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Retro Recap (1973): Oakland A’s capitalize on Mets error to win Game 1 of World Series

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A’s defeat Mets 2-1, in Game 1 of the 1973 World Series

Athletics v Mets
Ken Holtzman contributed on the mound and with the bat
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Last night, NBC Sports California aired Game 1 of the 1973 World Series. Click here to revisit our Game Thread.

The A’s entered the 1973 World Series looking to defend their title from the previous year. In ‘72 they’d beaten the Reds, and this time around they were facing the Mets, who had just won a ring of their own in ‘69. Oakland got off to a good start in Game 1, earning a narrow 2-1 victory.

The crucial action was mostly limited to a six-out span early in the afternoon. The A’s struck first in the bottom of the 3rd, plating two unearned runs against starting pitcher Jon Matlack and the New York defense. The Mets answered back in the top of the 4th but could only muster one run of their own, and neither team was able to find the plate again for the rest of the day.

The A’s rally in the 3rd was sparked by none other than their own pitcher, Ken Holtzman, who grounded a two-out double down the third-base line. Bert Campaneris came up next and sent a grounder toward New York second baseman Felix Millan, but the ball skipped right between his legs and into the outfield, allowing Holtzman to score easily. That error continued to hurt the Mets, as Campy stole second base to put himself in scoring position and then scored on a single by Joe Rudi.

New York responded right away in the following frame. Cleon Jones ripped a double off the wall, and John Milner lined a single to center to drive him home. However, that proved to be the end of the rally, and the A’s pitching staff held on the rest of the way. Click here for the full box score and play-by-play.

***

For years, Red Sox fans were haunted by the memory of Bill Buckner’s error in the 1986 World Series. The Boston first baseman let a routine grounder roll between his legs, allowing the Mets to score the game-winning run in a Series they later clinched. Karmically speaking, it turns out the Mets had already paid a price for it 13 years earlier.

The error by Millan felt eerily similar. The routine grounder should have ended the inning, but he let it go right through him and it ultimately led to two unearned runs. Those were the only runs scored by the A’s in a 2-1 victory, and Oakland went on to win the Series in seven games. Those margins couldn’t be tighter, and it’s fair to wonder how things might have gone differently if that play had been properly converted into the third out of the frame.

Here’s a side view of the play. Millan was set up in plenty of time, but he pulled his glove up too early and the ball squirted under it. As the TV commentator explained, he “let the ball play him.” (The white line under his glove is the ball.)

Screenshot from NBC Sports broadcast

If anything, this one should be more painful than Buckner’s mistake. Buckner was already an aging, weak fielder in ‘86, whereas Millan was a defending Gold Glover in his prime. The grounder to Millan was the definition of routine, whereas Buckner’s was at least a chopper down the line that required a slight bit of mobility. And, whereas a clean play by Buckner would have merely preserved a tie in the 10th inning, a successful assist by Millan might have kept the A’s off the board entirely and given his team an outright victory, butterfly effect aside.

The discrepancy in the infamy of these moments fascinates me. Even the most casual baseball fan knows about Buckner’s error, thanks to its role in extending Boston’s then-active championship drought and exacerbating their supposed curse. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard of Millan’s, even though it also cost his team a World Series game. Granted, the drama of Buckner’s was heightened by coming in extras in Game 6, but every game is crucial in a World Series and blowing the opener is pretty bad too — as the A’s later learned themselves in 1988.

***

Oakland nearly cost themselves with a defensive miscue as well. Reggie Jackson was covering center field for the injured Bill North, which was not a novel position for him but wasn’t his usual spot that year. On Milner’s RBI single in the 4th, Jackson missed his cutoff man and sent a throw all the way to the backstop behind the plate. That allowed Milner to move into scoring position, where a single could have scored him.

However, Jackson redeemed himself a moment later. The next batter, Jerry Grote, drilled one deep to center, but Reggie flagged it down and made an impressive a running catch. If it had fallen it would have tied the game.

Jackson’s throwing error didn’t end up mattering when the Mets couldn’t poke another single. His catch mattered immensely, as Milner would have scored from any base, even without Reggie’s previous error.

***

To add to the theme of folly, both teams cost themselves an extra run with mistakes on the bases.

For the A’s it was Dick Green, in the 3rd inning right before Holtzman’s double. The Mets catcher blocked a pitch in the dirt and Green saw a chance to swipe second base, but the ball didn’t bounce as far away as he expected and he was thrown out easily. Without that aggressive move, maybe he scores on Holtzman’s hit, or on Millan’s error.

For the Mets it was their pitcher Matlack. The southpaw drew a walk to lead off the top of the 5th inning, and the next batter attempted to bunt him into scoring position. But the bunt was popped up directly to Holtzman, and Matlack was caught drifting too far off the bag — the A’s hurler delivered a quick throw to double him off. Next up was Millan, who blasted a triple over Rudi’s head in LF, which would have scored anyone who had been on base. If Matlack had still been there, the game would have been tied.

New York came tantalizingly close one more time, in the 6th. With a runner on base, Grote hooked a fly just a handful of seats wide of the LF foul pole. A few feet to the right and it would have been a go-ahead homer.

In the end, the game was characterized more by what the players did wrong than what they did right. But that’s the way it goes sometimes, and on this day the winner was the team who made fewer costly mistakes and got more fortunate hops.

***

A few observations about how the sport was different 47 years ago:

  • This was the first year of the DH, but it didn’t get used at all in the World Series until 1976. For the next decade after that it was used in all WS games. Not until 1986 did it settle into its current balance, where it’s used only in games at AL stadiums. So, this 1973 contest took place at the Coliseum, but the pitchers still batted anyway. When Holtzman hit his double in the 3rd inning, it was only his second plate appearance of the entire season.
  • Another difference between leagues had to do with batting helmets. In the National League at the time they were required only while batting and not while running the bases, whereas AL players had to wear them at all times on offense. The NL players got to keep doing it their way in the World Series, so as Mets players reached first base they could be seen tossing away their helmets and donning caps. The caps had been folded up in their back pockets while they were batting, in a wonderfully old-timey move reminiscent of an old sandlot game.
  • It’s tough to tell on the fuzzy old broadcast, but it seemed like hitters were allowed to get away with a lot on check swings. I thought both teams were gifted a huge freebie on swings that weren’t even close, looking like they’d blatantly gone all the way around.

One thing that didn’t change, though, was the A’s attendance. Somehow this World Series game wasn’t sold out.

***

To wrap up, here are three fun photos. First up is Millan, to show how ridiculously far he chokes up on the bat. I’ve never seen anyone come remotely close to this, not even in Little League. And he almost hit one out of the park in this game.

Screenshot from NBC Sports broadcast

What’s more, Millan wasn’t just some scrub at the bottom of the lineup. He was a three-time All-Star, batting second on a World Series team. Granted, he was a consistently below-average hitter for his entire career, but at least he achieved the bat control he was looking for — his lifetime 3.8% K-rate makes him arguably the toughest player to strike out in MLB’s expansion era, covering half a century (min. 500 plate appearances).

Next up is Holtzman. During the ‘72 Series I had noticed how his clean-cut image didn’t fit in with his teammates. In a showdown billed as Hairs vs. Squares, he seemed to be on the wrong side. That changed the next year. The top photo here is Holtzman in ‘72, and the bottom is him in ‘73, with longer hair and a mustache.

Screenshots from NBC Sports broadcasts

And finally, this broadcast brought us a Mrs. Fields sighting. If you weren’t already aware, Mrs. Fields (of cookie fame) got her start as an A’s ballgirl at the Coliseum, a job that helped fund her culinary endeavors. Here she is delivering mid-inning refreshments to the umpires, though at the time she was still known by her maiden name of Debbi Sivery (she married Mr. Fields a few years later).

Screenshot from NBC Sports broadcast

That’s it for this game, but there’s more 1973 action to look forward to. NBCS isn’t airing any more games from this series, but a few more are available on YouTube. (You can also go back and watch Game 1 here.)

We’ll be back with our next Game Thread on Wednesday (4/21) at 8 p.m. PT, following along with Game 2 on YouTube. Click here to see the full schedule of classic games we’re going to watch together.

Catch you on the flipside!