The 1990 Oakland Athletics were the gold standard of baseball. They had won consecutive American League pennants and the 1989 World Series. They spent all of 1990 looking ready to claim a special place in history before a shocking ending dented the legacy.
Oakland is remembered in this era for “The Bash Brothers”, the power-hitting duo of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. Both had vintage years in 1990. McGwire hit 39 home runs and drove in 108 runs. Canseco’s numbers were 37/101. Both had on-base percentages of .370-plus. But the A’s were much more.
It was in the small-ball aspects of the game—walks, steals and on-base percentage—where Oakland excelled. No one was better than Rickey Henderson. The leadoff man and future Hall of Famer finished with a .439 OBP and slugged .577. He stole 65 bases, scored 119 runs and popped 28 home runs. He won the AL MVP award.
Oakland’s pitching was better. Dave Stewart was a 22-game winner and one of the great big-game pitcher of his era. Dennis Eckersley was a Hall of Fame closer, and his 48 saves and 0.61 ERA rendered him virtually unhittable in 1990. And Bob Welch racked up an astonishing 27-6 record and finished with a 2.95 ERA on his way to the Cy Young Award.
The star talent of Henderson, Stewart, Welch, Eckersley, McGwire and Canseco was augmented by a bona fide star in the dugout. Manager Tony LaRussa got the most out of the rest of the roster and Oakland finished with the AL’s best ERA and its third-most runs scored.
By Memorial Day the A’s were 30-12, but they were in a tight race In the days when baseball had just two divisions in each league and only the winners advancing to the postseason, Chicago and Minnesota were hot on Oakland’s heels for the AL West lead, four games back and 5 ½ respectively. No one in the AL East comparable.
On June 14, Oakland visited the South Side of Chicago. Stewart took the mound on Thursday to open a four-game series. He fell behind 3-0, but settled in the rest of the way. The problem was that in spite of thirteen hits, the A’s couldn’t get the big knock and they lost 3-2. When they trailed 4-1 in the eighth inning on Friday night, the race was poised to tighten further.
But a four-run rally won that game and it rolled into Saturday night when the offense unloaded for seven runs in the first inning of a 12-3 win. Mike Moore pitched well in Sunday’s finale and kept his team in it, trailing 2-1 after seven. McGwire homered to tie it and three consecutive singles gave the A’s the lead. Eckersley closed out the 5-2 win.
Oakland had the chance to open up the race further when Chicago made came west the following weekend. But the opportunity was missed. The A’s scored five runs the entire weekend. Stewart was on the wrong end of another tough 3-2 decision and the White Sox swept the series. By the All-Star break, even though the A’s were 51-31, they were only two games up.
August was the decisive month. Oakland went 18-9. Chicago lost four straight at mediocre Baltimore and went into a slump against the rest of AL East. The A’s extended the lead to 6 ½ games by Labor Day and it never got close again.
The clinching moment came with a week left in the regular season. With the magic number at two, A’s were in Kansas City. Twenty minutes after getting word of a Chicago loss, Stewart put the finishing touches on a complete-game five-hitter.
Oakland met Boston in the ALCS. The A’s spotted the Red Sox the first run of the opening three games of the series and then came back and won. Games 1 & 2 at Fenway (homefield was decided by a rotation system, not W-L record) were each tied 1-1 going into the seventh. The A’s won the opener 9-1 and then grabbed a 4-1 win. They won again by a 4-1 count at home in Game 3.
Inn Wednesday afternoon’s Game 4, Oakland quit toying—they scored three runs off Roger Clemens early, keyed by a two-out/two-run double by infielder Mike Gallego. Stewart earned his ALCS MVP trophy with eight dominant innings and the sweep was complete.
To the shock of the baseball world, this was the last great high point of the Oakland Dynasty. Stewart was rocked in Game 1 of the World Series at Cincinnati. Eckersley lost an extra-inning affair in Game 2. The offense never woke up. Oakland was swept.
These A’s still have a place in history—not many teams have won three straight pennants and Oakland went 12-1 in ALCS play over those three years. Their World Series title of 1989 came in a sweep. But 1990 denied them a place as a winner of multiple championships. The team slipped to 84 wins in 1991 and though they rebounded to win the AL West in 1992, they never returned to the World Series.