1970 Oakland A’s: Setting The Stage For A Dynasty

The West Coast had been good to the A’s franchise. In 1968 they relocated from Kansas City where they were a losing team from 1955 forward. In fact, the A’s hadn’t done anything noteworthy since they were in Philadelphia in Connie Mack’s final year of 1949. But upon arrival in Oakland, they immediately finished on the right side of .500 in 1968. That record jumped to 88-74 in 1969. The 1970 Oakland A’s continued the gradual improvement and set the stage for a glorious run.

There was a lot of young talent starting to emerge. Catfish Hunter was 24-years-old and the future Hall of Fame pitcher made 40 starts and won 18  games with a respectable 3.81 ERA. A 23-year-old named Rollie Fingers split time between the rotation and the pen and posted a 3.65 ERA. Fingers would eventually settle into a relief role and merely become a Hall of Famer himself.

Joe Rudi was another 23-year-old and still just a fourth outfielder for now. But he still got nearly 400 plate appearances and finished with a stat line of .341 on-base percentage/.480 slugging percentage. Rick Monday was 24-years-old in centerfield and his stat line popped at .387/.451

Bert Campaneris at short and Sal Bando at third base were into their primes in their  late twenties on the left side of the infield. Bando hit 20 homers and had a .407 OBP. Campaneris hit 22 home runs also stole 42 bases.

And there was also a young right fielder you may have heard about. Reginald Martinez Jackson was 24-years-old His stat line ended up .359/.458. Jackson hit 23 home runs and stole 26 bases, as he embarked on a Hall of Fame career where he would become one of those rare players who’s identifiable by just his first name—Reggie.

The young core that would eventually make this team a dynasty weren’t alone. Oakland swung a big trade with the Milwaukee Brewers to get first baseman Don Mincher. The price was high—Ken Sanders would become the American League’s top reliever for a few seasons (the Brewers were an AL team prior to 1998). But Mincher hit 27 home runs for the A’s.

On the pitching side, Chuck Dobson was another 40-start workhorse with 3.74 ERA. Blue Moon Odom was a respectable third starter, with a 3.80 ERA. Diego Segui joined Fingers as the versatile arms who could start and relieve, winning ten games and finishing with a 2.56 ERA.

One of the veterans, Mudcat Grant was the best pitcher of them all in 1970. Grant saved 24 games—a high number when complete games were still expected of starters—and finished with a dazzling 1.82 ERA. Paul Lindblad, Marcel Lachemann and Bob Lockner all provided quality relief work with sub-3.00 ERAs. And 20-year-old Vida Blue, soon to be another huge piece for this team starting to get some work, posting a 2.09 ERA in his six starts.

It added up to a balanced team, one that would finish fourth in the 12-team American League for staff ERA and fifth in runs scored.

Oakland mostly puttered through the season’s early movement. On the plus side, they won five of six against the lowly Washington Senators (to become the Texas Rangers in 1972). They won four straight over the Chicago White Sox. On the down side, they lost four straight in Boston. And they lost three of four in Minnesota.

The series with the Twins was particularly notable, because Minnesota was the team to beat in the AL West. The alignment of the time had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. And even that was only in its second year. Just two years earlier, in 1968, each league simply sent its best regular season team directly to the World Series. Minnesota won the inaugural AL West title in 1969. And as this 1970 season reached Memorial Day, the Twins were again setting the division’s pace. They were a ½ game up on the California Angels. The A’s were in third place, six games back, with a record of 22-20.

No one was better in 1970 than the Baltimore Orioles, running away with the AL East and ultimately the World Series title. Oakland hosted Baltimore for a three-game series at the start of June. The Tuesday night opener was nothing notable, as the A’s bats mustered only five hits off against Jim Palmer and lost 5-1. The offense continued to be quiet for seven innings on Wednesday night. But Fingers was pitching well and it was a 1-1 tie going into the eighth.

Oakland leftfielder Felipe Alou singled. So did Rudi. Bando homered to dead center. The A’s won it 4-1. Thursday night’s finale followed a similar script. Catfish was pitching well, but trailed 1-0 in the sixth. Rudi got a rally started by beating out a bunt. Bando bunted him up to second and Mincher tied the game with an RBI single. Then light-hitting catcher Frank Fernandez ripped a two-blast to get the lead. Bando homered later in the game. The game ended 4-2 and the A’s had a nice series win.

A week and a half later, Oakland made the return trip to Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium for a weekend set. Friday night’s opener went to extra innings tied 2-2. A hit batsman got the A’s going in the 11th. Campaneris and Reggie hit consecutive RBI doubles and secured the 4-2 win.

Both Campy and Reggie kept hitting on Saturday night. The former had three hits in the leadoff spot. The latter had three hits of his own, including a home run. And it was a good thing, because this one turned into a slugfest. Oakland second baseman Dick Green delivered the biggest blow of all, a three-run blast that made the difference in a 10-7 win.

By Sunday, the A’s and Orioles were back to playing tight pitcher’s duels and going extra innings. After Mudcat got lifted for a pinch-hitter (the DH did not exist in the American League until 1973), Baltimore capitalized and took the finale 4-2 in ten. But over a key stretch of the early summer, the A’s had beaten the best team in baseball four times in six tries.

It was the highlight of a strong run into the All-Star break. Oakland’s record was up to 45-35 by the midpoint. That was enough to narrow the gap on California. But Minnesota had answered with strong play of their own. The A’s were still in third place, and still 6 ½ games back.

There was still plenty of time to make a move, but Oakland stumbled out of the break. They lost three straight at home to Minnesota. They lost three straight in New York. They lost two of three at home to Baltimore. The A’s showed resilience—they beat the Yankees three straight at home, swept the Orioles on the road and stayed alive by winning three of five games in Minnesota.

It was enough to hold serve, to still be 76-62 at the Labor Day turn and still within six games of the lead. But all the games against the Twins in the late summer were an opportunity to really slash into that gap. That opportunity was missed and there weren’t many more left.

The last really good opportunity came on September 9-10 in the Twin Cities, with three games over two days. The A’s were outscored 16-4 and lost all three. That was the death knell for any pennant hopes.

Oakland did not throw in the towel then last couple weeks. They won two of three in California in the season’s final week, and pushed past the Angels for second place. The A’s had 88 wins going into the season finale at home against Milwaukee. With a chance to improve on 1969’s record, they rallied by beating their old friend Ken Sanders. Down 4-1, the A’s got Sanders for two in the eighth and two in the ninth for a 5-4 win. They ended the season at 89-73.

That record was fourth-best in the American League overall and sixth-best in all of baseball. The playoff standards of today could never have been imagined in 1970, but these A’s were indeed postseason caliber by the more lenient standards of the 21st century. By 1971, Oakland would be playoff-caliber by the rules of their own day. By 1972, they would be champions. In 1973 and 1974, they sealed their status as an all-time great dynasty.