1972 was a breakthrough year for the Oakland A’s, as they won their first World Series title on the West Coast. The 1973 Oakland A’s built on the success, winning a second straight championship.
Reggie Jackson led the way, with one of the great seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Reggie hit 32 home runs, drove in 117 runs, scored 99 more and won the MVP award. He got support from third baseman Sal Bando, who popped 29 home runs, drove in 98 runs and scored 97. Gene Tenace, moved into the everyday lineup after his heroics in October of 1972, hit 24 homers.
Bill North set the table for the offense with a .376 on-base percentage and he stole 53 bases. Shortstop Bert Campaneris added 34 steals to his excellent defensive play. Deron Johnson, the 34-year-old who got playing time in the newly created American League role of designated hitter, hit 19 home runs. It was all enough to make up for an off-year by leftfielder Joe Rudi and produce the best-scoring offense in the American League.
The pitching was awfully good too, with Ken Holtzman, Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue each winning 20 games. Rollie Fingers came out of the bullpen and posted 1.92 ERA. Even with a down year from starting pitcher Blue Moon Odom, the A’s had the second-best staff ERA in the league.
Oakland stumbled out of the gate and lost seven of their first ten to AL West rivals Kansas City, Minnesota and Chicago (prior to 1994 each league was split into just an East and West, with the winner advancing directly to the League Championship Series). The A’s found their footing, but on Memorial Day they were still just 23-21 and in fifth amidst a packed Western Division.
Five straight losses to the Tigers and Yankees out of the holiday didn’t lift anyone’s spirits and Oakland fell six games off the pace. But an 8-4 homestand in early June against AL East teams got things looking back upward. An eight-game road swing against the Royals and White Sox produced five victories. When those same two teams made the return trip west, Oakland won five of six.
They were tied for first by early July and an 11-5 stretch going into the All-Star break opened up a 2 ½ game lead on Kansas City. Chicago had basically switched places with Oakland over the early part of the summer, as the White Sox fell to .500 and fifth place.
The A’s stumbled out of the break, losing three straight in Minnesota. By August 9, the Royals had nudged a half-game into the lead, while everyone else in the AL West had faded to sub-.500 and would not recover.
Oakland again got well against the AL East, ripping off fourteen wins in fifteen games and rebuilding their lead back to five. On Labor Day weekend in Kansas City, the champs had the opportunity to drive a dagger into the heart of the young challenger. But the A’s pitching failed them–they gave up 23 runs in three games. Only an offensive outburst by Bando in the Friday opener—two home runs, including an inside-the-park job, salvaged a single win.
The AL West lead was still four games on September 10, when Kansas City arrived in Oakland to start the final three weeks of the regular season. This time, the A’s didn’t miss their chance. Blue threw a complete-game four-hitter, while Bando’s three hits led a balanced offensive assault in a 13-0 win. Glenn Abbott went the distance to win the second game 3-1. Even though Holtzman lost the finale, Oakland’s lead was still a comfortable five games.
And it never got closer. On the season’s penultimate Sunday, the A’s clinched. Rudi and Bando combined to drive in seven runs in a 10-5 win over the White Sox. It was the third straight division crown and it set up Oakland’s chance at their second straight World Series.
The Baltimore Orioles were the AL East’s traditional power in the first part of the 1970s, and with 97 wins, were waiting in the 1973 ALCS. This was the second time in three years Baltimore and Oakland squared off for the American League pennant. The Oriole rotation was one that could match up with A’s pitching, and that showed right out of the chute in Game 1. Baltimore Cy Young Award winner Jim Palmer tossed a shutout. But Catfish answered with a Game 2 win. A dramatic Game 3 pitcher’s duel between Holtzman and Mike Cuellar went extra innings. Both pitchers went the distance, but Oakland survived in eleven innings. After blowing a late lead in Game 4, the A’s were pushed to the brink. But they had Catfish in reserve and the great pitcher delivered again for a repeat pennant.
An unlikely opponent awaited. The New York Mets had won just 82 games and were easily the worst team to ever reach the postseason at this point in baseball history (in fact, even in our era of expanded postseasons, the Mets are still tied for fewest wins by a playoff team in a non-strike year, with the 2005 San Diego Padres).
But these Mets had played their best down the stretch and then upset Cincinnati’s powerful Big Red Machine in the NLCS. New York had great pitching, with future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack leading the rotation. Like Baltimore, they had the arms to match up with Oakland. And, like the Orioles, the Mets pushed the A’s to the brink.
Holtzman outdueled Matlack in Game 1. That set up a dramatic Game 2. It was the one game in this Series were both offenses got going, and was also marked by defensive miscues. Two key errors in extra innings by Oakland second baseman Mike Andrews contributed to a Mets win. It also led to considerable discord in the A’s clubhouse, as Andrews was scapegoated by owner Charlie Finley, with Williams and the players coming to Andrew’s defense.
Oakland’s bats went quiet in the three games played in New York. The pitching bailed them out in Game 3, but losses in Games 4 & 5 put the A’s in a must-win spot. They came back home. Reggie got rolling with a couple of big doubles early in Game 6 that set the tone and helped force a Game 7. And in the finale, the A’s jumped out to an early lead and comfortably won 5-2. For the second straight year, they were champs.
The tensions with the front office meant that the Dick Williams era in Oakland was over. But the winning was not. The A’s would keep it going under successor Alvin Dark and win another World Series in 1974. Their run of AL West titles, begun in 1971, extended on through 1975. The 1973 edition of the Oakland A’s just kept the championship assembly line rolling.