The American League pennant the Oakland A's carried bravely into the World Series last weekend was a tattered standard. The A's paid dearly for it in bone and muscle and mental anguish, but what they got in return, the experts were now saying, was second-class merchandise. Even the dimmest of baseball followers knew that this had been a National League season.
The National League plays its games in zillion-dollar concrete palaces with wall-to-wall carpeting, upholstered furniture and sweeping views of rivers and lakes and bays and oceans. The American League performs in tenement buildings slapped together at the time of the first Roosevelt Administration—Teddy's, not Franklin's—and on fields of common grass and dirt. The National League has all the superstars, the batting averages, the stolen bases, the home runs and the crowds. American League stars—such as they are—are merely recycled National Leaguers.
So the thinking went when the A's, bone weary from their harrowing playoff series with the tenacious Detroit Tigers, trooped into Cincinnati. The Athletics were good enough players, sure, but they were—excuse the phrase—American Leaguers. "If I said the American League was as good as the National League," said the Reds' outspoken manager, Sparky Anderson, "I'd be lying. Yes, Oakland could come over and play in our league and maybe Boston. But they're the only ones."
"People ask me every year if I'll get my 200 hits," said the Reds' equally outspoken leadoff hitter, Pete Rose. "Now how many players get asked that question in the American League?"
Even the A's were inclined to concede the argument. Their captain, Sal Bando, agreed that National League players were more aggressive, both at bat and on the bases. "Maybe," he said, puzzling it out, "we're too buddy-buddy in our league."
Slugger Reggie Jackson went further. "The National League," he said, "has more depth, better personnel overall and more good young black players. We just don't have an Earl Williams or a Rennie Stennett in our league."
The American Leaguers did have, until last week, the same Reggie Jackson who hit 25 home runs during the season and acted as a kind of spiritual leader of the A's. In the final game of the playoff series, Jackson tore up the muscles of his left leg sliding home with one of the two runs. "Imagine someone reaching inside your leg," he said, recapturing the awful moment, "and just pulling everything apart."
As partial compensation, Shortstop Bert Campaneris, who had been suspended for throwing a bat at Detroit Pitcher Lerrin LaGrow, was ruled eligible for the Series. Still, the A's chances against a team as swift and powerful as the Reds did not seem promising.
So what happened? The A's—playing without their home-run hitter, away from home and on an unfamiliar artificial surface—whipped the Reds 3-2 and 2-1 in the first two games and pressed on to Oakland and God's green grass.
The Reds were undone by the A's formidable pitching—Ken Holtzman, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue and Jim (Catfish) Hunter (see cover) for openers—and by some extraordinary defensive plays, one, a catch by Joe Rudi in left field that ranks with the best in Series history. Finally they were undone by a National League weapon, the home run.
As the Series got under way, the A's pitching strategy was simple: to force the Reds out of their game. That game was to get one or all of the first three hitters on base so that Johnny Bench could drive them home. The unholy three—Rose, Joe Morgan and Bobby Tolan—scored a total of 317 runs during the year. Bench, hitting behind them, drove in his major league-leading 125 runs.
But in those first two Series games the three scored no runs, and they were on base only five times out of 25 tries. Worse yet, RBI man Bench was maneuvered into being the leadoff hitter in six different innings. As Rose observed, "We don't make money when Bench is hitting with nobody on."
The A's quick start had once-sheepish American League partisans walking erect, speaking up in public places and generally carrying on as if they were born equal. But in reality, neither the Reds nor the A's demonstrated much pizzazz on the opening weekend. Both had been driven to the limit of their resources in the five-game playoffs, and the experience left them a little limp, even for an event like the World Series.
"It just seems like everybody has a blah feeling," said Cincinnati Pitcher Ross Grimsley, loser of the second Series game. "Everybody is all drained."
"After Detroit," said Bando, "this just seems like the regular season. I came in here feeling as if a 5,000-pound weight had been taken off my back." "This game," said the A's Mike Epstein, "is the easiest we've had in seven days."
Whither the old Series magic, the autumn madness, as they used to say? Well, it struck the A's Gene Tenace in the first game and Rudi in the second.
In his first two times at bat in a World Series, Tenace hit home runs over the left-field fence to account for all of the A's scoring. He is the only man in Series history to hit homers his first two times up. Who knows how he did it. He hit only five homers during the whole season.
"You've got to hand it to him," said Reds Pitcher Gary Nolan, his victim on both occasions. "He came in here with five and now he has seven."
Tenace also knocked in the winning run in the climactic playoff game against Detroit. All told, it has been a curious year for this sturdy young catcher. He did not even become a starter until the season was nearly over, having languished on the bench while Dave Duncan did the catching. He and Duncan had gone into spring training as equals, although Duncan soon moved past him. But after a fast start—he had 14 home runs by the All-Star break—Duncan fell into a relentless slump and Tenace was summoned from oblivion.
Apparently secure at last, he was to become the innocent dupe of overthink in the Detroit playoffs. Manager Dick Williams has this obsession about second basemen. Because of a succession of injuries, he was without second basemen for so long that when he finally found himself with a surplus at season's end, he determined to play them all in nearly every game. On several occasions he used three or four or even five in the same game. Against Detroit, in fact, he used so many that he ran out of them. Tenace, a former infielder, twice was brought out from behind the plate to play second. To the surprise of nobody, really, he dropped a throw in the fourth playoff game that nearly cost the A's the pennant. Tenace returned to more natural surroundings in time to win the fifth playoff game and to become the first hero of the '72 World Series.
Rudi has had no such checkered career. He has been a star since opening day and, until the last two weeks of the season, had been a contender for the batting championship of...ahem...the American League.
Rudi, unlike Tenace, was hitless in the opening Series game. In the second, he singled in the first inning off Grimsley and then in the third inning slapped an inside fastball far over the left-field fence. It won the game. And it was Rudi who made sure it stayed won with his ninth-inning dramatics. With Tony Perez on first base, the Reds' Denis Menke hit a line drive to left field that looked to be either a home run or at least a run-scoring double. Rudi, a skilled outfielder as well as hitter, ran quickly to the wooden fence, then leaped against it, glove outstretched. He and the ball arrived at the same spot simultaneously. He seemed to hang in the air in a spread-eagle posture for moments before tumbling down with the ball clutched in the very tip of his glove.
Asked afterward to appraise the catch, Williams said he would rate it over those made by the Dodgers' Al Gionfriddo off Joe DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium in the 1947 Series and by—Oh, sacrilige!—Willie Mays off Detroit's Vic Wertz at the Polo Grounds in 1954.
Rudi's spectacular save was immediately followed by a diving play by reserve First Baseman Mike Hegan on Cesar Geronimo's hard drive near the base. In the American League they play "dee-fense."
Lefthander Holtzman was the winning pitcher in the first game and Hunter in the second, although both required late-inning relief—Holtzman from Fingers and Blue and Hunter from Fingers with two out in the ninth.
Blue's reappearance in the bullpen (he was there in the playoffs) came as a mild surprise, apparently even to Blue, who considered himself a starter in the Series. But Manager Williams said Blue had volunteered to work some in relief, which was certainly a decent gesture considering his distaste for bullpen labor—and maybe for the whole Oakland scene. Blue said he was merely doing his job, as any good sport would. Even as he said it, Blue did not look as happy as a good sport should.
The A's and the Reds are studies in contrast. Oakland Manager Williams sometimes works in mysterious ways. He has the second-base hangup, for one, and he turns to a pinch-running specialist, Allan Lewis, who is called—mostly by Team Owner Charles O. Finley—the Panamanian Express. The Express ran on schedule in both Series games and both times he was derailed by perfect throws by Bench. But even with these mild fetishes, Williams runs a club solid in fundamentals. With their Wednesday Night Bowling Club uniforms, flowing manes and bristling mustaches, the A's only look odd. They are really quite an orthodox baseball team.
The Reds are neatly barbered and clean-shaven and their uniforms are so timelessly conventional that they could as well have been worn by the Reds of Bill McKechnie. And Manager Anderson is content with one second baseman—Morgan, who is only the best.
The Reds like to play a gambling game on the bases. It is their boast that they "make things happen," and they do. They led both leagues with 140 stolen bases—53 more than the A's, who are not notably pokey. Morgan, who stole 58, is the style setter.
"I know how long it takes me to get from first to third," Morgan says. "I know, too, when it will take a perfectly accurate throw to get me. And how often do you see those? There are so many things they can do wrong that I think I've got the advantage every time."
The problem, at least in the beginning, was getting to first base. It is a difficulty painfully familiar to teams in the...ahem...American League. Now the Reds have it.
"I looked at those ERAs," Rose said of his pitching opponents in the Series, "and I don't care if you're pitching for the Rhode Island Reds in the Chicken League, a good ERA is a good ERA."
In the Chicken League or even the American League.