1971: Baseball in The 1970s and The Stunning Season of Vida Blue
Students and fans of the game have argued that in the 1970s, baseball was the best it has ever been. I am not qualified to comment on that. What I can say with confidence is that by far some of the greatest teams ever assembled played in the 1970s and that several of these great teams were in cities that would come as a shock to a fan of the game today. Because many of these teams will be critical to the articles to come, I feel it’s worth discussing them.
The most dominant team in baseball during the decade were Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles. Their three year tenure of 1969–1971 was by far the pinnacle of Weaver’s tenure as manager but they would be a force throughout the decade, compiling the best record of any team in either league.
After being upset by the Miracle Mets in 1969, the Orioles came back to win 108 games the following year and sweep through both the Minnesota Twins in the Divisional Series, then take the overmatched Cincinnati Reds in five games for their second World Championship in five years. They would win four more AL East Titles the rest of the decade and two more pennants and would always be at the top of the standings.
The Orioles and the A’s would be fighting against each other for the next four years for AL prominence (we’ll be dealing with those battles in detail in both this article and the ones to come) and the Orioles would always be built on power, defense and pitching. The Orioles had one of the greatest three-men rotations in the history of baseball: Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer. Ironically at the start of the decade Palmer, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, was considered the weak link in the bunch, due to an arm injury that had taken him out of action for the better part of two seasons. In 1970, he had ‘only’ won 20 games which seems minor compared to the work of his teammates who won 24 games apiece. Cuellar had tied with Denny McClain for the Cy Young award in 1969 and McNally would one year win 23 consecutive games.
At the start of the decade, the Orioles were, of course, known for the Robinsons: Frank, who even at thirty-five was still one of the most dominant hitters in baseballs and Brooks, probably the greatest third baseman in the history of the game, certainly from a defensive perspective. Mark Belanger, the definition of good-field, absolutely no-hit, was their shortstop and Boog Powell held down first base. Powell had won the AL MVP in 1970.
When Frank was traded in 1971 (we’ll get to that) and Brooks began to decline at the plate, the O’s wouldn’t quite be as dominant. Rather they would spend the decade fighting it out in the AL East, which would feature superb play from the rebuilding Boston Red Sox, the aging but still talented Tigers and a newly resurgent Yankees. All three of these team would play a critical role in the A’s dynasty in different ways.
In the National League, the dominant player would be Sparky Anderson’s Big Red Machine, which had almost as good a record in baseball as the O’s did, winning six NL West Division Titles, four pennants and two World Championship. Their offensive lineup is one of the most storied of all time and it would dominate the NL MVP race for the 1970s with four different Reds winning seven MVPs. Two of them, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan are among the greatest to ever play at catcher and second base, both defensively and offensively. Pete Rose is, of course, the all-time hits leader who was beloved in Cincinnati and would also face the ultimate disgrace. George Foster would be one of the most undervalued offensive players in the decade, hitting 52 home runs in 1977, the only player in the entire decade to hit 50 or more. The infield was anchored by the incomparable Tony Perez. Their offense, sadly, did not have a comparable pitching staff which led Anderson to earn another nickname, ‘Captain Hook’ for the frequency he substituted pitchers in every game.
For all the Reds dominance they would spend much of the decade in competition with a resurgent Los Angeles Dodgers. The team had collapsed when Sandy Koufax had retired at the end of the 1966 season but by the start of the 1970s they were rebuilding into one of the better teams of the decade. The Dodgers and Reds would spend the decade fighting for dominance in the NL West, with the Dodgers taking three NL West titles, all of which led to Pennants. They would slowly build one of the greatest infield of all time led by Ron Cey at third base, Steve Garvey at first and Davy Lopes at second. While their offense would never quite by the equal of the Reds, they were superior when it came to pitching helped by such stalwarts as Don Sutton, Andy Messersmith and Tommy John and the unparalleled relief work of Mike Marshall. Both of these teams would be critical to the A’s fortunes over the years.
Often forgotten by the power of these juggernauts was that baseball in the 1970s may have been the greatest time ever to be a fan if you lived in Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Pirates were about to have one of the quietest dynasties of all time, winning six NL East titles during the decade. Anderson himself once considered that the Pirates of that era would one day be remembered alongside the Yankees teams of the 1920s and 1930s and while that was not the case, he wasn’t just speaking in hyperbole.
The Pirates may have been the most balanced team of the decade. They had a superb offense, led at the start of the decade by the peerless Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell in the outfield. Two of the most underrated players of all time, Al Oliver and Dave Parker would be playing right field and different times. Oliver would win three batting titles and hit .304 lifetime; Parker was a superb defensive outfielder and a great power hitter. Defensively their infield was superb and unlike the Reds, they had consistently good pitching. At the start of the decade, they were led by such capable workhorses as Dock Ellis, Steve Blass and Nelson Briles as well as the solid reliever Dave Giusti. They got to the World Series twice in the 1970s and both times would defeat the Orioles in seven games.
During the middle of the decade, the Philadelphia Phillies, having spent the 20th century being the joke of baseball were about to become another undervalued dynasty. Steve Carlton would become arguably the greatest pitcher of the decade winning four Cy Young Awards after being traded from St. Louis. They would have a superb double play combo of Dave Cash and Larry Bowa and were about to get a third baseman named Mike Schmidt. By the mid-1970s Phillies fans would be coming to the ballpark to cheer, not boo as the Phillies would manage to win six division titles and two NL Pennants between 1976 and 1983, and in 1980 finally win their first World Championship.
This brings us to the AL West of the 1970s and perhaps one reason the A’s may never have been considered as great as they were. While in all of the other divisions it was not uncommon for at least one winner every season to win 100 games or more, the A’s were never at the same level. Indeed, their best season was in 1971 when they won 101 games, the only time they ever won that many as a dynasty. (They wouldn’t win more than that until their 1988 season.) Their records for a dynasty are not particularly strong; indeed in 1974, they won the AL West with just 90 wins.
Many thought the AL West was the weakest of the four divisions and there is something to be said for that. As we shall see in each of the AL Pennants they won, the second place finisher in each division was the only team to finish over .500 that year. And while many teams did have many great players, none of them could ever gel the way the A’s did and make it work. This factor, along with the bad publicity that followed Finley and the A’s throughout Oakland and the American League, is at least part of the reason they were never respected at the time. As time went on the A’s players would wear this as a badge of an honor: it would be the A’s against the world and against Finley — and as we shall see very soon, often against each other.
Two separate factors started the A’s going in 1971. It is worth noting that by 1971 the A’s were Finley’s team almost literally. Finley was such an absolute horror to work for. The director his farm system quit his first month working for Finley. Soon after the vice president , traveling secretary, sales manager and much of the scouts would quit or were fired. Not long after, he dispensed with a general manager, taking the role himself. Within just a few years, the A’s front office had exactly seven people. You get the feeling Finley would have just as soon managed the team himself, but he had to know that his players were young enough and strong enough to kill him if they had to deal with him on a daily basis. In 1971, he found a manger capable of dealing with both him and his team: Dick Williams.
Williams had led the Boston Red Sox to their 1967 Impossible Dream his rookie year as a manager. A steely authoritarian who had drilled discipline into a last place team the year before, he was fired halfway through the 1969 season. Williams knew very well what he was getting into when he joined the A’s but he thought he could handle it. It’s worth noting he was the only manager of the A’s who dealt with Finley on his own terms.
From the start of the 1971 season Williams made this rowdy, undiscipline team capable of realizing their full potential, something his team appreciated, even though he was far from pleasant when it came to defeat. Six games into the season, the A’s were 2–4.
Going back to Oakland for their first road trip, they stopped in Milwaukee. Before they left the bus, the traveling secretary told Williams that a bullhorn, essential for the safety of the flight, had been stolen. Williams saw this as an offense.
“Gentleman,” he said calmly. “Some of you think you can be pricks. I have news for you. I can be the biggest prick of all.” Then he told they were not leaving until the megaphone was returned. Immediately, it clattered to the pavement outside. No one accepted responsibility. “Gentlemen,” he said again. “I have no small fines. I would suggest you stay in your rooms the entire road trip.”
Williams had dealt with Red Sox players going over his head to owner Tom Yawkey when he was managing their and he knew that Finley knew everything that went on in the ballpark. There were players occasionally ratted to Finley, though no one knew who. Williams made it very clear he knew this: “If you’ve got an f — ing problem, call Charlie. I have five or six phone numbers where you can reach him…some of you have them. But he ain’t here — I am — and you better live with it.”
Every previous manager had to deal with Finley’s utter determination to control exactly what happened on the field. Perhaps Williams got away with what he did because the A’s started to win immediately afterwards. The next day, Rollie Fingers threw a four hitter. Vida Blue followed up with a two-hitter. The A’s won 12 of their next 13, grabbed first place and never let it go.
Of course the real story of 1971 was Vida Blue. Blue had lost Opening Day to the Washington Senators, 8–0. He won his next ten games. By early May, he was being compared to Sandy Koufax. “Funny,” the 21 year old African-American said. “I don’t look Jewish.” He was pitching like him, however. By July 1971, he was 17–3 and leading both leagues in wins, shutouts, strikeouts and ERA. He did not seem human.
The 1971 All-Star Game was, naturally, started by Blue. However, it would be remembered for other reasons. Both lineups had a combined thirty-four Hall of Famers. Dock Ellis, the Pirates ace started against Blue, the first time two African-American pitchers had started an All-Star Game. The American League beat the National League 6–4 in a game where every run was accounted for by a home run by a future Hall of Famer.
Blue, who’d pitched two innings and eleven inning shutout four days earlier, was not at his best: he gave up home runs to Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron in his three innings of pitching. But while Ellis got through the first two innings fine, he melted down in the third.
Reggie Jackson pinch hit for Blue with a runner on. He hit a homerun that went anywhere between 520 and 550 feet before it hit the light tower at Tigers Stadium. Everyone wondered how far it would have gone if it hadn’t rocketed off it; Pete Rose remembering it years later said simply: “That ball would have gone out of Yellowstone. “
Frank Robinson hit a two-run homer to follow it up, putting the American League ahead. Harmon Killebrew added to the lead with a two run blast off Ferguson Jenkins. Roberto Clemente would narrow the gap with a home run off Mickey Lolich but the American League held on to win 6–4. Blue got the win.
Jackson had rebounded in 1971; his 32 home runs were tied for second place in the American League and just one behind Bill Melton of the White Sox. The A’s were a threat offensively; 7 of the 8 regulars managed double digits in home runs and the one who didn’t Bert Campaneris was a threat on the bases, stealing 34. The A’s were second in the American League in home runs, trailing only the powerful Red Sox and second in pitching only to Baltimore. However by mid-July Blue began to run out of gas. While many had thought early in the season he could win 30 games, after he managed to get to 20 in August 7, he only managed to win four more the rest of the year. As a result while Blue’s season was spectacular by today’s standard, he didn’t quite do as well in the American League. Mickey Lolich, one of the workhorses for the Tigers, went 25–14, and led the league in strikeouts with 308 and an incredible 376 innings pitched.
But no one denied who the best pitcher in baseball that year was. In his first full season Blue had gone 24–8, struck out 301, thrown eight shutouts and 24 complete games and had a miniscule 1.82 earned run average. He became only the third player in major league. In the aftermath of the 1971 season, he would win both the American League Cy Young Award and the MVP, the fifth pitcher to do both. Don Newcombe, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson and Denny McClain were the four previous winners of both.
Almost unnoticed was Catfish Hunter having his own breakout season, going 21–11 with sixteen complete games. The A’s won the AL West by an incredible 16 games over Kansas City.
You would think this would have made Finley happy. It did not. The A’s had become the first team in history to draw a million fans on the road but they didn’t even come close to 900,000 at home. When this became clear, Finley canceled Fan Appreciation Day and banned the team from attending a civic luncheon given in their honor. The A’s fan base reacted with only 2660 attending the final two home games of the season.
The A’s were facing off against the Baltimore Orioles. Ostensibly they should have been evenly matched. Like the A’s the Orioles had won 101 games that year and had the exact same balance of offense and pitching. The problem was while the A’s had two pitching juggernauts; the Orioles had four. In what would be the second and likely last time in baseball history, the O’s had four twenty game winners, not just Cuellar, McNally and Palmer, but also Pat Dobson. They had also won the last eleven games of their season and had swept Minnesota the previous two division series.
Blue went up against McNally in Game 1 and Blue held a 3–1 lead until the seventh, when a four run rally climaxed by a double by Paul Blair put them ahead 5–3 and gave the first win.
In Game 2, Hunter and Cuellar both pitched complete games. Hunter gave up seven hits, but four of them were home runs, two of them by Boog Powell. That would have been enough as Cuellar only gave up seven.
The A’s were out of pitching by the time they came back to Oakland, with Blue Moon Odom and Chuck Dobson (Pat’s brother) suffering through injuries. Left with journeyman Diego Segui, the A’s had little chance against Jim Palmer. Palmer gave up two home runs to Jackson and one to Bando but threw his third complete game Division series victory to win 5–3.
The A’s played Game 3 with 17,000 empty seats. Strangely enough they had played to half-empty seats in Baltimore as well. Despite the superb play of the Orioles in the 1970s, they would periodically be among the lowest draws in the American League and play their division games to half empty stadiums.
The A’s mourned their loss, none harder than Jackson who was playing in his first postseason. Still the A’s knew this had been a learning process and that their youth and inexperience was exposed. Even Finley was magnanimous in defeat giving each player five mementos, all inscribed with the logo 1971 A’s World Series.
During the World Series, which Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh in seven games, an idea Finley had been pitching for over a decade finally unfolded. Game 4 was the first World Series to ever be played at night. Finley had argued strongly that the average man did not have the time to watch the World Series in the afternoon where it had always been played and that this would be a boon to the game.
Bowie Kuhn, by far Finley’s greatest adversary gave in and it would slowly end up being that the entire World Series would be played in prime time. Since that time, sportswriters and purists have decried how much America had lost now that the greatest of all postseasons is now being played at night when the ‘kids’ can’t watch it. As one such ‘kid’ who grew up as it was becoming a fact of life I think this was a rare case of Major League Baseball having to change to accept reality. It has always struck me as a flawed idea that millions of children could grow up in America and go home while the greatest of games was being played. This might have worked in a pre-expansion era, but by the 1960s night baseball was becoming necessary for the game to exist in the modern era, much less thrive. The idea that students would be able to enjoy a game while listening to the radio in schools is charming, but it’s not plausible for the 1970s and 1980s, much less the age of the internet. (I also find it doubtful that so many children were watching baseball in the daytime before.)
Baseball is a game that opposes change, even when it might help it survive in the modern era. Finley in many ways did see the future of the game and had ideas that were revolutionary. Many of them baseball adopted reluctantly and they helped improve the game. Others were far poorer idea, which Finley insisted on carrying out. We’ll be dealing with some of each in the articles to come.
In the next article we will deal with the 1972 A’s which brought out the best in the team and the worst in Finley. The difference was that horribleness was about to become exposed nationwide.