Programming note: Watch the re-air of Game 4 of the 1974 World Series tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports California.
As Oakland was stacking up three consecutive World Series victories, radio play-by-play voice Monte Moore referred to the team as the “Swingin’ A’s,” apt for a bunch featuring the likes of Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Mike Epstein, Gene Tenace and Joe Rudi.
A simple and solid nickname, and it made for easy marketing in the early 1970s.
It also was the furthest thing from the truth.
“When I was traded to Oakland,” recalled catcher Ray Fosse, who came from Cleveland in 1973, “I sat down with (manager) Dick Williams and he said, ‘Ray, we do two things. We pitch and we catch the ball.’”
Those A’s scored enough runs to support the defense and they had a pitching staff that consistently melted even the most imposing lineups into tiny puddles of sweat and despair.
The 1972 Cincinnati Reds, of mighty “Big Red Machine” fame, averaged three earned runs per game in losing the World Series to the A’s in seven games.
The ’73 Mets managed 2.42 earned runs per game and lost in seven.
The ’74, with Alvin Dark taking over as manager, Oakland allowed the Dodgers two earned runs per game and won five.
The A’s were 12-7 over a span of three Series, with the pitching staff allowing 56 runs (2.95 per game) over the 19 games – and that includes earned runs. Vividly illustrating the significance of timely hitting, Oakland’s offense scored 53 runs – averaging 2.79 runs – over those 19 games.
Yes, the A’s achieved a “three-peat” while, overall, being outscored.
But not outpitched.
Oakland had three Cy Young award winners in the rotation, Vida Blue (1971) and Catfish Hunter (1974), yet Ken Holtzman started Game 1 in all three Series. The A’s were 3-0 in those games.
In Game 6 of the ’73 Series, with the A’s down three games to two, Hunter outdueled Mets ace Tom Seaver (Holtzman followed with a Game 7 victory) as Jackson doubled twice and drove in two runs. Of the 12 wins over the three seasons, four went to Hunter, by scores of 2-1, 3-2, 3-1 and 3-2.
“I’ve always said if I wanted to give the baseball to one guy for a big game, it would be Catfish,” Fosse said. “And if I wanted to have somebody with a bat in their hand in a big game, it would be Reggie. With the A’s, we had both.”
The ’73 A’s had three 20-game winners in Hunter (21-5), Holtzman (21-13) and Blue (20-9), with the trio combining for 40 complete games. Jaw-dropping nowadays but not so back then, and certainly not with those teams.
In the 47 years since, no staff has had three pitchers win at least 20 games.
The most astonishing statistic of all might be the number of pitchers used by Oakland in the ’74 Series. Five. Holtzman and Blue each made two starts, with Hunter starting only Game 3. Rollie Fingers, who later won a Cy Young award, and John “Blue Moon” Odom were the only relievers. Vida’s earned-run average of 3.29 was the only one higher than Fingers 1.93.
Quaint, eh? Here in the 21st century, it’s not at all unusual to see five, or more, pitchers trudging to the mound in one game, especially in the postseason.
“Rollie was lights out,” Jackson recalled. “He was in the same class as (Dennis) Eckersley and Mariano (Rivera). Mariano was perfect. Eckersley was close to perfect, maybe a notch below Mariano. Maybe. But Fingers could pitch with either of them.
“We were fortunate.”
In 115 years of World Series baseball, only one other franchise has one more than two in a row. The Yankees have done it three times (1936-39, 1947-53, 1998-00), outscoring their opponents in each series and never averaging fewer than 4.29 runs per game during any one of those “three-peats.”
Those Oakland teams sent Williams and three players – Fingers, Hunter and Jackson – to the Hall of Fame. History will reflect them as being superior to the deep and talented Bash Brothers Oakland teams that would come along a dozen or so years later.
“I caught some great pitchers in Cleveland: Gaylord Perry. Sam McDowell. Luis Tiant,” Fosse said. “But when I caught those guys in Oakland, it was such a thrill to know every time we went to the park, we had a great chance to win. That we were going to win.”
The “Swingin’ A’s” for 1972-74 used bats as cover for the most impressive three-year span of postseason pitching in the post-war era. They represent the least lionized dynasty in baseball and, perhaps, modern American sports history.