Non-sports fans might be asking themselves why the flag at City Hall in San Francisco is flying at half-mast today, why the mayor felt it necessary to immediately announce today as Bill Walsh Day in the City. As someone who has lived 53 of his 54 years in the greater Bay Area, I think I can speak to what Walsh meant to San Francisco beyond his ability to analyze the "Xs and Os."
In this country, the major professional sports are baseball, basketball, and football. At the top level, it was football that came first to San Francisco, in the form of the 49ers. Before that, San Francisco was a "minor-league city" in sports terms. The 49ers in those early years had some great players and some fine seasons, but they never won a championship. Meanwhile, a team in Oakland was created as part of a new pro league … that league eventually merged with the NFL, leading to the monster that is today's pro football. Oakland played in the second Super Bowl ever, and later won Super Bowls XI and XV. This made Raider fans very happy, of course, but one thing non-fans need to understand is that Oakland and San Francisco sports franchises are not generally seen to represent the same constituencies. A Raider Super Bowl win, or an Oakland A's World Series title, is not considered a championship to be celebrated in San Francisco.
The Giants came here in 1958, led by Willie Mays, one of the handful of greatest players ever. The Giants have had their fair share of great players over the years, but they have been in the City for 50 seasons without ever winning the World Series. Oakland got a team in 1968, and by 1972 they were already World Champs … as they were in 1973, and in 1974.
The Warriors of the NBA came to the Bay Area in 1962. Like the Giants, they came with one of the all-time greats, Wilt Chamberlain. Like the Giants, the Warriors didn't win championships. Until 1975, by which time they were no longer the San Francisco Warriors but were instead the Golden State Warriors, playing out of Oakland. (Ironically, when the Warriors won their title, their chances were seen as so slim the Oakland Coliseum had already been given out to others, so the Warriors played their championship series games at the Cow Palace in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City.) As there is only one NBA franchise in the Bay Area, the Warriors are "everyone's" team in a way that isn't true in baseball or football … nonetheless, when they won, it had been years since they represented San Francisco.
San Francisco sports fans had something of an inferiority complex. It wasn't that big of a deal, really … each year, as the Giants and 49ers fell once again, locals could say "yes, but San Francisco is the greatest city in the world," no small compensation. San Francisco, though, was also the city seen by many in other parts of the country as the home of oddballs, from the Beats to the hippies to gays. We had pride, but it was a local pride, which is to say, our representatives in the sports world did not carry that pride to championships. In sports, this actually means something, silly as it surely is … if your sports teams are associated in the general mind with commies, homos, and drug addicts, and those teams are losers on the field of play, that signifies an apparently appropriate "loser" status on those commies, homos and addicts. Every community's sports fans enjoy backing a winner, not just for the joy of the win, but, to be honest, for the equally satisfying joy of sticking your winner status in the faces of the fans of other communities.
The 49ers got really bad in the late-1970s. It's not like they'd won any championships before that, but in 1978, they hit rock-bottom, losing 14 of their 16 games and finishing in last place. It was at this point that they hired Bill Walsh to coach the team.
The next year, they once again lost 14 of 16, although there was something resembling hope in the manner in which they lost compared to the previous season. The next year, they managed to win 6 games … no one noticed, because Oakland was winning another Super Bowl that season, giving them the continued right to torment 49ers fans.
And then, in 1981, they won 13 of 16 games, finished atop their division, and went to the post-season. In the conference championship game, with the winner earning a trip to the Super Bowl, the 49ers faced the Dallas Cowboys, who had often broken 49er fans' hearts in the past. On January 10, 1982, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, with less than a minute to play in the game and the Cowboys ahead by six points, Joe Montana threw a pass to Dwight Clark. Clark's play is forever known as "The Catch." The 49ers won the game.
Two weeks later, they won the Super Bowl.
Sports fans know this story … the above recounting wasn't necessary for them. But, to return at last to my original point, what the 49ers did when they finally won that championship was more than just beating another football team. For the first time in the 30+ years that major professional sports had been played in San Francisco, the San Francisco team had won. For the first time, sports fans across the nation had to look to San Francisco to see the champs. The city, no, The City, so arrogant we capitalize the C as if we were the only city in the world, The City of commies and homos and junkies was on top of the American sports world.
So, if you happen to see a flag at half-mast in San Francisco today, you can give a silent thought to Bill Walsh. But also give a thought to all the commies and homos and junkies … because one time, Bill Walsh gave the world something larger than a championship. He won one for us, the commies and homos and junkies.