The early years of the American League Championship Series had been somewhat anticlimactic. A playoff round that was founded in 1969 as a best-of-five series, the first three editions had seen the Baltimore Orioles blow through with sweeps each time. The 1972 ALCS was different. The Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers provided heart-stopping excitement throughout, replete with dramatic swings of momentum and a full five-game battle before the A’s finally prevailed.
You can read more about the paths Oakland and Detroit took to their respective division titles and about their key players at the links below. This post takes an exclusive focus on the games of the 1972 ALCS.
Homefield advantage in the LCS was set up on a rotation basis rather the won-loss record. This year’s rotation called for the series to begin with two games in Oakland, and the balance of the series to be played back in Detroit.
So, on Saturday afternoon the A’s gave the ball to the great Catfish Hunter. The Tigers countered with Mickey Lolich, the hero of their 1968 World Series triumph.
Norm Cash put Detroit on the board in the top of the second with a leadoff home run. After an Oakland rally in the bottom of that same inning fizzled, the A’s tied it up in the third. Bert Campaneris worked a one-out walk. Matty Alou singled to right, putting runners on the corners. Joe Rudy’s sac fly made it 1-1.
Both pitchers were settled in and no serious threat was made again until Oakland’s half of the sixth, and even that was built on just an error and a walk. With one out, Gene Tenace’s line drive to third was caught and Reggie Jackson was doubled off second base. The game stayed 1-1.
Detroit took their turn at threatening in the eighth when Ed Brinkman hit a leadoff double. The pitcher’s spot was up next—the DH did not come to the American League until a year later. Lolich batted for himself, another factoid that can illuminate the way the game was played in this era. The pitcher struck out and Catfish escaped the jam.
Another leadoff double in the top of the ninth, this one by Duke Sims, prompted Oakland manager Dick Williams to go to his bullpen. Vida Blue, normally a top-flight starter, but who would pull substantial relief work in this postseason, came on. An error on a sac bunt put the Tigers with business with men on the corners and no outs. Williams came back out and summoned his Hall of Fame closer, Rollie Fingers.
Rollie got Gates Brown to pop up, then induced a double-play ball from Jim Northrup. The A’s had escaped and the 1-1 tie went to extra innings.
Detroit rightfielder Al Kaline was an aging legend, but still a productive one. And he greeted Fingers in the 11th with a solo blast. The Tigers had the lead. Sims then tripled to right. But Fingers again escaped. An opportunity to add some insurance was missed. And it would hurt.
Sal Bando and Mike Epstein both singled off Lolich, still in the game, to open the bottom of the 11th. Now it was Tiger manager Billy Martin’s turn to go to his bullpen. He summoned Chuck Seelbach.
Tenance got a bunt down and both runners moved up. Gonzalo Marquez knocked a single to right and both runs came home. Oakland had won a 3-2 thriller.
The A’s rolled that momentum into Sunday afternoon and Game 2. Campaneris led off the bottom of the first with a base hit, stole second, stole third, and scored on a single from Rudi. Oakland starter Blue Moon Odom was staked to a quick 1-zip lead.
Campaneir singled again to start the third. Alou’s ground ball resulted in a forceout at second. Williams tried to gin up the running game again, but this time it backfired. Alou was cut down trying to steal second and Rudi’s subsequent double went to waste.
Detroit starter Woodie Fryman got settled down and kept the game 1-0 until the bottom of the fifth. George Hendrick singled. Odom got down a sac bunt. The lineup flipped over and Campaneris delivered again, with a single that put runners on first and third. Alou’s single made it 2-0 with runners still on the corners. Martin summoned Chris Zachary from the bullpen to try and stop the bleeding.
But Zachary uncorked consecutive wild pitches that put the A’s up 3-0 with Alou on third. Rudi walked. Martin again went to the pen, this time Fred Scherman. It didn’t work. Reggie Jackson doubled to left-center, both runs scored and it was 5-0.
This game was blown open and Odom was doing some serious dealing. He went the distance and allowed just three hits, all of them singles. The 5-0 final put the A’s on the brink of a pennant as the series went to the Rustbelt.
But during those last few innings of Game 2, an incident happened that would reverberate through the rest of the series. Campaneris was beaned on the left ankle by Tiger reliever Lerrin LaGrow. Campy didn’t take it well and hurled his bat back towards the mound. The A’s shortstop was suspended. He could return if his team made the World Series, but he was sidelined for the rest of this ALCS.
Even though prime-time baseball arrived in the postseason during the 1971 World Series, it hadn’t yet filtered down to LCS play. So the midweek sequence of games at old Tiger Stadium would all be in the daytime. Oakland sent lefty Ken Holtzman to the mound to try and win the pennant. Detroit sought to keep their season alive with Joe Coleman.
Alou had moved up to leadoff in place of Campaneris and opened the game with a double. Dal Maxvill worked a walk. After Coleman struck out Rudi, Williams put on a double steal and it paid off. Runners on second and third, one out and Reggie at the plate. But Coleman came up with another big strikeout, then he K’d Epstein for good measure. No runs on the board.
That inning would prove to be a trend. In seven of the nine innings, Oakland would put their leadoff man aboard. And they would never score. In the meantime, Bill Freehan hit a one-out double in the Detroit fourth that was sandwiched around a pair of walks. Holtzman got Mickey Stanley to fly to center and was on the verge of escaping. But Ike Brown knocked a two-out single and gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead.
Freehan homered in the eighth. Coleman kept pitching around baserunners and went the distance. Detroit’s 3-0 win extended the series another day.
Pitching on three days’ rest was common, if not the norm, in the baseball world of 1972. So we had a Catfish-Lolich rematch on tap for Wednesday afternoon’s Game 4. And once again, the aces were dialed in.
Oakland threatened in the third with Alou’s leadoff double, but he died there. Detroit got on the board in the bottom of that same inning when McAuliffe hit a leadoff home run. The Tigers went on to put runners on first and second with one out. Catfish bore down, struck out Cash and Northrup and kept it a 1-0 game. The pitchers kept dominating until the seventh. Then Epstein homered for the A’s and were tied 1-1.
In the bottom of the eighth, McAuliffe worked a leadoff walk. Kaline bunted him up to second. Stanley beat out an infield hit, setting Detroit up with men on the corners and still just one out. Fingers came out of the Oakland bullpen.
Both of the great managers in this series believed in the running game. Although perhaps Martin’s belief was a little too strong in this instance. With Freehan at the plate, Stanley tried to steal home. He was out. Fingers got out of the jam.
Blue pitched the ninth without incident for the A’s, and Seelbach came on for Lolich as the game went to the 10th. With Blue’s spot due to lead off the 10th, Marquez came off the bench to pinch-hit. He singled and promptly scored on another double from Alou. The A’s had a 2-1 lead. Ted Kubiak poked an RBI single. It was 3-1, and Oakland was three outs from the World Series.
The thin reed on which Detroit’s hopes hung could be bolstered by the fact that both Fingers and Blue were now out of the game. Bob Locker was on in relief to try and close it for the A’s. For the third time in this Game 4, McAuliffe got action started, this time with a leadoff single. Kaline followed with a single of his own. Joe Horlen came on in relief for Oakland and promptly walked Gates Brown. There was still no one out and the Tigers had the winning runs on base.
As part of Williams’ late-inning maneuvering, he had pinch-hit for second baseman Green. That resulted in Tenace, a natural catcher playing second base. The consequences of that arrived when Freehan came to the plate.
Freehan’s ground ball to third could have been the double play ball the A’s needed. Instead they got nothing. Tenace made an error on the throw. The bases were still loaded, there was still no one out, and now it was 3-2.
Wiliams made another relief move, this time going for Dave Hamilton. He walked Cash to tie the game. Northrup singled to right. Ballgame. The Tigers had won a dramatic 4-3 thriller, the second extra-inning turnabout in this series. And it set up Thursday afternoon’s winner-take-all Game 5.
Detroit had all the momentum and they immediately rolled that over in the first inning against Odom. Once again, McAuliffe was the instigator, with a leadoff single. Sims worked a one-out walk. Tenace was back behind the plate, but his defensive struggles continued, with a passed ball that move the runners to second and third. Freehan’s groundout picked up the run.
Oakland needed to reverse fortune, and Reggie stepped up. After a leadoff walk, he stole second and moved up to third on a fly out. But Tenace’s rough stretch continued with a strikeout. Risking a missed opportunity, Williams rolled the dice. Reggie tried to steal home. And he made it. The game was tied 1-1. But it did come out of a cost—the great outfielder tore up his knee on the slide and was done for the year.
In the top of the fourth, a McAuliffe error was followed by a sacrifice bunt. With two outs, Tenace came to the plate. His fortunes turned with a big RBI single. The A’s had a 2-1 lead.
Odom was settled in, and in the fifth, he tried to help the cause with his bat. A leadoff double from the pitcher, followed by a sac bunt put the A’s in business. But Maxvill popped out, Rudi flied to center and the 2-1 score held.
Blue came out of the bullpen and continued the great Oakland pitching. Not until the bottom of the eighth, did Detroit threaten. A leadoff single, followed by a sac bunt gave the heart of the order a couple shots at tying the game. But Blue got both Kaline and Sims.
That was Detroit’s best chance. They got a one-out single from Cash in the ninth, but he stayed at first. When Blue got Tony Taylor to fly out to George Hendrick in center, the party could start in Oakland.
There was no ALCS MVP award given out until 1980. But the notable performers included Alou, who had eight hits over the five games and had assumed the leadoff spot after Campaneris was suspended. Catfish pitched over 15 innings in his two starts, and allowed just two runs.
On the Detroit side, Lolich had worked an amazing 19 innings in two starts, with an ERA of 1.42. None of the Tiger hitters had notable overall series numbers, but McAuliffe certainly made the most of his hits.
Then there’s Odom. Over 14 innings, the only run scored off him was unearned. He won both of his starts, including the decisive Game 5. He would be my pick for a retroactive 1972 ALCS MVP.
For the Tigers, this series was a last hurrah for the great core group headlined by Lolich and Kaline. By the time Detroit returned to contention several years later, an entirely new cast had been developed.
For the A’s, this was just the beginning. The 1972 World Series was more of the same. It was riveting and intense, dominated by pitching. It had Oakland getting a two-game lead in the Series, being pushed to the limit, and then surviving. Tenace, after his brief rough stretch in this ALCS, was a hero, hitting four home runs and pushing Oakland past the Cincinnati Reds.
This season was the first of three straight title runs for the A’s. The good times in Oakland were just getting started.