It was an exceptionally warm day for October, even by Bay Area standards. The temperature sat in the mid 80’s and the late afternoon sun was shining brightly, as people were arriving into and finding their seats at Candlestick Park, where the first pitch of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series between the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants was set to occur in a half hour. It was 5pm, West Coast Time, and ABC was just beginning their pregame broadcast.
Then suddenly at 5:04pm, as broadcaster Tim McCarver was narrating highlights of game two of the Series, the ground began to shake, the TV feed got choppy, and fellow broadcaster Al Michaels interjected to state “I tell you what, we are having an earth….” and then silence….followed by static and then an empty ABC logoed blue screen, finally followed by, as audio began to come back on the air, Al Michaels stating an earthquake had just in fact occurred and added for the sake of levity “that was the greatest opening in the history of television.”
Power went out all over both San Francisco and Oakland, including the power at Candlestick Park, and therefore the game would be cancelled shortly after, as players sought to find their own family members amongst the crowd. What had initially produced additional excitement in the crowd slowly turned to a quiet somber mood, as word began to spread through fans with portable battery operated radios that the earthquake had caused highway bridges had collapsed as well as a section of the Bay Bridge. What had just occurred would come to be known as the Loma Prieta Earthquake, and it measured at 6.9 on the RIchter scale.
Just prior to that season Candlestick Park had ungone major structural improvements that likely prevented the quake from causing the upper grandstands to fall. No one knows for sure, but thousands of fans could have been injured or killed had these repairs not taken place. However, these improvements allowed the ballpark to actually be one of the safest places for the crowd of 62,000 people to be at that moment.
Across the Bay in Oakland, a section of the top of the double tiered Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed onto the lower deck, crushing cars underneath, killing 42 people. However, highway experts estimate that had this been a normal Tuesday at 5pm, hundreds of cars would have been on that freeway section at that time, but due to the World Series game, many folks had left work early, or stayed at work for office watch parties.
Thus, October 17th, 1989 can be remembered as a day a baseball game likely saved hundreds of lives, due to the unique nature of both cities having vested interests in the game, and the time of day the game was scheduled. It is also the only known time an earthquake of such magnitude has ever been captured on live TV.
The World Series would resume 10 days later, after extensive examination of both Candlestick Park and The Oakland Coliseum, for structural soundness. The Oakland Athletics would win the series 4-0.
Prior to the start of the rescheduled game three, ABC sportscaster, Al Michaels would give this monologue on the endearing nature of baseball, and how in difficult times it can bring about healing and help restore a sense of normalcy to the world:
“At this very moment ten days ago, we began our telecast with an aerial view of San Francisco; always a spectacular sight, and particularly so on that day because the cloudless sky of October 17 was ice blue, and the late-day sun sparkled like a thousand jewels.
That picture was very much a mirror of the feel and the mood that had enveloped the Bay Area...and most of Northern California. Their baseball teams, the Giants and A's, had won pennants, and the people of this region were still basking in the afterglow of each team's success. And this great American sporting classic, the World Series, was, for the time being, exclusively theirs.
Then of course the feeling of pure radiance was transformed into horror and grief and despair- in just fifteen seconds. And now on October 27, like a fighter who's taken a vicious blow to the stomach and has groggily arisen, this region moves on and moves ahead.
And one part of that scenario is the resumption of the World Series. No one in this ballpark tonight- no player, no vendor, no fan, no writer, no announcer, in fact, no one in this area period- can forget the images. The column of smoke in the Marina. The severed bridge. The grotesque tangle of concrete in Oakland. The pictures are embedded in our minds.
And while the mourning and the suffering and the aftereffects will continue, in about thirty minutes the plate umpire, Vic Voltaggio will say 'Play Ball', and the players will play, the vendors will sell, the announcers will announce, the crowd will exhort. And for many of the six million people in this region, it will be like revisiting Fantasyland.
But Fantasyland is where baseball comes from anyway and maybe right about now that's the perfect place for a three-hour rest.”
Indeed baseball is a great distraction to us in times of sadness. I began to understand this after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 prompted a week of baseball game cancellations around the country. However, on 9/18/01, baseball came back, and some healing through the joy of the great American past time began.
So, as we begin the great ride of the 162 game marathon that will make up the 2017 baseball season, we look back on a day a scheduled game potentially saved many lives, and prepare to enjoy the endearing seasonal ride once more, surrounded by friends and family. Go Tribe!
Actual Pregame Coverage leading up to the earthquake
MLB Tonight's 25th Anniversary Six Minute Documentary