Sport in American History presents a two-part series on the beginning and end of Major League sports in Oakland. SAH reviews two books on the forgotten California Golden Seals and unforgettable Oakland A’s. Woven into the reviews––a look at the hockey Seals’ never-ending woes and the 50th anniversary of the Oakland A’s first World Series title (in the Bay Area)––is historical analysis of Oakland’s now-dwindling professional sports scene that goes beyond the books’ covers. The NFL Raiders and NBA Warriors, among other teams and leagues, are included in the reviews to provide a broader perspective. From 1972-76, Oakland, finally, had attained a measure fame and respect. The city enjoyed the prestige that goes with being a champion of sport, something which had eluded its cosmopolitan Bay Area arch-rival “neighbor,” San Francisco. And, then, each team in the Big 4 Major Leagues of sports began leaving…
Robertson, John G., Madden, Carl T. The Mustache Gang Battles the Big Red Machine. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2022. Pp. 256. Photos: black & white. Index, bibliography, and chapter notes. $35 softcover.
By Richard A. Macales
“It was generally believed by baseball insiders that the Bay Area’s sports fans were missing out on something special.” –Authors John G. Robertson and Carl T. Madden, in the chapter, “Unshaved, Unloved…but Superb”
“Watching them [the A’s] play was like watching a boa constrictor eat…They just slowly choke you—and they did it day after day – so it dawned on people awfully late that this was a juggernaut in the making.”—Bay Area sports journalist Ray Ratto, quoted from the MLB documentary, The Swingin’ A’s
“Everybody says the Cincinnati [Reds]-Boston [Red Sox] World Series in 1975 was the best in history. I don’t. I’ll always maintain that the best Series I was ever involved in was the 1972 World Series against Oakland…”–Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame manager George “Sparky” Anderson, quoted from his autobiography, They Call Me Sparky
If the Lords of Baseball finally get their wish, the Oakland Athletics (aka the A’s) will vacate the Bay Area. Their probable destination: Las Vegas. And with the A’s relocation, Oakland will lose the final link to its historic status as a much storied major league sports city of champions.
Oakland’s most successful professional team during the 1970’s was the A’s. World Series champions in 1972, ’73 and ’74, since that time only the New York Yankees of 1998, 1999, and 2000 have achieved a three-peat in MLB.
Fielding great major league teams in Oakland is an established fact; retaining them in “The Town” has been another issue. The slogan of the A’s former co-tenants, the NFL’s Raiders, which hung over the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for many seasons, was “Commitment to Excellence.” The Raiders left Oakland twice, their most recent relocation being to Las Vegas in 2020. Almost concurrently, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors fled across the Bay Bridge back to San Francisco in 2019, a few months earlier than the Raiders’ move. Oakland has been treated as a wayward port town with championship-caliber teams always on the lookout for more lucrative stadium deals in other cities. As such, perhaps the slogan for all Oakland-based pro teams should say, “Commitment to Leave Town!”
When the A’s depart, gone from the sports pages will be that familiar dateline, “OAKLAND, California—.” For sports fans and the non-sports-minded public, the mystique of Oakland and its East Bay neighbor city, Berkeley––where the Free Speech Movement was born on the campus of the University of California in the turbulent 1960s ––conjure up vastly different memories and historical narratives. At the time of the A’s arrival from Kansas City (in an ugly Missouri divorce) in 1968, Oakland had been closely associated with the Black Panther Party, the (white) Hell’s Angels, anti-war student activists, pro-Green hippies, and Naval yard workers and sailors, as well as being home to Clorox bleach and as the manufacturer of other chemical substances in the city’s many factories and on the streets, both legal and illegal. Uniting this disparate group together was the violent NFL Raiders. As for the A’s, it can be summed up in one word by the East Bay populace: apathy.
Insofar as San Franciscans are concerned, they long have viewed the A’s as “intruders” on their “turf,” playing an “inferior” brand of baseball, talent-wise (American League). The A’s infringement on the San Francisco Giants’ “territory” almost caused their beloved “legitimate” children named Mays, McCovey, and Marichal, and their successors, to leave the Bay Area. To today’s San Franciscans, it’s good riddance to the A’s, just as it was with the Raiders. Only the NBA Warriors were warmly lured “back home” to “The City,” where they had played from 1962 until their “short-term, temporary move” (in 1971, lasting 48 years) to the “other side of The Bay,” as they derisively refer to Oakland.
In 1972, the A’s flamboyant owner, Charles O. Finley, paid his players to grow mustaches and wear longer hair in a failed attempt to appeal to East Bay fans. “Charlie O” the Mule (the team mascot named for the owner), and his other promotions, like pig wrestling/hog calling night, however, seemed out of touch with the Bay Area’s counterculture and social elite alike (the latter mainly living in San Francisco). The fans stayed away from the A’s in droves on both sides of The Bay.
This becomes visibly clear when one looks at the colorful cover of The Mustache Gang. It shows the unlikeliest Most Valuable Player of the 1972 World Series, a mustachioed Gene Tenace (as in “tennis”), who set home run and slugging percentage records matching and/or surpassing iconic names like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The book’s cover photo shows Tenace in that trademark green-and-gold A’s team uniform, with the backdrop of the gray and empty seats of the Oakland Coliseum. Sadly, observing those vacant seats for A’s games may be what is best remembered about the A’s years in Oakland.
The color scheme of the A’s uniform has been “kelly green,” “Fort Knox gold,” and “wedding-gown white,” to match their white shoes. “Garish” is how the authors describe it. When the A’s colorful duds were originally introduced in 1963 (in Kansas City), the team immediately became the object of ridicule from just about everyone. The “Lords of Baseball,” i.e., the Baseball Establishment, an elite group of white conservative business men who owned all MLB teams back then, wished to maintain baseball’s status quo. Mod looks, as well as any involvement with race issues and anti-war protests, were forbidden. The Lords of Baseball rued the day they voted to allow Charles O. Finley into MLB with his purchase of the then-Kansas City Athletics in December, 1960. He broke many of their (unwritten) rules; they never forgave him.
Finley, an Alabama-born, Indiana-reared, Chicago-based insurance executive, had unconventional ideas for baseball, such as night World Series games and the designated hitter (aka the “DH”) batting in place of the pitcher, both of which were adopted during his A’s-as-World-Series-champions era in the 1970s. Finley felt a sense of vindication with the rule change, as well as when night baseball TV revenue fattened his fellow owners’ pockets. But Finley and the Lords of Baseball (most notably baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn) couldn’t remain content with each other for long.
Taking the A’s seriously, and seeing the genius behind the seeming madness of Charlie Finley and his “Swingin’ A’s” are authors John G. Robertson and Carl T. Madden in The Mustache Gang Battles the Big Red Machine. Published on the 50th anniversary of the 1972 World Series, it is a both a retro look at the era of pre-free agency baseball and a contemporary examination of how small- and medium- market teams could survive and thrive. The World Series featured the Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds, or “The Big Red Machine.” The National League Championship Series (NLCS) pitted Cincinnati vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the American League Championship Series (ALCS) featured Oakland vs. the Detroit Tigers.
The World Series paired the seemingly outmatched, injury-plagued Reggie Jackson-less Oakland A’s versus Pete Rose’s all-star-laden and fully equipped Big Red Machine. The authors focus on what journalists over the years have dubbed “the hairs (the A’s) vs. the squares (the Reds; clean-shaven and short-haired, a requirement by team management or you were off the team)”.
Authors Robertson and Madden rank the 1972 World Series as one of the greatest of all-time because all four victories by the A’s in the best-of-seven-games affair were won by one run. In addition, six of the seven games were one-run decisions. Robertson tells Sport in American History that 6-of-7 games being decided by one run has never happened in MLB history. Until the 1972 Fall Classic, only Babe Ruth’s Boston Red Sox achieved four one-run victories back in 1915 and 1918––when The Babe was still a pitcher, earning two victories in the Series for Boston as a hurler in 1918! Twenty years after the A’s feat, the Toronto Blue Jays matched the record in 1992. However, only the A’s-Reds World Series of 1972 went the full seven games.
But it wasn’t just the close games, the solid pitching (both starting and relief), timely pinch hitting, and some memorable defensive plays, such as Joe Rudi’s dramatic outfield catch against the wall at Riverfront Stadium (ranking up there with Willie Mays’ 1954 grab). It was also about how a group of no names came out of obscurity to be the heroes under the leadership of manager Dick Williams, a future Hall of Famer. Like a chess grandmaster, Williams understood how to platoon his players, insert pinch hitters, how to handle his pitching staff, and how to deceive his competitor (Johnny Bench striking out on what was supposedly a called pitchout for an intentional walk), with each strategy carefully thought through depending on the opposing player at the plate and on base.
Perhaps the best weapon the A’s had in their arsenal was the element of surprise! Taking weakness and using it to Williams’ advantage. Many of his players had such little playing time during the regular season that Cincinnati’s scouting reports on them were probably scant. Here are few examples, as confirmed by the authors’ chapter on the “Studs” and “Duds” for both teams in the World Series:
- Gene Tenace: A catcher who had appeared in 82 regular season games with five home runs and a .225 batting average. In the World Series, he captured the MVP award by hitting two home runs in his first two at-bats and two more in other games, leading all players on both sides with nine RBIs.
- Dick Green: A second baseman, who appeared in 26 regular-season games, had a low career batting average, and was never known as a power hitter. In the World Series, however, he hit for a .333 average, including two doubles. His defense was always stellar, but never more so than in the 1972 World Series.
- Gonzalo Marques: An obscure pinch hitter whose carefully placed three singles in five plate appearances were crucial. He had appeared in 23 A’s regular season games and had a total of eight hits.
- George Hendrick: The outfielder who had to replace Reggie Jackson in the lineup was a big disappointment in trying to fill Mr. October’s shoes (and legs). During the regular season he appeared in 58 games, with four home runs and had a minuscule .182 batting average. However, the fact that A’s Manager Williams inserted him into the World Series was a psychological puzzle to the Reds. In only five games, he did contribute two hits and scored three runs.
- Rollie Fingers: A relief pitcher who had an outstanding regular season but was still considered a lesser known bullpen ace as compared to his teammate––the more experienced (and injured) Darold Knowles. Fingers’ goal was to be a starting pitcher, not to be relegated to the bullpen. He appeared in six of the seven games in a relief role and was responsible for three of Oakland’s four wins with a victory and two saves. He had a sparkling 1.74 earned run average. His trademark handlebar mustache became synonymous with the 1972 World Series. Fingers ended up in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
- Jim “Catfish” Hunter: The team’s leading starting pitcher in 1972 was the one A’s player who was expected to give the Reds a competitive game. He won two games in the World Series. During the Series, a San Francisco journalist asked Pete Rose if he thought Oakland’s Catfish Hunter was “a super pitcher.” Robertson and Madden write, “Rose firmly responded with a brief and brusque negative. ‘No,’ he simply said…The San Francisco scribe used Rose’s remark as evidence to label the NL champs from Cincinnati as ‘crewcut boors; and Rose specifically as insufferably arrogant.’”
In the case of the Cincinnati Reds, what you saw during the regular season is what you got in the World Series. No surprises. Manager Sparky Anderson filled out the same score card every game, and did little platooning. All his regulars played in seven games. Outfielders: Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan and Cesar Geronimo; infielders: Tony Perez (1B), Joe Morgan (2B), Dave Concepcion (SS), and Dennis Menke (3B); catcher: Johnny Bench. George Foster, in later years one of MLB’s greatest power hitters, appeared in only two games. Hal McRae, who contributed a lot in the Series, was shipped off to the Kansas City Royals in the offseason, where he became a perennial AL all-star. The latter two players demonstrate the depth of Cincinnati’s reserve players in 1972. Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan went on to become recognized as among the greatest players at their respective positions in baseball history.
For emotional drama, what is perhaps most remembered about the World Series happened on and off the field so to speak. In Game 2 in Cincinnati, Jackie Robinson was there to throw out the first pitch. He had been invited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first Black player of the modern era to play Major League Baseball. Almost totally blind from diabetes, he was still able to throw the ball to catcher Johnny Bench from the VIP box in the stands. Robinson spoke clearly and forcefully. His last public words focused on looking forward to seeing a Black manager in MLB. Two days after the World Series ended, Jackie Robinson died. He was only 53 years old.
Oakland didn’t stand a chance, they all said, especially without Reggie Jackson in the lineup. Even had the A’s played at full strength, their roster seemed to lack depth of talent and was made up of journeymen players making close to minimum wage, a Finley trademark (but certainly not limited to him among the Lords of Baseball). The only thing going for the A’s was their pitching staff. After losing the 1971 ALCS, owner Finley had the foresight to recognize he needed another starting pitcher, preferably a veteran with National League experience, should the A’s make the World Series in 1972. So, in an off-season trade Finley acquired Chicago Cubs lefthander Ken Holtzman.
After coming off of an MVP and Cy Young Award season, A’s lefthander Vida Blue, the ace of 1971 and the talk of baseball, slumped to a 6-10 won-loss record in 1972. In the aftermath of a preseason contract dispute, he played poorly throughout the regular season, the playoffs and in the World Series. Another player named “Blue” helped win it all for Finley––Johnny “Blue Moon” Odom. Blue Moon Odom, whose career had begun with the Kansas City Athletics, and Ken Holtzman, the newcomer, picked up the slack, not only in the regular season but in the World Series.
The Mustache Gang also does a great job in giving us a look at how the A’s and Reds arrived in the World Series. And authors Robertson and Madden do a thorough job in reliving the League Championship Series’ of 1972. They go beyond the unfortunate bat-throwing incident of A’s shortstop Bert Campaneris at a Detroit pitcher. In Game 2 of the ALCS, Campaneris had three base hits, two runs scored, and two stolen bases. To retaliate, Detroit Manager Billy Martin allegedly ordered his pitcher, Lerrin LaGrow, to hit him with the ball. It struck Campaneris’ ankle (a thump that can be heard on video) and he then threw his bat at the pitcher. As a result, Campaneris was suspended for the duration of the AL playoffs, but reinstated for the World Series. (That play also may have cost Campaneris a chance at gaining entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the first player in baseball’s modern era to play all nine positions in one game.)
Even without Campaneris in the lineup, the ALCS went the full five games in what was at the time the most exciting and dramatic series to determine the league’s pennant winner. Two games were decided in extra innings and three games by one run. While the A’s won the championship series over the Tigers, they lost their only bona fide superstar, Reggie Jackson, who had a season-ending hamstring injury while sliding into home plate to tie the deciding Game 5. In the NLCS, which also was an excitement-filled five-game affair, the Pirates’ superstar outfielder, Roberto Clemente, who had collected his 3,000th base hit at the end of the regular season, appeared in all five playoff games. He accumulated another four hits, including a home run, which is forgotten by most fans. A bounce of the ball one way or the other and Clemente just might have made it to the Word Series instead of the Reds, enabling us to see him one last time in the Fall Classic. Tragically, on New Year’s Eve 1972, some two and a half months later, Clemente was killed in a plane crash over the Caribbean while in route to bring humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
When the World Series finally arrived between Oakland and Cincinnati, cynical media said that baseball’s true champions had already been crowned in the series between the Reds and the Pirates in the National League. Many also felt that the Detroit Tigers would win the AL playoffs. The Reds gave the A’s such little chance of winning the ALCS, they hadn’t bothered to keep their five-star hotel reservations…in San Francisco.
In the aftermath of the 1972 World Series, the A’s wanted to prove that this was not a fluke; they were a legitimate MLB championship-caliber team. The A’s went on win two more World Series. First, over the New York Mets in 1973 and then against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974. One Dodger player commented before the 1974 Series that only two players on the A’s could make the Dodgers starting lineup. The A’s went on to defeat the Dodgers four games to one in the biggest route of their three World Series appearances. Cincinnati returned to the World Series in 1975 and 1976, beating the Red Sox and New York Yankees, respectively, to conclude the greatness of the Big Red Machine.
Authors Robertson and Madden sum up the 1972 World Series best with a quote from NBA all-time-great Michael Jordan, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships!”
Rich Macales, a native Angeleno, was a former senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to the anthology/encyclopedia, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. For Sport in America History, he reviewed Remembering the Stick: Candlestick Park 1960-2013, by Steven R. Travers.