The Athletics staying in Kansas City
By Chris Nuttall
Part 4 – “Cleaning Up the Act,” Great ’71 Stories, and the Strike Threat
Commissioner LeMay faced another problem in 1970, when “Ball Four” hit the shelves. Owners had said they wanted to just sweep it under the rug, but LeMay refused. “Let’s show fans we want to clean things up,” the military man insisted.
What he referred to was the problem of drugs in baseball, which author Jim Bouton had shown were readily available. LeMay declared an amnesty period for any player who wanted to give them up, and said there would be then “clubhouse inspections” for drugs. Owners were concerned, because they didn’t want to rock the boat; they were already leery of player strike threats, if the Supreme Court ruled in the owners’ favor.
He got numerous former players to come speak to current ones about how all they’d needed was a lot of food. LeMay also hinted at fines and suspensions once 1971 rolled around, if things didn’t improve. “He’s brought his military mind to this one,” one writer commented, “as he expected a clean, smoothly run ship. He’s forgetting that he’s not running an army, he’s running a game with grown men playing like boys.”
Still, some took heed. Dock Ellis, in particular, slumped badly for a spell for the Pirates in 1970, as he seemed extra anxious on the mound. He later remarked, “I was suddenly thinking about everything out there, The Commissioner was right, though we didn’t want to admit it, as players; some of us were using drugs to escape the pressure.” He didn’t say how many, but there were a number of players caught over the years, though that wouldn’t come till the early 1980s – those who’d played in this time period stayed clean; LeMay’s tough talk before the Union got too powerful had scared them straightr...
Owners quickly downplayed that, as it was still easy, in this simpler time, to tell fans that the problem had been eliminated. Instead, they focused on the “last real pennant races” – the Reds won handily, but the Twins, after not really challenging in 1969, stuck tight to the Orioles, only 1.5 back before being swept by them in early August, ending up 10 behind Baltimore. Owners also focused on expansion in 1971; there were some very good stories which came out of the expansion year for fans to follow.
Jim Lonborg had been coming off of injuries, but the Oakland A’s had taken him in the expansion draft. He had a decent 1971, and a very good 1972 that earned him a spot on the All-Star team. The star of the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967, he never had another great year like ’67, but his was one of the nice success stories that marked the ’71 expansion clubs. It was also one of those that Finley hyped in his first years.
Another nice story was Bob Johnson. He went from the Mets to the Phillies in the multi-player deal that sent Allen packing. Eventually, he went from a very bad 1969 and 1970 to the ’71 World Series, where he helped the Pirates beat the Orioles’ 4 20-game winners. Pittsburgh had talent to send the Phillies, even with Clendenon having challenged the reserve clause. They also had one of baseball’s smallest players, shortstop Freddie Patek, who was part of the ’71 champions, but whose slump in 1972 was one reason they lost a close pennant race in their division.
Another really nice story was that the Athletics had gone from challenging in the pennant race – finishing third and tied for third the last two years – to first in the A.L. West, the only division without a good pennant race in 1971. In fact, Kansas City finished a whopping 21 games ahead of Minnesota, the only club above .500 in the division. The A.L. East’s was good till a September Oriole surge, as was the N.L. East’s till the Pirates surged then. The N.L. West’s was fantastic.
1971 was the first time the Athletics made the playoffs in 40 years; fans came in droves. Their rotation of Hunter, Blue, Odom, and Splitorff – a draftee from Kauffman’s group’s first draft – couldn’t beat the Orioles, though; they were swept.
Another star for Kansas City would be Frank White. Kauffman sponsored tryouts for locals, as one way to get fans back after the public relations disasters of Finley’s years. White came to the bigs in 1972 as a middle infielder in September, and earned a spot as a utility man in ’73. He’d start by 1975 at 2nd. The Athletics also featured Rollie Fingers, who was turning into a relief stalwart. Reggie Jackson hit 33 home runs for them.
They kept the green and gold, but added blue in, too. They generally used royal blue script, but saved green and gold for special occasions. It was an inadvertent discovery of the power of uniform sales later, as fans began to purchase each. (Note: Think Royals’ uniforms with ‘Athletics’ in script, with a gold border around “KC” in the cap, and the crown for the elephant in the logo when they move into Royals’ Stadium, the crown a nod to the Monarchs. Green is in the uniform to break slumps, or just for fun.) They didn’t have all the combinations of the ’79 Pirates, but they tried a few then.
The Pirates’ World Series win was another great story of ‘71. They were the first team to field 9 black players for a game. Matty Alou got a Series ring as a 4th outfielder. Rennie Stennett was a superb sub in several infield spots. Most importantly, Roberto Clemente shone in the postseason. They seemed like they could repeat, their club was so packed. They featured youngsters like Bruce Kison, who started 21 and relieved in others; they couldn’t swing a deal with the expansion Expos for Nelson Briles, picked off the Cards after a poor 1970. Briles was one of the Expos’ best players for a few years. They’d also tried to get Vic Davalillo, but couldn’t manage a trade there.
Not getting Davalillo hurt in 1972, as Alou aged and Bob Robertson was hurt a lot by injuries, and slumped terribly, forcing Willie Stargell to first base. Davalillo wound up with the Athletics as a 4th outfielder in 1972 and ’73, the latter as part-time designated hitter as well.
The joy of new teams was marred by strike threats after the Supreme Court’s decision that kept the Reserve Clause intact; though as a split ruling, it opened the door for free agency later. It was clear that the players’ union would have to find another way to get player rights; with the decision months earlier than it might have been, they were able to get some players to choose to let their contracts be automatically renewed without re-signing them in 1974, rather than 1975.
For 1972, as players began digging in, saving money for a possible work stoppage, owners began discussing a lockout. Commissioner LeMay, however, was incensed. He declared there would be absolutely no work stoppage on either side. “Baseball has hired me to oversee it. I can’t oversee a game that isn’t played. This is a game that has withstood much worse than this, and we will come together as a unit.” Rumors swirled that he’d threatened to take both sides “Back to the Stone Age” if he had to.
Owners comforted themselves that they only had one more year of his rule. Besides, Bowie Kuhn, their attorney, was advising them that it was in their best interests to try to play, anyway; even though some teams were really losing money.
One of those was the Rangers. Bob Short’s ill-fated trade for Denny McLain was a disaster. Finley made money only because he ran the A’s on a shoestring; they had what some called “the look and feel of a AAA team.” They drew under 850,000, and only made a dent in Giants’ attendance, because the Giants were in a great pennant race. (Note: It ate into it more in our 1969, but the A’s were contenders. Here, they’re bad.)
The Oakland A’s were called this because the full name was “Acorns,” after the old minor league team. The joke was that they might change their name if they didn’t do well, but instead of Oak, they would choose the letter “O” as their symbol. And, that the way Finley ran his club, “They’ll have run through all the vowels in a couple years.”
Steve Busby and George Brett, both selected in the draft, were rushed to the majors in September. Finley called the former “Buzz” Busby for his speed, and told the other that he had a great bat, he just needed the perfect nickname. Brett would start the ’72 season in the minors again, but start regularly by 1973.
After 1971, the Astros and Reds made a major trade. Jack Billingham – acquired from the Dodgers by the Astros for the stretch run in ’69 – and Joe Morgan, plus a few others, went to the Reds for a few players.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh looked ready to fight for the N.L. East in ‘72, while Atlanta looked to have run its last great race, with a somewhat aging offense. Hank Aaron hit 49 home runs and nearly stole the 1971 MVP from Willie Stargell; he would have, had the Braves finished first. Tom Seaver won 23, after winning 265 in 1969. He lost the Cy Young Award by a narrow margin to Ferguson Jenkins, who won 27 and kept the Cubs in contention till September. Seaver was handicapped by the Launching Pad at Atlanta for half of his starts, inflating his ERA, but Wrigley Field was a good hitters’ park, too.
In all the looking at how the Reds may have hopped over the Braves, and could hop over the Pirates, few looked at the Mets. Like in the A.L., the team with the most wins had won the pennant. The Pirates were still seen as the team to beat for 1972.
As he promised, LeMay sat down with players and owners and insisted they come to an agreement. He eventually got the teams to agree for the good of baseball. He’d destroyed any remaining amount of the support he’d had among owners, but he’d earned the respect of the nation for “making baseball work.” Bowie Kuhn, the next Commissioner, would try to make things a little easier. However, he’d have to deal with free agency as it began.
LeMay’s last year, meanwhile, featured a couple great stories, and turned what should have been one of the great underdogs, given their history – the Kansas City Athletics – into a World Series favorite.
Part 5 – 1972 – The Amazing Mets
The Kansas City Athletics had paid their due, and then some. After years of poor play – save for 1947-1949 – after Connie Mack’s second fire sale, they’d come to Kansas City, only to be raided, treated like a circus, and altogether messed up for years. They’d had a great, but inexperienced team led by Dick Williams in 1971, who would win five divisions and three pennants in seven years with the club, before leaving in favor of Whitey Herzog before the 1978 season. He’d manage a few other winners, and while he never won any more pennants, winning so consistently wherever he went, and developing younger players, led him to the Hall of Fame; Whitey Herzog made it, too. He left them midway through 1981 for the Cardinals, as failing to win in 1979, then starting so badly in ’81, led to his firing on a team that had grown impatient. Herzog would win two more pennants with the Cardinals, and another, ironically, back in K.C. in 1989, where he’d come back in mid-88. In’71, Kansas City ran away with the division, losing the ALCS
In 1972, Paul Splitorff was an excellent fourth starter, to join Vida Blue – the reigning A.L. Cy Young winner who went 15-9, missing a few starts with injuries - Catfish Hunter, and Blue Moon Odom. They’d beaten another surprise team, the White Sox, in 4 in the ALCS. People could tell by their 96 wins and big win in the West that they were ready to take on an N.L. team as a very deserving Cinderella.
They’d been expected, though. Once in the World Series, they met a real Cinderella.
Nolan Ryan was just another flamethrower before 1972. The Mets saw him transform this year into an ace, one who captivated the entire city, hurling ten shutouts. Tommy John, acquired to be the ace if Koosman couldn’t hold up, wound up second fiddle to Ryan, winning 14 but nursing a few injuries. However, Jerry Koosman slipped a bit more, and young Jon Matlack came on to help Jim McAndrew; at times, each of them was actually considered the second best starter on the Mets.
The Mets battled the Pirates, for first and then for second when the Reds got hot in mid-May. Their outfield of Milner, Otis, and Staub was helped by Jones and Agee, and by Willie Mays, who came from the Giants in June. Their infield wasn’t great, but it was good defensively. At catcher, Jerry Grote had numerous injuries, meaning they had to trade for someone, but their farm system was still good enough to do that.
Because of injury problems mentioned earlier, the Pirates faded a bit; they wound up 4 games behind the division winners. The Mets and Reds were tied going into the final weekend in New York. Ryan tossed a complete game to win 4-2, and then the Mets almost clinched, as a pinch-hitter for Grote knocked in a go-ahead run in the 8th. Then, in the 9th, Pete Rose bowled over the Mets’ backup to tie the game, leading to a brawl. Rose homered to win the game in extra innings, and the Reds and Mets were again tied. The veteran Koosman was called on to close out the division title, though he’d had a poor 1972; Matlack and McAndrew were in the ‘pen if needed. The Mets won 5-2, with Matlack closing it out, letting Tug McGraw – who had a great year – rest for the NLCS..
Up next was the N.L. West winner. The Astros had traded quite a few players after 1971, sending Nate Colbert away for pitching help, too, since they’d gotten Lee May from the Reds in the Joe Morgan deal.
However, the Cubs got Tommy Davis back in late June after an injury, and they had Jenkins and Holtzman as a powerful 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation. Billy Williams had an MVP-type year. The only drawback was, they’d traded Burt Hooton and a spotty reliever, Mike Marshall, for offensive star Willie Davis and a couple relievers till Tommy Davis returned. The Davis’ helped this year for the Cubs, but Marshall blossomed with the Dodgers starting in ’72, and L.A. wound up a very close 3rd, only 3 games out.
The teams battled it out in an excellent pennant race. With the A.L. East’s also being close, baseball featured 3 excellent races out of 4 divisions again; again, the A.L. West was the snoozer. In the end, the Cubs won. Fergie Jenkins won on the game’s final day to prevent the Astros – who also won their game – from tying them. When Holtzman outdueled Ryan in game 1 at Shea, the Cubs were only 2 wins in 4 games from their first pennant since 1945. And, they’d be coming home for the last 3.
The Mets, who had won 5 more games in the regular season than the Cubs, won 3 straight to win the NLCS 3 games to 1. Tommy John beat Jenkins – on three days’ rest since he won the last game of the regular season - in New York. After Jerry Koosman showed he was coming back to his old form to win game 3, Jon Matlack beat Holtzman 3-0 to win the pennant for the Mets; they’d wanted to save Ryan for game 5. But, at least the Cubs had made the postseason.
An all-Chicago World Series would not come, though the idea had captured the minds of Chicago fans like crazy. It had even convinced the Cubs’ owners – now that Series weekday games were being played in the evening – to put lights n Wrigley Field, under pressure to get more revenue; the White Sox looked like they would contend for a while now, with Allen there.
The Mets’ GM said later, “Ryan was the key – we didn’t have a righthanded hurler who could command that kind of presence, and we weren’t sure if John or Koosman were going to blossom into that type in the offseason ’71. We didn’t have a reliable third baseman because the infielders from the White Sox trade hadn’t panned out, but we figured we could make due with Garrett at third if we had a superb outfield, which we did. So, we kept Ryan, mostly because we needed a good righthander.
The death of Gil Hodges was also a huge factor in the Mets’ run. Yogi Berra had taken over, and everyone was trying to win for Gil.
With Hunter starting game 4 and winning the pennant, Blue Moon Odom started game 1, outdueling Nolan Ryan in New York, with Gene Tenace getting a couple key hits.
Game 2 featured Tommy John for the Mets, versus Catfish Hunter. McAndrew came in to get the win in relief, as the Mets didn’t want to go down 2-0 going back to Kansas City. They even used Koosman, putting Matlack in position to start game 3. Willie Mays pinch-hit for the pitcher in the middle innings of game 2, with the Mets down one. He struck out, but the Mets tied it, and he remained to play outfield in a double switch. He made a play in left that was much easier than he made it look, a sign of his age, but then hit a double off Fingers in the 8th that put the Mets ahead. The Mets tacked on another, and won 4-2, to tie the Series at one going back to Kansas City.
Game 3 saw Matlack, among others, beat Blue 5-2. Kansas City won game 4, this time in extra innings, as Nolan Ryan and Blue Moon Odom kept it scoreless through 9. Koosman finally started in game 5, and he showed his old form, beating Hunter 3-1; the only World Series game Hunter would lose in his career.
Back in New York, the Athletics were down 3-2. With their backs to the wall, they used a number of pitchers, and Hunter came back for an inning of relief to win on one days’ rest. Rollie Fingers wound up with the save, as he faked an intentional walk and then struck out Rusty Staub to get the momentum back in the bottom of the 9th; as the Mets tried to rally. One out later, Kansas City had knotted the Series at three.
Nolan Ryan and Tug McGraw beat Blue Moon Odom 2-1 in game 7. It was a great cap for a great season. Many said it “brought baseball back into the public consciousness,” though 1971’s – with weekday games played at night – had started it. Some say it was one of the best Series ever, even though the Athletics and Reds played 2 over the next 3 years that equaled it in intensity, Kansas City and then Cincinnati winning in 7.
However, it wasn’t just the dominance of the major markets of New York and Chicago in ‘72. It was a combination of a number of great stories that had transpired that season, with Hank Aaron continuing his assault on the home run record – he stood at 675 now – one of the big stories that promised to lead into an even more stellar 1973.
(Note: Aaron was given a couple more homers in 1969 and 1971; even with 1-2 fewer in 1970 with only 20 teams, starting in 1971, he’d play fewer games in spacious Dodger Stadium, the Astrodome, and Jack Murphy Stadium than in OTL, with only Shea Stadium seeing him more. Also, 1972 might be a tad better for him than 1970 because the pitchers are les experienced. So, a net gain of 2 is plausible.)
LeMay only served one term as Commissioner. But, overall, he’s seen to have done a good job. Bowie Kuhn was clearly preferred by owners, though, so LeMay stepped aside rather than try to seek another term. Besides, he’d be 70 in just a few years. “I hadn’t wanted to go into politics, but in this role, I was anyway,” he joked later.
1973 would be quite stellar. Kansas City’s Athletics would win their first World Series since 1930, for one thing. However, other happenings made it a year to remember, too. Not only would Hank Aaron break the all-time home run record, Charlie Finley had talked American League owners into an experiment to increase offense, when expansion failed to do so; the Designated Hitter rule was established.
Part 6 – The Times, They Are A-Changing
Atlanta had been given the last 10 games of the 1973 season as home games, just in case Aaron got close enough to break Babe Ruth’s record. He hit 3 in Milwaukee this year, games which Bud Selig promoted to the hilt. “Watch the Milwaukee record breaker,” fans were told. Any home run Aaron hit as a visitor would be deemed the record breaker, which made it confusing when there were three of them. Two were off the Brewers’ Al Downing, though, so he took the “credit” for surrendering the record breaker.
However, the real 715th home run came in the club’s 161st game, off the Philadelphia Phillies. Aaron said he wished he’d been able to set the record in Milwaukee, but the fact Milwaukee fans could still see him play was a blessing, at least. He was also glad he’d been able play in the field the entire time. The Braves finished 3rd, hovering around .500, but they’d kept drawing fans to see Seaver (the Cy Young winner) and Aaron.
The Athletics, meanwhile, had a juggernaut. Reggie Jackson hit .305 with 36 home runs, and Sal Bando had 30. Gene Tenace, Rick Monday, and DH Deron Johnson each had 20 or more, and Hunter, Blue, and Splitorff each won 20+. While they lacked a perfect leadoff man – Bert Campaneris and Joe Rudi each had poor on base averages – the Athletics were, ironically, the kind of team Earl Weaver loved – pitching, defense, and the 3-run homer. They beat the Orioles in the ALCS, while the Reds swept the Giants – who had bested the Dodgers by a game in the N.L. West.
In the World Series, without a DH in odd-numbered years, the Athletics won in a great 7-game matchup. Catfish Hunter, 3-0 in the Series, won the finale, 3-1, in Kansas City.
Ah, the DH. Charlie Finley’s idea had worked, unlike his orange baseballs and other odd plans. But, it was just one more sign that things were changing drastically. Willie Mays retired after the season, and there was a new home run king, Hank Aaron.
The Giants were in a great pennant race with the Dodgers in 1973. The Dodgers’ top 3 of Sutton, Messrsmith, and Hooton was barely keeping them on top, but the Giants looked quite potent. They needed help in the bullpen, though, so they got a starter from the Padres, Mike Caldwell, and some relief help, while sending youngster Dave Kingman to San Diego. “Kong,” as he would become known, became noteworthy not only for long home runs, but also for being the prototype DH, as he was tried in a variety of fielding positions for the Padres, but never worked out. Since he was in the A.L., he could be moved to DH, but his batting average never got very high, and playing in very spacious Jack Murphy Stadium, he wound up being sold elsewhere after a while.
The trade kept Willie McCovey in San Francisco, as they needed to keep him despite concerns he might be getting old. This, combined with a very good pennant race, kept an even larger number of fans from leaving. The Giants were concerned about having to move, but only held preliminary talks before being sold; they were the only other N.L. team on the West Coast, so the place they’d talked of moving was Seattle. McCovey remained a Giant his entire career, till he retired in 1980.
The biggest change, though, was in what the union planned the next year.
Since the defeat of the reserve clause case, they’d tried to find a way around it. Late in 1973, they decided to test free agency another way. Andy Messrsmith of the Dodgers agreed to play without signing the contract he was automatically offered, as did Dave McNally. (Note – Same guys, earlier because the Supreme Court decides earlier.)
In 1974, as a season of miracles unfolded in the A.L., Messrsmith ended up in the World Series. The Orioles made a furious push, only to come up 2 games shy of the Red Sox in the end. (They would mount a successful comeback versus the Yankees in 1980, and overcome the Red Sox from a big margin back in mid-August to win in 1982) Sparky Lyle had an excellent season for Boston, and the American League’s offense and attendance rose, this time because their league featured two great pennant races.
Yes, two. The Rangers had been sold in the offseason, as Bob Short’s years in Texas had been an unmitigated disaster. Billy Martin took the helm late in ‘73, and suddenly they rose to contention in the A.L. West, along with the Kansas City Athletics, Oakland A’s, and Minnesota Twins. Only the Angels and Padres failed to contend in the grueling pennant race – though some quipped that it was “a grueling race for mediocrity.”
Meanwhile, in the A.L. East, Boston, Baltimore, and New York fought with Cleveland and Chicago for the top spot till the Indians faded, and the Red Sox had a winning streak, with the Yankees trying to keep pace, and the Orioles and White Sox falling. Then, Baltimore had an amazing September, and the Red Sox barely managed to hold them off, winning 92 and beating Baltimore by 2, the Yankees by 3, and the White Sox by 6. Their 92-70 was the same record they’d had in 1967.
The Rangers, however, were the real story, along with the A’s. The story of that 1974 A.L. West is one of wackiness. A special story wound up unfolding in the World Series, after a great NLCS which the Dodgers won over the Reds.
Part 7 – The 1974 American League Weirdest, and a Team Finally Does It
Say you’re writing a 1974 preview magazine. The Dodgers’ trade for Jimmy Wynn, plus the Reds’ continued dominance, means an NLCS match between those clubs would be plausible. The Giants were old, and while the ’74 Braves challenged the Reds early, the Reds and Dodgers looked like the safe bets. And, they were.
You might have picked the Orioles in ’74 as the safe bet, but if you’d gone with Boston in the A.L. East, you wouldn’t have been criticized much. The Red Sox had made some good decisions, mostly by not making them.
Let’s start with 1971. They’d lost Jim Lonborg, who’d been hurt in ’70, in the expansion draft. This meant they had one fewer pitcher to put in a package deal like they’d hoped, to trade George Scott. So, while they made minor deals, they didn’t trade Scott, so they didn’t have to trade for someone like Danny Cater a year later. Sparky Lyle had been expandable after 1971, but not after ’72, when they lost the division by half a game to the White Sox. This led to the rule that make-up games would always be played.
So, come ‘72’s offseason, Scott had a poor year compared to his first few years, but still one of Boston’s better years offensively. Several others had emerged as future stars; Joe Lahoud improved some, though not much, and Dwight Evans had played very well after being called up in July.
Still, Ray Culp had floundered, Roger Moret was hurt most of the year, and most of their pitching got old in a hurry. Sparky Lyle had pitched in 80 games in ‘72, saving a then-record 40, and many joked that his arm would fall off. He received votes for the Cy Young Award. Most importantly, having Sparky there let Bill Lee start, whereas he might have been moved to closer. Still, they needed more pitching.
To get hurlers for ’73, Boston tried to package Lahoud, Scott, and non-pitchers together with Ron Garman, ironically for Lonborg. Lonborg was dealt to the Phillies, though, so the Sox sent Cecil Cooper to Milwaukee for righthanded relief help, and looked next to the Expos and Mike Torrez. The Expos weren’t willing to trade Torrez without the Red Sox giving them a starter in return, butt Montreal did give Boston Steve Renko; the Red Sox sent them Garman, Ken Tatum, and Ben Oglivie. Oglivie went to the Brewers later. The Sox got outfield depth in each move, too.
Then, George Scott, Lahoud, and minor leaguers went to the Angels for Jim Fregosi and Bill Stoneman, who’d come to the Angels the same offseason. Fregosi would help at short and even second and third, with Aparicio aging. Stoneman was expected to be one of the anchors of the rotation for Boston in ‘73, as he’d had a good 1972. He flopped.
With Scott having such a good year in ‘73, and other ex-Red Sox doing well, that trade was a poor one. The others worked well. Lyle had an average 1973 but a great ‘74.
Come 1974, their rotation was Tiant, Lee, Lynn McGlothen, and Mike Curtis; Renko was the fifth starter by the end of ‘74, as he’d floundered. Stoneman was in his last season, but Fregosi helped the middle infield. McGlothen and Curtis had stepped up very well in ’73, and there was no need to trade for bullpen help in ’74, with Lyle and others there.
Boston’s centerpiece was Reggie Smith. Despite injury concerns, they chose not to trade him. He won the A.L. MVP in a close vote over Jeff Burroughs.
Back to this preview, if you picked the Red Sox, and guessed Smith would bounce back like that, you’d be called daring, but not too bold. A few picked them, with that outfield of Yaz, Rick Miller, and Smith, with Dwight Evans at first (moving to right at times, with Smith in center), and Orlando Cepeda starting the year at DH, with Fred Lynn and Jim Rice coming up in August off the bench, in the outfield, or at DH. It was easy to understand a pick of Boston.
If you’d picked anyone but the Athletics in the A.L. West, though, it would be seen as crazy! They were 3-time defending division champs, had won the World Series, and even if Blue Moon Odom couldn’t recover from an injury plagued year that saw him start sparingly, and only relieve a few times in the ’73 Series, they still had 3 great starters. The Sporting News polled sportswriters, and almost everyone picked them first.
The tiny fraction who didn’t picked the Twins, because of Bert Blyleven, Rod Carew, and others, but the Athletics were picked 2nd. The Twins had stayed with the Athletics till an awful July knocked them out in 1973. they wound up over 15 games back again, and with no division titles yet in what was supposed to be a weaker division when it was formed, fans were getting restless; as ws Calvin Griffith. Maybe, some said, he would pull the strongs on a big trade to get them to the top. Still, 3rd was almost as likely.
Oakland was picked 2nd by a few daring writers, but they made comments in their own columns about how they’d be “a mile behind Kansas City.” And, Texas was picked last or 5th by almost everyone. San Diego was lousy, sure, but…well, maybe you could see Texas ahead of the Angels, since the Rangers got Jenkins for Bill Madlock, as the Cubs – worried about Jenkins’ arm being overused, but also only a year removed from a division title – kept the rest of the club together for one more try, moving Santo to first base. The Cubs still had Holtzman, after all. If Finley made the A’s self-descruct, maybe they’d be in 5th, behind the Rangers.
But, the Rangers 1st? Or Oakland first? It would be insane to pick either, right?
And yet, Paul Splitorff lost 17 for Kansas City. Vida Blue suffered arm problems from the excess pitching he’d done early, and finished below .500. Odom was 1-5. Hunter and Fingers kept the Athletics close, but Kansas City didn’t win the division. They finished 85-77, as poor performances early led to infighting between several players. Little fights and things that might have been ignored before became fistfights, and the team seemed frustrated by the fact they couldn’t manage to pull away like before.
Enter the Rangers. Fergie Jenkins won 26, Mike Hargrove was Rookie of the Year, Jeff Burroughs had an MVP-type year, and everything seemed to come together. The Rangers went 86-76, and managed to fight till the final week for the division crown.
The Twins had been picked by a few, as noted. They finished in the mid-80s in wins, too. When Kansas City faltered, they fought for the division that final weekend with Texas and…Oakland? Yes, Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s, the most unlikely bunch anywhere.
Steve Busby led this crew, with a no-hitter and 20 wins. Charlie Finley had done a great job of scouting and finding the best available talent. He’d acquired so many castoffs and rejects, designated runner Herb Washington actually seemed normal. “He has an eye for talent that you wouldn’t expect,” one rival GM noted. “He runs the club in an odd way, but he gets results that you wouldn’t expect.”
The pennant race was originally just the Athletics, Twins, and surprising Rangers, but the A’s kept hanging close, and finally, in early June, Finley swung a deal. The Dodgers were way ahead, and the Cubs realized that “one more shot” wasn’t happening. So, they traded Ron Santo and Billy Williams to Oakland for minor leaguers. Oakland swung a few more deals, as Finley admitted he really wanted to draw fans. He’d had trouble all four years in Oakland, fans were just starting to come now that the club was winning. San Francisco’s 1973 division title, in a great pennant race, hadn’t helped; he’d drawn less than 600,000. Finley was again threatening to move the team, to which Horace Stoneham reportedly said, “Where? I’ll help you load the moving vans.”
The Twins, too, had suffered in attendance, causing Calvin Griffith to look to the Mets. Minnesota native Jerry Koosman would cost quite a bit, but he was having aa down year, and with larry hisle able to play center, if they could get Wayne Garrett from them, they’d give up their centerfielder and third baseman Eric Solderholm, along with a youngster named Lyman Bostock. A few other players were included on each side, with the Mets already 8 games behind the Reds, after having been 20 behind again in ’73. The Twins threw in a couple young starters, too, none of whom panned out.
It was the move they needed to spark fan interest, and Koosman won 20 in ’76; however, by then, Bert Blyleven would be traded in early June, with the Athletics again winning big, as Kansas City got Amos Otis and others in a few trades. The ’74 A.L. West wasn’t decided till the last day.
In the ALCS, the Red Sox were held to 2 runs through 8 innings in game 1. Luis Tiant was just as tough, and Sparky Lyle entered in the 8th to prevent a rally. Boston won in 11, on Carlton Fisk’s home run. This propelled them to a game 2 win as well, and while Bill Lee lost game 3, the Sox won in 4, to advance to the World Series versus the L.A. Dodgers, who totally dominated their division.
In the Series, Don Sutton outdueled Luis Tiant in game 1, and the Dodgers took game 3 as well, beating Bill Lee. However, Tiant returned the favor in game 4, and the Sox took game 5 in Boston as well. When Sparky Lyle – the Series MVP - got Bill Buckner to pop up to the first baseman to end game 6, the Boston Red Sox were World Series winners for the first time since 1918. They would have decisions about who to start in 1975, as they had tons of offensive talent – Lynn and especially Rice had great offensive numbers in limited duty over the last 2 months and in the playoffs. (They ended up trading Cepeda, making Miller the fourth outfielder, and putting Rice at DH, with Lynn starting in cener.) But, for now, Boston was atop the baseball world.
The book “Beyond the Sixth Game,” written in 1985, chronicles that offseason and years of confusion that followed, as well as discussing free agency after that, and baseball’s troubles until 1984, when it seemed the game got a chance to redeem itself, and did..
As for now, in January of 1975, an arbitrator ruled that Messrsmith and McNally were free agents, free to sign with any team. Over 100 players accepted teams’ previous offers without signing in 1975, just as those two had done. Still, despite what some feared, the Series between the Reds and Athletics, which the Reds won, was not the end of small market teams winning consistently.