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Remembering San Francisco’s long-lost sports teams

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From the Seals to the XFL, the city has a rich—and sometimes bizarre—history with athletic prowess

Former major league player Frank “Lefty” O’Doul, in his first season as manager with the San Francisco Seals, is flanked by his two outfield aces, Joe Martyn, left, and Joe DiMaggio, right, in 1935.
Photo by Associated Press

When the 49ers abandoned San Francisco for a new Santa Clara stadium in 2015, it left a bruise on the city’s pride that remains to this day. But sports teams come and go (just ask Oakland), and the Niners zeroing out isn’t the first time a franchise has vacated the city. Indeed our history is littered with toppled titans, some of these vanished gladiators victims of hubris, but most of them prey to bad timing or circumstance.

Here are a few of the sporting standouts from ages past whose mark on SF hasn’t entirely faded.

The empty Seals Stadium at Bryant and 16th Streets in San Francisco, circa 1957.
The empty Seals Stadium at Bryant and 16th Streets in San Francisco, circa 1957.
Photo by AP
The San Francisco Seals

Long before SF became the town of orange and black, the local sluggers were the San Francisco Seals, a minor league baseball team with a major legacy. Reflecting on the Seal tradition in 2015, the UK Guardian called the team “the predominant force of West Coast baseball” for the first half of the 20th century.

Among the team’s star players: a very young Joe DiMaggio, who made a splash playing for hometown San Francisco from 1932 to 1935 before departing for New York and garnering nearly as many World Series rings as he had fingers.

The expansion of Major League Baseball to the West Coast eventually put the Seals out to harbor in 1958. But for 55 years, San Francisco had an abiding Seal of approval.

The other San Francisco Seals

This town loves its Seal teams, apparently.

Recently, minor league hockey team the San Francisco Bulls tried to horn in on the Bay Area ice scene, but few remember our previous San Francisco hockey team dubbed—what else?—the Seals, an NHL expansion that briefly skated at the Cow Palace starting in 1961.

An unidentified newspaper clipping from 1961 indicates that the Seals name came via fan suggestion—the moniker meant to commemorate the baseball team.

Other suggestions included the San Francisco Vigilantes (an unfortunate choice, historically speaking) and, unbelievably, the “San Francisco Yekcoh,” which is just the word “hockey” spelled backwards and in hindsight should be the city’s greatest shame.

Equally unbelievable, the San Francisco Seals left San Francisco only two months into the team’s very first season. Their destination: Oakland, which seems a particularly pointed irony now.

The other other San Francisco Seals

Apparently the Seal name is too good to leave high and dry for long, as San Francisco’s most prominent soccer team adopted the moniker in 1985 upon entering the Gothia Cup in Germany that year.

The Seals’ last stadium: Negoesco Stadium at USF.
Photo by Jon Broxton/Wikicommons

There, the team history page boasts of “upsets over the Donegal School Boys, Stranraer, and Celtics of Scotland,” which is possibly the most soccer-drenched sentence ever conceived in American vernacular English.

Note that in those days the Seals were a youth soccer team, as indeed they are today; however, from 1992 to 1999 the Seals competed as a men’s team in the United States Interregional Soccer League. During that period, the team changed their name to the All Blacks, which lasted two years.

The Seals eventually cycled back to youth competition. In the meantime, it seems aspiring soccer franchises still can’t wait to kick off in SF; although the recent San Francisco Deltas lasted only one season, new regional teams began forming immediately after their dissolution.

The San Francisco Fog

Indoor soccer has some small but crucial rules differences from its outdoors sibling sport and as such is technically a different game.

San Francisco’s foray into fenced-in futbol lasted only one season; the San Francisco Fog played at the Cow Palace for a now defunct indoor soccer league from 1980 to 1981 before departing for Kansas City.

The Fog’s worst-in-the league 11-29 record that year was one thing, but according to the sports history site Fun While It Lasted, the Fog also had the worst attendance in the league, which probably had more to do with why they left.

For the record, the team referred to its cheerleaders as the “Fog Misties,” which is not as bad as “Yekcoh,” but definitely not a cultural high point either.

The San Francisco Hong Wah Kues

San Francisco has hosted a number of basketball teams over the years, but by far the most intriguing was the Hong Was Kues, recruited specifically from Chinatown as an exhibition team in 1939, somewhat in the mode of the Harlem Globetrotters.

As a Chinese Cultural Center exhibit coordinator explained to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999, part of the idea was to upend cultural stereotypes that led many Americans to assume that Chinese-American and Chinese immigrant players were too short for basketball, or at least too short to win.

Although their initial 1939 season met with success and a 56-21 record, the Hong Was Kues sadly disbanded in 1940.

Another Chinatown team called the Saints formed in the 1950s, and the Saints name was also conferred on the incredibly average (38-38 in one season) San Francisco team that took part in the short-lived American Basketball League from 1961 to 1962.

The San Francisco Pioneers

Few professional women’s teams have dropped anchor in San Francisco over the years, but the city did have one of the country’s first professional women’s basketball teams from 1979 to 1981, aptly named the Pioneers.

The Women’s Professional Basketball League was the first of its kind and only lasted three years, done in by underfunding to the point that some players went on strike over unpaid wages.

As for the Pioneers, sports historian Karra Porter writes in her book Mad Seasons that the team was popular locally, but managerial infighting unraveled the franchise during the second season. This climaxed with a disastrous trade for ostensible star player Liz Silcott.

The Pioneers and the league disbanded in 1981. Fun fact: Actor Alan Alda was a Pioneers co-owner.

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The San Francisco Freedom

The Freedom was San Francisco’s professional cricket team, which began chirping at Kezar Stadium in the early 2000s and giving players from the Bay Area Cricket Alliance a shot at the big time.

Traditional cricket games can last for days, but reporting on the incoming Freedom run in 2004, the San Francisco Business Times assured readers that American-style cricket games would be over in a “fast and furious” couple of hours.

Silly name aside, the Freedom did San Francisco proud and won U.S. Pro Cricket’s first league championship. Unfortunately, it was also the last, as Pro Cricket lasted only one season.

Still, the Freedom flag may fly again—in spirit if not in name—as Curbed SF reported in 2017 that another cricket-based venture had its eyes on SF.

San Francisco Demons fan shows off his XFL shirt during a game against the Los Angeles Xtreme, circa 2001.
San Francisco Demons fan shows off his XFL shirt during a game against the Los Angeles Xtreme, circa 2001.
Photo by AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
The San Francisco Demons

Of all the ill-conceived, also-ran sports leagues littering the landscape of American television, none has lodged in the pop cultural consciousness so firmly as the XFL.

In fact, former owner Vince McMahon (of World Wrestling Entertainment fame) announced this year that the XFL will soon return after a nearly 20-year hiatus. Whether or not this means the return of the San Francisco Demons isn’t clear yet.

The Demons, who played at AT&T Park, went 5-5 in their sole 2001 season and tied for second place in the division; however, since the division had only four teams this was almost an accolade by default.

Fun While It Lasted reports that the Demons has the best home game attendance of any XFL team, so at least the city graced them with little faith before they got exorcised.