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A's-Tigers '72 ALCS was One for the Ages

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I urge you to read Mustache Gang, a wonderful tale of the 1972 season, Oakland's first of three World Series triumphs.  The quotes seen in this post are from Ron Bergman's book.

The Great Playoff Experiment was fizzling out.  In the first three seasons (1969-71) that an additional step was required to advance to the World Series, five out of six series' were sweeps, and not one went the distance.  Score one for the purists.

From 1903 (the year of the inaugural World Series) through 1968, Major League Baseball was divided into two groups; the American and National Leagues.  Every season the first place teams from each circuit would meet in October to decide the championship.  No playoffs or extra rounds, except in those very rare cases of a tie.

That all changed in 1969 when the sport expanded from 20 to 24 teams, and both leagues were split into two six-team subdivisions.

If there was any concern that having to win a short series (five games) might keep the leagues "best" teams out of the Fall Classic, it was emphatically squashed in those first three seasons under the new format.  The Baltimore Orioles, with an average of 106 victories during the regular season, made short work of their Western adversaries in the ALCS, sweeping the Twins (1969-70) and the A's (1971).

The National League playoffs offered only an ounce more in terms of suspense, with the first two series needing only the minimum of games to complete.  It wasn't until 1971 that a series saw the losing team avoid the broom, with Pittsburgh beating San Francisco three games to one.

Although the league playoffs had their moments- five of the 19 games were decided by one run, and two went past nine innings- they were sorely lacking the drama that the World Series had provided in the years leading up to the extended post-season (six of nine Series' from 1960-68 went the full seven games).

Leave it to the Oakland A's to finally give us an ALCS to remember (the NLCS would also go the full five games, with the winning run scoring on a wild pitch).  The A's were owned by the eccentric Charles Finley.  It was a team full of long-haired, short-tempered personalities dressed in funky uniforms.

Reggie

Reggie Jackson steals home in the deciding game of the 1972 ALCS.
(the slugger tore his hamstring in the process and missed the World Series) 

The Mustache Gang won the AL West crown with three straight walk-off wins, with the clincher coming after they had trailed the Twins, 7-0.  One-run games would become old hat for the A's during the playoffs and World Series (9 of 12 contests were decided by that slimmest of margins).

Standing in the way of the A's were Billy Martin and his rag-tag Detroit Tigers, only four years removed from a World Series title.  Game 1 was played in Oakland before a sparse crowd of 29,566.  Those who didn't bother to show missed quite a game.

Starting hurlers Jim "Catfish" Hunter and Mickey Lolich (the hero of the '68 Series) showed exactly why they were penciled in to pitch the playoff opener. Hunter pitched one-run, four-hit ball before leaving with one out in the ninth, having allowed only a second-inning homerun by Norm Cash.  Lolich scattered ten hits in as many innings of work.  A sacrifice fly by Joe Rudi in the third tied things up at one, and that is how it stayed until the 11th, when Al Kaline took Rollie Fingers deep for a homerun.  The future Hall-of-Famer clenched his fist in a rare- and premature- display of emotion as he rounded the bases.

Sal Bando led off the bottom half with a single, just another of many late-inning hits provided by the A's captain during their World Series run.  Mike Epstein followed with a base hit, and like Bando, he was removed for a pinch-runner.  A failed bunt by Gene Tenace allowed the Tigers to get the lead runner at third, bringing Gonzalo Marquez to the plate.  Marquez singled home Mike Hegan, and when Kaline's throw to third bounced away, Tenace followed Hegan to the plate with the winning run.

'72

Gene Tenace scores the winning run, while Mike Hegan jumps for joy.
(photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

On a normal day, Game 2 headlines would have belonged to Oakland's John "Blue Moon" Odom, who baffled the Tigers with a complete-game, three-hit shutout. But the A's were not that into normal. 

It started out innocently enough. Campy Campaneris led off the A's half of the first inning with a base hit, swiped second and third base, and scored on a single by Joe Rudi.  Oakland broke things open with a four-run fifth off three Detroit pitchers to make it 5-0, which turned out to be the final score.

Campaneris was having quite a day- 3-for-3, two runs scored, and two stolen bases- when he stepped up to the plate leading off the bottom of the 7th.  There was absolutely no way of knowing this would be his last plate appearance of the ALCS.  Reliever Lerrin LaGrow hit the speedy shortstop in the ankle with a pitch, and soon found Campy's bat headed towards him (click here for a quick video of the bat toss, about 30 seconds in).  Detroit's dugout emptied, and Billy Martin had successfully fired up his toothless Tigers, while accusing the A's of having no fight in them:

"Did you see those A's?  They didn't want to fight us.  Did you see anybody come out?  If they had come out, they'd have gotten their heads knocked off."

Responded first baseman Mike Epstein:

"What good would it do for me to break my knuckles on Martin's nose?  Of course Martin was throwing at Campy.  He's done it too many times...A lot of guys on his club have confided to me that they're tired of coming out on the field."

Bad blood between the teams was nothing new; just six weeks prior they had an all-out brawl that lasted fifteen minutes.  At first Campaneris was suspended for the remainder of the playoffs and the World Series, should the A's win one of their next three games, with the ALCS shifting to the Motown area.  Later it was changed to the first seven games of the 1973 season.  

ALCS '72 Game 2

Campy Campaneris, just moments before heaving his bat towards Lerrin LaGrow in Game 2.
(photo courtesy of SFGATE)

As for Odom, who retired  the last 16 batters and faced only two hitters over the minimum in his Game 2 masterpiece, he would be heard from again before all was said and done.  Just not exactly the way he would have hoped.

Matty Alou took over for Campaneris in the top spot and produced three hits in five at-bats.  Unfortunately the rest of the A's accounted for only four hits, as Joe Coleman followed Odom's gem with one of his own in a 3-0 Detroit victory.  Coleman struck out an ALCS record 14 batters and went the distance for the win.

Vida Blue was supposed to start Game 4, but was pushed out in favor of Hunter.  The MVP and Cy Young Award winner from the season before (and 1972's most famous holdout) did not take kindly to the switch:

"I think Charlie Finley told Dick Williams to keep me from starting any of these games.  They're afraid I might pitch a no-hitter, and that would give me a good bargaining point for next year's contract...The only way I find out what the club has in mind for me is by reading the papers."

Such was life with the Swingin' A's.

Catfish was not his usual stellar self in Game 4 but kept his team in the game, leaving with one out in the eighth of a 1-1 ballgame.  Blue came on in the ninth, struck out the first two batters he faced, allowed a double and an intentional walk, before getting Willie Horton to fly out.  He was in line for the win, when the A's pushed two runs across in the top of the tenth.

Marquez singled with one out and scored on Alou's double.  Ted Kubiak's knock brought home Alou, and the A's were three outs from their first trip to the World Series since 1931.

But this is where Oakland's odd game of musical second basemen came back to bite them.

During the season, manager Dick Williams (with advice from Finley) had tried out several second-sackers; in one game no less than six A's played there.  In one game, folks (ok, so it was a 15-inning affair, but still).  Often he would pinch-hit before that position's turn to bat came up, so anemic were his offensive choices after regular starter Dick Green went down with an injury (he was limited to 26 games).  Green was back for the playoffs so one would think there would be no need to rearrange the furniture, but he was removed in favor of catcher Dave Duncan in the seventh inning, which left starting backstop Gene Tenace taking Green's spot at second.

What made the move even more maddening is that Duncan could have easily pinch-hit for Tenace, who was 0-for-12 in the ALCS up to that point, and whose spot in the lineup was just one ahead of Green's.

For three innings, Tenace braved the storm, while A's relievers worked in and out of peril.  The Tigers had a chance to take the lead in the eighth but Dick McAuliffe was caught trying to steal home (!) with first and second, and only one out. Blue survived the ninth-inning scare, which brings us back to the bottom of the tenth.

A two-run lead with three outs to go.  The A's didn't get one. 

ALCS '72 Game 4

Gene Tenace's error at second base gave the Tigers the opening needed to steal Game 4. 

McAuliffe and Kaline led off with single off Bob Locker, who was replaced by Joe Horlen.  Horlen threw  a wild pitch, then walked Gates Brown to load the bases.  Then it happened.  Bill Freehan chopped one to third base, where Sal Bando fielded it and, instead of going home for the force,  threw to Tenace, who dropped the ball.  Everyone was safe and one run was in.  Dave Hamilton relived Horlen, and promptly walked Cash to force in the tying run, before Jim Northrup ended the game with a single over Alou's head to send the 37,615 fans into a frenzy.  Manager Dick Williams was in a completely different mood afterwards:

"That (the error) isn't what beat us. Our relief pitching is what hurt.  All I know is I've got two fucking runs and I haven't got a fucking out yet."

All momentum was on the Tigers' side and it carried into the first inning of the fifth and final game, where Detroit- with the aid of a passed by ball by, you guessed it, Tenace- took a  1-0 lead. The A's got it back in the second on a double steal, with Reggie Jackson sliding home under Bill Freehan's tag.  In doing so, the star slugger tore his hamstring and would not play again in 1972.

The A's forged ahead in the fourth, and the lead run was provided by a highly unlikely source.  With George Hendrick on second and two outs, Gene Tenace stepped up, 0-for-16 in the ALCS.  But Tenace singled home Hendrick, and the A's were in front, 2-1.  Tenace's hit would start him on a wild week, where he ended up winning MVP honors in the World Series.

But first they had to get there, and with Blue Moon Odom dealing, it looked like a sure thing. Except Odom wasn't feeling well, and he left after five innings having allowed a run on two hits.  Vida Blue replaced him and shut down the Tigers the rest of the way.  At long last the A's were back in the Series, and baseball had a League Championship Series it had dreamed of since 1969.

ALCS '72 Clincher

In the winning clubhouse, starter-turned-reliever Blue celebrated in a style that would come to define the A's of the early 70's:

"How come you starters can't finish what you begin", he called out to Odom.  "I know why". Blue made a gesture. Later he said he was merely scratching his chin. Others saw it as a choke sign.  Odom flew into a rage.  Players had to hold him back from going at Vida.  Blue apologized to Odom, who was pushed against a wall. Joe Rudi stood in front of him, patting the back of his head with his right hand.  Odom was crying on his shoulder.

Yes, such was life with the Swingin' A's.