The Oakland A’s were a franchise that was coming. In 1968, they had relocated from Kansas City and posted the franchise’s first winning season since 1932—when they were in Philadelphia and managed by Connie Mack. In their new west coast home, the A’s continued to play winning baseball in 1969 and 1970. In 1971, they hired Dick Williams as the manager. Williams led them to a 101-win season in the ALCS. The 1972 Oakland A’s took the next step and won the World Series.
Reggie Jackson, the 26-year-old centerfielder and future Hall of Famer, was the team’s best everyday player. He finished with an on-base percentage of .350 and slugged .473. His .265 batting average hurt him in terms of public perception, at a time when this stat was valued more than OBP. It’s one explanation for why Jackson managed to finish an appalling 18th in the MVP voting and behind four of his own teammates.
One of those teammates was Joe Rudi, who finished second for AL MVP. The leftfielder batted .305, though his OBP was a more pedestrian .345. He did slug .486, thanks to good power to the alleys, with 32 doubles. First baseman Mike Epstein was a good power hitter, with 26 home runs. Shortstop Bert Campaneris built his reputation as a defensive wizard. Sal Bando, the 28-year-old third baseman had an off-year in 1972, but Oakland still scored more runs than anyone in the American League.
The pitching had three horses leading the way in the rotation. Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman and Blue Moon Odom combined to win 55 games and all had ERAs at 2.51 or lower. And that doesn’t even include Vida Blue, who posted a 2.80 ERA. Blue, off his run to both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1971, dealt with injuries, made only 23 starts and won just six games. But the fact a man with a 2.80 ERA with his track record was Oakland’s fourth starter indicates how good the rotation was.
Rollie Fingers, the future Hall of Famer, was the cornerstone of the bullpen at the age of 25. In an era when relievers were used with far more flexibility and creativity, Fingers won 11 games and saved 21 more. Williams also got valuable relief work from veterans like Joe Horlen, Bob Locker and Darrell Knowles. The Oakland staff ranked second in the American League in ERA.
The season didn’t start until April 15, due to a spring training lockout that would shorten the season by anywhere from six to eight games. When play finally did begin, Oakland was consistent, as they jousted with the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins atop the AL West (The MLB format was two divisions per league and the winners going directly to the League Championship Series. The Central Division and Division Series round did not exist until the realignment of 1994). The A’s were 19-11 when the White Sox came to town for a three-game series on Memorial Day weekend.
Holtzman and Hunter delivered complete-game wins on Friday and Saturday, with help from Jackson’s bat in each game. The Sunday finale went to extra innings tied 3-3. Fingers appeared to cough it up when he allowed a run in the 10th and then the first two Oakland batters were retired in the bottom of the inning. Then first baseman Mike Hegan singled to center to keep the game alive and 22-year-old reserve outfielder George Hendricks hit a two-run blast to win it and complete the sweep.
Consistency continued to mark Oakland’s play up to a late All-Star break that didn’t arrive until July 23. Minnesota fell of the pace. Chicago hung around and took three of four from Oakland at the end of June. But the A’s steadiness had them with a 56-35 record and 6 ½ game lead at the break.
Oakland stumbled in the latter part of July and early August, losing 11 of their first 19 out of the break. Chicago got hot and when they came west for another head-to-head matchup, the White Sox took the first two games and pulled into a first-place tie. Blue took the ball on Sunday with the division lead on the line and delivered a four-hit shutout to win 3-0.
The A’s and White Sox still swapped first place back and forth for the last couple weeks in August. Oakland won five of six games against lowly Cleveland and AL East-leading Detroit to nudge out to a 2 ½ game edge when Labor Day arrived, signaling the start of the stretch drive.
Oakland and Chicago had a pair of two-game sets with each other in September and they collectively split those four games. The ten games in between were crucial—the A’s went 7-3, while the White Sox were 5-5 and it gave Oakland a five-game margin with two weeks to go.
With six days to go, the A’s had assured themselves at least a tie and played a midweek day game against the Twins with the chance to clinch for the home fans. Oakland dug themselves a 7-0 hole, as Odom was uncharacteristically poor. But they started to rally in the fifth and after eight innings the game was tied 7-7. In the bottom of the ninth, Sal Bando was hit by a pitch and then scored on a double by Dal Maxvill to wrap up another AL West crown.
The postseason would test the cardiovascular capacity of the people of Oakland. The games ahead were tense, most were decided by one run, and most were tight pitching duels. The good news was, that was a battleground on which the A’s were uniquely qualified to compete.
Detroit had ended Baltimore’s three-year run of controlling the AL East and was be the opponent in the 1972 ALCS. In a playoff round that was then best-of-five, Oakland grabbed the first two games, including one where they came from behind in extra innings. Then they lost two games, including one where they coughed up a lead in extra innings. In the decisive Game 5, the big play was Jackson’s successful steal of home early in the game. It was costly–the great rightfielder tore up his knee and was out for the rest of the year. But it won the A’s a pennant.
The World Series against the Cincinnati Reds was more of the same. Oakland won a pair of one-run games to open the Fall Classic. With the middle three games at home, they were poised to wrap it up early. But the A’s lost two of three, each decided by one run. They lost a blowout in Game 6. With everyone on the line in Game 7, the pitching game through. So did Gene Tenace–having hit four home runs in the Series, Tenace drove in the first run of Game 7 and he drove in the run that gave the A’s a lead they would not relinquish. With a 3-2 victory, the Oakland A’s were the champions of baseball.