1972 Oakland A’s: A Breakthrough World Series Title

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.

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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.

Detroit had ended Baltimore’s three-year run of controlling the AL East and would be the opponent in the 1972 ALCS. The Tigers were not outstanding by any means—the East’s top three contenders would have all finished third in the West. But Mickey Lolich was the kind of pitcher who had already proven he could dominate a short postseason series—in 1968, when he won three World Series games in a Tiger championship run. Lolich was a 22-game winner, who had worked an astonishing 327 innings in 1972. And any team managed by Billy Martin was going to compete.

A rotation system determined homefield advantage, and this year that meant the first two games would be in Oakland and the balance of what was then a best-of-five round would be in Detroit. The opener went extra innings tied 1-1, as Hunter and Lolich were brilliant.

When Fingers gave up a solo blast to Tiger great Al Kaline in the 11th things looked bleak. But Bando and Epstein opened the bottom of the inning with consecutive singles off Lolich, still in the game. They were bunted up by Gene Tenace and singled in by little-known pinch-hitter Gonzalo Marquaz. Oakland followed up the 3-2 win with an easy 5-0 whitewash in Game 2, as Odom tossed a complete-game three-hitter.

Oakland’s bats went mostly silent in Game 3 at Tiger Stadium. Rudi and Matty Alou each had three hits, but no one else produced and ten runners were left stranded in a 3-0 loss. The Hunter-Lolich rematch in Game 4 again went to extra innings tied 1-1. This time, both bullpens were in charge when the A’s grabbed two in the 10th and stood on the verge of a pennant.

But Fingers had already been used to get out of the eighth inning and no one in the A’s pen—from Locker to Horlen to Dave Hamilton—could finish the job. Two singles, a wild pitch, two walks and another single produced three runs. The 4-3 loss set up a decisive Game 5.

The Tigers kept the momentum going, grabbing a run in the first. Reggie changed the momentum in the second inning. He walked, stole second, took third on a sac fly and with two outs, stole home. He was injured in the collision at the plate and his season was over. But he had tied this game. Oakland cashed in a Detroit error in the fourth to get a 2-1 lead. Odom worked through five innings and the lead was turned over to Blue. Blue allowed three scattered singles in the final four frames and a fly ball to Hendrick, in the game for Jackson, set off the celebration for the A’s.

Cincinnati’s powerful Big Red Machine awaited in the World Series. The Reds had Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose in their lineup. They had won 95 games. They had World Series experience, from two years earlier. And they had hunger, with that 1970 trip to the Fall Classic ending in a decisive loss to Baltimore. Oakland was missing Reggie from the lineup and an underdog. The homefield rotation system also sent them on the road.

Pitching and the long ball gave the A’s the early edge. Tenace homered twice in Game 1, accounting for all three Oakland runs. The combination of Hunter, Fingers and Blue controlled Cincinnati in a 3-2 win. Hunter was brilliant in Game 2, and Rudi’s home run helped provide just enough offense for a 2-1 win. The A’s would go home for the middle three games with a chance to wrap this up early.

A gem from Odom in Game 3 was wasted as the offense only mustered three hits in a 1-0 loss. The bats stayed silent through almost all of Game 4 and were in a 2-1 hole. In the ninth inning, it was the role players who delivered—Marquez, Tenace, Don Mincher and Angel Mangual hit consecutive singles and stole a 3-2 win.

More Tenace heroics—a three-run home run early in Game 5, gave the A’s a 3-1 lead. They still had a 4-3 edge in the eighth and the champagne could be almost tasted. But Fingers gave up single runs in each of the last two innings. Oakland lost 5-4 and would have to go on the road. Blue and the bullpen were beaten up in an 8-1 loss in Game 6. Once again, the A’s had given away a two-game series edge and would have to play a deciding game on the road.

Game 7 was tied 1-1 after five innings. A quick hook had starting pitcher Odom already out of the game and Hunter came in. Oakland gave him a lead to work with in the sixth. Tenace and Bando hit consecutive two-out RBI doubles for a 3-1 cushion. Cincinnati got a run in the eighth. Fingers was on in the ninth, got the first two outs and had pinch-hitter Darrell Heaney at the plate. Fingers hit him with a pitch.

The hit-by-pitch gave Rose a chance, with Morgan right behind him. Could Oakland ever get this closed out. The answer was yes. Rose flied out and finally, the Oakland A’s were the champions of baseball.

And not for the last time. Oakland won the World Series again in 1973 and 1974. Their run of AL West titles stretched through 1975. The great dynasty of the 1970s was underway.