The 1974 American League Championship Series marked the third time in four years the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles had squared off for the pennant. The A’s were looking to win a third consecutive World Series title. The Orioles were looking to get back to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1971. In a series defined by excellent pitching, it was Oakland who prevailed.
You can read more about the journey each team took to its respective division title, and about their key players, at the links below. This article will take an exclusive focus on the games of the 1974 ALCS.
League Championship Series play was a best-of-five affair through 1984, and homefield was done on a rotation basis. This year’s rotation called for the series to open with two games in Oakland and conclude with up to three played back east in Baltimore.
So, on a Saturday afternoon, we got started with the A’s sending the great Catfish Hunter to the mound to face off with crafty Oriole lefty Mike Cuellar. With one out in the first inning, Baltimore’s Paul Blair took Catfish deep and the Birds had a quick 1-0 lead.
Oakland evened it up in the bottom of the third. Dick Green worked a leadoff walk. Bill North grounded into a force play but replacing Green with the speedy North on the bases worked out. North stole second and then scored on a base hit from Bert Campaneris.
The Orioles moved back in front in the fourth when Bobby Grich hit a one-out double, and then scored on a single by Tommy Davis. And in the fifth, Baltimore opened up against Catfish. The legendary Brooks Robinson was in the twilight of his career, but he homered to lead off this inning. Elrod Hendricks singled, then moved up to second on a sac bunt and took third on a passed ball. When Hunter struck out Rich Coggins, he was on the verge of limiting the damage. But Blair came up with a clutch RBI single to make it 4-1. Grich homered. It was 6-1, Hunter was gone, and Baltimore was cruising.
Oakland got a run back in the fifth but didn’t threaten again until adding another run in the ninth. The outcome wasn’t in doubt after the Grich blast, and the Orioles took the opener 6-3.
Now, the two-time defending champs faced a virtual must-win game on Sunday afternoon, lest they go on the road down 0-2. Ken Holtzman shouldered the burden for the A’s against Dave McNally for the Birds.
Both pitchers were sharp early, and the game was scoreless into the bottom of the fourth. A’s third baseman Sal Bando hit a harmless pop fly down the rightfield line, in foul territory. Grich gave chase and got there…but he dropped the ball. That was the opening Bando needed, who homered to give Oakland their first lead of the series.
The A’s were able to get another run when North drew a walk, and then scored on a two-out triple from Joe Rudi. Oakland threatened in the seventh, loading the bases with two outs. Nothing came of it, and this remained a tight 2-0 game into the late innings. Finally, in the eighth, the A’s broke it open. With two outs, a walk and an error, set up a three-run homer by Ray Fosse. Holtzman completed a five-hitter. Oakland’s 5-0 win evened the series.
LCS games still weren’t being scheduled for prime-time, so the Tuesday through Thursday schedule in Baltimore to decide the pennant would all take place during work or school hours. Tuesday’s Game 3 saw Vida Blue go for the A’s, while the Orioles gave the ball to Jim Palmer. And a series that had already seen some good pitching was about to go to a whole new level.
Blue and Palmer simply dominated. The difference? Palmer made one mistake to Bando, who hit another big home run. On an afternoon when he pitched a four-hitter, Palmer would take the L. Blue was magnificent, dealing a two-hitter, striking out seven and never allowing anything resembling a real threat. The A’s 1-0 win moved them to the brink of the pennant.
Game 4 was a Hunter-Cuellar rematch. The A’s weren’t much better at hitting Cuellar than they had been in Game 1. But on this afternoon, the Oriole lefty was wild.
The problems started in the first inning, when Cuellar issued three consecutive two-out walks. He got Gene Tenace to pop up and avoid damage. But his control never settled in, and in the fifth inning, it came back to bite. Again with two outs, Cuellar walked two men. Then a wild pitch put runners on second and third. Rudi was intentionally walked. Normally, this would seem a smart move. But loading the bases when the starting pitcher is having trouble finding the strike zone is problematic. Cuellar walked Tenace. The A’s had a 1-0 lead.
As the game moved to the sixth inning, Oakland was in the bizarre position to win a pennant-clinching game while being no-hit. Finally, in the seventh, the bats got off the schneid. After a walk to Bando, Reggie Jackson doubled. The only A’s hit of the afternoon had given them a 2-0 lead.
Hunter dominated through seven innings and that 2-0 lead held to the ninth inning. Rollie Fingers was on the mound looking to close it out, when Baltimore launched a last, desperate rally. With one out, Blair walked and Grich singled. After Davis grounded out, a Boog Powell base hit made it 2-1 and there were runners on first and second. Don Baylor was the last hope. Fingers struck him out and Oakland had won the game on the strength of pitching and drawing 11 walks.
There weren’t a lot of notable offensive performers in this series. In fact, there were none for Baltimore. For Oakland, a hat tip would have to go Fosse, who went 4-for-12. And while Bando only went 3-for-13, his two home runs were both huge.
The ALCS didn’t have an official MVP until 1980. If we can give one retroactively here, my choice would be Blue. While I generally prefer a starting pitcher to have two wins before considering them for a series MVP award, Blue’s dominance in Game 3 was both thorough and necessary, given Palmer’s almost-as-good performance.
Oakland went on to complete their three-peat, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. In the big picture, this 1974 ALCS marked the end of what can be considered the A’s-Orioles Era of American League baseball. Baltimore continued to be a competitive contender, but they did not return to the postseason until 1979. Oakland came back for one more shot in 1975, but lost in the ALCS, and then fell off the map for a few years. This series marked a pivot point in the history of the American League.