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The Narrative of the 1972 MLB Season

The 1972 baseball season was late getting started, due to a spring training lockout by the owners. The season ended a lot better than it began. There was a sizzling pennant race, every postseason series went the maximum number of games and a new champion got crowned when all was said and done.

After decades of irrelevance, the Oakland A’s had become a rising force. After making the playoffs in 1971, the A’s made the final breakthrough. They won the World Series and set the stage for a new dynasty.

Oakland’s everyday lineup was led by leftfielder Joe Rudi, who finished second in the AL MVP voting. The left side of the infield had Bert Campaneris at shortstop and Sal Bando at third. And the right fielder, a young man by the name of Reggie Jackson, wasn’t too bad himself. With this lineup, excellent starting pitching and a top bullpen, the A’s were the team to beat in the AL West.

The Chicago White Sox gave Oakland a tougher run for their money that one might have anticipated. With MVP first baseman Dick Allen and staff ace Wilbur Wood leading the way, the White Sox stayed in the race all season and were within 2 ½ games of the lead on Labor Day. The early part of September proved decisive—Oakland nudged the lead out to five games and the A’s were able to keep Chicago at arm’s length and clinch the AL West in the final week.

Over in the National League, the Cincinnati Reds were looking for a bounce back. A breakthrough pennant year in 1970 was followed by a disappointing sub-.500 season in 1971. The Reds didn’t sit by idly—they went out and acquired a future Hall of Fame second baseman in Joe Morgan. This went with an everyday lineup that already included Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench.

The Big Red Machine was ascendant again. The first two months of the season were a little slow and Cincinnati spotted the Houston Astros, Morgan’s old team a four-game lead on Memorial Day. But a sizzling early summer had the Reds up six by the All-Star break. That lead grew to eight by the start of September. With Bench winning his second MVP trophy in three seasons, Cincinnati cruised back into the postseason.

A familiar foe was waiting for Cincinnati in the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the two-time defending champs in the NL East and they had won the World Series in 1971. The great Roberto Clemente was still on hand, as was Willie Stargell and a good third baseman in Richie Hebner.

The Pirates, like the Reds, spotted a rival a four-game lead on Memorial Day, in this case the New York Mets. Like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh took over this race in the early part of the summer. They were up 5 ½ games by the All-Star break. The rest of the NL East had some top individual performers—Billy Williams was the MVP runner-up for the Cubs and Philadelphia lefty Steve Carlton won the Cy Young Award. But Pittsburgh was too deep and too experienced. They blew the race open in the late summer and the outcome was never in doubt.

1972 was the fourth year the leagues had been split into two divisions. The Baltimore Orioles were 3-for-3 in winning not only division titles, but pennants. The Birds were a contender again this season, but they had company. The Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees all got into the mix in what proved to be an exceptional four-way pennant race in the AL East.

All four teams mostly stayed within five games of each other for the first half of the season, with the Tigers holding a persistent lead. When the Orioles nudged out to a half-game lead by Labor Day, it looked like championship experience would ultimately prevail. But instead, the rivals started going back and forth.

Boston, with a rookie catcher in Carlton Fisk leading the way, briefly took the divisional lead. The Yankees, getting a big year from Bobby Murcer persistently hung just off the pace. Detroit had a pitching rotation anchored by veteran lefty Mickey Lolich and were managed by Billy Martin. It was the Tigers and Red Sox who got just enough space to set up a final showdown.

Detroit hosted Boston for a three-game series to end the season. It was a simple scenario—the AL East would go to whomever picked up two wins. This series is remembered for Red Sox infielder Luis Aparacio slipping when he came around third base, a mishap that at least cost Boston a run and potentially a big inning in the series opener. What the series should be remembered for, is that Tiger pitching dominated in the other 17 innings of the first two games. Detroit won both and took home the AL East.

The American League Championship Series had ended in a sweep the first three years of its existence, and when Oakland grabbed the first two games of what was then a best-of-five round, it looked like more of the same awaited in 1972. But Detroit came home, took Game 3 and then this ALCS really heated up.

Game 4 went to extra innings. When Oakland scored twice in the top of the 10th, the A’s were on the verge of a pennant. Until three singles, two walks and a wild pitch gave the Tigers three runs and an improbable victory.

Detroit scored an early run in Game 5. Reggie Jackson worked a walk in the top of the second. Reggie stole second. He went to third on a sac fly. Then, continuing the sequence of improbable events, he stole home. Jackson tore up his knee on the collision and was out for the rest of the postseason. But for the short-term he had scored the tying run. Oakland’s Gene Tenace drove in another run in the fourth inning. And that was all the A’s pitching duo of Blue Moon Odom and Vida Blue needed to produce a 2-1 win and the pennant.

The National League Championship Series was no less dramatic. After splitting the first two games at home, the Pirates trailed Game 3 by a 2-1 count in the seventh inning. Pittsburgh tied the game in the seventh and got the winning run in the eighth, putting themselves on the brink of another NL flag.

After Cincinnati unloaded for an easy win in Game 4, Pittsburgh still carried a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning of Game 5. Bench led off with a home run to tie it up. Two singles and a sac fly set up runners on the corners with one out. Pirate reliever Bob Moose got a popout and extra innings looked at hand. Then a Moose curveball broke a little too much, turned into a wild pitch and the winning run came home. The Reds were going to the World Series.

The drama of both LCS rounds had everyone wondering what the Fall Classic could do to top it. Cincinnati was favored, especially with Reggie out of the lineup. But the A’s could pitch. They came into Riverfront Stadium and got victories of 3-2 and 2-1 behind Ken Holtzman and Catfish Hunter. The Reds went west and got a must-win gem from Jack Billingham, winning 1-0.

Cincinnati then took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth of Game 4. In perhaps the most important half-inning of a razor-tight World Series, Oakland hit four straight one-out singles and stole a 3-2 win. The A’s were in firm command of this Series.

But it was the Reds turn to rally in Game 5. Trailing 4-3 in the eighth and six outs from elimination, they scored twice against Oakland’s Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers. This World Series was going back to Cincinnati. And the Reds unloaded in Game 6 for an 8-1 win. The momentum was all on Cincinnati’s side.

Gene Tenace had followed up his big hit in the decisive ALCS game with a World Series that had already seen him hit four home runs. In Game 7, Tenace delivered an early RBI single that gave the A’s a first-inning lead. His RBI double in the fourth broke a 1-1 tie.

Trailing 3-1, Cincinnati rallied one more time in the bottom of the eighth. The Reds put runners on second and third with no one out. Fingers came on and redeemed himself for Game 5. The great closer got out of that inning with only one run coming in. And he slammed the door in the ninth.

A season that had begun with such strife had ended with great baseball. The Oakland A’s were champs and this was the first of three straight titles they would win.