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The Forgotten Dynasty

Ron Fimrite covered the A's for Sports Illustrated. Here are his thoughts on the 25th anniversary of Oakland's first championship.

They seemed at the time like a team for the ages. Everything about them—their inimitable style, their indomitable spirit, their triumphs over even their own folly—seemed destined to reward them with everlasting fame. They offended convention with their verdant uniforms and foppish white shoes. They grew mustaches and sideburns at a time when ballplayers, if not the general run of young men, were clean-shaven. They fought among themselves like schoolchildren. Their owner was as self-consciously "colorful" as any of baseball's legendary eccentrics. And they won three World Series championships in a row, the only team other than the Yankees to accomplish that feat. And they did so not with the raw power of the old Bronx Bombers but with guile and finesse.

picture.gif (31k) And yet the Oakland A's of the early 1970's—the self-styled Swingin' A's—are all but forgotten today, even, I fear, in Oakland. Why is this? Well, it may be because in this electronic age of the here and now, history itself has become, more than in name only, a thing of the past. This is the age of fleeting celebrity, not lasting fame, a time when heroes of another time are recalled, if at all, only dimly by even those fans who fancy themselves knowledgeable.

Then again, maybe not enough people actually saw those A's perform their wonders. The 2.8 million total home attendance for the three championship seasons of 1972, '73 and '74 did not equal the 2.9 million who saw the A's of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco in 1990 alone. And it is those Bash Brothers teams that, perhaps because of chronological proximity, people remember. Of course, those earlier A's had for an owner a Barnum manqué so intent on stealing the thunder from his players that he outraged the community whose support he so ineptly courted. Charles O. Finley never did learn that fans didn't come to the ballpark solely to see him and his mule. If there is any justice at all in baseball it is that he, too, is little remembered today.

But give Charlie credit: He did know how to build a ball club. And with his penny-pinching, self-aggrandizing ways, he united his players against a common foe—him. If they couldn't take out their frustration on their employer, they certainly could on opposing teams. "Character," not overwhelming ability, is what made these teams tick, in the opinion of third baseman Sal Bando, their captain. Although character does seem an odd word to use in regard to players who indulged in locker-room fistfights even on the eve of World Series games. But, protested Bando, "these are people who are not satisfied with making a big salary. They want more than that. They want to win."

And so they did. Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers and Jim (Catfish) Hunter were the established stars, but lesser lights such as Bando, Joe Rudi, Ken Holtzman, Vida Blue, Dave Duncan, Billy North and Campy Campaneris all had their moments. What is perhaps most remarkable about these teams is their modest statistics. These A's didn't win 100 games in any of their three championship seasons. They never had a team batting average above .260 or hit as many as 150 home runs. Only one player, Rudi, hit above .300 in any of those years, and only Jackson hit more than 30 homers. No player scored as many as 100 runs. And the team batting averages for the three World Series victories were .209, .212 and .211.

They won on pitching, brilliant defense and a killer instinct that led them to capitalize on the most minuscule mistakes. "We wait for the door to open," said Jackson. "And when it does, we go through."

Those of a sociological bent should not make too much of their well-trumpeted rebelliousness, since it was largely directed at one man—Finley. No, these were not 1970s hippies. The mustaches were a gag, the garish uniforms merely tolerated, the anger wholly justified. They were merely good ballplayers and, basically, good guys, the sort who instead of stiffing a newsman after a game would buy him a drink.

After their last World Series triumph, I wrote that because of their own and their owner's often foolish antics, the A's seemed doomed to be remembered more as clowns than champions. I was wrong. Sadly enough, I'm afraid they're not even remembered for that.

Posted: Fri October 10, 1997