Monday, June 4, 2012

1974 World Series: Triple Crown

The Teams
American League: Oakland Athletics (90-72) - Third World Series (won in 1972, 1973)
National League: Los Angeles Dodgers (102-60) - Fifth World Series (won in 1959, 1963, 1965)

What Happened
One of the most often-repeated concepts in sports is that a team has to have good chemistry to win. Most teams have the talent to win, but it's not until you have a team full of players who are truly pulling for each other that you can take that championship step. Without good team chemistry, you just have a team wasting its potential.

The Oakland A's of the 1970s did not have good chemistry. They hated each other, getting into locker room fights as often as possible, including in the day before the 1974 World Series started. They hated their manager, Alvin Dark, a man who didn't hide is devout religious beliefs or his apparent racism. But most of all, they hated their penny-pinching, player-undermining owner, Charlie Finley.

Maybe it was part of Finley's plan all along - the easiest way to get such differing personalities to play together was to unite them behind a common enemy - or maybe it was just dumb luck, but Oakland's lack of chemistry worked to perfection. The A's entered the 1974 World Series trying to something that no team outside the Bronx had ever done: win three straight World Championships.

They had gotten there with pitching, speed, and clutch power, and despite the constant meddling of their owner. Perhaps the most egregious of Finley's moves was to hire Herb Washington, a former Michigan State track star with no baseball experience, to be a "designated runner." Washington was obviously overwhelmed, getting caught stealing almost as often as he was successful while never batting even once in his Major League career. In fact, Washington was indirectly responsible for Oakland's Game 2 loss in the 1974 series, getting picked off first to kill a ninth-inning rally that allowed the Dodgers to escape with a 3-2 win.

Aside from that, though, the A's showed why they had won two straight titles. Despite have far less talent than the Dodgers, Oakland found a number of ways to win. They scored three times in Game 1 on a home run, a suicide squeeze, and an error. They scored early in Game 3, leading 3-0 after 4, then let their Hall of Fame pitchers Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers finish the job. And they got the big inning in Game 4, scoring 4 runs in the sixth inning to erase a 2-1 deficit.

Finally, with a chance to clinch the series in Game 5, Oakland's crowd got in on the act. Earlier in the series, Los Angeles' Bill Buckner had said that there were only two or three Oakland players who could crack the Dodgers' lineup. Though Buckner was probably right, his comment still worked Oakland fans up into a frenzy, and it boiled over in the seventh inning. The game was delayed for several minutes as the field was cleared of the debris Oakland fans were throwing at Buckner in left field. Once that was taken care of, Joe Rudi hit the first pitch after play resumed into those very fans in left field, giving Oakland a 3-2 lead. Fingers came in to shut the door, and the team that hated each other piled on top of one another, celebrating the most improbable three-peat in baseball history.

Defining Game
If you wanted a snapshot of how the A's were able to win three straight championships, look no further than Game 1. They opened the scoring with a home run by Reggie Jackson, their Hall-of-Fame slugger who had already developed a sense of the moment. They got their second run on a suicide squeeze by their speedy shortstop, Bert Campaneris, showing that when precise execution was required, they rarely failed. They scored their third run after a Dodger error, showing their knack for making their opponents pay for every mistake. And while all this was happening, they leaned on their great pitchers, with closer Fingers pitching four innings of relief, then getting relieved himself by ace starter Hunter for the final out. They were powerful and clutch, they did the little things right, they were opportunistic, and they were flexible. It all added up to a Triple Crown of titles.

Some people see Fingers' selection as MVP as more of a lifetime achievement award for his great postseasons over the previous three seasons, but he did pitch in four of the five games, throwing nine innings in those four games, and getting a win and two saves. Also, every time he entered the game, the A's knew it was over, which has to count for something.

Random Fact
This was the first World Series played entirely in California.

(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

Oakland 323 53
Los Angeles 232 22

The List
I'm ranking all the World Series, from worst to best. Here are the ones I've done so far:

56. 1974 - Oakland (A) def. Los Angeles (N) 4-1
57. 1955 - Brooklyn (N) def. New York (A) 4-3
58. 1979 - Pittsburgh (N) def. Baltimore (A) 4-3
59. 1987 - Minnesota (A) def. St. Louis (N) 4-3
Numbers 60-69
Numbers 70-79
Numbers 80-89
Numbers 90-99
Numbers 100-107

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