The Best Team Nobody Knows

Charlie O. The mascot-not the owner

Saw that Dick Williams just died. He first came to my attention as a backup for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. Frankly, I didn’t pay much attention to him. By 1967 he was managing the Boston Red Sox to the “Impossible Dream” pennant and a date with Bob Gibson in the World Series. He also managed Oakland in the 1970s and took San Diego to the World Series in 1984. It was a unique Series in that no manager had ever won a World Series in both leagues. Both Williams and Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson had won two Series’ in the opposite league, so whichever team won, the manager would be the first to win in both leagues. Anderson got the honor (only Tony LaRussa has done it since). In Williams’ honor, I want to dwell on the Oakland teams he managed in the 1970s. They are, for my money, the best team that nobody knows.

Between 1971 and 1975, the Oakland  Athletics won the American League West Division every year. For the middle three years they ended up with the pennant and a trip to the World Series. In 1972, ’73, and ’74 they were world champions. Do you realize how unusual that is? John McGraw’s Giants never did that (they got two in a row), Connie Mack’s Athletics never did that (they got three of four), Miller Huggins’ Murderer’s Row Yankees didn’t (they got two),  the Cardinals never did it (they won three of five in the 1940s). Neither did “The Big Red Machine.” Can you name all the teams that did? They are Joe McCarthy’s 1936-39 Yankees, Casey Stengel’s 1949-53 Yankees, Joe Torre’s 1998-2000 Yankees, and this Oakland team.  And I’ll bet if you weren’t reading this you might have stumbled over the A’s, because over the years they have gotten lost in the shuffle.

So who were they? Glad you asked. The owner was Charlie  O. Finley. When he owned the A’s, I was fairly sure Finley was half crazy. He did unusual things like try colored baseballs (that didn’t work) and came up with gold and green uniforms (which did work, except that it spawned some really ugly stuff down the road). He had a mule as a mascot (and the Phillie Phanatic it wasn’t). He invented a designated runner (which sorta worked). He was loud, he was a publicity hound, and he knew how to put together a team that won. Why he’s not in the Hall of Fame with his spiritual mentor Bill Veeck, I don’t know.

Williams managed the team through 1973, then left in a dispute with Finley. He was replaced by Alvin Dark who won the final of the three Series championships and one more division title. They were very different. Williams was loud (no wonder he didn’t get along with Finley), Dark more laid back. Williams fought his players, Dark didn’t. Both knew how to get the best out of what they had. They had a knack of using an over-the-hill player to get one more decent season out of him (see Billy Williams, Deron Johnson, and Jesus Alou after the advent of the designated hitter) and get good play out of career minor leaguers like Gonzalo Marquez.

The catcher changed over the years. Dave Duncan was there in 1971. In 1972 Gene Tenace took over and became the World Series MVP.  In 1973 and 1974 Ray Fosse (he of Pete Rose All-Star fame) was the catcher. He was still there in 1975, but Tenace was back to do the primary catching that season. Duncan was a good catcher who handled pitchers well. It got him a pitching coach job with LaRussa and he’s gone on to glory. Fosse was also a good catcher, but the encounter with Rose cost him a lot of his hitting prowess (I’ve never been quite sure why that’s true). More on Tenace in the next paragraph. All in all it was a decent, if unspectacular, catching staff.

The infield was amazingly consistent for the entire period. Mike Epstein started off at first, lasting through 1972. He hit a lot of home runs, had a lousy average, and was only a so-so first baseman. Tenace replaced him in 1974. He was sort of Epstein redux. He hit for a lot of power, not much of an average, and wasn’t going to make anyone forget he was an ex-catcher. He was, however, more of a team leader. Dick Green was the regular second baseman and he was great. Green was one of the premier second basemen of the era, and quite frankly one of the better second basemen ever. That has nothing to do with how well he hit, because he didn’t . He hit eighth for a reason. For a while Williams experimented with starting Green, then pinch-hitting for him when he came to bat, inserting Ted Kubiak at second, then pinch-hitting for him when his turn came to bat. Didn’t last long. It took up a lot of bench players and Green’s glove was sorely missed late in the game. Bert Campaneris played short and led off a lot. He was an OK shortstop, but his specialty was his bat. He hit around .300 a lot of the time, had no power, but had great speed. He was a fine table-setter for the power lower in the lineup.  He led the AL in stolen bases several times, but during the pennant run only led in 1972 (with 52). Sal Bando played third, was a team captain, and one of the most overlooked third basemen ever. He was an unquestioned team leader, played third well, and might have become the face of the team if not for the fellow in right field.

First and foremost, this was Reggie Jackson’s team. He played right field, hit the ball a mile, was outrageous (and could back it up), had his own candy bar, and led the team in power and quotes. Between 1972 and 1982 the American League team won the World Series five times. Jackson was on every team. He went to the playoffs every year except 1976 and 1979. I don’t know that he’s the best player of the 1970s (there’s always Mike Schmidt and George Brett to consider) but he was the most successful. Joe Rudi played opposite him in left. Rudi was everything Jackson wasn’t. He was quiet, never “hot dogged”. He was almost as good a player, however. He was excellent in the field, hit well, had good, but not great, power, and never stood out like “Mr October.” Center Field had Billy North out there in both 1973 and 1974. He was fast, could catch well enough, and made a good two hitter. He led off  some and ended up winning a stolen base title in 1974 (and later in 1976). Angel Mangual was the regular center fielder in 1972. By ’73 he was backing up North.

The staff consisted of Hall of Famer Jim Hunter, rookie sensation Vida Blue, lefty Ken Holtzman, and “Blue Moon” Odom. In many ways this was the strength of the team. All were good pitchers (Odom was far and away the weakest of the lot) whose records reflected their abilities and weren’t just reflections of the team hitters. Hunter led the AL in wins once (74), in winning percentage twice, and ERA once. Blue led in both ERA and shutouts once. With Nolan Ryan in the league, none of them ever led the league in strikeouts.

Then there was Rollie Fingers. He’s probably as famous today for his moustache as for his pitching. He was the bullpen man (they didn’t call them “closers” yet). He never led the AL in  saves in the era, but was instrumental in Oakland’s victories. He was an old-fashioned reliever, meaning he entered the game in whatever late inning was critical and shut the door, then finished up the game. In the World Series winning years he pitched in 65, 62, and 76 games logging 111, 127, and 119 innings (or about 2 innings per appearance). They don’t do it that way any more.

There they are, three-time World Series winners. Most of them are long gone into obscurity. They never had the panache of the Yankees and playing in the West coast time zone certainly didn’t help, but they were a great team that deserves to be remembered. Take the occasion of the death of their first manager to do just that, OK?

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5 Responses to “The Best Team Nobody Knows”

  1. Ron Says:

    I grew up in Kansas City and became a Royals fans in 1972. I was too young to remember the A’s, but I remember the opinon’s of Finley.

    It wasn’t pretty.

  2. keithosaunders Says:

    Thanks for that great post, V. I remember the A’s winning those series — ’74 was against my Dodgers — but truthfully did not know too much about them, as I didn’t start to become fanatical about following baseball until ’77.

    Was the Reggie bar around in his A’s era, or did it come later when he was with the Yankees?

  3. JohnJr Glasgow Says:

    Well, I remember this team during this era – VERY well! I was just 13 in 1972 and living in Kentucky. My Dad lived in Santa Clara CA and I went out there for the summer of ’72 and ’73. I had never been to a Major League ball game before. My Dad started telling me about the A’s and their “crazy owner” Charlie Finley and how he had a mule that he made the team mascot, and how he had taken the mule to a restaurant once. I couldn’t believe it! As a youngster, still wet behind the ears and never having been outside Rural America before in my life, I was pretty impressed by it all!

    My Dad took me to 3-4 games in ’72 and only a couple in ’73, but it was always a day devoted to bonding with him. He’d get out his old Honda CB450, slap a helmet on my head, and off we’d go for a ride to Oakland! I remember the mustache of Rollie Fingers the most, I think. He had a big handlebar mustache which still, to this day, I have never been able to pull off, try as I might! I really loved the A’s during this time of my life. I just recently started watching baseball again and have come back to my A’s “roots”. Just today, the A’s put out a “tweet” saying that the first 5000 people to come to the game on the 28th would get a vintage 1973 “Swingin’ A’s” pin. I had some of those when I was a kid, but they had been lost in the shuffle of life over the past 40 years. Well, I made a comment along those lines in a reply tweet, and about 20 minutes later, the A’s started following me on Twitter. I thought it was odd, but then 5 minutes later I got a DM (Direct Message) from them saying that they were doing an “A It Forward” random act of kindness, and asked me for my address so they could send me a pin! Man, the A’s just made my day! Heck, they made my year, so far!

    Thanks a bunch for the article. I came here by searching for a picture of the Charlie O mule and finding the one you have here. I really appreciate the write-up! You definitely remember a lot more than I do and I Thank You for your efforts!

    Go A’s!

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