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. The Orioles had the game’s best pitching, led by Cy Young winner Jim Palmer, along with Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally. The offense got a lift from Rookie of the Year outfielder Al Bumbry, who hit .337.
A rotation system determined homefield for all postseason series and this year the format would be two games in Baltimore followed by the balance of the best-of-five round (the LCS did not go best-of-seven until 1985) in Oakland. Blue took the ball for the opener, promptly gave up four runs and the A’s lost 6-0 to Palmer.
The top of the order—Campaneris, Rudi and Bando—delivered in Game 2. They combined for seven hits and drove in all six Oakland runs, supplying Catfish with all the support he needed in a 6-3 win. The A’s had done what they needed to do on the road and that’s get a split.
Game 3 saw a magnificent pitchers’ duel between Holtzman and Cuellar. Oakland trailed 1-0 in the eighth, when a two-out single by Rudi tied it. Both starters were still in the game in the 11th when Campaneris homered to give the A’s a 2-1 win.
When Oakland jumped on Palmer early in Game 4 and still led 4-0 after six innings, they could taste another pennant. But in the blink of an eye, Blue gave up four quick runs in the seventh. Fingers surrendered a solo blast in the eighth. The game ended 5-4 and for the second straight year, the ALCS would see a deciding fifth game.
Catfish was on the hill for Game 5 and was nothing short of brilliant. Vic Davalillo’s two-out triple in the fourth was the key blow in getting an early 3-zip lead. Palmer, having been chased early in Game 4, came out of the bullpen and shut down the scoring for the rest of the game. But Catfish was rolling, he tossed a five-hitter and the 3-0 final stood up. A groundball out to Campaneris send the A’s back to the World Series.
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.
The rotation system gave Oakland homefield advantage for this year’s Series. Game 1 was the expected pitchers’ duel. Fingers worked 3 1/3 innings of shutout relief, the key to a 2-1 A’s win. The offenses opened up in Game 2 and it went to extra innings tied 6-6. The Mets scored the go-ahead run in the 12th and then consecutive two-out errors by second baseman Mike Andrews let New York tack on three more runs. The final was 10-7.
Oakland owner Charlie Finley was furious and immediately cut Andrews after the game. It was humiliating for the player, along with manager Dick Williams, who had loved Andrews dating back to the days when both were in Boston. Williams resigned at the conclusion of the World Series (literally, right at the conclusion, in the locker room afterwards). It’s part of baseball lore that it was in protest over Andrews’ treatment, but Williams and his players insisted at the time that the decision had already been made and was just not public. Even so, the postgame celebration is more than a little awkward as a resignation time.
On the baseball field, the Series went to old Shea Stadium. Oakland spotted Seaver a 2-0 lead in Game 3, but Catfish settled in and the game was tied by the eighth. Another long night of extra innings awaited. This one went to the 11th, where Campaneris’ two-out RBI single won it.
The A’s again dug a quick hole in Game 4, letting Matlack take the hill with a 3-0 lead. This time there was no rally and they lost 6-1. Mets’ pitching continued to dominate in Game 5, as Oakland got just three hits in a 2-0 loss to Koosman. The A’s would go home for the final two games with their back to the wall.
Seaver was also waiting. But so was Reggie. He delivered three hits and two RBI, enough to get Catfish some room to breathe. Hunter worked into the eighth inning and handed a 3-1 lead to Fingers, who got the final four outs.
This was Oakland’s fourth straight postseason series (the ALCS & World Series of both 1972-73) that was going to a deciding game. The A’s clearly weren’t fazed by playing under pressure. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in northern California, they sent Holtzman to the mound for Game 7 to face Matlack.
Oakland power asserted itself early. Campaneris and Reggie each hit two-run blasts in the third inning and staked Holtzman to a 4-0 lead. The lead was still a comfortable 5-1 in the ninth. Fingers, having worked another 3 1/3 innings of stellar relief, was poised to get the final out. But an error by Tenace extended the game, cut the lead to 5-2 and brought the tying run to the plate. Williams summoned Darold Knowles from the bullpen. He got Wayne Garrett to pop out to short and it was over.
So too, was the Dick Williams era in Oakland. 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.