The American League pennant the Oakland A's carried bravely into the World Series last weekend was a tattered standard. The A's paid dearly for it in bone and muscle and mental anguish, but what they got in return, the experts were now saying, was second-class merchandise. Even the dimmest of baseball followers knew that this had been a National League season.
The National League plays its games in zillion-dollar concrete palaces with wall-to-wall carpeting, upholstered furniture and sweeping views of rivers and lakes and bays and oceans. The American League performs in tenement buildings slapped together at the time of the first Roosevelt Administration—Teddy's, not Franklin's—and on fields of common grass and dirt. The National League has all the superstars, the batting averages, the stolen bases, the home runs and the crowds. American League stars—such as they are—are merely recycled National Leaguers.
So the thinking went when the A's, bone weary from their harrowing playoff series with the tenacious Detroit Tigers, trooped into Cincinnati. The Athletics were good enough players, sure, but they were—excuse the phrase—American Leaguers. "If I said the American League was as good as the National League," said the Reds' outspoken manager, Sparky Anderson, "I'd be lying. Yes, Oakland could come over and play in our league and maybe Boston. But they're the only ones."
"People ask me every year if I'll get my 200 hits," said the Reds' equally outspoken leadoff hitter, Pete Rose. "Now how many players get asked that question in the American League?"
Even the A's were inclined to concede the argument. Their captain, Sal Bando, agreed that National League players were more aggressive, both at bat and on the bases. "Maybe," he said, puzzling it out, "we're too buddy-buddy in our league."
Slugger Reggie Jackson went further. "The National League," he said, "has more depth, better personnel overall and more good young black players. We just don't have an Earl Williams or a Rennie Stennett in our league."
The American Leaguers did have, until last week, the same Reggie Jackson who hit 25 home runs during the season and acted as a kind of spiritual leader of the A's. In the final game of the playoff series, Jackson tore up the muscles of his left leg sliding home with one of the two runs. "Imagine someone reaching inside your leg," he said, recapturing the awful moment, "and just pulling everything apart."
As partial compensation, Shortstop Bert Campaneris, who had been suspended for throwing a bat at Detroit Pitcher Lerrin LaGrow, was ruled eligible for the Series. Still, the A's chances against a team as swift and powerful as the Reds did not seem promising.
So what happened? The A's—playing without their home-run hitter, away from home and on an unfamiliar artificial surface—whipped the Reds 3-2 and 2-1 in the first two games and pressed on to Oakland and God's green grass.
The Reds were undone by the A's formidable pitching—Ken Holtzman, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue and Jim (Catfish) Hunter (see cover) for openers—and by some extraordinary defensive plays, one, a catch by Joe Rudi in left field that ranks with the best in Series history. Finally they were undone by a National League weapon, the home run.