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Longtime San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan dead at 76

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Former San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan. (Courtesy, San Francisco Giants)

Former longtime San Francisco Giants owner and the man who arguably saved baseball in San Francisco, Peter Magowan, has passed away at the age of 76 from cancer, the Examiner has confirmed.

Magowan’s death, first reported by Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle, took place on Saturday afternoon in his home in Pacific Heights, surrounded by family and friends.

Though he visited the Giants’ clubhouse several times this season and took great joy in interacting with players — specifically Brandon Belt — and old clubhouse hands, like Michael Murphy, Magowan was clearly in failing health, and had been for several years. He had undergone surgeries for prostate and liver cancer, and had recently gone into hospice care.

“Our family lost a great man today,” the Magowan family said in a statement. “We all know how much Peter loved his Giants and San Francisco, and he had that same love and passion for his family. He was so proud of his children and grandchildren, and we will forever cherish the memories we made together.”

Widely credited as helping to keep the Giants in San Francisco, Magowan was the club’s managing general partner for 15 years, and was the driving force behind building what was then Pac Bell Park, now known as Oracle Park. He had previously served as Safeway’s CEO from 1979 until March of 1993.

When Magowan and his investment group bought the Giants, former owner Bob Lurie had reached an agreement with a group that planned to move the unprofitable Giants to Tampa Bay. The National League, though, rejected the sale and suggested Lurie find local owners who would keep the team in San Francisco.

Magowan, a Stanford alumnus, and Larry Baer, a Cal alumnus, organized Bay Area business heavy-hitters including the largest shareholder, Charles Johnson, to buy the team from Lurie for $100 million.

One of his first moves once his investment group had purchased the club after the 1992 season was to sign Barry Bonds to a team that was dire financial straits, and was in danger of being moved. Despite not actually acquiring the team until January of 1993, Magowan and Baer began negotiations with Bonds after the end of the 1992 season, and eventually signed him to a $43.5 million deal that made Bonds the highest-paid free agent in baseball history.

After going 72-90 in 1992, the team won 103 games in 1993, with Bonds taking home the National League MVP.

“We got up to 2.6 million [in attendance] in the first year that we had Bonds,” Magowan said on the date of Bonds’ number retirement this August. “Then, we went down to 2.4 for the next year, and the next year, 1.4. We had a huge drop because the fans were pissed off [at the 1994 strike]. So, we had to build that back up. We got it up to 2.75, and that was enough to eke out a small profit. Barely. But, it was profitable. A lot of people in baseball did not believe in it. They said, ‘You’re not going to draw 2.75 million, because you’re not going to be able to field a good team, and this is still a football town.'”

The fact of the matter is, Magowan was able to do what the San Francisco 49ers eventually could not: Build a stadium in downtown San Francisco. Four times, Magowan went to voters to get approval to public funds, and in 1995, he announced the first privately-funded Major League Baseball stadium in more than 30 years.

The 42,000-seat stadium, first Pac Bell Park, then SBC Park, then AT&T Park and now Oracle Park, was a privately-financed stadium, an oddity when it was constructed. Many other owners resented a model that did not use public money. The ballpark, which broke ground in 1997 and opened in 2000, has revitalized China Basin and hosted the All-Star Game in 2007.

For his efforts in overseeing the building of the ballpark, widely regarded as one of the best in baseball, Magowan was named the 2000 Sports Executive of the Year by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal.

“Through all the good times and the bad I have valued the support that so many of you have been able to give to the organization and to me,” Magowan wrote in a letter to season ticket holders in 2008, as he stepped down from his position as managing general partner. “If it were not for that support our beautiful ballpark would never have been built – as our fans stepped up and made a personal investment to build a ballpark with no cost to the taxpayer.”

Beyond the park itself, Magowan hired a suite of executives that included current managing general partner and CEO Baer, as well as Brian Sabean, who helped get San Francisco to the World Series in 2002, and then built championship clubs in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Magowan was succeeded as managing general partner by Bill Neukom in 2008, who was replaced by Baer on January 1, 2012.

Forbes now values the team at $2.85 billion, including $728 million for Oracle Park alone, which initially cost $350 million. Magowan, is scheduled to be inducted into the Giants Wall of Fame during FanFest on Feb. 9, and was supposed to give a speech.

“Through his passion and love for his childhood team, Peter led the effort to not only keep the Giants in San Francisco, but also to build a permanent home for generations of fans to enjoy,” Baer said in a statement announcing his former partner’s induction.

Magowan’s tenure, though, was not without it’s dark spots. While the addition of Bonds helped to save the franchise, it was his reported use of performance-enhancing drugs that left a stain on the game of baseball. In the report compiled by Senator George Mitchell, Magowan was criticized for failing to confront the likelihood that Bonds was using.

In an interview with Mitchell investigators, Magowan said he had confronted Bonds about the subject in a telephone conversation, asking him point-blank if he took steroids. Bonds insisted he didn’t know that the Cream and the Clear were steroids, but told Magowan he eventually learned they were PEDs. Magowan’s lawyers later called investigators to recant that statement.

Nevertheless, he will be remembered as one of the principles that kept Major League Baseball in San Francisco. Born Peter Alden Magowan on April 5, 1942 in Manhattan, Magowan’s maternal grandfather, Charles Merrill, was the co-founder of Merrill Lynch, who later became one of the largest investors in the Safeway supermarket chain.

His father, Robert Anderson Magowan, was chairman and CEO of Safeway, and his mother, Doris Merrill Magowan (1914-2001) was a prominent San Francisco philanthropist.

He grew up a fan of the New York Giants, rooting for Willie Mays, Bobby Thompson and Monte Irvin, Magowan moved to San Francisco with his family in 1958, the same year as the Giants. His decision to help keep the Giants in San Francisco was born out of the pain he felt when the club initially abandoned New York.

Prepping at Groton, outside of Boston, he attended Stanford, where he graduated in 1964 with a degree in American Literature, before earning his master’s in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. He also did postgraduate work at Johns Hopkins.

He joined Safeway as a real estate negotiator in Washington D.C., then worked as a District Manager for the chain in Houston, a Retails Operations Manager in Phoenix and a Division Manager in Tulsa. Working his way up through his father’s company until in 1976, he became the company’s chief of international operations. He was elected the company’s Director following his father’s death in 1978, and ascended to CEO the next year.

After his first marriage ended in divorce, he met Debby Johnston in Jacksonville, Fla. in 1982, and the two wed in Dallas later that year.

After helping Safeway fend off a hostile takeover and closing about half of the company’s stores in the late 1980s, the company once again became profitable, resulting in a public offering in the early 1990s which generated a hefty payout for its new owners. He left Safeway’s day-to-day operations when he took over the Giants. In one of his first acts as team president, Peter signed Hall of Famer Willie Mays to a lifetime contract.

“Peter Magowan has been a part of my life for a long, long time, first as a fan watching me play in New York and then, remaining a fan when we moved to San Francisco,” said Hall of Famer Willie Mays, in a statement issued by the team. “Along the way, he became my friend.  Peter would call me often to check in. He and Debby cared about me and it was so easy to care about them in return. It’s hard to find the right words just now, but in losing Peter, I’ve lost a great, great friend. He was like my godfather. No one can replace him.”

He also brought Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda back into the organization to serve as special advisors, founded the Forever Giants alumni association, and in 2008, he established the Giants Wall of Fame, which serves as a tribute to the organization’s greatest players of the San Francisco era, the same wall upon which his likeness will be installed in February.

“Peter was my mentor and dear friend, and I will forever be grateful for his guidance, support and love,” Baer said in a statement.

Magowan’s first move, though, was signing Bonds, a move which was met with resentment throughout the rest of baseball, as it not only ratcheted up the market for the game’s top players, but the agreement reportedly occurred at the Winter Meetings, before Magowan officially owned the team.

“We signed him over a lot of opposition from a lot of other forces,” Magowan said.

Bonds spent 15 years with San Francisco, before his career unceremoniously ended after the 2007 season, when the Giants, in the wake of the BALCO report and the Mitchell Report, did not re-sign the slugger.

“He was hurt by being let go by the team he had produced so much for, and didn’t figure he should be let go,” Magowan said. “We were in last place, and when we departed, I used a line that Branch Rickey used on Ralph Kiner, when they parted. He said, ‘Ralph, we’re in last place with you. We might as well be in last place without you.’ That was our case, too. We were an older team, and we needed to make a transition. We had the players to make a transition, too, we thought, in [Tim] Lincecum and [Matt] Cain, [Buster] Posey and [Brandon] Crawford.”

That core indeed would win three out of five World Series from 2010-14, though it came after Magowan’s tenure as managing general partner.

“It was the right time to turn the page,” Magowan said. “It was not mine alone. I agreed with it. It was an organization decision. The time had come. We all felt terrible for Barry, but we thought he would find a home someplace else, which he never did.”

Still, Bonds, in November, emotionally and publicly thanked Magowan and Baer for bringing him home.

In addition to Debby, Peter is survived by five children and 12 grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Peter Magowan Fields for Kids Program of the Giants Community Fund.

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