Who is John Fisher? Billionaire A’s owner won’t talk, so we spoke to over 20 people in his orbit.

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In late 2019, the Oakland A’s held an all-staff meeting at their offices in Jack London Square. An unfamiliar face was present, someone whom many employees had never seen before. It was John Fisher, the owner of the team. 

Fisher introduced himself by making a tongue-in-cheek comment about his own reputation and told the room that the purpose of his visit was to show he “exists,” multiple attendees recalled. The joke fell flat for the many staffers having their first real interaction with the person who signs their checks.

Multiple attendees remember something else Fisher said at the meeting. “A lot of people know me as that ‘cheap owner,’” one current employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity recounted, adding that the comment was “so weird.” The interaction provided a brief window into Fisher’s perception of his tenure with the team. He has long been known for his reticence, which makes it difficult to ascertain exactly how — or whether — he processes any criticisms. Does it bother him that he has a reputation for being cheap? Does he even know that reputation exists? 

The meeting in late 2019 was proof that he did. Once it was over, Fisher retreated back to the life of silence for which he is known. He keeps a low profile, even at A’s games, where he often sits in the Diamond Level seats a few rows behind home plate. Fisher likes to dress in street clothes: jeans and a polo, maybe a long-sleeved collared shirt with a cap on and a credential around his neck. The multibillion dollar man is right there, in plain sight — visible to anyone watching the game from home — and seamlessly blends in. On occasion, he even wears a camouflage cap.

In the team media guide, Fisher’s only mention is at the very top of the front office directory, a simple name and title, with no headshot or biography. When MLB approved a sale of the A’s franchise to an ownership group headed by Fisher and his former managing general partner, Lew Wolff, in 2005, Fisher wasn’t present for the photo op.

And 16 years later, Fisher is nowhere to be found as A’s President Dave Kaval attempts to sell the city of Oakland on a $12 billion Fisher-led development at Howard Terminal. The plan has vocal supporters and detractors, who, broadly speaking, can only agree on one thing: Fisher’s absence, his reluctance to say anything at all in this moment, is bewildering.

Fisher, through a spokesperson, declined comment for this story. Instead, we spoke to more than 20 people in his orbit, hoping to learn more about his background, his decisions as A’s owner and his insistence on keeping quiet. 

John Fisher, owner of the Oakland A's.

John Fisher, owner of the Oakland A’s.

Photo illustration: Blair Heagerty/SFGATE/Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Fisher grew up in San Francisco, where he earned the nickname “Harpo” from his parents. All three of Don and Doris Fisher’s boys were stubborn, but John, the youngest, had his own particular brand of stubbornness. He wasn’t just vocal; he was persistent. He would harp.

Doris joked in Don’s 2002 autobiography “Falling Into the Gap” — which was originally only distributed to close associates — that it was a waste of time to say “no” to her youngest child because he would figure out how to get what he wanted. Don, a billionaire businessman who co-founded Gap Inc. with his wife, came to believe that his son’s ferocity could be a familial asset someday.

“Stubbornness is necessary for athletics and business,” Don wrote in the autobiography. “The will to hang in and never quit – unless something else makes better sense – is essential.”

In 1983, Don approached John — a recent graduate of Princeton University who’d been dabbling in conservative politics and real estate — and asked him to instead manage the family’s investments. This was one of those moments, Don was making clear, where something else made better sense.

But John’s response per “Falling Into the Gap” was obstinate and, depending on how you feel about the A’s stadium saga, a bit ominous. “I don’t know anything about the investment business – and I don’t wanna know anything about the investment business,” he said. “I want to build things. I want to be an entrepreneur and I want to build businesses or build shopping centers or whatever it may be.”

John Fisher did indeed take over the family portfolio, a consequential decision that came to a head in 1998, shortly after the family formed the investment group Sansome Partners. That year, the Fisher family, under John’s direction, bought about 235,000 acres of redwood and fir timberland in Northern California from Louisiana-Pacific Corporation. 

The Fishers knew it would be risky getting into the timber industry, particularly if conservationists soured on them for leaning into environmentally hazardous practices. John felt the family’s intentions were pure, and in a move that will read as unfamiliar to A’s fans, decided to adopt an “open-book policy.”

“We had nothing to hide, nothing we weren’t willing to talk about,” John said in his father’s autobiography. “… We felt if we went out and got great people to work for us, if we employed what would be thought of as exemplary environmental actions, and if we became certified and had an open line of communication with people in the community, that would go a long way toward reducing the level of hostility and conflict that existed in the North Bay [over logging issues].”

It didn’t go that way. According to Don, activists in Mendocino County portrayed the Fisher family as “filthy rich,” a not-untrue assessment, and dubbed their clear-cutting practices environmentally irresponsible. Around the time the Fishers were getting into the timber industry, Gap Inc. and seven other retailers were sued for human rights violations at their garment factories in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands. The suit, which was filed in 1999, alleged that factory workers were required to work overtime without compensation, were subjected to a hazardous work environment and were subjected to other intimidation tactics such as illegal threats of deportation. The case was settled in 2002, but only after Gap Inc. reportedly attempted to block other retailers from settling. 

Human rights activists joined environmental activists and protested in front of Gap stores all over the world. One protester chained herself to the front of a store on 34th Street in Manhattan. Another got ahold of the family’s address and splashed black paint on the walls of their home. Don was concerned, as he wrote in his autobiography, about the optics.

“The media publicity and protests created a lot of anxiety for our customers and upset the Gap employees dramatically, who felt it affected our business as well as our reputation as a company,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how badly I’d underestimated the kind of public scrutiny we would have with this investment and the kinds of protests that would happen,” he indirectly remarked about his son’s investment strategy.

Workers from the African country of Lesotho who made clothes for Gap participate in a demonstration outside a Gap clothing store on New York's Fifth Avenue, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002. The trio joined other Gap clothing plant workers from several countries to protest low pay and working conditions.

Workers from the African country of Lesotho who made clothes for Gap participate in a demonstration outside a Gap clothing store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002. The trio joined other Gap clothing plant workers from several countries to protest low pay and working conditions.

Richard Drew/AP

The late ’90s debacle appears to have informed Fisher’s current ultra-private posturing. That includes Sansome Partners, which has a bare-bones website that doesn’t even list Fisher on its “team” page, as well as Fisher’s previously reported dark money political donations.

“He wasn’t shy when I met him,” Guy Saperstein, who was part of the A’s ownership group from 2005 to 2016, said when contacted by this reporter. “He’s very friendly and very personable and very likable. I don’t know why the Fishers are reticent with the public. Maybe it’s a long-term family way of operating.”

Fisher is 60 now. He, like Saperstein, joined the A’s ownership group in 2005, though he’s owned more than 80% of the team since 2016, per Forbes. For 16 years, he’s run the A’s with the same stubborn persistence he once exuded as a child. In his tenure as owner, he has kept the A’s payroll within the bottom half — and frequently the bottom quarter — of all 30 MLB clubs. And he has steadfastly tried to secure a new ballpark rather than rebuild at the Oakland Coliseum site (there have been six different attempts at relocating during his tenure). 

A familiar line from Kaval, who largely speaks for the organization, is that it’s now “Howard Terminal or bust” for the A’s. The reasoning isn’t so clear, just that a rebuild at the Coliseum site is not a possibility. Saperstein said that former co-owner Wolff floated the idea of rebuilding on the Coliseum site early on, but Fisher was reluctant to do so then, too.

“Lew wanted to do it, to just build a new stadium right on the same site,” Saperstein said, “which would have been a lot easier and faster. John wanted to build the stadium downtown, which involved a lot more environmental regulations, and would be a lot more of a complicated transaction. So, there was a disagreement there, and that may have contributed to Lew’s decision to get out (of the ownership group), but I don’t know that for sure.”

That’s not all, Saperstein noted. He said Wolff wanted to rebuild the Coliseum, then build “intensive housing” around it. “That would basically fund the stadium, which I thought was a very viable plan,” he said. “But John disagreed with that from the beginning. That plan never went very far.”

In an email to SFGATE, Wolff, now 85, responded to Saperstein’s assertions — though he did not fully address them. We’re including the full email below.

“While a dear friend, Guy Saperstein does not speak for me,” Wolff wrote. “John truly wants to do something magnificent for Oakland, at the Coliseum and at Howard Terminal. Both my age and my resources were such that it was time for John (who is a very knowledgeable real estate person) to assume the next steps in getting the A’s to a great new venue. John and his family have made wonderful investments throughout the Bay Area. All demanding the highest quality possible. The Fisher Museum, the Gap, the San Jose Earthquakes and so much more. I know that if the Howard Terminal project is approved, Oakland will have perhaps the most beautiful and most recognized baseball park in MLB. We all realize that Oakland has many issues that need attention. 

“The Howard Terminal plan, in my opinion, will afford the City and the region an economic engine that will touch and benefit numerous needs of the community. I think we live in a time where ‘the Process has, sadly, become the end product.’ Where process can lead to implementation — great benefits both direct and indirect benefits can occur. I have known John and his family for several decades and they are committed to enable great, quality endeavors to happen. They are proven implementers!!! Finally, I know John would much rather be able to see his ball team as close to his home as possible. Go A’s.”

When asked in a follow-up email to clarify whether he wanted to build intensive housing around the Coliseum, and whether Fisher disagreed with such an idea, Wolff demurred: 

“I simply wanted to get a new, compact ballpark built in Oakland,” he responded, before noting that there’s a “17 story Marriott” that he’s developing in Oakland.

John Fisher, owner of the Oakland A's.

John Fisher, owner of the Oakland A’s.

Photo illustration: Blair Heagerty/SFGATE/Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

After failing to secure a draft environmental impact report during their first three relocation attempts (Coliseum North, Pacific Commons and Warm Springs), Wolff and Fisher found more luck in San Jose, a promising site they could both get behind. In 2012, they announced a proposal to build a ballpark in San Jose called Cisco Field, but the Giants, who said they had territorial rights in San Jose, objected.

In the early ’90s, the Giants had their sights set on San Jose. With the blessing of former A’s owner Walter Haas — who had territorial rights to San Jose at the time — the Giants came to an agreement with the city of San Jose to move their franchise there in 1991. But the agreement was rejected by the city’s voters in 1992.

“The Giants then took that expression of goodwill by the Haas family, and they have steadfastly tried to keep the A’s out of San Jose,” Saperstein said. “Now, they have absolutely no right, in my opinion, to do that. [Former Commissioner] Bud Selig allowed them to do that. I made jokes, like, ‘I wonder what they’ve got on Bud Selig?’”

Selig, when contacted for comment by this reporter, declined to elaborate on the topic, only reiterating that San Jose was the Giants’ territory. The A’s have long maintained that the permission Haas granted the Giants in the early ’90s was contingent on the Giants eventually relocating to San Jose. 

“I had to explain to (Fisher), in a very painful process, why that couldn’t be. And he and Lew were so decent about it,” Selig said. “They understood that territorial rules just couldn’t be relaxed. A lot of owners would have really been difficult. They were not. They were unhappy, and I understood that. But I have so much faith they’ll work out a new ballpark in Oakland, because it is John Fisher.”

Selig’s optimism doesn’t pair with Fisher’s general unwillingness to spend money on much of anything, even though the value of the A’s franchise has more recently skyrocketed in spite of poor attendance numbers.

Owning the A’s wasn’t always so lucrative. A few decades ago, Saperstein attended an A’s game with the Haas family, who oversaw the organization from 1980 to 1995. Saperstein asked Walter Haas, the chairman and CEO at the time, how he was able to run the A’s with the revenues and payroll they carried.

“And he said, ‘Well, you don’t mind losing $15 million a year,’” Saperstein said. “Of course, $15 million a year then would be $50 million a year now. The point is, they were subsidizing the team. They were getting huge attendance with those players. I think one year they did 2.9 million fans, and they still lost $15 million. They got tired of it. Even rich people don’t like losing money.”

Fisher’s management of the A’s payroll and operating costs is almost certain to yield a massive profit whenever he does sell. The A’s were valued at $180 million when they were acquired by Fisher’s group, and today they are valued at $1.125 billion by Forbes. Multiple people who work closely to Fisher described a reluctance by the owner to invest his own capital into the team — more specifically, a reluctance to lose money on a year-to-year basis — almost as if on principle, despite the fact that the A’s valuation (like many pro teams) has steadily grown. It should be noted that this year, the A’s rank 23rd in MLB in payroll, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, but for 12 of Fisher’s 16 seasons as owner, the payroll has ranked 25th or lower.

For Saperstein, witnessing the tight budget and constant spending cuts as part of the ownership group was painful, and certainly not a principle worth adhering to. He grew attached to players like Josh Donaldson. When the A’s traded Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014, Saperstein began to mull over the idea of selling his interest in the team.

“I went ballistic,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. This guy had done everything you’d ever asked a baseball player to do. … He was everything that the A’s stood for. To trade him just blew my mind. I called Lew, and I said, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I just cant take it.’ It just became too hard for me to see that happening again and again.”

Fisher’s cost-cutting reached new lows in May 2020, when the A’s became the only MLB organization that publicly refused to pay minor leaguers a $400 per week stipend after their season was canceled. Like some other teams, the A’s furloughed a significant amount of employees on both the business side and the player development side of their organization, but also cut pay for all employees who had a salary above $60,000. In October, many of those furloughed employees were informed that they wouldn’t have jobs with the team in 2021.

The A’s ended up reversing course on their decision about the minor leaguers, but only after significant backlash. They’ve since been criticized for their Fyre Festival-esque food offerings served to affiliate clubs.

Multiple people within the organization say that internally, there is still great respect for general manager David Forst and vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane, but after 2020, an “us versus him” sentiment towards Fisher has emerged among some baseball operations employees. 

Rick Magnante, who had worked for the A’s as a scout, coach and minor league manager since 1996, was part of the furloughed staff in 2020 and was ultimately let go after almost 25 years with the organization. He said A’s employees “without a doubt” were suffering from low morale when the decision to forgo $400 a week stipends became widely known. “We always stressed leadership,” Magnante said. “We finally paid our minor leaguers, but almost after we were shamed into it. Why not be at the forefront? Why not get the cutting edge? That’s kind of who we are.

“I’d like to think that we could have paid the minor leaguers their $400 stipend through September. It’s not a lot of money, but it makes their life a little better – you could’ve been their hero. You could’ve built loyalty.”

General manager David Forst, executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and managing partner John Fisher of the Oakland Athletics sit in the Athletics draft room June 3, 2019.

General manager David Forst, executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and managing partner John Fisher of the Oakland Athletics sit in the Athletics draft room June 3, 2019.

Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

The A’s, like most professional sports teams, keep their books private — but according to a Forbes estimate, Fisher’s net worth has risen more than $1 billion since the pandemic began. A month before the A’s mass furloughs, Gap Inc. stock plummeted to $5.65 a share. As of July 14, shares closed at $31.00. Per SEC filings, Fisher owns 18% of Gap Inc., a position worth roughly $2 billion. The increase in value of Gap Inc. shares, in tandem with the A’s organization’s growing valuation, suggests that Fisher is able to afford additional investments in the team despite low attendance and revenue numbers from 2020 and 2021. (As ProPublica recently reported, many sports owners are also able to write off millions in tax savings by citing the amortization of their purchase; Fisher wasn’t listed in the report and declined an interview request with this reporter, so we don’t know whether he’s utilizing this legal loophole.)

“The furlough was tough,” Magnante said, speaking about ownership in general. “You could kind of understand it, but when you’re a business that never has to open up your books, nobody knows what ownership really makes, so who are they to be trusted? How can I expect to get an honest answer from them? Are they telling me they’re losing money, or are they telling me they’re not making money?”

Fisher’s cost-cutting while his purchase’s valuation increases leads to an inevitable question: Will he eventually cash out and sell? The A’s have publicly repeated that the team is not for sale, but that doesn’t mean much. Perhaps Fisher’s last hurrah is this ballpark project, whether it be at Howard Terminal or Las Vegas or elsewhere. A ballpark development wouldn’t just serve as a money-maker for Fisher; it would be his long sought-after shot at the type of entrepreneurship mentioned in his father’s autobiography. This could be, at least in his eyes, a chance to carve out his own billionaire legacy.

But that’s just an inference. Even those closest to Fisher are unsure of when he would finally sell, or why he’s opposed to rebuilding at the Coliseum, or whether he’d give up on his quest for a new ballpark. 

The truth is anybody’s guess, because John Fisher isn’t going to tell us. 

Alex Coffey (@byalexcoffey) is a freelance reporter based in New York City. She previously wrote human interest stories about baseball and basketball for The Athletic. Before that, she wrote human interest stories for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Seattle Mariners.

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