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A's, Tigers Helped Put the Playoffs on the Map

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After Three Sweeps, the ALCS Went the Distance in 1972

Thearon W. Henderson - Getty Images

The Oakland A's have faced the Detroit Tigers in post-season play twice before, although folks in these parts would soon rather forget the last time.

So we won't talk about it.

Instead, jump in the time machine with me to the year 1972. Groovy, man. The Swingin' A's were in just their fifth season in Oakland. The post-season format was also in its infancy stage; this was the fourth year since the American and National Leagues were split up into these things called "divisions", and the winners of these divisions would meet up in something called the "playoffs" to determine who would play in the World Series.

For the first three years, the playoff idea was a dud. The Baltimore Orioles, winners of the American League East Division from 1969-71, had won each series three games to none, twice defeating the Twins, and the latest sweep coming at the hands of the Oakland A's. The National League's extra series offered very little drama as well, with only the 1971 NLCS going past the minimum number of games.

That would all change in 1972, as both championship series' went the distance. The Cincinnati Reds came back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to clinch the pennant at home. And they did it in walk-off fashion, rallying for two runs in the bottom of the ninth; the winning run brought home on a wild pitch by Pittsburgh's Bob Moose, thus ending the Pirates' bid to repeat as World Series champions.

Yes, boys and girls; once upon a time, the Pittsburgh Pirates were good. Scary good.

In the American League Series, it looked to be another sweep, with the A's taking the first two games at home. But we would soon learn that when it came to the long-haired guys in the funky uniforms, there was no such thing as easy...or ordinary.

The Detroit Tigers, winners of the 1968 World Series, were long-toothed and short-tempered, the latter characteristic a direct reflection of their fiery manager, Alfred Manual (Billy) Martin. The Tigers survived a wild scramble to claim the East; as late as September 12, there were four teams - Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, and New York - within a game of the top spot. The Yankees were the only team of the aforementioned quartet that did not have sole possession of first place at any point in September, a month that resembled a game of musical chairs as much as it did a pennant race.

Oakland's Mustache Gang - each player was paid $300 by owner Charlie Finley to grow hair on their upper lip - only had to stave of the pesky Chicago White Sox for their second consecutive AL West crown. The A's gave their fans a preview of things to come in the last two weeks of the regular season; six of their last nine games were decided by one run. Their last four victories to clinch the division were walk-offs, including a pair of extra-inning affairs in a double-header sweep of the Twins, followed by an epic comeback the next day - from 7-0 - that won the West in dramatic style.

The A's and Tigers had generated a genuine dislike for each over during the season, as the clubs engaged in a bench-clearing brawl in August. This was not your usual dance number around the pitcher's mound that exemplified a baseball "fight." The fun started when Billy Martin took exception to an attempted steal by John "Blue Moon" Odom with the A's holding a five-run lead late in the game. Martin gestured to relief pitcher Bill Slayback to brush back batter Angel Mangual. The pitch sailed past Mangual, and Slayback started towards home plate in case Odom had any ideas of scoring from second.

Ron Bergman takes it from here, as he wrote in his book, "Mustache Gang":

"Mangual met Slayback halfway between the mound and the plate and hit him in the eye with his right fist. Martin stormed out of the dugout and headed directly for Mangual. Dick Williams cut Martin off and held him back. Willie Horton ran in from center field and floored Mike Epstein with a right hand. A's coach Jerry Adair and Tiger catcher Duke Sims punched each other out on the third base line...For fifteen minutes, the two teams fought in a free-for-all."

Later, in the A's locker room, coach Irv Noren wore a bandage over his eye, a victim of a punch by reliever Tom Timmerman. As Bergman reported, Noren wasn't about to back down: "You tell him that I'm forty eight years old, but I'll fight him any time."

A modest crowd of 29,566 showed up at the Oakland Coliseum on October 7 for Game 1 of the ALCS. Both teams started their aces: Jim "Catfish" Hunter for the A's; '68 Series hero Mickey Lolich for the Tigers. Detroit struck first on a solo homerun by Norm Cash leading off the second inning, but the A's quickly tied things up in the third with Joe Rudi's sac fly scoring Bert "Campy" Campaneris. The score held into the eleventh, when Al Kaline homered with one out off fellow future Hall-of-Famer Rollie Fingers.

But the A's weren't dead yet. Sal Bando and Mike Epstein chased Lolich with back-to-back singles to start the bottom half. "Blue Moon" Odom ran for Bando; Mike Hegan for Epstein. Gene Tenace failed in his attempt to bunt the runners over as Odom was forced at third base.

Then Marquez stepped up.

Gonzalo Marquez, that is. Signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Kansas City A's in 1966, Marquez did not play in his first big-league game until 1972. August 11, to be exact. Used mostly in a pinch-hitting role, he collected 8 hits in 21 at-bats to earn himself a post-season roster spot.

In the first playoff at-bat of his life, Marquez came through with a single to score Hegan, and when Kaline's throw from right field ricocheted off the bag at third, Tenace raced home with the winning run as the Coliseum erupted.

There was drama of a different sort the next day. And that didn't bode well for poor John "Blue Moon" Odom, whose masterful complete-game, three-hit, no-walk shutout got lost in the madness. The offensive prowess on display by leadoff hitter Campy Campaneris - 3-for-3, two runs scored, and two stolen bases to spark a 5-0 victory and 2-0 series lead - was also an afterthought.

What Campaneris did in the home half of the seventh inning was anything but an afterthought.

The speedy shortstop was looking for his fourth hit on the afternoon when reliever Lerrin LaGrow plucked him on his left ankle with a pitch. Campaneris rose to his feet and flung his bat at the mound where LaGrow ducked to keep from losing his head. While the home plate umpire wrapped his arms around Campaneris, Billy Martin challenged the A's to a fist-fight, one they had no particular interest in joining. More Bergman:

"What good would it do to break my knuckles on Martin's nose?" said Mike Epstein. "Of course Martin was throwing at Campy. He's done it too many times. And coming out to fight, that's Martin's way of firing up his club."

Well, it worked. With the ALCS shifting to the Motor City, the A's minus the suspended Campaneris were shut out 3-0 by Joe Coleman, who struck out 14 batters on the day.

After swapping shutouts, the two teams were tied at one after nine innings in Game 4, as Hunter and Lolich continued to baffle opposing lineups. In the top of the tenth, Marquez singled with one out, and later scored on Matty Alou's double. Ted Kubiak followed with a single to plate Alou, and the A's were suddenly within three outs of their first trip to the World Series since 1932.

They didn't even get one out.

Detroit quickly loaded the bases for catcher Bill Freehan, who hit a groundball to third baseman Sal Bando, who had to lunge to his left to spear the ball. Bando turned and threw to catcher Gene Tenace. Except catcher Gene Tenace was playing second base at the time - part of a season-long experiment of rotating second basemen that resulted in the A's using six in one game in September. Tenace dropped the ball, allowing the Tigers to close within 3-2. A bases-loaded walk and a long fly ball later, and Detroit celebrated an improbable comeback.

And the new playoffs had the do-or-die game its creators dreamed of back in '69.

If the A's were to advance to past the Tigers, they would have to come back from a demoralizing defeat in hostile territory. And once again, they'd have to work from behind as Detroit struck for a first-inning score. In the top of the second, Reggie Jackson led off with the walk, stole second, went to third on a fly ball by Bando, and - as part of a double steal - stole home to tie the game. He would not play another inning for the remainder of the post-season.

Reggie Jackson had ruptured his left hamstring.

The A's took the lead in the fourth inning as Jackson's replacement George Hendrick reached on an error and was sacrificed to second. Gene Tenace - 0-for-16 in the ALCS and yesterday's goat - bounced a single into left field to score Hendrick.

Starter John "Blue" Odom left after five innings complaining of dizziness. He was relieved by Vida Blue, the previous season's American League MVP and Cy Young award winner. Blue shut down Detroit in the final four frames, and when George Hendrick gloved Tony Taylor's fly ball to center, the Athletics - at long last - had punched their ticket to the World Series.

It wasn't easy, and it wasn't without controversy. Even in the winner's locker room, confusion reigned. Reggie Jackson stood on crutches not sure whether to laugh or cry. Campy Campaneris was still unsure of his status after his bat-slinging incident in Game 2. And Vida Blue mocked "Blue Moon" Odom, offering him a choke sign in an answer to his own question as to why "starters can't finish what they begin." Odom, in tears, had to be restrained from going after his teammate.

The new playoffs were a bore no more.