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.
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. A 6-3 loss in Game 1 with Hunter on the mound put Oakland’s back to the wall quickly. But Holtzman came up big in Game 2. And then the pitching really took over. Blue pitched a gem and outdueled the great Jim Palmer back in Baltimore in Game 3. Hunter, with a chance at redemption, won a pitcher’s duel of his own in Game 4 and the A’s had another pennant.
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. They had the MVP award winner in Steve Garvey and the Cy Young Award winner with reliever Mike Marshall. The games in this Series would all be close, but Oakland’s championship mettle came shining through in difficult spots.
The A’s split the first two games in Los Angeles, both by 3-2 scores. They won another 3-2 game back home in Game 3. The fourth game saw Oakland trail in the sixth inning before a four-run rally put them in command. Game 5 was tied 2-2 in the late going. Rudi homered off of Marshall in the seventh, Fingers put away the fourth 3-2 final of the Series and for the third straight year, the Oakland A’s were the champions of baseball.
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.