Cooperstown Confidential- Regular Season Edition - 10/02/2003
The Rumor Mill
Granted, it was only one playoff game, but for those who have observed the Yankees throughout the last three seasons, defensive shortcomings at second base and center field have become an all-too-frequent problem. In Game One of their Division Series playoff against Minnesota, both Bernie Williams and Alfonso Soriano made critical mistakes on the same play (Soriano’s overthrow was properly scored an error, but Williams’ butchering of a groundball single was somehow not scored that same way), leading to two tainted runs. And then there was an important play earlier in the game, when Luis Rivas’ fly ball to center field scored a run, principally because of Williams’ ragged arm; against most center fielders, the runner wouldn’t have even attempted to score, and if he did, he would have been thrown out—easily.
It’s not the first time that Williams and Soriano have hurt the Yankees with their fielding hijinx, and it may not be the last, depending on how long the Pinstripers remain in the current playoff chase. Win, lose, or draw this postseason, the Yankees need to reconcile themselves to two conclusions: Williams can no longer play center field, and Soriano (despite hours upon hours of work with Willie Randolph) is simply too erratic a second baseman. So what should the Yankees do? Well, they’ve already begun organizational discussions about free agent second baseman Luis Castillo, who would be a perfect fit in the Bronx both defensively and as the team’s leadoff man. The acquisition of Castillo would allow the Yankees to move Soriano to the outfield, either to right field, where his arm strength might be a question, or to center field as a replacement for Williams. Then there’s always the possibility of the Yankees signing both Castillo and fellow free agent Gary Sheffield, which would give the Yankees a new second baseman AND a new right fielder, force Soriano to center field, and place Williams squarely on the trading block. Yet, there may be a problem with the latter option. As a 10-and-5 player, Williams has the right to block any trades, and he might just do that. He likes playing for the Yankees and playing for Torre, and has shown little desire of playing elsewhere. Whatever happens, it could be an extremely interesting offseason in New York.
On to other rumors, this time of the managerial kind. If the Yankees lose their first-round playoff, Torre could very well be fired—though it wouldn’t be fair, given both his regular season and postseason track records prior to 2002. (It would rank with the firing of Dick Howser in 1980 as one of the most unjustified managerial “blame games” of all-time.) If Torre is let go, the leading candidate to replace him might be first base coach Lee Mazzilli, who has both the toughness and smarts to handle the job. Another candidate could be Bucky Dent, but his troubles with his coaching staff at Triple-A Columbus this summer, coupled with his previous managerial failure in New York, may diminish his chances… With the Orioles and White Sox already having disposed of their managers, the rumors have begun as to their possible successors. One wild rumor has Tony LaRussa being fired by the Cardinals and then returning to the White Sox, where he gained his first managerial experience in the early 1980s. Another rumor has Eddie Murray becoming the Orioles manager, which is not as wild a rumor, assuming that Murray is willing to talk to the media, something that simply has to be done by a major league manager. If Murray doesn’t end up with the Baltimore job, it will probably be given to Rick Dempsey, another longtime Oriole with ties to the organization… Two excellent managers-in-waiting are third base coaches, one with the Yankees and one with the Angels. Both Willie Randolph and Ron Roenicke deserve shots at managing—and they deserve those chances right now. For some reason, the Yankees don’t seem inclined to promote Randolph, but the Mariners might have interest in him if they decide to fire first-year skipper Bob Melvin. As for Roenicke, he’s eminently qualified, either for Seattle, Chicago, or New York—though he lacks the name status preferred by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner.
Re-Living The Swingin’ A’s—Thirty Years Ago
On an unhappy front, the frustration that Sal Bando and other Oakland players had felt with pinch-runner Allan Lewis was now being shared by Charlie Finley. The Oakland owner had grown dissatisfied with Lewis since his most recent recall from the minor leagues on September 1. In one September game, Lewis missed a steal sign from third-base coach Irv Noren; on two other occasions, he succeeded in allowing himself to be picked off. Perhaps at the age of 31, Lewis had lost a crucial step, jeopardizing his only positive attribute—speed. As a result of the growing list of miscues, Finley sought another pinch-running alternative. He offered $50,000 to the Royals for a minor league prospect named Kenzie Davis, who had set a California League record by stealing 80 bases. The Royals rejected Finley’s cash-only offer. (Davis, by the way, would never make the major leagues.)
More bad news arrived on September 8, when Reggie Jackson sustained a pulled hamstring, an injury that he frequently encountered due to the muscle-bound nature of his legs. Jackson, leading the league with 112 RBIs, strained his hamstring while running hard from first to third on an extra-base hit. A similar, but more serious injury had prevented Jackson from participating in his first World Series in 1972; fortunately, the A’s believed the latest occurrence would sideline him for a moderate length of seven to 10 days, allowing him to return for any post-season games.
Jesus Alou, hitting .322 since his arrival from Houston, stepped into the right field vacancy. Alou had previously filled in well for an ailing Joe Rudi in left field. “It’s funny,” remarked Alou to The Sporting News in discussing his new role as Oakland’s fourth outfielder. “I was on a team like Houston, in fourth place, and I didn’t play. Then I came over here to a team that is running for a pennant and I play.”
Alou attributed his latest spree of hitting success to a curious tendency at the plate, an offspring of an aggressive approach at the plate that reminded observers of the free-swinging nature of contemporaries like Roberto Clemente and Manny Sanguillen. “I have always swung at bad pitches,” Alou admitted to Ron Bergman. “But now I am swinging and missing. I used to swing at bad pitches and hit them. That was hurting me because every time I hit a bad pitch, it was so bad I couldn’t get good wood on it. Now I swing and miss the bad ball and that gives me a chance to come back and hit a better pitch.” In a strange way, Alou’s offbeat analysis made sense, but left one question unanswered. Why was he swinging and missing more often than before? Even Alou could not provide an answer to that particular mystery.
The least talented of the Alou brothers, Jesus possessed the most distinctive batting style at the plate. Jesus typified the term “nervous hitter,” with his constant body twitching, Clemente-like neck rotations, and stylish bat twirling. Alou exhibited so many extraneous movements before, during, and after each one of his swings that Dick Williams could no longer bear watching him during his at-bats. Instead, Williams waited to hear the sound of bat-meeting-ball before daring to look up from his position in the dugout.
Despite the fine hitting of Alou and the presence of Vic Davalillo behind him, rumors continued to circulate about the acquisition of another outfielder. One speculated trade had the A’s sending onetime Rookie of the Year candidate Angel Mangual and slumping veteran Blue Moon Odom to the Red Sox for outfielder Reggie Smith, who had requested a trade. The switch-hitting center fielder had been held back by a series of injuries, which would limit him to 115 games in 1973. Despite the physical problems, Smith was headed toward a season that would see him finish with 21 home runs and a .303 batting average; he also ran well and possessed one of the strongest outfield throwing arms in either league. So why would the Red Sox part with such a productive and talented hitter for two players who had fallen on such hard times? The Red Sox had made several bad trades in recent years, most notably the deal that had sent relief ace Sparky Lyle to the Yankees for former A’s infielder Danny Cater after the 1971 season. Unfortunately for the A’s, the Red Sox would not add another foolish trade to the list.
With Smith destined to remain in Boston for the balance of the season, the A’s would have to seek help from within the organization. When the A’s’ top farm club, the Tucson Toros, saw their Pacific Coast League playoff run come to an end, Charlie Finley decided to summon reinforcements for the final weeks of the regular season. The A’s recalled infielder Rich McKinney and pitcher Dave Hamilton, both of whom had spent some time in Oakland earlier in the season. When neither player reported immediately to the A’s, Dick Williams castigated both of them for their tardiness. Hamilton tried to explain that their late arrival had resulted from a simple misunderstanding, but Williams had little tolerance for such excuses during a pennant race.
Another late-season recall paid his first dividend on September 11. Heralded prospect Glenn Abbott won his first major league game, an impressive five-hit, complete-game effort against the Royals. Earlier in the day, the A’s did manage to make a trade with another organization when they surprisingly announced the purchase of outfielder Rico Carty from the Cubs. The onetime National League batting champion had endured a fragmented season in 1973, beginning with a failed stint as the first designated hitter in the history of the Texas Rangers’ franchise. Claiming he couldn’t adjust to the new DH role, Carty had hit only .232 with little power for Texas. The Cubs then acquired Carty for the waiver price, hoping that the friendly dimensions of Wrigley Field would remedy Rico’s once-thundering bat. Yet, Carty hit even worse for the Cubs than he did for the Rangers, batting a punchless .214 in 22 games.
A supremely talented offensive player and arguably the best two-strike hitter of his era, Carty had enjoyed his best major league season only three years earlier. In 1970, as a member of the Atlanta Braves, Carty had led the National League with a .366 batting average and a .456 on-base percentage. He had also hit for power, accumulating career highs with 25 home runs and 101 RBIs. Then, during the offseason, Carty found his career altered by injury. A winter league collision with Matty Alou crushed his kneecap, preventing him from playing at all in 1971. Carty returned to the Braves the following summer, only to be hampered repeatedly by a pulled leg muscle.
The self-proclaimed “Beeg Boy” had also clashed with teammates throughout his career. In Atlanta, Carty had brawled with six-foot, six-inch right-hander Ron Reed (the onetime NBA player) in one incident and with the team’s best player, Hank Aaron, in another. Carty’s continuing problems with Aaron eventually influenced his trade to Texas. After his subsequent trade to Chicago, Carty sparred with another popular star player, Ron Santo, one of the Cubs’ senior veterans and most prominent clubhouse leaders. Upon his arrival in Oakland, Carty pointed the finger at Santo, terming him a selfish player. Carty predicted the Cubs would never win a division title or league pennant until they ridded themselves of their longtime third baseman. Although Carty’s criticism likely had little to do with it, the Cubs would trade Santo to the cross-town White Sox after the season.
Like many of Charlie Finley’s acquisitions, the pickup of Carty seemed strange at the time it was made. Since the A’s had acquired him after September 1, he would be ineligible for any post-season games. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be a slot for him in the lineup during the regular season either. Given his poor throwing arm, Carty posed no threat to play right field, which was already occupied by MVP candidate Reggie Jackson. So how about left field, where Joe Rudi had been slumping for much of the summer? A few weeks earlier, that scenario might have made some sense, but Rudi’s bat had shown signs of a recent revival. On September 16, Rudi clubbed his first career grand slam and added a two-run double in a 9-4 win over the Rangers. Rudi’s six-RBI performance was particularly impressive since he was still fighting to recover from a persistent, recurring virus.
Though listed as an outfielder, Carty’s chronically fragile knees made him best suited to serve as a designated hitter, a role that he didn’t like, as evidenced by his early-season flop in Texas. Deron Johnson had been a productive DH for the A’s earlier in the season, but had struggled in recent weeks, his deepening ineffectiveness at the plate starting to concern Dick Williams. In an August 12th game against the Yankees, Johnson had torn a tendon in his right hand and badly jammed his thumb while sliding into third base. While Johnson tried not to use his bad hand as an excuse, the injury had robbed him of much of his bat speed, while making him vulnerable to inside fastballs and sliders. American League pitchers, quickly taking note of Johnson’s injury, had wisely exploited the designated hitter’s newfound vulnerability.
The A’s played well in their mid-September series against Carty’s former Ranger teammates, sweeping the three-game set. On September 14, in the first game of the series, Gene Tenace experienced what he told Sports Illustrated was “my biggest day in the majors.” The hard-hitting catcher went 4-for-4 and drove in five runs in support of Catfish Hunter’s 19th win, a 10-inning decision. “I looked at the scoreboard and saw that [second-place] Kansas City had lost,” Tenace explained to SI, “and then I thought if we could win this game, we’d give Reggie Jackson another week’s rest.” Jackson, who had been sitting out with a hamstring pull, actually did make an appearance in the game when he pinch-hit for Dick Green.
Earlier in the month, the A’s had played some of their worst baseball in another series against Texas. The ways in which the A’s had lost to an inferior team particularly vexed Dick Williams, who expressed his anger at a team meeting. Williams didn’t like the players’ carefree behavior both during and after games with the sad-sack Rangers. After Williams’ team-wide lecture, the A’s captured two of three from the Royals to move six and a half games in front in the American League West.
Unlike other managers who avoided confrontations with their players, Williams believed in addressing mistakes quickly and directly. “When you make a mental error,” Joe Rudi explained to the New York Daily News, “Dick chews you out right on the spot. You miss that cutoff man, or something like that, and when you come in from the field, you hear about it, right now. And you better not make the same mistake again.” While some managers frowned on such directness out of fear of embarrassing their players, Williams’ approach worked because of its consistency. “He’s fair,” Rudi told sportswriter Dick Young. “He’ll rip into Reggie Jackson the same way he’ll chew [out] a rookie. He treats everybody the same.”
Two of the most pleasant individual developments of the season involved the pitching of reliever Horacio Pina and the growth of center fielder Billy North, both much-maligned offseason pickups. As a middle and long reliever, Pina continued to fool hitters with his sidearm delivery and deceptive palmball. During one stretch in September, Pina belied his frail, string bean appearance by working in eight of Oakland’s 10 games. The play of North proved even more vital. “We haven’t had anybody who can go get a ball like that since Rick Monday,” Dick Williams told the Associated Press. By May, North had wrested the center field position away from Angel Mangual and Billy Conigliaro. By August 17, North had moved into the leadoff spot, bumping Campy Campaneris to the second position. On September 15, North stole his 50th base of the season.
Given the aforementioned milestones, the news of September 20 came as a crushing strike to Oakland fortunes. With a runner on third and one out, North bounced a routine grounder to Twins second baseman Rod Carew. When Carew threw home to retire the lead runner, North turned his head back momentarily toward home plate as he landed awkwardly on the first base bag. The misstep resulted in a sprained ankle. The prognosis arrived as quick and cutting to the A’s; North would miss the balance of the regular season, and most likely, any playoff and World Series games.
North’s impact on the A’s had been considerable. He had also left an imprint on American League rivals, who had come to detest his combative, feisty, and—some would say dirty style of play. On May 18, North had tangled with Kansas City’s Doug Bird. North had also become involved in two subsequent incidents. On August 31, the Royals’ Kurt Bevacqua pushed North twice while he stood a third base, in apparent retaliation for the assault on Bird. A’s captain Sal Bando, standing at home plate, ran toward third base in defense of North and tackled Bevacqua. North responded well to the fisticuffs, going 6-for-14 in the three-game series with Kansas City. North said he felt special motivation for two reasons: series-long booing from the fans at Royals Stadium and racial catcalls he heard from a few select Royals partisans.
In early September, the A’s played the rival Angels in a series marked by cursing and trash talking between opposing players. In the September 6th game, California’s Dick Lange threw a fastball directly over North’s head. In this case, North had done nothing to provoke the “message” pitch; he merely had the misfortune of coming to bat after a Lange-surrendered Oakland home run. Rather than accepting the time-honored knockdown practice, North dragged a bunt between the mound and the first-base line, hoping that Lange would field the ball. Angels first baseman Mike Epstein ruined North’s plan by reaching the bunt before Lange. The former Oakland slugger planted an unnecessarily firm tag on North’s neck in an obvious effort to injure the pesky A’s catalyst. Epstein proceeded to drop the ball, allowing North to reach first base on an error. Moments later, as Epstein prepared to hold North on the bag, the Oakland outfielder referred to the muscular first baseman as a “big goon.” The remark prompted an abrupt reaction from Epstein, who was held back by an intervening Reggie Jackson. After the game, North expressed no remorse for his derogatory characterization of Epstein. “There’s no one in this game who can intimidate me,” North said proudly to The Sporting News. “There will be a time for him.”
North’s brash speaking manner, teamed with his on-field combativeness, had made him an unpopular player around the league. Those same qualities rated him highly in Dick Williams’ mental scouting report. “North’s an aggressive player,” Williams told The Sporting News in refuting charges that his center fielder played dirty, over-the-line baseball. “He’s a heck of a ballplayer. Some people say he’s a hot dog, but he can play for me anytime.”
North’s contributions not withstanding, the A’s had played uninspired, even listless ball for much of the season. Yet, their pitching and bullpen depth, buttressed by the hitting of Reggie Jackson and the relative weakness of the division, catapulted the A’s to favored status in the West. On September 23, the A’s officially laid rest to their divisional opponents by beating the White Sox, 10-5. An Oakland clinching—the team’s third straight—had become such a yearly routine that the A’s celebrated mildly after the win, quietly drinking champagne in the clubhouse.
Vida Blue won the clincher, which coincidentally represented his 20th win of the season. After a slow start, Blue’s fastball had improved considerably, as had his control. Thanks also to a pair of adjustments, Blue had succeeded in making his dismal 1972 season a forgotten memory. “We’ve got him throwing a change-up and a hard breaking ball,” pitching coach Wes Stock explained to Sports Illustrated. “Vida’s made up his mind he wants to be a good pitcher. Eighty per cent of pitching is determination and he has all the determination in the world.”
Blue’s teammates had also noticed the change in the left-hander’s pitching philosophy. “In the first part of 1971, Vida was overpowering everybody,” recalled Sal Bando in an interview with SI. “Now he is overmatching them. He found out that you can’t throw the fastball for 300 innings.”
In addition to recapturing some of his success from 1971, Blue had also dropped the surly demeanor that had marked much of his behavior during the latter stages of ’71 and much of the ’72 season. “Vida tried very hard to be an SOB,” an anonymous member of the Oakland organization pointed out to SI, “but he’s really too nice a kid to bring it off.”
Yet, Blue’s personality had not completely reverted back to 1971 form. “Vida’s changed. The fame changed him some,” acknowledged Sal Bando in an interview with Don Kowet of Sport Magazine. “He isn’t so carefree. He’s become more of a loner.” Blue served as a classic example of success not translating into a higher degree of happiness.
With his win against the White Sox, Blue joined Ken Holtzman and Catfish Hunter in the 20-win circle; for only the 14th time in American League history, three teammates had simultaneously won 20 games. The collaboration had occurred only once before in the history of the A’s’ franchise. In 1931, George Earnshaw, Rube Walberg, and Hall of Famer Robert “Lefty” Grove had each reached the 20-win plateau for Connie Mack’s legendary Philadelphia Athletics.
Hunter, Blue, and Holtzman attacked opposing hitters with distinctively contrasting styles. Hunter relied on one key out-pitch—the slider—featured by neither Blue nor Holtzman. Against left-handed hitters, Hunter augmented his repertoire with a deceiving change-up. Yet, more than anything else, Hunter succeeded because he possessed precise control of his pitches, an ability that helped ingratiate him with his catchers. Gene Tenace, who caught Hunter’s pitches for parts of six seasons, says that the Oakland ace made it easy on all of the A’s’ receivers. “It was like a day off [behind the plate],” recalls an admiring Tenace. “[He] had tremendous control with all his pitches. You had that square box in the hitting zone; he kept it right there pretty consistently.”
Hunter took special pride in pitching aggressively within the limits of the strike zone. “Know what I hate to do?” Hunter once said, thinking out loud, to Phil Elderkin of the Christian Science Monitor. “I hate to walk a man. It bugs me somethin’ fierce, because every time you put a man on base for free it seems like he scores. I’d rather give up a hit than a walk—that’s how strongly I feel about it.” Not only did Hunter feel confident that he could throw any of his pitches for strikes, he wanted to throw them for strikes.
Hunter’s control, as great as it was, only barely exceeded that of Holtzman, whose pitches featured more snap and verve than those of Catfish. Holtzman threw with the most fluid of deliveries, which made his deceptive fastball approach hitters with late explosion and movement. “What I try to do,” Holtzman told Elderkin, “is set up the hitter for a pitch that I think will bother his timing.” When batters began to anticipate his sneaky fastball, Holtzman countered with a large, looping overhand curveball that doubled as a change-of-speed.
Whereas Hunter and Holtzman relied on control, economy of pitches, and effective breaking balls, Blue employed a style that centered on pure power, requiring more pitches and more labor. Blue’s hard-driving but seemingly effortless mechanics, which included a high kick of his powerful right leg, helped his fastball reach a pace of 94 to 95 MPH, replete with late, rising movement. Blue’s recent addition of a harder breaking pitch, which featured a smaller but sharper break than his standard curveball, made him more similar in effectiveness to the scintillating pitcher of 1971 than the discounted 1972 model.
The presence of three 20-game winners on the Oakland staff vindicated the work of first-year pitching coach Wes Stock, who had replaced the amiable and popular Bill Posedel. “Bill Posedel knows more about pitching than any man I know,” Catfish Hunter once told the Associated Press. Speaking anonymously, several Oakland pitchers had previously criticized Stock’s relatively abrasive approach, which contrasted with the friendly, down-home style of predecessor Posedel. Yet, the comeback of Blue, the continuing improvement of Holtzman, and the sustained brilliance of Hunter had served as testimony to Stock’s effectiveness.
The combined domination of Blue, Holtzman, and Hunter made the Oakland rotation the envy of baseball. In some scouts’ minds, the A’s had managed to surpass the excellence of Baltimore’s starting rotation, which just two years earlier had featured four 20-game winners. Yes, the Orioles still had Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, and Mike Cuellar, but they had since parted with Pat Dobson, who had been traded to the Braves as part of a blockbuster deal that brought hard-hitting catcher Earl Williams to Baltimore. Based on 1973 results, one could now make a reasonable argument that the A’s—and not the O’s—now boasted the best group of starters in all of the major leagues.
Three 20-game winners. A third straight American League West title. A return to health of Joe Rudi and Reggie Jackson. Except for the injury to Billy North, all appeared well and calm in the Oakland kingdom. Well, not quite. In late September, the A’s made news when they fired part-time scout Bill Rigney. Yet, Charlie Finley refused to call Rigney’s departure a “firing.”
Finley had hired Rigney, a former major league manager with the Twins, Angels, and Giants, as an administrative assistant prior to the season. Rigney’s job description included a variety of duties, including broadcasting and scouting. The well-spoken Rigney served as a color announcer on radio and television for most of the season. Then, in early September, Finley removed Rigney from the booth, assigning him the more important duty of scouting the leaders in the American League East, the Orioles. Rigney joined fulltime scout Billy Herman in following the A’s’ likeliest opponent in the upcoming American League playoffs.
When the Orioles officially clinched the American League East, Rigney left his road assignment, figuring he didn’t need to observe Baltimore’s second-string lineup of backups and minor league Rochester recalls. Rigney also felt it more important to be with his wife, who had been injured in a recent fall.
Not surprisingly, Finley wanted Rigney to remain on the road stalking the Orioles. With four games to go in the regular season, Finley instructed Rigney to meet with manager Dick Williams and farm coordinator John Claiborne. Under Finley’s orders, Rigney would reveal the contents of his scouting report to Williams and Claiborne, and then head home. Rigney understood Finley’s directive to mean that he was being fired; Finley insisted he had not actually fired Rigney. “This was not a job on a permanent basis,” Finley explained to the Associated Press during the post-season. “Because of financial conditions, we eliminated the job at the end of the season.” Finley acknowledged that, with two weeks remaining in the regular season, he had ordered Rigney to scout the Orioles, but he disputed details of the broadcaster-turned-scout’s departure. “He returned at the end of one week,” Finley said, “and it was so close to the end of the season and since Bill had done such a fine job during the year, I told him the job was over.” In Finley’s mind, he had actually given Rigney a one-week paid vacation as a reward for a job well done. Clearly, Rigney felt otherwise.
Rigney’s departure also left a vacancy in the broadcast booth. To replace the man that Finley called the “greatest color man that I’ve heard in baseball” (according to an Associated Press article), the owner hired 30-year-old Bob Waller, who had broadcast White Sox games during the 1973 season, to work the post-season games with Monty Moore. In yet another Oakland oddity, a man who had broadcast regular season games for one team would now announce playoff games for another club. After broadcasting Oakland’s games in the post-season, Waller would then return to Chicago to team with former A’s broadcaster Harry Caray. Only in Finley’s Oakland.
Rigney could take solace in knowing that many other A’s employees had lost their jobs during the season. Some had been fired; others had left on their own. The A’s’ playoff program depicted seven front office officials and secretaries no longer with the team. The program also contained photographs of four former Oakland players—Larry Haney, Mike Hegan, Gonzalo Marquez, and Dal Maxvill—since banished to Milwaukee, New York, Chicago (the Cubs), and Pittsburgh, respectively.
The departure of the popular and respected Rigney angered many of the players, who became even more upset when they learned they could not take their wives on the team flight to Baltimore. All of the players had expected to be able to travel with their spouses, but some were placed on stand-bye when Finley brought extra passengers on the flight. As soon as the players found out that their loved ones had lost out to a group of Finley’s cronies, they were ready to put a stranglehold on the owner.
A more minor incidence of controversy occurred prior to the best-of-five playoff series against the Orioles. Former pitching coach Bill Posedel was supposed to travel with the team on its trip to Baltimore and suit up in an Oakland uniform in the dugout. When Posedel didn’t make the flight, several players wondered whether Finley had interfered with the attempt at the reunion.
Controversies aside, the A’s had more immediate concerns with their post-season roster of players. For one, their outfield had been undermined by injuries and sickness. Billy North’s sprained ankle would sideline him for the entire playoff series, while Reggie Jackson’s playing weight and strength and had been affected by a viral infection and a sore throat. The A’s expected an ailing Jackson to play in Game One, but the injury to North left them without their center fielder and most capable leadoff batter. To compensate, Dick Williams moved Campy Campaneris back to the leadoff spot, moved Joe Rudi up to the No. 2 position, and made Sal Bando his third-place hitter. Williams also announced that Angel Mangual would assume North’s position in center field.
The Oakland coaching staff might have expected that Mangual would react to the news with several leaps for joy. Earlier in the season, Mangual had stated his unhappiness as a backup and his preference for a trade. Of course, when he did play, he botched fly balls in the outfield, missed signs from the coaches, and failed to execute basic plays like the hit-and-run. Despite his frequent mental and physical mistakes, Mangual would now be the starting center fielder in the playoffs, with a chance to play a prominent role in the World Series. So how did Mangual react to being named North’s replacement? He did what any Oakland player would have done: he asked to be traded. At least Mangual had the decency to say that his trade request could wait until after the season.
The collection of injuries and controversies, coupled with a general lack of respect for the Oakland ballclub, led the oddsmakers to install the Orioles as 6-to-5 favorites to eliminate the A’s. “I don’t believe people think of us as legitimate World Champions,” Sal Bando complained to Sports Illustrated. “We are out to prove that we are.” The prevailing sentiment of Baltimore superiority left Dick Williams laughing. “I heard Jimmy the Greek made the Orioles 11-to-10 favorites,” Williams told the New York Times. “That tickles me to death. Why? Because he’s been wrong the last five years. And he picked Bobby Riggs, too.” Riggs had predicted he would defeat Billie Jean King in the greatly hyped “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, only to lose decidedly to the world’s best female player.
It’s one of my favorite cards of all-time, because of its cool horizontal layout (which I’ve always loved), the presence of three A’s players “in action” against a busy backdrop of fans in the stands, and the fact that Joe Rudi is one of those players I’ve always liked and admired for years. There’s just one problem with that reasoning in describing Topps 1973 card (No. 360) of “Gentleman Joe:” Joe Rudi isn’t any of the three A’s players shown on the face of the card. The player in the middle is supposed to be Rudi, who is being congratulated by two teammates after hitting a home run against the California Angels. The player who is actually being congratulated is Rudi’s teammate, Gene Tenace, who has just hit one of his mere five regular season home runs in 1972. (Tenace hit four more in that fall’s World Series against the Reds, but that’s another story.) The confusion of Tenace being mistaken as Rudi is actually quite understandable, given that almost all of the A’s players had grown mustaches during the 1972 season, a trend that tended to make some of the white players look like one another. Identifying the other two players on the cards becomes a bit more problematic, in part because neither was a particularly well known player—certainly not as well known as a Tenace or a Rudi—and in part because the A’s used 47 different players in 1972… Yet, thanks to an internet reader (whose name I have carelessly lost in my e-mail data base), we’ve been able to come up with some answers to this card’s riddles. We know that the photograph for the Rudi card was taken during a Sunday afternoon game at the Oakland Coliseum, because Sunday afternoons were the only time the A’s wore their all-white uniforms during the regular season. More specifically, we know the photograph was taken the day of June 25, 1972, when the A’s hosted the Angels in a doubleheader at the Coliseum. Batting in the bottom of the second of game two, Tenace rips a three-run homer against Angels left-hander Rickey Clark, scoring Bill Voss (who had singled) and Sal Bando (who had walked). And who, you might ask, is Bill Voss? A journeyman outfielder acquired only five days earlier from the Brewers, Voss was in the midst of a stretch of games in which manager Dick Williams used him as Oakland’s starting right fielder. (Voss wouldn’t last the season in Oakland, as he was traded to the Cardinals on August 27 for Matty Alou.) Voss happens to be the A’s player pictured on the left of the card, offering Tenace a congratulatory handshake. As for the other player on the card, the one giving Tenace a pat on the backside, I first thought it was starting pitcher John “Blue Moon” Odom, who pitched eight shutout innings that day in earning a 6-0 victory. But our trusty internet reader points out that it is not Odom, but utility infielder Orlando “Marty” Martinez, the on-deck hitter and Oakland’s starting second baseman that day. Like Voss, Martinez didn’t last much longer with the A’s, traded to the Rangers less than one month later as part of the deal that brought Don Mincher back to the Bay Area… As for the mistaken identity of Tenace over Rudi, it unfortunately doesn’t make the card any more valuable than most other common cards from the 1973 Topps set. Still, it’s an intriguing error involving a well-known, All-Star player like Rudi, and one that Topps didn’t catch until well after the card set had been issued. Unlike some other Topps error cards, the mistake was never corrected, so if you’re looking for a 1973 Topps card that actually depicts Joe Rudi, you’re not going to be able to find it, not even amongst the playoff or World Series cards issued that year. Oh well, the 1973 Rudi is still a great card.
George Plimpton (Died on September 25 in New York City; age 76; heart attack): Although best known for Paper Lion, the book that detailed his adventures practicing with the National Football League’s Detroit Lions in 1963, the respected intellectual author also made several ventures into the baseball world. In 1959, Plimpton used his method of “participatory journalism” and pitched in an exhibition game featuring both American and National League All-Stars. While Plimpton failed to last an inning, he did retire future Hall of Famer Willie Mays, at the time a star with the San Francisco Giants, on a harmless pop-up. Plimpton then wrote about the experience in a 1961 book called Out of My League, which Ernest Hemingway described as “beautifully observed and incredible conceived.” In 1985, Plimpton wrote a fictitious article for Sports Illustrated about a top-notch New York Mets pitching prospect named Sidd Finch, whom he described as having a 168 mile-per-hour fastball. Plimpton wrote the April Fool’s Day article in such a believable style that more than a few readers, including some diehard Mets fans, regarded Finch as a real prospect, only to learn later that Plimpton had perpetrated one of the greatest hoaxes in baseball’s literary history. And then on June 6, 2001, Plimpton appeared as the keynote speaker at the annual Cooperstown Baseball Symposium, held at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, where he regaled listeners with a variety of stories from his eclectic career… As a writer, Plimpton served as the unpaid editor for The Paris Review, a quarterly magazine that served as a launching vehicle for several up-and-coming authors, including Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth. The versatile Plimpton also made his mark in Hollywood, appearing in several films, including the critically acclaimed Good Will Hunting (1997), along with LA Story (1991) and Reds (1981).
Johnny Welaj (Died on September 13 in Arlington, Texas; age 89; long illness): A 63-year veteran of professional baseball, Welaj worked in almost area of the game—as a player, manager, and executive. The outfielder began his major league career in 1939, when he debuted with the Washington Senators. After three years with the Senators, he closed out his playing career with the Philadelphia A’s, finishing with four home runs and a .250 batting average in 793 at-bats. In 1954, Welaj began managing in the minor leagues before joining the front office of the Washington Senators in 1957. Working in sales and promotions, he began an association that would last for 43 years with the Senators-Texas Rangers franchise.
Dick Bogard (Died on August 29; age 66): Formerly a minor league player, Bogard served as the Oakland A’s’ director of scouting from 1984 to 1994. During his tenure as Oakland’s head of scouting, the A’s drafted and signed such players as Jason Giambi, Ben Grieve, and Walt Weiss. After wrapping up his playing career in 1962, Bogard became an area scout and minor league manager in the Houston Astros’ organization. He later joined the Milwaukee Brewers as an area scout and also worked for Major League Baseball’s Scouting Bureau as a national crosschecker.
Mickey McGowan (Died on March 8 in Georgia; age 81): The tall left-hander made three appearances in the major leagues, pitching for the New York Giants in 1947. He struggled in three and two-thirds innings, posting an ERA of 7.36. McGowan had been a successful pitcher in the minor leagues, winning a league-leading 22 games for Atlanta of the Southern Association in 1946.
Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books. Markusen has also written The Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great One.
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