The Oakland A’s were the pre-eminent power in major league baseball in the first half of the 1970s. They won five straight AL West titles, three consecutive pennants and three straight World Series. The “three-peat” of 1972-74 is one of just four times in MLB history that such has been done, and the only time it’s been done by a franchise not named the New York Yankees. It was an amazing run, and the 1975 Oakland A’s was the organization’s last run into October before coming apart.
Oakland was a balanced team, ranking second in the American League in both runs scored and ERA. The key players offensively were catcher Gene Tenace, who hit 29 home runs and whose plate discipline led him to draw 106 walks—he was doing it in the Moneyball way long before Billy Beane showed up in the Bay Area.
First baseman Joe Rudi hit 21 home runs, and the A’s had quality vets on the left side of the infield in third baseman Sal Bando and shortstop Bert Campaneris. There was speed in the outfield, with 20-year-old Claudell Washington hitting .308 and centerfielder Bill North posting a .373 OBP.
All of these players were solid contributors but in the pantheon of the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s, no star shone brighter than that of Reggie Jackson. The rightfielder had another big year in 1975, with 36 home runs and 104 RBIs.
The pitching staff had some great arms, but it was top-heavy. Vida Blue won 22 games with a 3.01 ERA and Ken Holtzman won 18 and had a 3.14 ERA. The top reliever was one of the best of his time, Rollie Fingers and his famous handlebar mustache. Fingers did whatever Oakland needed—he pitched 126 innings, won 10 games, saved 24 more and had a 2.98 ERA.
Blue, Holtzman and Fingers shouldered the load and made sure the A’s had the pitching to stay ahead of a talented and rising young Kansas City Royals team in the AL West.
Oakland played well early and was 29-20, though Kansas City was a half-game better on June 3, as the teams were the best two in the American League. The A’s then won 13 of 17 and a four-game series with the Royals during that stretch would be a turning point.
The teams split the first two of a four-game weekend set and were wrapping it up with a Sunday doubleheader. Oakland led 5-2 in the ninth inning, when a series of relievers—including Fingers—were unable to hold the lead and the Royals scored three times to tie it.
Kansas City then got an RBI single from young third baseman George Brett in the top of the 12th and was all set to get what, for a young team, would be an enormous win on the road. Or at least as enormous as any win can be in June.
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But the A’s showed veteran savvy. Tenace drew a walk. Jackson singled, but the A’s also got down to their final out. Bando then hit a double that brought in both runs and won the game 7-6. Oakland took the nightcap of the doubleheader 8-1. By the end of June they were eight games up, the Royals never got closer than 4 ½ and Oakland finished 98-64, seven games ahead at season’s end.
When a team wins a race by seven games, it’s difficult to say that one more out in a June doubleheader was the reason. But it was the turning point, the clear dividing line between when Kansas City had hope and when Oakland took over the race. And the game symbolically illustrates one young team that wasn’t quite ready and one group of proud veterans that weren’t yet ready to let go of their crown.
But the time for Oakland to let go of at least some of their dynasty was coming. They faced the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, and while the games were good, the A’s lost three straight (the LCS was best-of-five up until 1985).
The Red Sox would go on to play a classic World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, but Oakland’s defeat did deprive baseball in one sense—the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati was the emerging new dynasty, ready to win back-to-back World Series. There would have been something historically appropriate about seeing them start that by ending the old dynasty that was the Oakland A’s.
Oakland’s dynasty would come to a complete halt in 1976, as Kansas City finally overtook them in the AL West. The era of free agency that began in ’76 was cruel, as the team broke up completely. But the A’s of 1971-75 were one of the best in the modern era.