For nearly a quarter century (1969-92) Bob Mielke’s Oakland Swingin’ A’s Baseball Bandbrought vintage jazz to ballpark audiences, Traditional Jazz events and private parties. It was a solid musical ensemble, but during games their role was limited:
* Performing five or six minute sets of short “chorus and a half” tunes (:30 to :90 seconds) at each half-inning often standing atop the team dugout.
* Presenting peppy truncated jazz classics, novelties, polkas and fanfares.
* Mobile concertizing strolling through bleachers, hallways or tailgate lots. At the stadium, casuals and festivals, the Swingin’ A’s were a showcase for notable Bay Area reed players: Bob Helm, Bill Napier and Richard Hadlock.
The gig hinged on team owner Charlie Finley, Mielke’s
skill at schmoozing him and his genuine love of the music.
across the country with team and manager the musicians were often
obliged to repeatedly play his favorite song, “Sugar in the Morning” to
the persistent botheration of on board ball players.
Photo: Finley with musicians.
In the early days it was known as McNamara’s Band, after the 19th Century song “McNamara’s Band” which they played. The first season it was a quartet: Bob Mielke (trombone) Bob Neighbor (trumpet), Bob Helm (soprano) and Dick Oxtot (banjo). The second year, tuba player John Moore was hired after the band complained to their boss, club owner, Charlie Finley about lacking a bass.
Bob Helm was replaced after a couple seasons by reed players Bill Napier, Richard Hadlock, Earl Scheelar or others. Cornet players Jim Goodwin, Ev Farey and George Fleming were regular substitutes, especially after Bob Neighbor moved out of the area in 1987. In the 1980s Mielke booked the Swingin’ A’s on the jazz festival circuit or casual events in the greater Bay Area.
McNamara's Band A's Ballgame Coliseum, Oakland Mother's Day, 1970
Here’s the band in action at the stadium supplying the requisite “chorus and a half,” served up with a bushel of ‘corn.'
Bob Mielke (leader, trombone) Bob Neighbor (cornet) Bob Helm (reeds) Dic Oxtot (banjo) John Moore (tuba)
Set of Shorts A - 6:05 Fragment – Mielke heard comping with the ballpark’s organist (:15) Just Because (:47) Slippery Hank - featuring Mielke (:40) That Certain Party (1:20) Four Leaf Clover (external noise) (1:09) Shake That Thing (Neighbor absent) ):58) Turkey in the Straw (:49)
Early 1970s Salad Days
The Swingin’ A’s band rode the Oakland A’s breakout from second division to pennant and World Series victories. Emerging as a juggernaut the team won 10 Division West titles and 6 pennant races.
First came the 1970 playoffs against the Detroit Tigers, the band’s first road trip with the team. Then the A’s won three World Series, a 1972-74 streak. The band joined their World Series away games in Cincinnati and New York City (photo).
McNamara's Band A's Ballgame Coliseum, Oakland, CA Mother's Day, 1970
Mielke, Neighbor, Helm, Oxtot, Moore
Set of Shorts B - 5:47 Too Much Mustard (noise) (1:08) McNamara's Band (:53) Over the Waves (1:20) Wild Irish Rose (1:22) Barney Google (1:00)
Notes on Performance
Performing inside Oakland Coliseum atop the team dugout or in the bleachers, tunes were radically abbreviated. “Dippermouth Blues” in :20 seconds anyone? Perhaps Mielke gathered tips for truncating songs from Helm, a veteran of more than three decades dating back to the dime-a-dance ‘taxi dances’ of the 1930s.
Yet the band took every opportunity to present full-length songs when playing in the stadium halls, often serenading the folks streaming out of the park. Some tapes conclude with hallway performances. In “Bugle Boy March” and “Gettysburg March” you can hear the musicians departing with the crowd, exiting to the open-air lot. Another hallway performance, “Canal Street Blues,” is the jazz tune most often found in the extant tapes.
Most of these sounds were gathered at the ballpark in the open-air, in the middle of the action or the hallways. The excitement and high spirits are palpable in these portable open reel tapes that vividly captured the moment, despite numerous intrusions and distractions.
“The Best Band in Baseball”
Promoting them in the San Francisco Chronicle 6/8/70, sports columnist Ron Fimrite touted: “the best band in baseball . . . one of the finest traditional bands in the United States . . . essentially Bob Mielke and his Bearcats . . . that has provided Bay Area music lovers with some of the best sounds in their genre.”
That’s only partially true. Resemblance to Mielke’s previous band was nominal. Despite some similarity in personnel and repertoire this was not The Bearcats front line defined by P.T. Stanton’s horn, nor their signature rhythm section.
Mielke’s baseball outfit was a great little band. It had a distinctive, jolly sound of its own. Bob was proud to present it at ballparks, jazz events or casuals in the 1970s and ‘80s. For a while this quintet did double duty, booked and promoted as either Mielke’s Bearcats or Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band depending on who got the gig.
Oakland’s Swingin’ A’s were a very good band that Mielke was proud to present at casuals and jazz festivals during the 1970s and ‘80s.
It should also be noted that the original ensemble was identical to a five-piece version of Oxtot's Golden Age Jazz Band he was promoting around 1980.
Origins of the Oakland Swingin’ A’s
The band started as the All Stars in 1968 (heard below) playing for the San Francisco Seals Hockey team owned by Finley. Bob Neighbor found the gig, but it was Mielke who clicked with Finley. Though none of musicians were hockey fans, wrote Oxtot “we enjoyed the fights that broke out in every game." The team folded quickly. But Finley also owned the Oakland A’s and hired them to play home games.
Photo L to R: Helm, Mielke, Neighbor, Oxtot, 1968
The former Kansas City Athletics (1955-68) had been a struggling second division team. In Oakland Finley built it up rapidly, fortifying the roster with outstanding pitchers and sluggers: Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue, Willie McCovey, Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter.
The Athletics' name dates back to the 1860s suggesting an amateur local sports club for gentlemen. The nickname "A's" was long used interchangeably with "Athletics." Finley switched it officially to Oakland A’s (1972-1980), informally the Swingin’ A’s.
Oakland native Bob Neighbor (b. 1937) was a fine cornet player who worked in the ensembles of Mielke, Oxtot, Don Ewell, Joe Sullivan, Kid Ory, Bob Scobey, Turk Murphy, Jack Buck, Wingy Manone, and played with many bands: Dixieland Rhythm Kings (OH), Golden State JB, Golden Age JB, Magnolia JB and The Bearcats.
Neighbor was also a great guy, good graphic artist and wrote the foremost Fake Book that provided lead sheets for over 313 Classic Jazz tunes utilized by Traditional Jazz musicians the world over.
Bob moved to Chicago in the late 1980s and now lives in New England.
For a while in the early days they were also known as The Muleskinners, which may have been a reference to the Oakland A's team mascot, Charlie the Mule.
Wrote Oxtot in his 1994 memoir:
“Life on the road with Finely was a full-time party. Finley was a genial host. [In Detroit] he hosted a 7-course lobster dinner for a flock of dignitaries and the band. After the feast, which must have cost him a bundle, Finley called a cab and invited Mielke to ride back to the hotel with him. As the cab approached the hotel, Finley asked Mielke, ‘Have you got five dollars for the cab?’”
Oakland A’s Swingers (Probably Stockton Jazz Festival) Hilton Ballroom, Stockton, CA 10.3.82
Mielke, Neighbor, Bill Napier (clarinet), Oxtot, Walter Yost (tuba)
The baseball gig was seasonal of course, so Mielke sought other work at comparable civic venues. He booked jobs with Warriors basketball (1973), Bay Harbor Ferry Fleet (East Bay, 1982), even a grocery store opening. Gradually, Bob found them work at jazz festivals and casuals.
Photo: Mielke, Hadlock (soprano sax), Oxtot (banjo) and others playing the tailgate lot.
Clever arranging, strong voicing and Mielke’s faith in “standing on the chord” gave this little band a big sound. Presented here for the first time, concert, ballpark, party and festival tapes reveal a strong musical outfit. Its identity was rooted in Mielke’s love for the ensemble, solid soloists, and a repertoire Mielke and Oxtot had played for decades. Presenting a broad range of moods, it had a sweet sensitivity for the blues, featuring the reed stylings of Bob Helm, Bill Napier or Richard Hadlock.
Oxtot recalled the 1974 World Series in his memoir: "My last excursion to New York was with the A’s band, and probably the most scary at first: the World Series against the New York Mets. The band’s troubles began before the opening pitch of the first game, when . . . we began to play on top of the Mets’ dugout. Immediately we were greeted by a barrage of beer bottles and other miscellaneous debris, thrown at us by the New York fans! "
"We managed to dodge most of these flying missiles before the unfriendly atmosphere resulted in serious disaster, but the cops came to our rescue, post haste, made us get off of the dugout, and escorted us to some seats in the extreme rear of the grandstand where they instructed the band to ‘play no more’."
[Lodged in the Americana Hotel, the musicians were invited to join jazz trumpet player Bobby Hackett:]
“We, of course, were delighted to have one of the tastiest trumpet players in the business play with us. We were honored, and considered the event to be the highlight of our visit to the ‘Big Apple’.”
Oakland A's Swingers on the job, 1981
L to R: Napier, Neighbor, Mielke, Oxtot, Moore
Oakland A’s Swingers Garden Party at Ingmire Residence Alamo, CA, 8.11.84
Mielke, Neighbor, Bill Napier (reeds), Oxtot, Walter Yost (tuba)
Caption: "The Oakland A's Booster Band serenaded the Harbor Bay ferry before its first run."
End of The Swingin’ A’s
In 1992 Oakland A’s Baseball was purchased by new management; sadly, they discharged the band. Mielke put up a brave public campaign, lobbying the team via letters and sympathetic newspaper columnists, but Oakland Baseball moved on.
Bob soon shifted gears when a gig arose at Kimball’s East. He formed Mielke’s New Bearcats booking a semi-regular series there with some of the same personnel, plus casuals, jazz societies and festival events.
In the Oakland Coliseum much of the repertorie was popular tunes, not jazz. Yet the music was always presented in the New Orleans/Dixieland three-horn format with a front line of trumpet (cornet), clarinet (soprano) and trombone with a strong banjo and tuba rhythm element. Hearing Bob Helm running wild and free is a special delight.
Charley Finley deserves credit for his seasonal patronage of Mielke, Oxtot and associates. For almost a quarter century the skilled, adventurous and creative Swingin’ A’s Baseball Band brought authentic classic jazz and American music directly to stadium listeners. Their live audiences over decades probably totaled millions, a proud legacy for any band of musicianers.
Based on: Interviews, discussions and correspondence with Bob Mielke, Richard Hadlock, Darylene Oxtot and Earl Scheelar.
And: Bob Mielke, A Life in Jazz, 2008 Dick Oxtot, Jazz Scrapbook, 1998 K.O. Eckland, JAZZ WEST 2, 1995
Audio and photos from the Mielke and Oxtot collections. Special thanks Earl Scheelar.
Bob Mielke's Dixieland band lost his contract after more than 20 years of entertaining fans.
Oakland Tribune, April 3, 1993
In the early days they were called McNamara’s Band. The jaunty “McNamara’s Band,” composed in 1889 by Shamus O’Connor (music) and John J. Stamford (lyrics), was revived in the mid-20th Century by Bing Crosby and Spike Jones among others. The band played it often as an instrumental:
My name is McNamara, I'm the Leader of the Band, And tho' we're small in number we're the best in all the land. Oh! I am the Conductor, and we often have to play With all the best musicianers you hear about to-day.
(Chorus) When the drums go bang, the cymbals clang, the horns will blaze away, MacCarthy puffs the ould bassoon while Doyle the pipes will play; Oh! Hennessy Tennessy tootles the flute, my word 'tis something grand, Oh! a credit to Ould Ireland, boys, is McNamara's Band!
Whenever an election's on, we play on either side, The way we play our fine ould airs fills Irish hearts with pride. Oh! if poor Tom Moore was living now, he'd make yez understand That none could do him justice like ould McNamara's Band.
Photo: New York, 1974
In the mid-20th Century Bing Crosby, Spike Jones and others revived the tune as a novelty.