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The Narrative Of The 1974 MLB Season

The Oakland A’s were already the best of a group of excellent teams that owned the first part of the 1970s. The A’s came into the 1974 baseball season on a run of three straight AL West titles and two consecutive American League pennants—both of which culminated in a seven-game World Series triumph. Oakland made it three in a row in 1974, and this time they won the Fall Classic with a little more room to spare.

Oakland’s everyday lineup was led by the Big Three of Joe Rudi in left field, Sal Bando at third base and Reggie Jackson in rightfield. Together, this trio finished 2-3-4 in the final AL MVP voting. Gene Tenace was reliable behind the plate and Bert Campaneris was a solid shortstop. A pitching staff led by American League Cy Young Award winner Catfish Hunter at the top of the rotation and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers in the bullpen was excellent. The A’s were the team to beat.

The AL West had some worthy challengers. Kansas City had made their first emergence into contention in 1973 and were led by George Brett and Hal McRae.  Minnesota had a second baseman in Rod Carew that was on his way to the Hall of Fame. Chicago, with Jim Kaat in the rotation stayed in the race for a little while. And feisty Billy Martin had taken over the Texas Rangers and would make them a contender in 1974.

On Memorial Day, Oakland led a tight race, where Kansas City, Chicago, the California Angels, Texas and Minnesota were all within 3 ½ games of the lead. The race opened up a bit in the early part of the summer, with Oakland holding a five-game cushion on Chicago at the All-Star break.

The White Sox faded. Oakland pushed their lead out to 7 ½ games by Labor Day. The Angels, with Nolan Ryan in the rotation, joined the Royals as being the prime chasers. But both of those teams faded as well.

It was the Rangers who made the last push at the A’s. Jeff Burroughs won the MVP award for Texas and Hall of Fame starter Fergie Jenkins was the Cy Young runner-up. The Rangers got as close as 4 ½ games with a week and a half left. But the A’s ultimately kept everyone at arm’s length, held off all challengers and won a fourth straight division title.

The Baltimore Orioles had won four of the first five AL East crowns, going back to the start of divisional play in 1969. The Orioles, with a dominant pitching rotation led by Hall of Fame righthander Jim Palmer were again the team to beat.

The AL East, like their Western counterpart, was a jumbled mess after a couple months. On Memorial Day, the entire six-team division was within three games of each other. By the All-Star break, it wasn’t much different, with only five games separating the top from the bottom.

It was Boston, who appeared ready to pull away where their lead grew as high as eight games. Surprising contenders, like the Milwaukee Brewers and Cleveland Indians fell by the wayside. The Orioles, along with the New York Yankees were the ones who had a chance to catch the Red Sox.

Baltimore started to move in late August and were within five games by Labor Day. New York was just two back. The Red Sox were falling hard and by mid-September had slipped to third place, 3 ½ games out. The Yankees were now out front, with the Orioles 2 ½ back. Boston kept fading, while New York and Baltimore battled it out down the stretch.

With a week and a half left, the margin was down to a single game. Over the season’s final full week, the Orioles nudged out to a half-game lead. There were three days left, a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to settle the AL East flag.

Baltimore controlled the half-game and got a big win on Monday over Detroit, while New York was idle, making the lead a full game. The next day, the Orioles got a 7-6 win over the Tigers, while the Yankees fell in ten innings to the Brewers. It was over. Baltimore was still king of the AL East.

The Orioles and A’s were set to meet for the third time in the ALCS and the second year in a row. Baltimore had won this matchup in 1971. Oakland got revenge in a great five-game series (the LCS round was best-of-five until 1985) in 1973.

In Game 1, Baltimore got to Catfish and got a 6-3 road win. Oakland bounced back with a 5-0 shutout win in Game 2, but the Orioles had control of this series, with the remaining games scheduled for old Memorial Stadium back home.

It set up a Game 3 pitching showdown between Palmer and A’s lefty Vida Blue. A sole home run by Bando was Oakland’s only scoring, but it was the only run Blue needed. He tossed a complete-game two-shutout to win 1-0. More pitching dominance awaited in Game 4. This time it was Catfish redeeming himself with a 2-1 win. Oakland pitching held the Baltimore bats to just one run over the final three games and the A’s were going back to the World Series.

The National League had a riveting race in the Eastern Division. The Pirates were the NL East’s power in the early 1970s, but were looking to get back on top after getting edged out by the New York Mets in 1973.

Pittsburgh’s bid to re-establish themselves did not begin well, and they sat in last place on Memorial Day. The early frontrunner was on the other side of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, with an emerging third baseman by the name of Michael Jack Schmidt, held a game and a half lead at the season’s first turn. The Montreal Expos, with a terrific bullpen anchored by Chuck Taylor and Dale Murray were running in second. And the St. Louis Cardinals, a proud franchise, but one who had not won a division title since the 1969 realignment, were in third.

The Phillies continued to lead the race to the All-Star break. Pittsburgh started to play better baseball and had moved up to fourth place, within 3 ½ games of the lead, by the time they hosted the All-Star Game. Montreal and St. Louis were very much in the mix at the midpoint. The Mets, despite the presence of Tom Seaver and Jon Matlack in the rotation, made no serious bid to repeat.

Late summer was cruel to Montreal, who faded from the race, and it was tough on Philadelphia, who slipped to third. Pittsburgh kept coming. On Labor Day, the Pirates were in first place and a game and a half up on the Cardinals. The stretch drive was at hand.

St. Louis was getting a historic year from the great Lou Brock. The Hall of Fame outfielder set a single-season record with 118 stolen bases and finished second in the NL MVP voting. The Cardinals and Pirates jousted back and forth trading the divisional lead. With three days to go, entering the final Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday sequence, it was a dead heat.

Just like with the AL East, a Tuesday of one-run games was the decisive point. After both teams held serve on Monday, the Pirates edged the Cubs 6-5, while the Cardinals dropped a 3-2 decision to the Expos. On the final day, Pittsburgh rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the ninth inning to beat Chicago 5-4 and return to the NLCS.

The six-year period from 1970 through 1975 had one clear team that was the power in each of the four divisions. Each season in in this stretch saw exactly three teams—no more, no less—win their division. The Group of Four took turns being the odd team out. We’ve seen the divisional dynasties in Oakland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh hold serve. That means that it was the NL West that saw a fresh face in 1974.

Cincinnati was the standard power, but the Los Angeles Dodgers had their breakthrough year in ’74. A lineup that was led by MVP first baseman Steve Garvey and an excellent all-around centerfielder in Jimmy Wynn, jumped out to a big lead and then held off the Reds down the stretch.

By Memorial Day, the Dodgers were soaring with an 8 ½ game cushion. The Reds gradually chipped away, knocking the margin to 5 ½ by the All-Star break and 3 ½ at the Labor Day turn. The Big Red Machine of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Tony Perez was making a move .

But Los Angeles didn’t fold. They were able to keep Cincinnati at arm’s length, leading by 4 ½ games with a week and a half to go and finally clinching on the season’s penultimate day.

Garvey would develop a reputation in the latter part of this decade as a clutch performer and his postseason debut at the 1974 NLCS was a preview of things to come. He went 7-for-18, homered twice, and drove in five runs. Don Sutton at the top of the rotation made his mark in this series as well.

Sutton went into Pittsburgh for Game 1 and tossed a 3-0 shutout. The Dodgers then took Game 2 by a 5-2 count and went home in complete control of the series. The Pirates staved off elimination with an easy Game 3 win, but in Game 4, Garvey unloaded at the plate, Sutton dominated one more time and a 12-1 win sent the proud Dodger franchise to the World Series for the first time since 1966.

We had an all-California World Series with Oakland and Los Angeles. The individual games were all tight, but the Series as a whole was not. Fingers was the reason and it started showing immediately in Game 1. He worked 4 1/3 innings to get a 3-2 win. Sutton did his thing and won Game 2 for the Dodgers by the same 3-2 score, but the A’s had gained the road split.

And the Series would not get back to Dodger Stadium. The combination of Catfish and Rollie delivered Oakland another 3-2 victory. Game 4 finally gave us a different final score, but it was still the A’s on top, with a 5-2 win. In Thursday night’s Game 5, we were back to 3-2 finishes. Fingers slammed the door on this one too, capturing World Series MVP honors and giving Oakland a historic third consecutive championship.

The A’s remain the only franchise besides the Yankees to have ever won three consecutive World Series. The 1974 baseball season was the pinnacle of the dynasty years in Oakland.