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The Narrative Of The 1973 MLB Season

The era of 1970 through 1975 was marked by the dominance of four teams—the Oakland A’s, Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates were the gold standards within what were then the game’s four divisions. In each season during this six-year stretch, three of those teams finished in first place. The 1973 baseball season was more of the same—this time it was the Pirates who were the odd team out, while the A’s, Orioles and Reds went to the playoffs. And for the second straight year, it was Oakland who won it all.

The A’s started slowly out of the gate in the AL West, and were part of a jumbled five-team race on Memorial Day. The Chicago White Sox, led by Wilbur Wood in their rotation, had the early lead. But during the first part of summer, the A’s, along with the Kansas City Royals got some separation on the field.

Oakland led by 2 ½ games at the All-Star break. The Royal franchise was a young one and this was their first introduction to contention. Amos Otis, their excellent all-around centerfielder was on his way to a third-place finish in the MVP vote. The city of Kansas City hosted the All-Star Game. In August, they called up a young third baseman by the name of George Brett. But their time was not yet here.

The A’s just had too much talent. The pitching rotation was anchored by Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman. An all-time great in Rollie Fingers was coming out of the bullpen. Bert Campaneris and Billy North had good years at shortstop and centerfield respectively. Sal Bando, the reliable third baseman, finished fourth in the AL MVP voting.

And then there was Reginald Martinez Jackson. Reggie had the best individual season of his Hall of Fame career, winning the MVP award. The A’s eventually wore the Royals down in the pennant race, finally pulling away for good in the early part of September.

Baltimore was looking to get back on top of the AL East, and they relied on a deep starting rotation that was anchored by Cy Young Award winner Jim Palmer. A good everyday lineup included second baseman Bobby Grich delivering a solid season. The Orioles, like the A’s, were in the middle of a jam-packed race on Memorial Day. The Detroit Tigers, the defending division champs held a narrow lead, with Baltimore in third place.

Detroit faded, but the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox stayed in contention in the early part of the summer. The Yanks had Thurman Munson behind the plate, Bobby Murcer in the outfield and Lindy McDaniel giving solid work out of the bullpen. The Yanks still held the division lead at the All-Star break, up a game and a half on the Birds and 2 ½ on the Red Sox.

The late part of summer is often the time that teams with pitching start to assert themselves. Baltimore did that in 1973. New York faded, and by Labor Day, Baltimore was in first place with a comfortable six-game lead on Boston. The Orioles, like the A’s, were not seriously tested in September.

A battle was anticipated in the Oakland-Baltimore ALCS battle, and a battle is exactly what ensued. The Orioles, with the first two games of the series at home, struck first when Palmer tossed a Game 1 shutout and Baltimore won 6-0. Oakland turned to Hunter to gain the road split in Game 2. Aided by two home runs from Bando, Hunter won 6-3 and sent the series west tied 1-1.

Game 3 was a throwback. It went 11 innings and the starting pitchers, Ken Holtzman for Oakland and Mike Cuellar for Baltimore, each pitched the entire game. Campaneris hit a walk off home run to lead off the bottom of the 11th and get the A’s a 2-1 win.

When Oakland knocked Palmer out early in Game 4, and took a 4-0 lead into the seventh inning, the A’s looked home free. Four Oriole runs in the seventh tied it. A Grich homer off Rollie Fingers in the eighth won it, 5-4. A playoff round that was then a best-of-five affair would come to a deciding Game 5.

Catfish got the ball for Oakland, and while there was no ALCS MVP award given at this time, Hunter made it plain who would have won the honor. He tossed a complete-game five-hitter. Even with Palmer giving a gutsy long relief outing, the A’s early 3-0 lead stood up and they won a second straight American League pennant.

The Cincinnati Reds had won two of the previous three National League pennants, but were still looking for that final step of a World Series title. The Big Red Machine had Tony Perez at first base and Joe Morgan playing second base. They had Johnny Bench behind the plate. And they had Pete Rose playing leftfield.

Rose delivered the best year of his extraordinary career, winning the NL MVP award. Morgan finished fourth in the final voting. But the Reds got a stiff challenge within their division from both the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Giants, led by Bobby Bonds, went to the early lead in another race that was jam-packed at the Memorial Day turn. The Dodgers surged in the early part of summer. At the All-Star break, Cincinnati trailed Los Angeles by 5 ½ games. The Reds made a move in late summer, but hit the final turn on Labor Day still a game and a half off the pace being set by L.A.

Cincinnati immediately made a move in that opening week of September and pushed out to a three-game lead. By mid-September, the lead had grown to 6 ½. On the Monday of the season’s final week, the Reds finally put the NL West race to bed and returned to the playoffs.

The wildest race was in the NL East. The Chicago Cubs, with an everyday lineup led by Hall of Famer Billy Williams and a rotation anchored by Rick Reuschel went to the early lead, up 5 ½ games by Memorial Day. The New York Mets were in second. An early summer slump seemed to remove the Mets from the list of serious contenders—so it appeared.

This year’s NL East was defined by shared mediocrity, no one able to get a foothold. Pittsburgh, led by MVP runner-up Willie Stargell, was going for a fourth straight division crown. The Philadelphia Phillies hung around for half of the year. The Montreal Expos, with Steve Rogers in the rotation and Mike Marshall in the bullpen stayed in the race. And the St. Louis Cardinals, with Hall of Famer Ted Simmons behind the plate, were in it all season long.

What the Mets had was pitching. Tom Seaver won the Cy Young Award. Jerry Koosman was another excellent starting pitcher. So was Jon Matlack. New York was still in last place at the All-Star break and in fifth on Labor Day. But they were within 5 ½ games of the lead going into the stretch drive.

Over the next three weeks, the Mets gradually pushed up the ladder and nudged out to a half-game edge on the Pirates with a week to go. St. Louis, Montreal and Chicago were all within three games themselves. It took all of the final week, plus a Monday makeup game, but the Mets prevailed. With a record of 82-79, they were going to the National League Championship Series.

Cincinnati was a heavy favorite to win the NLCS, but even their Game 1 win at home underscored how tough a fight this would be. The Reds had to pull out a 2-1 win against Seaver, rallying for single runs in the eighth and ninth.

Starting pitching means everything in a short series and with three legitimate aces, the Mets had enough to compete. Matlack tossed a two-hit shutout in Game 2, Koosman cruised to an easy 9-2 win in Game 3, highlighted by a brawl between Rose and Mets’ shortstop Bud Harrelson over the turning of a double play. New York was on the verge of a big upset.

Game 4 was a 12-inning classic, and a Rose home run was the difference in another tight 2-1 finish. The National League, like the American League, was coming down to one winner-take-all game to settle the pennant.

The ending was both surprising and anticlimactic. It was the Mets offense that erupted, getting four runs in the sixth inning. That was enough for Seaver to put a 7-2 victory to bed. For the second time in five years, the New York Mets were going to the World Series. And this 1973 run was almost as improbable as the epic “Amazin’ Mets” run of 1969 had been.

Holtzman and Matlack were on the mound for Game 1 of the World Series in Oakland. The Mets began this Series like they had begun the NLCS, with a tough 2-1 loss. But, like the NLCS, New York came back.

Game 2 was a crazy 12-inning affair that the Mets pulled out 10-7. In the decisive top of the 12th, A’s second baseman Mike Andrews made two consecutive errors. Oakland owner Charles Finley was furious and tried to get Andrews to fake an injury so he could be replaced on the roster. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened and stopped the absurdity.

The extra-inning drama continued back at Shea Stadium, when the A’s won a 3-2 decision in 11 innings. But over Games 4 & 5, New York pitching limited Oakland to just one combined run. Matlack won an easy 6-1 decision in the fourth game to tie up the Series. Koosman’s Game 5 shutout sent the Series back west with the Mets on the verge of a championship.

Oakland was used to being up against it though. Their last three postseason series victories—the two in 1972, along with this year’s ALCS, had gone down to the deciding game. They were no strange to tough spots. Catfish outdueled Seaver in a Game 6 battle of legends. The 3-1 win set up a Game 7.

The Series ended as it had begun, with Holtzman against Matlack. The A’s bats took over. Campaneris and Reggie each homered in a decisive third inning. Oakland won 5-2 and had a repeat World Series championship.

There was excellent balance at the top of major league baseball in this early part of the 1970s. It seemed as though the gap between the very best teams was miniscule. But there was one common thread—the A’s were the team that consistently managed to deliver in the toughest spots. The second of what would be three straight World Series titles was in the books.