1971 Oakland A’s: A Breakthrough AL West Title

Success had been a long time coming for the A’s. The franchise’s last pennant had been forty years earlier, in 1931, when they resided in Philadelphia and Connie Mack was the manager. An interim period spent in Kansas City was marked by losing. A subsequent move to Oakland though, saw improvement. The A’s had played good baseball and contended in 1970. The 1971 Oakland A’s took the next step and won the AL West.

This was a young team that was preparing to ultimately dominate the early part of the 1970s. The lineup was keyed by third baseman Sal Bando. With a stat line of .377 on-base percentage/.452 slugging percentage and 24 homers, Bando finished second in the American League MVP voting.

A young Reggie Jackson was in rightfield and Reggie hit 32 homers, stole 16 bases and posted a sparkling stat line of .352/.508. Rick Monday popped 18 homers and held down the centerfield spot. Bert Campaneris played good defense at short and also swiped 34 bags.

Manager Dick Williams had a deep bench, one that got production from Tommy Davis and Gene Tenace. Joe Rudi, the 24-year-old leftfielder, didn’t have good numbers, but—like the team as a whole—Rudi had some great days in his immediate future.  Dave Duncan, one day to gain fame as Tony LaRussa’s pitching coach, was behind the plate and Duncan hit 15 home runs.

It was all enough for Oakland to finish third in the American League in runs scored. But the pitching was even better. And no one in baseball was more spectacular in 1971 then a 21-year-old lefthander named Vida Blue.

Blue simply dominated. He won 24 games and posted a 1.82 ERA. He worked over 300 innings. He was an easy, unanimous choice for the AL Cy Young Award. And he was a landslide winner in the MVP vote.

Right behind Blue in the rotation was a future Hall of Famer in Catfish Hunter. He won 21 games with an ERA of 2.96. Chuck Dobson was respectable in the 3-spot, making 30 starts, winning 15 games and finishing with an ERA of 3.81. Diego Segui picked up ten wins in 21 starts. Blue Moon Odom was a little more mediocre, but his 4.29 ERA at the back end of the rotation was still manageable.

Getting to the bullpen wasn’t going to offer an opposing offense much relief. Another future Hall of Famer, Rollie Fingers, was waiting. Fingers finished with an ERA of 2.99. Bob Locker, Darold Knowles, Jim Roland and Rom Kimkowski were all respectable arms. And in August, Oakland brought back Mudcat Grant, who had been traded in 1970. In his short stint, Grant posted a 1.98 ERA.

Collectively, Oakland’s pitching was second in the American League for staff ERA. They were young, they had the horses and now, they were ready to get to the postseason. After spotting the rest of the division three games by getting swept to start the year, the A’s took off.

They won 15 of their next 18 games. That stretch included a two-game sweep in Minnesota, the two-time defending AL West champs. It included a three-game sweep over the California Angels, who had also contended in 1970. And it included 2 of 3 from the Kansas City Royals, who would emerge as a contender in this 1971 season.

For younger readers, it’s worth pointing out that prior to 1994, there were only two divisions per league, an East and a West. That’s why teams like Minnesota and Kansas City—along with the Chicago White Sox  and Milwaukee Brewers–were slotted in the AL West. The Seattle Mariners did not yet exist. Neither did the Texas Rangers. Oakland and California rounded out the division.

Furthermore, you had to finish in first place to qualify for the postseason. There was no wild-card fallback. Although in the world of 1971, even this format was more forgiving than what baseball fans were used to. Through 1968, there was not even divisional play or playoff rounds—the best regular season record in each league went straight to the World Series. So this was only Year 3 of a divisional structure.

The Baltimore Orioles were the power of the AL East and the defending World Series champions. Oakland’s early surge slowed when they split a two-game set with the Orioles and then split two more with the lowly Cleveland Indians. But the A’s promptly took two straight from the Birds on the return trip east. By May 21, Oakland had a comfortable 6 ½ game lead on Minnesota and the Twins were coming to town for a three-game set.

Three days earlier, the A’s had made a big early-season trade. First baseman Don Mincher, a good power hitter, was shipped to the Washington Senators (soon to relocate to Texas and swap divisions with Milwaukee). Mincher was the key piece in a multi-player deal that brought back another first baseman, Mike Epstein. Epstein would pick up where Mincher had left off, hitting 18 home runs the rest of the way in 1971 and finishing with a stat line of .368/.438.

Perhaps the deal underscored that the A’s knew there was a long way to go and, good start or not, the Twins were still the team to beat until proven otherwise. Then Odom pitched Friday night’s opener and was roughed up in a 10-1 loss.

The A’s sent Catfish to the mound on Saturday afternoon to face another future Hall of Famer, the Twins’ Jim Kaat. Oakland grabbed a couple of early runs thanks to base hits from Campaneris, Reggie and Tommy Davis. In the third inning, Reggie’s single started a soft rally where he scored on a wild pitch and extended the lead to 3-0. Reggie finished the day with three hits. Davis drove in three runs. Catfish tossed a two-hitter. And the A’s won 5-1.

Blue took the ball for Sunday’s rubber match, and faced off with the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Jim Perry. In a scoreless tie in the fourth inning, Epstein hit a two-run homer. That was all Blue needed, dealing a five-hitter and winning 3-1. In retrospect, it was the changing of the guard moment. The man who would win the Cy Young had beaten reigning holder of that award, in a rubber match game where the future division champs knocked off the old guard.

By Memorial Day, Oakland was rolling at 32-17. They had a 7 ½ game margin on Minnesota, were plus-8 on Kansas City and up nine games over California.

The early summer saw no signs of letup. The Twins and Angels faded and would not return to contention. The Royals moved into second place. The A’s had a nine-game lead when Kansas City visited Oakland on June 25 for a weekend set.

Blue pitched the opener and dealt another five-hitter against a contender, running his record to an astonishing 16-2. Epstein homered, Bando drove in three runs and the A’s grabbed the opener 7-0. Epstein drove in three more runs on Saturday afternoon, keying a 4-2 win behind Hunter and some good relief work from Fingers. Odom pitched the finale, scattered seven hits and went the distance for a 3-0 shutout.

By the All-Star break, the AL West race was effectively broken wide open. Oakland was 56-31 and had an 11 ½ game lead on K.C. Then, at the All-Star Game itself, Reggie delivered the most memorable moment when he crushed a massive home run that hit the light tower at old Tiger Stadium. It was that kind of year for Oakland.

The A’s went 23-8 through the month of August. At no point the rest of the way did the divisional lead slip below 10 games.

It was September 15, with two full weeks to play, that the clinching moment came. The magic number was two. Kansas City lost to California. Oakland, visiting Chicago, took the opening game of a doubleheader 3-2. When Grant got White Sox outfielder Jay Johnstone to fly out, it was time for the party to start.

There were high hopes of doing more in 1971. But an early warning sign of what was ahead came in August when Oakland lost all five games they played against Baltimore. The A’s, with nothing to play for, had also played middling baseball for a lot of September. The final record was still 101-60, but they weren’t playing their best when the American League Championship Series arrived. The Orioles swept what was then a best-of-five series in three straight.

1971 was still a breakthrough year in Oakland. They were now a winner, the team to beat in the AL West. This was the first of five straight division titles. And 1972 would be even better—the first of three straight World Series triumphs.