Swinging A’s (The Oakland Athletics of the 1970s)
Just how good were the Oakland Athletics from 1971-to-1975? They were good enough to reach the post-season five years in a row, and they won three consecutive World Series. That’s how good they were. If that doesn’t impress you, remember that only four of the 24 MLB teams qualified for post-season play back then.
Today, we know the A’s as the Oakland A’s, but the team had two previous homes. In Philadelphia, the Athletics (as they were known back then) won a lot and then lost a lot. Between 1905 and 1931, Philadelphia won eight pennants and five World Series under legendary manager Connie Mack.
But the team had only six winning seasons from 1932 to 1967–first in Philadelphia and later in Kansas City–and the Athletics never reached the post-season in any of those years. In KC, the A’s lost at least 100 games in four of their 13 years, and the team’s best year was a mediocre 73 and 81 season.
The losing ways changed dramatically when the team moved to Oakland in 1968.
The Right Talent
One reason was talent. The A’s were loaded with it–and young talent at that. They had infielders Sal Bando and Bert Campaneris and three future Hall of Famers in outfielder Reggie Jackson and pitchers Rollie Fingers and Jim “Catfish” Hunter. The A’s finished the first year in Oakland at 82–80, their first winning season since 1952.
Improvement continued–a 88–74 record in 1969, 89–73 in 1970. and 101–60 in 1971, which was the A’s best record since 1932 when the team played as the Philadelphia Athletics. Vida Blue won 24 games in 1971 with a 1.82 ERA, and he also won the American League’s Cy Young award and was named the league’s MVP. Five A’s hit 20 or more home runs on the offensive side, with Jackson leading the team with 32.
Manager Dick Williams, who led the Boston Red Sox to an AL pennant in 1967 (their first since 1946), had immediate success in the Bay area. The 1971 A’s earned their first trip to the post-season in 40 years, advancing to the AL Championship Series. They lost that Series to the Baltimore Orioles, but it was clear that this team was headed for big things.
The Right Owner
In addition to solid talent and outstanding field management, the A’s had a colorful owner, Charlie Finley, known for his flair. Finley shortened the team name from Athletics to A’s and changed how the team looked on the field. Most teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s had fairly conservative-looking uniforms.
Not the Oakland A’s. They wore uniforms of Kelly Green, Fort Knox Gold, and Wedding Gown White, and players also wore white spikes. Finley also issued bonuses to every player who grew a mustache, and some A’s grew a beard.
The Swinging A’s Winning Ways
They continued winning on the field, too. In 1972, Oakland finished the regular season at 93–62, beating the Detroit Tigers 3–2 in the American League Championship Series. Next up was the Cincinnati Reds, known in those days as “The Big Red Machine.”
The A’s emerged victorious, winning four games to three, and captured the team’s first World Series crown since 1930. It was a hard-fought series that some analysts believe may have been the most competitive World Series in history. Gene Tenace, who had played most of the season as the backup catcher, won the Series MVP award.
The winning continued in 1973 when the team compiled a 94–68 record and defeated the Orioles in the AL Championship Series. Many thought the win assured the A’s of another Series crown because the New York Mets–a team that finished the regular season with a .509 winning percentage, the lowest winning percentage ever for a World Series participant–was seen as lucky to be there. Instead, the Series turned out to be a nail-biter. Still, Oakland emerged victorious in seven games, and Reggie Jackson won the Series MVP, an honor that nicely matched his AL MVP award.
But the win came at a cost. Dick Williams had grown tired of Charlie Findley’s meddling and resigned during the off-season. Enter Alvin Dark.
The managerial change didn’t stop the winning. The 1974 A’s went 90–72 with “Catfish” Hunter copping the Cy Young award. Then, the A’s faced the Orioles in the AL Championship Series for the third time in four years. Oakland won again, this time three games to one. The reward was playing the downstate LA Dodgers in the World Series–a formidable foe because the Dodgers were the only team to win >100 games that season. But the A’s prevailed, winning the Series easily, four games to one. Rollie Fingers was d the Series MVP.
Then, two months after the Series, Hunter signed a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees. But his loss didn’t stop the A’s from winning. They nearly hit the 100-win mark in 1975, going 98–64, which was good enough for second-best in MLB that year. But Oakland was swept by the Red Sox in the AL Championship Series.
Another significant player loss followed the 1975 season when slugger Jackson signed with the rival Orioles. But the A’s still had enough to finish 1976 with a winning record (87–74). But it wasn’t good enough to qualify for post-season play. The five-year post-season string, which began in 1971, ended.
The A’s dynasty was over–at least for a while. Oakland had another strong run from 1988 to 1990 when the team won three AL Pennants and a World Series crown. Still, my take is that the 1971–75 Oakland As stands taller than the later vintage A’s. The earlier A’s transformed the franchise–from a decades-long loser to arguably the best team in baseball.