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Today in Oakland A’s history (4/13): Oakland A’s earn first-ever win in 1968

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At the expense of a future teammate

Sal Bando
Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season is on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, so we’ve got some time to burn and a baseball void to fill. Fortunately, there are decades of Oakland A’s history to look back on, and even rerunball is better than no ball at all. Let’s reminisce!

Here’s the latest “this date in history” from A’s info manager Mike Selleck:

Last week, we took a closer look at the Oakland A’s first-ever game back in 1968. They lost that day, 3-1 to the Orioles, and it was three days before their next contest. When they did take the field again, this time in the nation’s capital against the Washington Senators, they finally earned their first win. Granted, the franchise had won 3,886 games while representing Philadelphia, and at least another 50 or so in their 13 years as a doormat in Kansas City (just kidding, they won 829 there despite never having a winning record). But this was their first as the Oakland A’s.

As for their opponent, the Senators were not a good team in 1968, finishing the season in the cellar of the AL with 96 losses. They did have one star in their lineup, with the powerful Frank Howard batting cleanup. The 6’7 behemoth, whose colorful nicknames during his Hall of Very Good career included The Capital Punisher and The Washington Monument, led the majors with 44 homers that year — despite league-wide suppressed offense in what became known as the Year of the Pitcher.

Surrounding Howard in Washington’s lineup were their other two best hitters, Mike Epstein and Ken McMullen. Both would go on to play for the A’s over the next decade, with Epstein winning a ring on the 1972 squad and McMullen coming to town for a year in 1976.

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The game itself featured plenty of excitement, en route to a 9-6 finish.

After needing eight innings to find the plate on Opening Day, the A’s jumped out to an early lead right away in their second game of the season. A small-ball run in the 1st inning put them up 1-0, and starter Chuck Dobson kept the Senators off the board for the first three frames.

However, Washington fought back from there, mostly thanks to Howard. The slugger doubled to lead off the 4th, moved to third on an error by Reggie Jackson in right field, and scored an unearned run. Then in the 5th he belted a two-run shot, giving his team a 3-1 advantage.

At this point, someone hit the activation switch on Sal Bando, and he took over from there. He wouldn’t officially be named the Team Captain for another year, but he certainly played the role on this day. After Howard’s blast in the 5th, Future Captain Sal (Sergeant Sal?) immediately responded in the top of the 6th with a two-run dinger of his own to bring the score back to a tie. His teammates soon followed by piecing together another rally, and by the end of the inning a 3-1 deficit had become a 5-3 lead.

But Bando wasn’t done. He came up again with a runner on base in the 7th, and knocked him in with an RBI double. That insurance run helped Oakland retain their lead when Washington rallied in the bottom of the 7th. Then in the 9th, nursing a narrow 6-5 lead, Bando came up with the bases loaded and once again provided crucial insurance with a sac fly. Washington soon gifted the A’s a couple more unearned runs, but Bando’s final RBI served as the eventual game-winner.

All told, Bando finished the day 3-for-4, with a homer, a double, and 4 RBI. Click here to see the full box score and play-by-play.

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Perhaps the most interesting part of this game is the identity of the pitcher against whom the A’s took their permanent lead in the 6th. Darold Knowles didn’t officially take the loss, as Washington starter Phil Ortega was technically credited with allowing five runs. But when Ortega exited the game, the score was 3-3 with the bases loaded and two outs. Knowles inherited that jam, setting up a lefty-lefty matchup against quality hitter Rick Monday, but Oakland countered by calling on righty Mike Hershberger to pinch-hit. Hershberger delivered a single to drive in a pair of runs, giving the A’s a lead they’d never relinquish.

Why is this relevant? Three years later, in May of 1971, the Senators traded Knowles (and Epstein) to Oakland. The southpaw stuck around for the entirety of the ensuing dynasty, playing a role on all three consecutive World Series champion squads from 1972-74.

While he’s not one of the household names we all remember from that period, he definitely contributed. His 1.37 ERA in 1972 is still fifth-best in Oakland history (min. 40 innings), after 2008 Joey Devine, 1990 Dennis Eckersley, 2018 Blake Treinen, and 2008 Brad Ziegler. (Raise the bar to 60 innings, and Devine and Ziegler fall off that list.) In 1973 he chipped in 99 innings with above-average results.

Unfortunately, despite his solid work in the regular season, Knowles only appeared in one of the three championship postseasons. After his brilliant work in ‘72, he broke his thumb and missed the playoffs. In ‘74, which had been his worst year for Oakland, he simply didn’t get called to pitch in October.

But he made up for all of that in ‘73. The A’s needed seven games to defeat the Mets in the World Series, and Knowles pitched in every single one. His outings ranged in length from one batter to two full innings, but he showed up in every game and didn’t allow any earned runs. (Well, 5-of-10 inherited runners scored, and there was an unearned run along the way, but his own ERA was 0.00.) He was the first pitcher in MLB history ever to make it into all seven games of a Fall Classic, and nobody else matched that feat until Brandon Morrow in 2017.

What’s more, Knowles’ outings were crucial. In Game 1 he relieved Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers in the 9th inning with the tying run on base and recorded the final two outs to earn the save. In Game 3, trailing 2-1, his two clutch scoreless frames in the 7th and 8th gave his teammates time to tie it up, send it to extras, and win in the 11th. And in Game 7, with Oakland leading in the 9th but New York mounting a late rally, he once again relieved Fingers and retired the final batter to end the game and clinch the Series.

Knowles wasn’t the star of the Swingin’ A’s dynasty, but he was a part of it. And a few years prior, in one of the universe’s many odd coincidences, he unwittingly helped the Oakland A’s earn their first-ever victory, even if he wasn’t wearing their uniform yet.

Now you Knowle, and Knowling is half the battle.

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The A’s have now played 52 seasons in Oakland, and they’ve won 4,313 games during that time, plus many more in the postseason. On this date in 1968, they notched the very first of those triumphs.

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More this-date tweets from Selleck, over the past few days:

  • 4/11: This wont be the last time, but #ThisDateInAthleticsHistory belongs to Rickey Henderson. On April 11, 1993 he hits his 200th career home run and on April 11, 1994 he collects his 231st double with the A’s to break Reggie’s Oakland record.
  • 4/12: Lots of interesting #ThisDateInAthleticsHistory stuff for April 12. In 1909, the A’s play their first game in Shibe Park. In 1955, the A’s open their first season in Kansas City. In 1994, the A’s collect just two hits but defeat Toronto, 8-4