'73 A's Thrived on Adversity, Theatrics

Common occurrence in Oakland in the early 70's. - Getty Images

Oakland welcomes home its conquering heroes for a 40-year anniversary bash.

It didn’t make any sense.

The Oakland A’s – that team from the inferior American League, with their mustaches and flowing hair, those garish outfits and white shoes – had defeated the Big Red Machine in the 1972 World Series.

The A’s didn’t just buck tradition; they punched him in the face, smooched his girlfriend, and spilled champagne on his carpet.

(I suppose that would be your stance if you were someone that judged people based on outward appearances. Thankfully, we live in a society that frowns on such absurdities).

As Sports Illustrated scribe Ron Fimrite pointed out after the A’s took a 2-0 Series lead with a pair of one-run victories in Cincinnati:

With their Wednesday Night Bowling Club uniforms, flowing manes and bristling mustaches, the A's only look odd. They are really quite an orthodox baseball team.

And as is the case with many a baseball champion, Oakland’s success was much ado about pitching. Even the guy who holds the major league record for most career hits couldn’t deny that:

"I looked at those ERAs," Rose said of his pitching opponents in the Series, "and I don't care if you're pitching for the Rhode Island Reds in the Chicken League, a good ERA is a good ERA."

Well the A’s did not play baseball on a farm but to some experts they may as well have. Cincinnati skipper Sparky Anderson was one of many who subscribed to the theory that the National League was far superior to the junior circuit:

"If I said the American League was as good as the National League, I'd be lying. Yes, Oakland could come over and play in our league and maybe Boston. But they're the only ones."

There was also a widespread opinion that the real championship was played a week earlier in the NLCS between the Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates, a grueling five-game series that ended on a walk-off wild pitch by Pittsburgh hurler Bob Moose.

The A’s series with Detroit had also gone the distance, and they survived the suspension of Campy Campaneris, who flung a bat at Tiger pitcher Lerrin LaGrow after he plunked the shortstop’s ankle with a pitch that – if you asked any Oakland player – was delivered under the orders of fiery Detroit manager Billy Martin. Campaneris would be reinstated for the World Series.

Reggie Jackson was not as fortunate. The slugger stole home in the clinching Game 5, only to rupture his hamstring on the play. He watched the Fall Classic on crutches.

So how did the A’s respond to such adversity? By riding their stellar pitching and the hot bat of unlikely hero Gene Tenace (four homeruns) to a stunning seven-game victory in the 1972 World Series. It didn’t matter how the A’s were perceived (or their league for that matter) or that they were outscored over the course of the seven games; in the end, they were the ones to hoist up that shiny trophy.

It didn’t make any sense, though Fimrite did his best to explain:

Never has a Series winner had to fight as hard as the A's. Six of the seven games played were decided by one run, and records show that the closest thing to that happened in 1924 when the Washington Senators won their only title while playing four "one-runners" against the New York Giants. The A's won without their best player, Reggie Jackson. They won with only eight pitchers, and none of those pitched a complete game. They won because for most of the way their pitching muffled Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Bobby Tolan—the first three hitters in the Cincinnati batting order—and because the A's decided that if anyone was going to beat them it was definitely not going to be Johnny Bench. During the regular season Rose, Morgan and Tolan got on base 43% of the time. In the Series that shrunk to 29% and Bench produced only one RBI.

Yes, the Hairs had beaten the Squares, and well, score one for the nonconformists, eh?

The advertisers hadn’t quite caught on to the glamour of the Mustache Gang, leaving guys like Series hero Gene Tenace waiting by the phone. And waiting:

If it is true that an ordinary man's life is transformed by great events, then there is no accounting for Gene Tenace. As some few still recall, he is that ordinary chap who hit all those home runs for Oakland in last year's World Series and tasted briefly of the golden nectar of fame. Alas, it was but a sip; Tenace now finds himself to be a wistful soul-mate of the George S. Kaufman contemporary who, according to the playwright, was "forgotten but not gone."

{snip}

In this age of instant stardom, fame is more fleeting than ever. Tenace had expected to be overwhelmed with requests to endorse underwear or soft drinks, to plug deodorant on the tube and to favor the talk shows with his homey Midwestern presence. There would be Tenace bantering easily with Cavett, breaking up Carson and McMahon with hilarious baseball anecdotes, perhaps even discoursing on the conservative political outlook of Lucasville, Ohio with William F. Buckley Jr.

"Every time I turned on the television, I expected to see us on it," said Tenace's bouncy blonde wife Linda. But no.

Well hell, it’s not like the A’s were going to win the whole darn thing again. Hair today, gone tomorrow and all that jazz. Oakland lost its first three games of the 1973 season. At home. To a mediocre Minnesota club. The A’s then split two with Chicago, two with the Twins, and dropped two of three to Kansas City, before finally winning a series - against the Angels.

Oakland finished April 9-11. In their first 20 games of 1971, they had gone 14-6; in ’72, 13-7.

The A’s fell to Boston on June 1, lowering their record to 24-25. This could no longer be chalked up to a slow start. Oakland was in fifth place, six games behind the front-running White Sox.

Turns out they just needed to find their happy place. Which, in Oakland, did not require a dose of the warm and fuzzies:

There were encouraging signs last week that the Oakland A's, who simply have not been their World Champion selves, were finally emerging from the doldrums of .500 baseball. They were starting to gripe again, and this is a team that is not truly happy unless it is unhappy—about its eccentric owner, Charlie Finley, maybe, or its stern manager, Dick Williams, or the multitudes in Oakland who do not come out to see them play. The A's griped all the way to the pennant and the World Series last year and, when it was over, they griped all the way to the bank.

There were sub-par performances by pitchers Vida Blue and “Blue Moon” Odom, and protests over missed playing time by outfielders Joe Rudi and Reggie Jackson. But those paled in comparison to a simmering Dick Williams who watched his A’s bloop and blunder their way to a series loss to the Brewers:

"It's been like this all year," said team captain and Third Baseman Sal Bando, reflecting on the boo-boos. "We just haven't been executing. You can win a third of your games and you can lose a third of your games. Then there is another third that you can either win or lose by doing the right things, the fundamental things. We won that third last year. We have to win them again this year."

They would have to win those games without ace starter “Catfish” Hunter who broke his thumb trying to bare-hand a line drive off the bat of Billy Williams in the All-Star game. Hunter would miss a month’s worth of starts, giving hope to an up-and-coming Kansas City club thirsty for post-season action:

In his general manager's box, Cedric Tallis of the Royals turned to a companion and said, "That might be the pennant right there. But I wouldn't want to wish anyone an injury." Three days later (centerfielder Amos) Otis put it another way. Entering the Royals' clubhouse, he learned that Oakland had just lost its third straight game to Minnesota. Chanted Otis, "Catfish Hunter's gone and Oakland's down the drain."

{snip}

And the Royals are looking appreciatively at the schedule ahead. After the All-Star Game Kansas City was to play 18 of its next 27 games at home, while Oakland would be on the road for 14 of its next 21. "We've had our grind," said Infielder Cookie Rojas. "Now they can have theirs."

Kansas City did not take advantage. From Hunter’s final start prior to the All-Star Game on July 20 to being reactivated on August 19, the first-place A’s actually gained a half-game in the standings.

Oakland went 55-29 between June 2 and August 31, essentially wrapping up the division with a month to spare, and keeping those pesky Royals at arm’s length. The A’s were already the Show-Me State’s least favorite team, having skipped town five years before just as their young nucleus of talent was beginning to blossom. They went into Kansas City on that last day of August and scored a fight-marred 10-7 victory that looked more like a typical Raiders-Chiefs showdown than a baseball game:

ATHLETICS 9TH: Fosse singled; Kubiak struck out; North singled to center [Fosse to third]; Campaneris lined out on a sacrifice fly to left [Fosse scored]; North stole second [North to third (error by Taylor)]; Bill North faked a steal of HP; going back to 3B he bumped into Kurt Bevacqua; they traded punches and both benches emptied; 15 minute delay; Bevacqua and North ejected by HP umpire Nestor Chylak; Conigliaro ran for North; Bando hit an inside the park homer to center [Conigliaro scored]; Jackson grounded out (second to first); 3 R, 3 H, 1 E, 0 LOB. Athletics 10, Royals 7.

It was the second time in 1973 that North started a fight with a Kansas City player; he tangled with pitcher Doug Bird in May.

Undaunted, the Royals rebounded to win the next two games and cut the A’s lead to 3.5 games, but the division rivals met up in Oakland a week later, and the champs delivered the knock-out punch: a 13-0 win in front of a raucous Monday Night crowd of 47,570, followed by a 3-1 victory to push the lead to six games.

On September 23, in the hometown of owner Charlie Finley – you haven’t heard the last of him, by the way – the A’s jumped out to a 10-0 lead on the White Sox, and cruised to a 10-5 division-clinching romp. Since Dick Williams took over the team in 1971, all would-be challengers to the American League West throne were ultimately dismissed, even if it took a little longer this time for the A’s to get into character:

It is true, of course, that when a team is losing there is much that can hurt it. But for those who know the A's best, it is heartening that now at least they are no longer taking their punishment lying down. Instead, they are out there griping for all they are worth, which is considerable. And at griping they are still, indisputably, the champions of the world.

To defend their title, the A’s would have to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS, something they failed at two years prior. The playoffs proved to be a near-mirror image of the regular season, with the champs taking their sweet time to answer the bell.

Behind Jim Palmer, the O’s rolled in Game 1, 6-0. Sal Bando slugged two homeruns to help draw the A’s even, and they took the series lead when Campy Campaneris used his bat for swinging rather than flinging; his 11th inning walk-off homer made a winner out of Holtzman. Given a chance to close out the series, Vida blew a 4-0 lead, and the Orioles headed into the fifth and final game flying high. But Catfish Hunter had a way of bringing teams back to earth, and the A’s earned a second consecutive trip to the World Series with a tidy 3-0 win.

A little bit of everything was in store for the World Series, something you came to expect from a team owned by Charles Oscar Finley. Oakland faced the New York Mets, who were looking for an encore to their 1969 Miracle season. Yogi Berra’s bunch limped in with 82 wins during the season plus three more against the heavily favored Reds in the NLCS. The defending champs did enough of the little things to record a 2-1 victory in Game 1.

But, in case you haven’t caught on by now, the ‘73 A’s demonstrated a remarkable ability of doing things the hard way. An unforgiving sun in Game 2 turned anyone with a glove – including the aging Willie Mays – inside out. The Mets finally won the four-hour contest 10-7 in 12 innings, thanks to two costly errors by second baseman Mike Andrews in the deciding frame. Afterwards, Finley convinced Andrews to admit that he was ill and could no longer participate in the World Series. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a long-time nemesis of Finley, promptly vetoed Andrews’ “resignation”. Manager Dick Williams, who told his team that he would be seeking employment elsewhere once the Series was over, was one of many infuriated Athletics:

The A's resembled a soap-opera troupe, and Charles O. Finley, the jolly green gewgaw who owns them, exhibited all his familiar charm and grace. At one stage an Oakland player was asked if he had talked to Finley recently. "No, not at all," he said. "Every time I call him he's out walking his pet rat."

The scene switched to New York for Game 3, and the Mustache Gang racked up another must win, a 3-2 extra-inning thriller. Mike Andrews drew most of the attention and was given a standing ovation when he came to bat. His grounder to short was his last at-bat in the majors. Meanwhile, Campaneris drove home Ted Kubiak with the game-winner in the 11th. Undeterred, the hosts beat the champs with some filthy pitching: Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman held the A’s to a single run in Games 4 and 5 combined.

Oakland returned home down three games to two, staring elimination and Tom Seaver in the face. Reggie Jackson, who endured death threats throughout the playoffs, lit up Seaver for two run-scoring doubles that lifted the A’s into a Series tie. Catfish Hunter was again at his high-stakes best in the 3-1 victory. One more for all the marbles and the poor Mets didn’t stand a chance. Campaneris and Jackson connected for two-run homers in a four-run fourth – Oakland’s first long balls of the Series – and the A’s went on to win, 5-2. Hobbling on crutches while his teammates celebrated a championship just one year before, a vindicated Reggie Jackson took MVP honors and staked his claim as the best in baseball:

"I missed the Series last year because of an injury," recalled Jackson, "and there were nights when I cried because I couldn't play. This time there has been such an undercurrent of animosity and turmoil that the Series has been tarnished. I wanted to slide and run and hit and get dirty, but the little boy in me was taken out by all the nonsense in New York. Nobody seemed to care anything about the players, just all that other stuff."

But overcoming “all that other stuff” is exactly how Reggie Jackson and the Oakland A’s rolled, and for the second straight season they were kings of the baseball world.

Forty years and a cool bobblehead later, to this writer, they still are.

Make sense of that if you can.

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