1974 Oakland A’s: New Leader; Same Championship Result

For a two-time defending World Series champion, the 1974 Oakland A’s entered the season in a bit of flux. They had a new manager. After Dick Williams resigned immediately following the championship in 1973, Alvin Dark was the new man in charge. But the players on the field were fundamentally the same and that added up to the same result—a third straight World Series title in Oakland.

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Pitching was the key and a Cy Young season from Catfish Hunter led the way. Hunter worked 318 innings, astonishing even by the workhorse standards of the day and won 25 games with a 2.49 ERA. Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman each had ERAs in the low 3s and combined for 36 more wins. Rollie Fingers, the versatile reliever who was destined for the Hall of Fame, worked 119 innings and posted a 2.65 ERA. These four arms carried the A’s to the American League’s best ERA.

The everyday lineup produced the 2-3-4 finishers in the American League MVP voting. Joe Rudi drove in 99 runs and finished second. Sal Bando drove in 103 and came in third. Reggie Jackson actually had the best year of any of them. Reggie finished with a .391 on-base percentage, slugged .574, hit 29 home runs, drove in 93 runs, scored 90 more and stole 25 bases. It was a magnificent all-around campaign and why he didn’t finish higher in the voting is subject to anyone’s speculation.

The Jackson-Bando-Rudi trio got support from Gene Tenace, who hit 26 home runs. Bert Campaneris at short and Billy North in centerfield combined to swipe 89 bases. The offense overall wasn’t as good as it had been in the championship runs of 1972 and 1973, but it was still third in the AL in runs scored.

Oakland straggled out of the gate and were 10-11 when they delivered a sweep of AL West division rival Minnesota and took two of three from another challenger in Kansas City (Prior to 1994, there was only an East & West division in each league, with the winners going directly to the LCS). By Memorial Day, the A’s record was a pedestrian 24-20, but that was enough to be on top of a balanced AL West.

They gradually picked up steam in the early part of the summer. There was a four-game sweep of the California Angels in June. Right before the All-Star break, the A’s played AL East teams in New York, Baltimore and Cleveland, the first two being leading contenders. Oakland went 7-4 in this stretch and took a five-game lead into the break.

Chicago, Texas and Kansas City were the teams hoping to make a second-half run. The A’s played steady baseball immediately out of the break and pushed their lead as high as 7 ½ games. That’s where it stood on Labor Day. The White Sox had fallen by the wayside, with the Rangers and Royals still holding out hope for a September challenge.

Oakland had the opportunity to put Texas away in a four-game series in early September. Catfish got them rolling with a 3-0 win to start the series, but the A’s lost the next three. The margin was still comfortable at 5 ½ games with three weeks to play, but it wasn’t over yet. They went to Texas for a return trip and lost the first two of a weekend series. The Rangers had the chance to close within three games in the Sunday finale.

The championship veterans answered the bell. Bando hit a two-run homer and Fingers gave 4 2/3 innings of quality relief work in a 4-1 win. That effectively ended the hopes of the challengers. With six days to go in the season, Hunter beat the Twins 2-1 to secure at least a tie. One day later, Texas blew an extra-inning lead in Kansas City and lost 5-4, ending the race.

Oakland faced a familiar foe in the 1974 ALCS. The A’s had met the Baltimore Orioles in this round in both 1971 (when the Orioles won) and in the ‘73 postseason run. Neither team was outstanding this year—the Orioles had 91 wins and the A’s had 90—but there was plenty of October experience.

Baltimore was an offensively-challenged team that thrived on great pitching. Even with an off-year by the great Jim Palmer, the Orioles had the second-best pitching in the American League behind starters Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Ross Grimsley. They were also hot, having barreled past the Red Sox in the late summer and nipped the Yankees in the stretch.

The ALCS was a best-of-five affair prior to 1985 and homefield was done by a rotation system that would have the first two games in Oakland and the remainder of the series in Baltimore. Catfish took the ball for Game 1, but struggled. Trailing 2-1 in the fifth, the Orioles got him for four runs. The eventual 6-3 loss put Oakland’s back to the wall quickly.

Holtzman answered with a five-hit shutout in Game 2. Bando’s two-run blast in the fourth got the A’s the lead and Ray Fosse’s three-run jack in the eighth blew it open. The final was 5-0. Back in Baltimore for Game 3, Bando homered again, this time a solo blast off Palmer in the fourth. It was all Blue would needed, as he pitched a two-hit shutout and won 1-0.

Catfish go this chance at redemption in Game 4 and was brilliant, going seven innings and giving up just three hits. He left the game with a 2-0 lead. Fingers gave up a run in the ninth and Baltimore had runners on first and second. Rollie struck out Don Baylor and the pennant was again going to Oakland.

The dominance of the A’s pitching in the final three games is illustrated by this—they only allowed ten hits combined in those games and none of them went for extra bases. That’s right, after scoring six runs in Game 1 alone, Oriole bats could only muster ten singles in the next three games.

The World Series would be an all-California affair, as the Los Angeles Dodgers won the National League pennant. The Dodgers had the best record in baseball at 102-60. Steve Garvey won the MVP award, with a .342 on-base percentage and .469 slugging percentage. Centerfielder Jim Wynn was the much better player, with a stat line of .387/.497 and 32 home runs.

Dodger pitching had a 20-game winner in Andy Messersmith and future Hall of Famer Don Sutton won 19. But in 1974 the best of the staff was Mike Marshall. He appeared in 106 games, all relief and logged over 200 innings. Marshall won 15 games, saved 21 more and took home the Cy Young Award.

Rotation was again the method for determining homefield and it was the National League’s turn to open at home. Reggie got the scoring opened with a solo blast in the top of the second. Holtzman worked into the fifth inning, then was yanked quickly with a 2-1 lead. Fingers came on, worked 4 1/3 innings and won the game 3-2.

Oakland struggled to hit Sutton and trailed 3-0 after eight innings. Then they got a couple runs and had the tying run aboard in the ninth. Dark sent in Herb Washington to run. On the team specifically because of his world-class speed, Washington was here for a moment like this. But Marshall picked him off and the A’s lost.

Even so, the A’s had gotten their road win and were going home for three games. Catfish worked into the eighth inning of Game 3 and Fingers cleaned up in another 3-2 win. In Game 4, Oakland trailed 2-1 in the fifth, but erupted for four runs. Pinch-hitter Jim Holt’s two-run single as the key blow. Fingers would get the last four outs of the 5-2 win.

Blue and Sutton met in a Game 5 battle that went to the seventh inning tied 2-2. Marshall was on out of the Dodgers. Rudi homered to left and the A’s had the lead by a familiar score—3-2–with six outs to go.

Fingers was on and Dodger outfielder Bill Buckner singled to center. North misplayed the ball in the outfield and Buckner took second. Then he decided to go for third. Reggie was backing the play up, and along with second baseman Dick Green, executed a perfect relay to get Buckner at third. Buckner drew criticism from NBC’s Tony Kubek for being overly aggressive in that situation. From the vantage point of history, we know now that Bill Buckner only wishes this had been his most significant mistake in a World Series game.

That defensive gem all but sealed it for Oakland. Fingers closed out the 3-2 win. He had appeared in all four games, worked over nine innings and finished with a 1.93 ERA. Rollie was an easy choice for World Series MVP. The Oakland A’s had become the first franchise not named the New York Yankees to win three straight championships, a distinction they hold to this day.

Oakland had one more good run left in the team, winning a fifth straight AL West title in 1975. But they lost the ALCS to Boston that year, bringing an end to the dynasty. The newly dawning era of free agency would break apart this team. Hunter left for New York after the ‘74 season. Reggie followed suit. Owner Charlie Finley dismantled the rest of the roster. 1974 was the last championship run of a great dynasty.