.

Through all the tumult, Lurie strove to make the franchise viable, if not downright successful. For his endeavors, Lurie was elected to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame on Monday. Now 85, he'll be inducted during a May 7 dinner ceremony along with former manager Tony La Russa, record-setting sprinter Jim Hines, San Jose Sharks star Owen Nolan and ex-high school football coach Bob Ladouceur of national powerhouse De La Salle.

With considerable help from the late George Moscone, then-mayor of San Francisco, Lurie led a bid in early 1976 to prevent the Giants from moving, after Toronto investors appeared certain to buy the franchise from owner Horace Stoneham. The purchase price was $8 million, a pittance by today's standards. Yet the Giants inspired so little faith at that point that Lurie had to scramble to gather enough funds to buy the team. His initial co-investor was Arthur "Bud" Herseth, a Phoenix cattle rancher who admitted knowing little about baseball.

Lurie's eventful acquisition of the Giants set a pattern that continued until the end of his tenure in 1992. Neither triumphs nor failures lasted very long.

Lurie presided over the largest home attendance spike in club history, brought the 1984 All-Star Game to Candlestick Park and hired the shrewd duo of general manager Al Rosen and manager Roger Craig, who ended a 27-year drought by constructing a pennant-winning team in 1989.

But Lurie tried in vain to find the Giants a new Bay Area home to replace reviled Candlestick. Ironically, one of the proposed sites was China Basin, where the Giants' hugely popular AT&T Park stands. Four ballpark ballot measures failed, largely because voters refused to commit tax dollars to any stadium project.

Having exhausted his options, Lurie agreed to sell the Giants to a group that would have moved them to Tampa-St. Petersburg following the 1992 season. Then Peter Magowan, as Lurie did 16 years earlier, guided an effort to keep the Giants in San Francisco.

The Giants' first game under Lurie's ownership seemed charmed. Despite a city strike that shut down Candlestick's concession stands, a crowd of 37,261 -- enormous by that era's standards -- watched the Giants subdue the Dodgers, 4-2, in the '76 opener. But San Francisco finished 74-88. After that season, the Giants' best all-around hitter, Gary Matthews, bolted for Atlanta as a free agent.

Then came a revival. The Giants signed first baseman Willie McCovey as a free agent before the 1977 season and obtained left-hander Vida Blue from the A's for seven players one year later. With the Bay Area's two most popular active baseball players on their roster, the '78 Giants spent 95 days in first place and finished with a home attendance of 1,740,477, an increase of nearly 150 percent from the previous year.

That magic dissolved as the Giants finished below .500 in five of the next six non-strike-shortened seasons. When Rosen and Craig arrived, Lurie wisely gave them free rein over the personnel, which included skilled prospects such as Will Clark, Robby Thompson and Matt Williams. The combination of assertive leadership and overwhelming talent helped the Giants thrive. They captured the National League West title in 1987 and reached the World Series in '89 while recording five consecutive winning seasons.

When Commissioner Peter Ueberroth decided in 1985 to reinstate Willie Mays, who since 1979 had been banned from official Major League-related activities due to his association with an Atlantic City, N.J., casino, Lurie seized the moment. Before the 1986 season, he hired Mays as a special assistant, reuniting the greatest Giant of them all with the team that he ennobled.

Chris Haft is a reporter for Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, and follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat.
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