The Forgotten Championship Of The 1989 Oakland Athletics
The 1989 Oakland Athletics are a great championship team that has managed to slide under the radar of baseball history. They pulled away in the AL West race, so that most regular season attention focused on more exciting race in the AL East. The A’s rolled through the playoffs, but the big story of the 1989 World Series was the earthquake that devastated a Bay Area battle with the San Francisco Giants, caused a delay for ten days between games and more importantly, caused massive human suffering.
It’s for those reasons—along with the fact that this same basic cast of characters lost the World Series as heavy favorites in both 1988 to the Los Angeles Dodgers and 1990 to the Cincinnati Reds, that the 1989 Oakland A’s can slide under the historical radar. But they shouldn’t.
Oakland is renowned for having “The Bash Brothers” of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and McGwire hit 33 home runs in 1989. Canseco though, suffered a wrist injury prior to the season and didn’t return until after the All-Star break, playing in only 65 games The A’s needed other contributors to step up.
It was the pitching that really stepped up and Oakland’s staff was the best in the league. Dave Stewart won 21 games with a 3.32 ERA and rolled up 257 innings as the rotation ace. Bob Welch was a 17-game winner with 3.00 ERA. Mike Moore, signed on the free agent market, won and his ERA was 2.61 Both Welch and Moore worked over 200 innings.
Dennis Eckersley was the game’s best closer, with 33 saves and a buck-56 ERA. The bridge from the rotation to Eck was strong, with Todd Burns, Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt having good years. And no one knew how to handle a bullpen like manager Tony LaRussa.
With that kind of pitching, it didn’t take a lot of offense, but even without Canseco, the A’s still scored the fourth-most runs in the American League. They made up for the power outage by running. Third baseman Carney Lansford stole 37 bases, and on June 21, Oakland swung a trade with the New York Yankees to get Rickey Henderson. The leftfielder anchored the leadoff spot, stole 52 bases the rest of the way and finished with a .425 on-base percentage.
Dave Parker filled some of the power void and the DH hit 22 home runs and finished with 97 RBI. And when Canseco did come back, he hit 17 home runs in less than a half-season of play.
Oakland played well right from the outset and a schedule mostly against the weaker AL East had them at 33-16 on Memorial Day. One notable exception to the schedule was six games against the California Angels. The A’s won four of the six and narrowly led the Angels in the AL West.
We should also note that prior to 1994, each league was split into just an East and West division and only the first-place finisher could advance to the postseason. With no Central Division in play, the Kansas City Royals were another contender in the AL West. The Texas Rangers were also in the mix. Any of the West’s top four would have been leading the East. But after a decade where the balance of power in the American League had tilted eastward, the pendulum was moving back the other way.
And that, combined with no wild-card entry to the playoffs, meant that Oakland had little margin for error. They struggled in June and played sub-.500 baseball. That included losing six of ten in home games against KC, California and Texas. By the All-Star break, the A’s record was still a solid 52-36. But they were now a game and a half back of the Angels. The Royals were 3 ½ back and the Rangers still giving chase at 5 ½ off the pace.
Canseco came back, but he couldn’t stop Oakland from losing another home series to California at the end of July. August is where the A’s finally started to reclaim their mojo. By August 11, they pulled back into a tie for first place. Just in time to go to Anaheim and play a weekend series showdown.
Moore started Friday night’s opener and was brilliant, working a complete-game shutout. Lansford and Phillips each homered, Steinbach had three hits and Oakland cruised to a 5-0 win.
Lansford and Steinbach had two hits apiece again on Saturday afternoon and helped nudge the A’s to a 4-3 lead. Burns was doing some yeoman’s work out of the bullpen and tossed four shutout innings. McGwire finally broke the game open with an eighth-inning blast and Oakland won it 8-3.
The A’s were definitely leaving town in first place and with Stewart on the mound on Sunday, they had a chance to really jam a knife into the Angels. Stewart lost a tough 4-3 decision to future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven who pitched for California. But either way, it was a successful weekend and no one in baseball doubted what way the momentum was flowing in the AL West race.
The Angels started to fade and the Royals picked up the pace. Kansas City took a series from Oakland at the end of August. By Labor Day, the A’s were 83-54 and in the division lead. The Royals were now just 2 ½ out and the Angels fighting to hang on at 4 ½ back. The Rangers had faded in the cruel months of late summer.
Oakland came out of the Labor Day weekend with a home series against Boston. The Red Sox were going through a rough year after winning the AL East in 1988. But they beat the A’s 8-5 and had their ace, Roger Clemens going in the second game. The Oakland offense responded to the challenge.
An early Steinbach home run helped give the A’s a 5-1 lead. And they unloaded late off the Boston bullpen, winning 13-1. Oakland took the series on Wednesday afternoon when Parker’s grand slam keyed a 7-5 win. Over the weekend, the A’s grabbed two of three from what was a bad New York Yankees team. And their lead in the West stretched to a comfortable 4 ½ games.
But the return trip to Fenway Park did not go well. Oakland lost three straight. With two weeks to go, both California and Kansas City were back to within 2 ½ games.
Oakland responded by sweeping lowly Cleveland. While the Angels kept pace, the Royals did not and slipped back to 4 ½ out. And Kansas City was the more pertinent opponent, because the Royals and A’s would play head-to-head in Oakland on the final weekend of the season.
The A’s went to Minnesota for the penultimate weekend. The Twins were just two years removed from winning the World Series and only last season had been the American League’s second-best team behind Oakland. But they were mediocre this year. Welch pitched brilliantly in Thursday night’s opener, Lansford had three more hits, McGwire homered and the A’s won 2-1.
Stewart got the ball on Friday night and kept on rolling, winning 5-2 behind two-RBI games from Parker and Canseco. Even though Oakland lost on Saturday, they bounced back on Sunday. Lansford, one of the underrated stars on this team, had a three-hit day. McGwire drove in four runs. A 9-3 win capped the series.
Taking three out of four from the Twins was decisive, because the Angels and Royals could not keep up. Going into the final week, the margin was up to 5 ½ games. It was all but over and on Wednesday night at home it became official. Canseco homered, the offense staked Moore to a quick 3-0 lead over Texas. Moore rolled to a 5-0 win and for the second straight season, the Oakland A’s were champions of the AL West.
LaRussa’s team took their no-nonsense, workman-like approach in the American League Championship Series. The Toronto Blue Jays often appeared ready to mount challenges, but Oakland kept swatting them back and they took the ALCS in five games.
READ THE COMPLETE GAME-BY-GAME ACCOUNT OF THE 1989 ALCS
The World Series was a Bay Area affair and is appropriately remembered for the earthquake. The performance of the A’s—both on and off the field should also be remembered. After completing their four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants, the declined to take victory champagne out of deference to their suffering region.
READ THE COMPLETE GAME-BY-GAME ACCOUNT OF THE 1989 WORLD SERIES
Oakland didn’t get the victory party they had envisioned when the Series began, but they carried themselves in a way worthy of champions at a more important level.