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A's Flashback: 1974

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All this talk about 2010 is enough to make my head explode.  Well, not really, but it does bring to mind a verse from the greatest movie of all time:

What's the buzz? Tell me what's happening
Why should you want to know?
Don't you mind about the future, don't you try to think ahead
Save tomorrow for tomorrow, think about today instead

Ah, but even today is a little too troublesome for my liking.  So take a ride with me to my happy place, back to the year 1974, long before ESPN and blog sites (gasp!), when I'd fight my brother Abel for the sports page (and seconds at the dinner table), and late-game highlights came at the tail end of the 11 o'clock newscast.

I was just a seven-year old lad, without a care in the world, and Rated-R Superstar wasn't even a twinkle in his grandmother's eye.  Oakland was at the epicenter of the sporting world.  The Golden State Warriors would win their only NBA championship in the 1974-75 season, and the Raiders knocked off the two-time defending champion Miami Dolphins in one of the most exciting playoff games in NFL history.

But like everyone else in those days, the Raiders and Warriors played second fiddle to the A's whose rallying cry for the year was "Once More in ‘74", having captured World Series titles the two previous seasons.

At first glance, there isn't a whole lot that jumps out at you when it comes to the 1974 Oakland Athletics.  The novelty that was the Mustache Gang had worn off some, making them slightly less endearing than the 1972 team that made the hippie look, well, hip.  And they were hardly dominant; only three World Champions have posted a lower winning percentage than the .556 mark put up by the '74 A's.  They even suffered the indignity of being no-hit by Cleveland's Dick Bosman who, were it not for his own miscue in the fourth inning, would have been perfect that evening.

01- best ever

Through thick and thin: the nucleus of the 3-time champion A's

If there is one thing that stood out about those Swingin' A's it is that nothing fazed them, not even self-inflicted hardships, and boy, did they have plenty of those.

They say familiarity breeds contempt, and it was especially true with the players on that '74 squad, many of whom had been together since the Kansas City days.  One not-so familiar face belonged to Alvin Dark, brought in to replace Dick Williams.  (The 1917 Red Sox are the only other team in league history to change managers after winning back-to-back titles.)  Williams, with three American League West crowns and two World Series triumphs, resigned after the '73 Fall Classic, having gotten his fill of owner Charlie Finley's antics. As reward for his efforts, his former boss denied him the chance take a job with the New York Yankees, since he was still under contract.  Perhaps it was just as well that Williams didn't go; switching from Finley to Steinbrenner would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  There were some who wondered if the soft-spoken, Bible-quoting Dark could take the heat that Williams fanned off so well for three tumultuous years.  After all, Finley had fired Dark in 1967, one of ten managers in as many seasons to receive a pink slip from The Man.  Said the owner at the press conference, "Yes I fired (Alvin) once.  Yes, he can expect to be fired again some day."  Not exactly a vote of confidence.

02- Finley

Love him or hate him, Charlie Finley was the architect of the A's dynasty.

But as the A's broke for camp, it wasn't the new manager that was on the players' minds.  It was the rings they received for defeating the New York Mets the previous October.  Though Finley had promised a more luxurious product if the team repeated as champions, these rings didn't even have diamonds, featuring a cheap imitation stone instead.  But he did make sure to inscribe his favorite motto: "S + S= S" for "Sweat plus Sacrifice equals Success."  His players had their own definition: "Shit plus Shit equals Shit."

And so the champions began their quest for a third consecutive title with their old friend Williams seeking employment elsewhere, World Series rings straight out of a Cracker Jack box, and an uninspired spring schedule (eight wins, sixteen defeats) behind them.  Add Finley's latest innovation- the designated runner- to the mix, and the A's were just the right amount of pissed off as the 1974 season got under way.  Herb Washington was a world class sprinter with not a single inning of major-league experience to his name when Oakland signed him as a non-drafted free agent.  His teammates were none too pleased that an important roster spot was reserved for a guy who would neither swing a bat nor field a ball in ninety-two career games played.

03- dark

Alvin Dark (l) and Herb Washington (r) had much to prove to be accepted by the champion A's.

All of which served the angry A's well, as they showed once again that off-field distractions mattered little once they got between the white lines with a 7-2 Opening Night win in Texas.  The champs jumped all over Jim Bibby, who no-hit the A's and gave up just three runs in 26-1/3 innings of work against Oakland just one year prior.  Alvin Dark, who was on his way out when Reggie Jackson made his major league debut in June 1967, must have liked knowing that he would have the reigning MVP for a full season.  Jackson went 4-for-5 with two doubles, a homerun, and a stolen base to back Catfish Hunter (seven innings, six hits, two runs, no walks).  And when Hunter tired in the eighth, the new manager turned to another future Hall-of-Famer, Rollie Fingers, who spun two scoreless innings at the Rangers.

After taking two of three from Texas and splitting a pair in Kansas City, the A's came home to face the Rangers again, and Billy Martin's upstarts sandwiched 10-2 and 10-3 romps around Hunter's second win of the season.  The Rangers still had no answer for Reggie, who hit two homeruns and drove in seven in the third game at Texas, then hit another pair in the win back home.  All told the right-fielder went yard five times in six contests against his future manager, and at the end of April had ten dingers to his name.  But all the A's could muster was ten wins in those twenty games, and after an ugly 9-3 loss to the visiting Baltimore Orioles on May 7 in which their pitchers surrendered twenty-one hits, the champs were at a season-low 12-15, three games behind those pesky Rangers.

04- bando-jax-rudi

The Swaggerin' A's included (from l-r) Captain Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson, and Joe Rudi.

On May 20 the A's took over first place in the muddled American League West where just three games separated the six teams.  It was a lead they would never lose.  A 6-4 win versus Milwaukee on June 2 gave Oakland 17 wins in 23 contests.  If they awarded MVP's in fifty-game increments, Reggie Jackson would have won this one hands down.  He hit two more homeruns that day against the Brewers, leaving him with fifteen long balls to go with a .399 batting average, .470 OBP, and .759 slugging.  "Everyone is helpless and in awe" he said in a Sports Illustrated cover story to describe what it was like when he was at the plate.  Jackson's sizzling start impressed even Time Magazine, which featured the "superduperstar" on its cover, too.

Alas, Reggie himself was "helpless" to the injuries that would beset him.  Just two days after the Time story hit the newsstands, Jackson and centerfielder Bill North wrestled before a game against the Tigers, with the former hurting his shoulder.  The relationship between the two was already strained after Reggie scolded North earlier in the season for not hustling.  Meanwhile catcher Ray Fosse, who sought out to be the peacemaker during the fight, suffered a herniated disk.  After an 0-for-4 night in Detroit, Fosse would not play again until August 24.  Oakland crushed the Tigers 9-1, and the newspaper reporters salivated over the Fighting A's, and how they liked to beat up on each other to ready themselves for battle on the field.

05- jackson time

Time wasn't on Reggie's side; his season took a nasty turn after this.

The A's swooned in June, going just 14-14 to follow up a 17-11 mark in May.  Things boiled over after an 11-inning loss at Fenway on June 20.  It was a game the players felt that Dark gave away. In the locker room afterwards, Captain Sal Bando fumed.  "He couldn't manage a meat market!"  Fingers chimed in.  "He couldn't manage a marbles tournament."  So naturally the A's returned home and put a three-game beat down on the Kansas City Royals, a surprise visitor to the American League West race.  A week later, KC took two of three at their place and finished June just two and a half games off the pace.

Oakland met up with an old friend down in Anaheim as Dick Williams took over the last-place Angels on July 1.  To thank him for making them winners, they swept four straight from the Halos.  Meaningless contests in the middle of summer, especially those against the Cleveland Indians, were hardly the type the champs got up for.  But for one night against Gaylord Perry, who took a 16-game win streak into a packed Coliseum on July 8, the Green and Gold were dressed in their playoff best.  Gene Tenace got things rolling with a two-run shot off Perry in the second inning.  But Cleveland got to Blue for a run in the fourth before former Athletic Dave Duncan stroked a two-run homer in the seventh to give the Indians a 3-2 lead.  In the bottom of the ninth, Joe Rudi hit a one-out triple and Herb Washington came home on a Tenace sac fly to tie it.  This time the designated runner move paid off.  In the bottom of the tenth, another Washington (Claudell) came through for Oakland.  Having made his big-league debut just three days before, the 19-year old punched a two-out single to score the winning run while the sold-out stadium celebrated and Finley's fireworks filled the sky.  In essence, the A's won the West that month, going 20-8 to build a comfortable 8.5 game lead.  Good thing too, because they were just 29-29 the rest of the way.

After an ugly home sweep to the Rangers left Oakland just 5.5 games up as newspapers slid across front porches the morning of September 9, the Royals again bore the brunt of the Athletics' wrath.  In a strange scheduling quirk, Kansas City was in town for just one night, a Monday evening double-dip before a Family Night crowd of more than 46,000.  Only there was nothing "family" oriented about it; in fact it very much resembled a Raider game.  I call on my brother John to describe the atmosphere that night.  "About midway through the first game the fans near the Royals' bullpen began calling their players out and were actually reaching in and trying to pummel them. In those days, and especially on these raucous Family Nights, you didn't boo fans for behaving like that, you cheered them on. The Royals had to clear their team off the field until order was restored and that was the beginning of the end for them. The house was rockin' and the A's went on to sweep."  Vida and Catfish spun back-to-back shutouts, allowing just six singles between them, while punching in for a total of four hours and fourteen minutes (or less than the Yankees and Red Sox take to play one game).

Cat

Jim "Catfish" Hunter shows the form that earned him the AL Cy Young Award in 1974.

During Oakland's 158th game of the season, a score flashed across the board: Kansas City 5, Texas 4.  And with that the A's had won their fourth consecutive division crown.  Having been there before and knowing there was more to do, there was no hootin' and hollerin' in the clubhouse afterwards.  Instead the A's grabbed bottles of champagne and went home. 

The American League Championship Series featured the World Champs and the Baltimore Orioles in somewhat of a playoff rubber match.  The O's swept three straight from Oakland in 1971; the A's got their revenge with a five-game victory two years later.  Jim "Catfish" Hunter, whose 25-12 record and 2.49 ERA earned him the season's Cy Young award was known for his big-game performances, including a shutout of Baltimore in the previous season's deciding contest.  But the Orioles were flying high, on a ten-game winning streak as the playoffs began, and they jumped on Catfish for three homeruns in a 6-3 win.  Unaccustomed to such mistreatment of their ace, the A's struck back with consecutive shutouts, the first by Ken Holtzman to knot the series at a game apiece, the second by Blue who made Bando's solo shot in the fourth stand up.  His stirring two-hitter left the A's knocking on the Series door for the third straight year.

07- ken alcs 2

Ken Holtzman's shutout in Game 2 got the A's back on track...

08- blue alcs 3

...and Vida Blue blanked Baltimore In Game 3 to put the O's on the brink.

Catfish was back on the bump for Game 4 at Baltimore, and he delivered:  seven innings of scoreless ball.  His counterpart Mike Cuellar left the game in the fifth without allowing a hit.  But he served up nine free passes, including one to Tenace with the bags full in the fifth.  Jackson doubled home Bando in the seventh, the A's only hit on the afternoon.  Catfish gave way to Fingers, who gave up a run on a walk and two singles in a nervous ninth, Baltimore's first score in thirty innings.  With two men on and two out, Rollie reared back and struck out Don Baylor to end it.

09- alcs- reg

The A's got one hit in Game 4 but it was a double by Reg to drive home Bando with the winner.

The A's were off to another World Series, this time against the upstart Los Angeles Dodgers.  How to get up for the young and cocky Dodgers?  Oakland-style, that's how.  In a three-day span that was whacko even by A's standards, former second basemen Mike Andrews sued Finley for 2.5 million (for the '73 Series fiasco), Catfish charged the owner with a breach of contract (paving the way for his departure from the team), and Fingers and Odom brawled on the eve of Game 1.  Which naturally was won by the A's, who by now treated any sort of adversity with a shrug of the shoulders.  Reggie homered in that first game (normal stuff) and Hunter relieved Fingers (not so normal) to save the win for Oakland, curious underdogs to the Dodgers.

10- 74 series

The All-California World Series in 1974 was the first of its kind.

Los Angeles won Game 2 by the Game 1 score of 3-2 and the two teams headed north for the next three contests. Another 3-2 win, pitched by Catfish was followed by a 5-2 affair won by Holtzman, who also homered in the game.  Dick Green, who was an absolute magician throughout the Series at second base, ended the game on his belly as he flipped the ball to Campaneris, triggering a mind-blowing double play and setting off Finley's fireworks at the same time.  That put Vida Blue on the mound against the Dodger Blue for the finale but it was John "Blue Moon" Odom who got the victory in relief.  With the score tied at two in the seventh inning, the game was halted as fans littered the field with debris.  Their target?  Bill Buckner.  Yes, that Bill Buckner.  He had irked the A's and their fans by suggesting that only three Oakland players were fit to play for the Dodgers: Reggie, Rudi, and Bando.  He picked a good trio, but Billy forgot about pitching.  And, um, defense.  While the umps cleaned up the mess on the field, reliever Mike Marshall opted not to warm up.  When play resumed, batter Joe Rudi figured the heater was coming, and as champions do, he not only guessed right, he deposited Marshall's offering somewhere in Fruitvale.

11- game 5- rudi

Joe Rudi's homerun in the 7th inning broke a 2-2 tie and clinched the '74 title for Oakland.

 A's fans began celebrating the inevitable.  The champs had one defining moment left, and it was Buckner in the middle of the action once more.  His single to center leading off the eighth got past North, and he took off for second with an unhesitating eye on third.  But there was Reggie, backing up the man he tussled with in June, and he rifled a bullet to Green who wheeled and threw to Bando, who applied a hard tag on poor Buckner.  Reggie Jackson, from his self-titled book:

"I saw everything in front of me.  If you're baseball-wise, you see the whole thing developing.  As I went for the ball, I saw Buckner going into second.  I knew instinctively what he was thinking.  He was human and he was thinking third.  I was saying to myself, ‘Where you going, man?  Hey, man, don't run on me.  Don't disregard me.  Respect me.  At least hesitate.  Break stride.  Wave at me.  Holler, ‘Hey, Jack.'  Something.  Anything.  Let me know you know I'm there.  Don't pass go.  Don't collect no money."

"I can throw hard and accurate. But I never even thought of throwing to third.  I made the fundamental play I was supposed to make, and it worked.  I never even took a look for Greenie before I threw.  I threw where he was supposed to be and he was there.  I know he didn't look for Bando.  He threw where third was and Sal was there."

The play epitomized the dynasty that was the 70's A's.  Picking up a teammate.  Positioning.  Trusting.  And ultimately unappreciated amid Finley's Freak Show. Came the ninth and Rollie was on the mound, as he was in '72.  Von Joshua grounded meekly to Fingers who jumped up and down before finally throwing the ball to Tenace at first, and the A's were champs Once More.  The three-peat was complete and Rollie was named the Series MVP.  The most famous upper lip of the Mustache Gang, Fingers pitched in four of the five games, with one win, two saves, and a tidy 1.93 ERA.

13- rollie

Long live the king: Rollie Fingers receives royal treatment at the A's victory parade.

As for the Oakland A's, fighters off the field, winners on it, perhaps it was Sal Bando who summed it up best.  "Had we played in New York, we would have been known as the greatest team in baseball history."

For what it's worth, captain, you're the greatest in my book.

14- champs

Nobody celebrated championships like the A's of the mid-70's.