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Retro Recap (1972): Joe Rudi, Catfish Hunter carry Oakland A’s to Game 2 victory

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A’s defeat Reds 2-1, in Game 2 of the 1972 World Series

Reds v Athletics
This isn’t the homer, but we can pretend it is.
Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Last night, NBC Sports California aired Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. Click here to revisit our Game Thread.

When the Oakland A’s reached the 1972 World Series, it was the first time they’d appeared in the Fall Classic since 1931. That 40-year gap was the longest such active streak in the majors, according to A’s info manager Mike Selleck. Once back on the biggest stage, they made the most of the opportunity.

After winning Game 1 on the road in a tight 3-2 decision, on the strength of Gene Tenace’s two homers and some clutch pitching from the staff, the A’s had a chance to take a two-game lead back home to Oakland with them. They did just that, earning another narrow victory in Game 2, this time 2-1 over the Cincinnati Reds.

The game action itself was straightforward. There were two main heroes for the A’s, each of whom made crucial contributions on both sides of the ball: Starting pitcher Catfish Hunter, and left fielder Joe Rudi.

Hunter set the tone on the mound, carrying a shutout into the 9th inning. He ran into trouble twice along the way, with Reds rallies in the 2nd and 5th, but each time he escaped the jams. The 2nd inning was particularly impressive — faced with runners on second and third and no outs, he recorded three strikeouts to strand them.

But that brilliant pitching performance wasn’t all Hunter contributed. In the top of the 2nd, the A’s put together a rally of their own with a pair of singles. Hunter, batting ninth (one year before the DH was invented, and playing in an NL stadium anyway), ripped a single of his own to drive in George Hendrick with the game’s first run. It had been nearly 60 years since an A’s pitcher had knocked in a postseason run.

As for Rudi, his first big moment came in the next inning. With one out in the 3rd, he crushed a homer to left field off Reds starter Ross Grimsley, for what ultimately proved to be the deciding run. Oakland’s offense was quiet the rest of the way, despite a couple more rallies in the final two innings.

Fast forward to the 9th. The A’s led 2-0, and Hunter was still on the mound. Hall of Fame slugger Tony Perez led off by lining a single just over a leaping Bert Campaneris, bringing the tying run to the plate. Next up was two-time All-Star Denis Menke, who drilled the first pitch he saw deep to left. Was it a game-tying homer? Timely extra bases to extend the last-minute rally? Neither, as it turned out. Instead, Rudi stepped up to make one of the most iconic plays in A’s history.

Rudi tracked it all the way back to the wall, made a perfectly timed leap, and snagged the ball for an incredible catch. He nearly doubled Perez off first base, but that would have been merely icing on the cake. He had already averted a major 9th-inning crisis by robbing a double that would have put the tying run in scoring position with nobody out. Here’s a screenshot to show just how high Rudi jumped for this grab.

Screenshot from NBC Sports broadcast

The Reds did eventually get to Hunter, thanks to an RBI single by pinch-hitter Hal McRae, but Oakland’s defense had already saved the day. (First baseman Mike Hegan chipped in a nice diving stop as well, turning another Reds smash into the second out.) Rollie Fingers came in to record the final out on a foulout by pinch-hitter Julian Javier, and the A’s second victory of the series was sealed.

In the end, Hunter and Rudi carried the day. At the plate, they each drove in a run. In the field, Hunter took care of the first eight innings with his pitching, while Rudi bailed him out in the 9th with his catch.

***

Of course, this game is 48 years old, so you could have looked up the play-by-play on your own if you’d wanted. But what made this broadcast fun was getting to see all the old players in actual action, from more than a decade before I was born. Sure, we’ve seen highlights of key plays, like the Rudi catch posted above, but rarely the nuances and flow of (mostly) an entire game — the batting stances, the pitching motions, that nice throw from Pete Rose in LF to nail a runner at the plate, etc. They’ve always just been names to me, but watching them like this helps them truly come alive.

That goes for the commentators as well. I was interested to hear some of the topics they brought up, and how similar some of them were to the present day:

  • One extra treat in this broadcast was that NBCS included the pregame show at the beginning. One topic of conversation regarded star pitcher Vida Blue, and the tough decision facing the A’s about whether he should start (and affect just a couple games) or come out of the bullpen as he had in Game 1 (and have the chance to affect more games at critical moments). They could just as easily have been talking about Jesus Luzardo or A.J. Puk today.
  • Sal Bando broke up a double play at one point with a takeout slide at second, far out of the base path. Even back then, the commentators noted how the slide was technically against the rules despite being a widely accepted practice. Today it’s no longer accepted and he’d be called on it, and the umps would have awarded Cincinnati the out at first base.
  • When A’s cleanup hitter Mike Epstein came up for his first at-bat, the camera showed the heavy defensive shift employed against the lefty slugger by the Reds. The shortstop was almost behind the bag at second, and 2B Joe Morgan was stationed in shallow right field. Not such a new concept after all?
  • This game was played on a Sunday. They mentioned that it had been raining for five days in Oakland and that the Raiders were playing that day at the Coliseum, and hoped that the football game wouldn’t hurt the field too badly ahead of Tuesday’s Game 3. Sounds like a recurring nightmare that current groundskeeper Clay Wood might have.

Some things never change. Well, except that last one. From now on we don’t have to worry about the Las Vegas Raiders anymore.

***

The pregame show also brought a bittersweet moment. Before first pitch, the league held a ceremony to honor Jackie Robinson. Making it even cooler was that Jackie himself was actually there, which isn’t something I’m used to seeing because he passed away well before I was born.

That thought made me go look up when exactly Jackie died. It was nine days later. This game was played on Oct. 15, and on Oct. 24 he suffered a fatal heart attack.

It was fascinating to watch Jackie give his own speech, instead of just others talking on his behalf. But this felt about as close as you can get to seeing a ghost, knowing that barely over a week later he’d be gone. He was only 53 years old.

***

Another fun aspect of an old-timey game is seeing a glimpse of a bygone era. A few examples:

  • The commentators mentioned Catfish’s salary: $50,000, noting that it was “45,000 to pitch and 5,000 paid by his owner [Charlie] Finley as a hitter.”
  • In the 1st inning, with two outs and nobody on base, Reds #3 hitter Bobby Tolan attempted a bunt. You would never see that today.
  • Charlie Finley smoking a cigarette in the stands. Because that was still allowed back then. Come to think of it, the owner sitting in the stands at all, as opposed to in a box suite high in an ivory tower somewhere.
  • In the pregame, they mentioned that A’s manager Dick Williams had made seven mound visits in Game 1. Can’t do that anymore, or at least not without repercussions. They also intentionally walked a batter with four actual pitches, which hasn’t been gone from the sport for that long but was already slightly odd to see.
  • So many sideburns. Huge, chunky, bushy sideburns, on almost every player. Love it. Tolan was the winner, going above-and-beyond with some serious chops.
  • The crowd shots. I was trying to figure out what was weird about their clothes, and then it hit me — I didn’t see a single jersey in the stands. Go to a game today and at least half the people are wearing some kind of team gear, but everyone in 1972 seemed to be wearing normal street clothes.

Can you dig it?

***

Let’s wrap up with a few fun images. First off, Rudi’s unusual batting stance. He’s not crouched so much as leaning his upper-body down at the waist, with an exceptionally closed stance that almost leaves his back to the pitcher. But he homered in the game and finished runner-up for AL MVP during the regular season, so it must have worked for him!

Screenshot of NBC Sports broadcast

Next we have Mike Epstein, sporting an impressive beard. Tolan won the sideburn contest, but Epstein was the overall facial hair champion (non-Rollie division). This appears to be a nicely trimmed version of the Chester Arthur. Whatever it’s called, someone please page Mike Fiers because he needs to try this.

Screenshot of NBC Sports broadcast

Earlier I mentioned that people were wearing normal street clothes. What I meant was normal for the ‘70s. Exhibit A: Reggie Jackson, out of the series entirely with a hamstring injury, sporting this impressive suit in the dugout.

Screenshot of NBC Sports broadcast

That’s it for this game. NBCS is airing Game 4 tonight at 8 p.m. PT, and we’ll be back here with another Game Thread to follow it. Click here to see the full schedule of classic games we’re going to watch together.

Catch you on the flipside!