Unlike many symbolsof the 1970s--mushroom-cloud Afros, platform shoes and the feathered, FarrahFawcett 'do--the '72 World Series champs have retained an unmistakablecurrency. That's because the Swingin' A's, nicknamed both for their flamboyanceand for their willingness to flail at just about anything, including eachother, were ahead of their time. "I guess that's true," says lefty VidaBlue, who pitched four shutouts that season. "We were considered wild andcrazy back in the day, but a lot of the stuff we did is pretty common thesedays."
Oakland wasn't justa minidynasty, winning three straight titles from 1972 to '74. As baseballchanged from an uncomplicated pastime into a full-fledged entertainmentindustry, the freewheeling, media-savvy A's led the transformation. They had acharismatic slugger in outfielder Reggie Jackson, whose mouth kept him in theheadlines almost as much as his bat did. ("He'd give you the shirt off hisback," A's ace Catfish Hunter would say in 1977, when the two were reunitedas members of the Yankees. "Of course, he'd hold a press conference toannounce it.") Blue, who held out in a contract dispute for the first monthof the season, was one of the first athletes to seek compensation for his valueas a drawing card. Charles O. Finley, the A's maverick owner, made his alreadycolorful players even more so by outfitting them in multiple uniformcombinations, a radical idea that nearly every pro team has since adopted.
Most of all, theA's are remembered for fracturing the fairy tale that successful teams arehappy, harmonious units. Scuffles were as common as card games in theclubhouse, with no effort to keep the fights out of public view. "If we hada problem with each other, the whole world knew about it," says Jackson,now a special adviser to the Yankees. The A's could be contentious even invictory. In the sixth inning of Game 5 of the AL Championship Series againstthe Tigers, Blue relieved starter John (Blue Moon) Odom, who had beendry-heaving in the dugout. After the 13-10 A's victory, Blue walked past Odom'slocker and made a choking sign, and the two nearly came to blows in front ofthe press. "What," says Blue, who now works in community relations forthe Giants, "you mean every team doesn't do that?"
From the beginningof '72 it was clear the A's were a different breed. Jackson showed up forspring training with a full beard, a look so rare in the majors at the timethat it caused a stir. Finley then ordered some of the other A's to growmustaches, figuring Jackson was such an iconoclast that once he saw histeammates' facial hair, he'd get rid of his.
But Jacksonwouldn't budge. Meanwhile Hunter (a Hall of Fame righthander who died of ALS in1999) grew a mustache, along with closer Rollie Fingers, who became famous forhis handlebar. More players followed suit, and before long the A's were drawingmedia attention for their hirsute look. Sensing an opportunity for morepublicity, Finley offered a $300 incentive to any player who grew a mustache byFather's Day--in time for a Mustache Day promotion at Oakland Coliseum. By thetime the A's reached the World Series against the strictly clean-shaven Reds,so many Oakland players had mustaches or beards that the Series was dubbed theHairs versus the Squares.
Finley wasn'tnearly as flexible in his handling of Blue's holdout. After going 24-8 in 1971to win the Cy Young and AL MVP awards, Blue wanted a $100,250 raise from his$14,750 salary. He irritated Finley by hiring an agent, Bob Gerst, a fairly newpractice. Gerst calculated that more than 40% of the attendance at the Coliseumin '71 had come in games started by Blue and argued that his client's impact onthe bottom line should be reflected in his salary. Finley wasn't persuaded."You have as much chance of getting $115,000 from me," he told Blue,"as I do of jumping out of my office window." Blue settled for $63,000,and though he did win 20 games two more times for the A's, he never came closeto matching his '71 dominance.
But Blue did helpOakland win its first championship, which it did in typically hotheaded,unpredictable style. Shortstop Bert Campaneris was suspended during the ALCSagainst Detroit for flinging his bat at pitcher Lerrin LaGrow, who Campaneristhought had thrown at him. (Campy's heave helicoptered over LaGrow'shead--barely.) The A's still prevailed in five games, setting up a showdownwith the fearsome Big Red Machine of Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Pete Rose. Inthe seven-game Series, little-known catcher Gene Tenace, who had been 1 for 17in the league Championship Series, became the first player to hit home runs inhis first two at¬†bats in the Fall Classic. Tenace won the Series MVP awardand was part of one of the more memorable pieces of deception in World Serieshistory in Game 3.
Leading 1-0 in theeighth, Cincinnati had runners on second and third with two outs and cleanuphitter Bench at the plate. With the count full, Tenace stood up and extendedhis right arm as if the A's were going to issue an intentional walk. But at thelast second he dropped back down into a crouch, and Fingers shocked Bench bythrowing a slider on the outside corner for strike three.
The Reds still wonthe game, but the play perfectly symbolized the A's, a team always willing toignore convention. "We were fun, we were different, and we were good,"says Blue. "When you're willing to shake things up and take some chances,you can really make your mark. If we set any kind of example, I hope that'sit."
PHOTOGRAPH BY Fred Kaplan
Now a Giants staffer, Blue held out early in the '72 season--one of the firstplayers to try to cash in on his fan appeal.
MICHAEL ZAGARIS (BLUE CURRENT)
[See Caption Above.]
FRED KAPLAN (COVER)
NEIL LEIFER (COVER)