Oakland As Tailgating
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Oakland As Tailgating
The history of the Athletics Major League Baseball franchise spans the period from 1901 to the present day, having begun in Philadelphia before moving to Kansas City in 1955 and then to its current home in Oakland, California, in 1968.
Kansas City (1955–1967)
The Johnson era
In 1954, Chicago real estate magnate Arnold Johnson bought the Philadelphia Athletics and moved them to Kansas City. Although he was initially a hero for making Kansas City a major-league town, it soon became apparent that he was motivated more by profit than any regard for the baseball fans of Kansas City. He had long been a business associate of New York Yankees owners Dan Topping, Larry MacPhail and Del Webb, and had even bought Yankee Stadium in 1953, though the league owners forced Johnson to sell the property before acquiring the Athletics. He’d also bought Blues Stadium in Kansas City, home of the Yankees’ top farm team, the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. After Johnson got permission to move the A’s to Kansas City, he sold Blues Stadium to the city, which renamed it Kansas City Municipal Stadium and leased it back to Johnson. The lease gave Johnson a three-year escape clause if the team failed to draw one million or more customers per season. The subsequent lease signed in 1960 also contained an escape clause if the team failed to draw 850,000 per season.
Normally, Johnson would have had to pay the Yankees an indemnity for moving to Kansas City, and also would have had to reimburse the Yankees for the costs they incurred for moving the Blues to Denver to make way for the A’s. Major-league rules of the time gave the Yankees the major-league rights to Kansas City. However, the Yankees waived these payments as soon as the purchase was approved. This, combined with the Yankees’ thinly concealed support for the sale, led to rumors of collusion between Johnson and the Yankees.
Rumors abounded that Johnson’s real motive was to operate the Athletics in Kansas City for a few years, then move the team to Los Angeles (the Brooklyn Dodgers would move there after the 1957 season). Whatever the concern about the move to Kansas City, fans turned out in record numbers for the era. In 1955, the Kansas City Athletics drew 1,393,054 to Municipal Stadium, a club record easily surpassing the previous record of 945,076 in 1948; in fact, it was the third-highest attendance figure in the majors, behind only the all-powerful Yankees and the recently relocated Milwaukee Braves. That number would never be approached again while the team was in Kansas City, and would remain the club record for attendance until 1982—the Athletics’ 15th season in Oakland. This was mainly because the A’s were barely competitive; in five years under Johnson’s ownership, the closest they got to a winning record was 1958, when they finished 73-81, eight games below .500 and 19 games out of first.
Johnson’s previous business ties to the Yankees resulted in several trades between the Athletics and the Bronx Bombers that helped keep the New York dynasty afloat. Invariably, any good young A’s player was traded to the Yankees for aging veterans and cash. Over the years, Johnson would trade such key players as Roger Maris, Bobby Shantz, Héctor López, Clete Boyer, Art Ditmar and Ralph Terry to New York; in return, he did receive some talented younger players such as Norm Siebern and Jerry Lumpe, and the cash helped the team pay the bills. However, with few exceptions, the trades were heavily weighted in favor of the Yankees. This led to accusations from fans, reporters and even other teams that Johnson ran the A’s as a Yankee farm team at the major-league level; ironic, since the old Kansas City Blues were indeed the Yankees’ top affiliate from 1936-54.
On December 19, 1960, Charles “Charlie” O. Finley purchased a controlling interest in the team from Johnson’s estate after losing out to Johnson six years earlier in Philadelphia. He bought out the minority owners a year later. Finley promised the fans a new day. In a highly publicized move, he purchased a bus, pointed it in the direction of New York, and burned it to symbolize the end of the “special relationship” with the Yankees. He called another press conference to burn the existing lease at Municipal Stadium which included the despised “escape clause.” He spent over $400,000 of his own money in stadium improvements (though in 1962 the city reimbursed $300,000 of this). He introduced new uniforms which had “Kansas City” on the road uniforms for the first time ever and an interlocking “KC” on the cap. This was the first time the franchise had acknowledged its home city on its uniforms. He announced, “My intentions are to keep the A’s permanently in Kansas City and build a winning ball club. I have no intention of ever moving the franchise.” The fans, in turn, regarded Finley as the savior of Major League Baseball in Kansas City.
Finley immediately hired Frank Lane, a veteran baseball man with a reputation as a prolific trader, as general manager. Lane began engineering trades with several other teams, including the Yankees, the bus-burning stunt notwithstanding. Lane lasted less than one year, being fired during the 1961 season. He was temporarily replaced by Pat Friday, whose sole qualification for the job was that he managed one of Finley’s insurance offices. On paper, Friday remained general manager until 1965, when he was replaced by Hank Peters. After only a year, Peters was fired and replaced by Eddie Lopat, who also lasted only one season. After Lopat’s ouster in 1966, the team had no formal general manager until 1981. In fact, Friday and Peters were mere figureheads. With the firing of Lane in 1961, Finley effectively became a one-man band as owner, president and de facto general manager, and would remain so for the duration of his ownership.
Finley made further changes to the team’s uniforms. The Philadelphia Athletics wore blue and white or black and gray outfits through most of their history;; in the last years in Philadelphia and the first in Kansas City, the team used a red, white and navy blue scheme. In 1963, Finley changed the team’s colors to “Kelly Green, Fort Knox Gold and Wedding Gown White”. In June 1963, Bill Bryson wrote of the uniforms,
Kelly green is the Athletics’ accent color. It was more a nauseous green the players wore on their wholesome, clean-cut faces the first few times they had to appear in public looking like refugees from a softball league.
Finley replaced Mack’s elephant with a Missouri mule—not just a cartoon logo, but a real mule, which he named after himself: “Charlie O, the Mule.” He also began phasing out the team name “Athletics” in favor of simply, “A’s.” Some of his other changes—for instance, his repeated attempts to mimic Yankee Stadium’s famous right-field “home run porch”—were less successful. AL President Joe Cronin ordered Finley to remove the fence which duplicated the 296-foot right-field foul line in Yankee Stadium. Smarting from this draconian ukase, Finley had his PA announcer comment “That would have been a home run in Yankee Stadium” whenever a fly ball passed the limit in Municipal Stadium’s outfield. That practice ended quickly, however, when it was apparent that other teams were hitting more “would-be” home runs than the A’s.
While the A’s were still dreadful in the first eight years of Finley’s ownership, he began to lay the groundwork for a future contender. Finley poured resources into the minor league system for the first time in the history of the franchise. Mack never spent money on developing a farm system, which was a major reason his teams fell from contenders to cellar-dwellers so quickly. When Johnson bought the team in 1955, the A’s had only three full-time scouts. While Johnson tried to make improvements, he wasn’t willing to pay the bonuses necessary to get top talent. However, Finley steadily built up the team’s farm system until by 1966, it was one of the best in the majors. He was assisted by the creation of the baseball draft in 1965, which forced young prospects to sign with the team that drafted them—at the price offered by the team—if they wanted to play professional baseball. Thus, Finley was spared from having to compete with wealthier teams for top talent. The Athletics, owners of the worst record in the American League in 1964, had the first pick in the first draft, selecting Rick Monday on June 8, 1965.
Finley looks for a way out
Almost as soon as the ink dried on his purchase of the Athletics, Finley began shopping the Athletics to other cities despite his promises that the A’s would remain in Kansas City. Soon after the lease-burning stunt, it was discovered that what actually burned was a blank boilerplate commercial lease available at any stationery store. The actual lease was still in force—including the escape clause. Finley later admitted he had no intention of rewriting the lease, that the whole thing was a publicity stunt.
In 1961 and 1962, Finley talked to people in the Dallas-Fort Worth and a four-man group appeared before American League owners, but no formal motion was put forward to move the team away from Kansas City. In January 1964, he signed an agreement to move the A’s to Louisville, promising to change the team’s name to the “Kentucky Athletics”. (Other names suggested for the team were the “Louisville Sluggers” and “Kentucky Colonels,” which would’ve allowed the team to keep the letters “KC” on their uniforms.) By another 9–1 vote his request was denied. Six weeks later, by the same 9–1 margin, the A.L. owners denied Finley’s request to move the team to Oakland.
These requests came as no surprise, as impending moves to these cities, as well as to Atlanta, Milwaukee, New Orleans, San Diego and Seattle— all of which Finley had considered as new homes for the Athletics — had long been afloat. He also threatened to move the A’s to a “cow pasture” in Peculiar, Missouri, complete with temporary grandstands. Not surprisingly, attendance tailed off. Finally, American League President Joe Cronin persuaded Finley to sign a four-year lease with Municipal Stadium.
Then on October 18, 1967, A.L. owners at last gave Finley permission to move the Athletics to Oakland for the 1968 season. According to some reports, Cronin promised Finley that he could move the team after the 1967 season as an incentive to sign the new lease with Municipal Stadium. The move came in spite of approval by voters in Jackson County, Missouri of a bond issue for a brand new baseball stadium (the eventual Kauffman Stadium) to be completed in 1973. Then-U.S. Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri blasted Finley on the floor of the Senate, calling Oakland “the luckiest city since Hiroshima.” When Symington threatened to have baseball’s antitrust exemption revoked, the owners responded with a hasty round of expansion. Kansas City was awarded an American League expansion team, the Royals. They were initially slated to begin play in 1971. However, Symington was not willing to have Kansas City wait three years for another team, and renewed his threat to have baseball’s antitrust exemption revoked unless the teams began play in 1969. The owners complied.
During the Johnson years, the Athletics’ home attendance averaged just under one million per season, respectable numbers for the era, especially in light of the team’s dreadful on-field performance. In contrast, during the years of Finley’s ownership, the team averaged under 680,000 per year in Kansas City. According to baseball writer Rob Neyer (a native of the Kansas City area), this was largely because Finley tried to sell baseball tickets like he sold insurance. Just before the 1960 season, he mailed brochures to 600,000 people in the area, and only made $20,000 in ticket sales. During their 13-year stay in Kansas City, their overall record was 829–1,224, for a winning percentage of .404.
The Emergence of a Powerhouse (1968–1970)
The Athletics’ Oakland tenure opened with a 3-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on April 17, 1968. They played all of their home games at the recently opened Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. The Athletics drew national attention when, on May 8, 1968, Jim “Catfish” Hunter pitched a perfect game (the American League’s first since 1922) against the Minnesota Twins. The young Athletics, under the leadership of manager Bob Kennedy, ended the 1968 campaign with an 82-80 record. The record, while pedestrian to some (the A’s finished some 21 games behind the AL ChampionDetroit Tigers), represented a breakthrough of sorts for the Athletics; it was their first winning record since 1952 (in Philadelphia). The team’s output also represented a 20-win increase over theprior year’s 62-99 finish. Despite this huge jump in performance, Kennedy was not retained for the 1969 season; Finley summarily fired him after he requested a contract extension.
The Athletics began the 1969 season under the leadership of Hank Bauer. On July 20, 1969, future ace Vida Blue made his major league debut. The Athletics’ on-field performance continued to improve; led by Reggie Jackson‘s 47 home runs, the A’s finished the season with a record of 88-74. This was good enough for second place (behind the Minnesota Twins) in the newly created American League West division. This improvement, though, was not enough for Finley, however; Hank Bauer was fired (and replaced with John McNamara near the end of the season. The team’s record stood at 80-69 at the time of his firing. McNamara himself would be fired following an 89-73 finish in 1970. He was replaced by former Boston Red Sox manager Dick Williams.
The Third Dynasty (1971–1975)
The Athletics, following two consecutive second-place finishes, would finally claim the division crown in 1971. The A’s would win 101 games (their first 100-win season since finishing 107-45 in1931. However, they lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series. In 1972, the A’s won their first league pennant since 1931 and faced the Cincinnati Reds in theWorld Series.
That year, the A’s began wearing solid green or solid gold jerseys, with contrasting white pants, at a time when most other teams wore all-white uniforms at home and all-grey ones on the road. Similar to more colorful amateur softball uniforms, they were considered a radical departure for their time. Furthermore, in conjunction with a Moustache Day promotion, Finley offered $300 to any player who grew a moustache by Father’s Day, at a time when every other team forbade facial hair. When Father’s Day arrived, every member of the team collected a bonus. The 1972 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds was termed “The Hairs vs. the Big Squares,” as the Reds wore more traditional uniforms and required their players to be clean-shaven and short-haired. A contemporaneous book about the team was called Mustache Gang. The A’s seven-game victory over the heavily favored Reds gave the team its first World Series Championship since 1930.
They defended their title in 1973 and 1974. Unlike Mack’s champions, who thoroughly dominated their opposition, the A’s teams of the 1970s played well enough to win their division (which was usually known as the “American League Least” during this time). They then defeated teams that had won more games during the regular season with good pitching, good defense, and clutch hitting. Finley called this team the “Swingin’ A’s.” Players such as Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and Vida Blue formed the nucleus of these teams.
The players often said in later years that they played so well as a team because almost to a man, they hated Finley with a passion. For instance, Finley threatened to pack Jackson off to the minors in 1969 after Jackson hit 47 homers; Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had to intervene in their contract dispute. Kuhn intervened again after Blue won the A.L. Cy Young Award in 1971 and Finley threatened to send him to the minors. Finley’s tendency for micromanaging his team actually dated to the team’s stay in Kansas City. Among the more notable incidents during this time was a near-mutiny in 1967; Finley responded by releasing the A’s best hitter, Ken Harrelson, who promptly signed with the Red Sox and helped lead them to the pennant.
The Athletics’ victory over the New York Mets in the 1973 Series was marred by Finley’s antics. Finley forced Mike Andrews to sign a false affidavit saying he was injured after the reserve second baseman committed two consecutive errors in the 12th inning of the A’s Game Two loss to the Mets. When other team members, manager Dick Williams, and virtually the entire viewing public rallied to Andrews’ defense, Kuhn forced Finley to back down. However, there was nothing that said the A’s had to play Andrews. Andrews entered Game 4 in the eighth inning as a pinch-hitter to a standing ovation from sympathetic Mets fans. He promptly grounded out, and Finley ordered him benched for the remainder of the Series. Andrews never played another major league game. As it was, the incident allowed the Mets, a team that went but 82–79 during the regular season, to go seven games before losing to a superior team. Williams was so disgusted by the affair that he resigned after the Series. Finley retaliated by vetoing Williams’ attempt to become manager of the Yankees. Finley claimed that since Williams still owed Oakland the last year of his contract, he could not manage anywhere else. Finley relented later in 1974 and allowed Williams to take over as manager of the California Angels.
After the Athletics’ victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1974 Series (under Alvin Dark), pitcher Catfish Hunter filed a grievance, claiming that the team had violated its contract with Hunter by failing to make timely payment on an insurance policy during the 1974 season as called for. On December 13, 1974, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in Hunter’s favor. As a result, Hunter became a free agent, and signed a contract with the Yankees for the 1975 season. Despite the loss of Hunter, the A’s repeated as A.L. West champions in 1975, but lost the ALCS to Boston in a 3-game sweep.
Free agency, the dismantling of the A’s, and the end of the Finley years
In 1975, fed up with poor attendance in Oakland during the team’s championship years, Finley thought of moving yet again. When Seattle filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball over the move of the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee, Finley and others came up with an elaborate shuffle which would move the ailing Chicago White Sox to Seattle. Finley then would move the A’s to Chicago, closer to his home in LaPorte, Indiana; and take the White Sox’ place at Comiskey Park. The scheme fell through when White Sox owner John Allyn sold the team to another colorful owner, Bill Veeck, who was not interested in leaving Chicago.
As the 1976 season got underway, the basic rules of player contracts were changing. Seitz had ruled that baseball’s reserve clause only bound players for one season after their contract expired. Thus, all players not signed to multi-year contracts would be eligible for free agency at the end of the 1976 season. The balance of power had shifted from the owners to the players for the first time since the days of the Federal League. Like Mack had done twice before, Finley reacted by trading star players and attempting to sell others. On June 15, 1976, Finley sold left fielder Rudi and relief pitcher Fingers to Boston for $1 million each, and pitcher Blue to the New York Yankees for $1.5 million. Three days later, Kuhn voided the transactions in the “best interests of baseball.” Amid the turmoil, the A’s still finished second in the A.L. West, 2.5 games behind the Royals.
After the 1976 season, most of the Athletics’ veteran players did become eligible for free agency, and predictably almost all left. Several decades and 3,000 miles later, one of baseball’s most storied franchises suffered yet another dismemberment of a dynasty team. As happened with the end of the A’s first dynasty in the early 1900s, the collapse was swift and total. The next three years were as bad as the worst days in Philadelphia or Kansas City, with the A’s finishing last twice and next-to-last once. In 1977, for instance—only three years after winning the World Series and two years after playing for the pennant—the A’s finished with the worst record in the American League, and the second-worst record in baseball. They even trailed the expansion Seattle Mariners (though by only 1/2 game, as one game with the Minnesota Twins was canceled by weather and never made up).
At the end of the 1977 season, Finley attempted to trade Blue to the Reds for a player of lesser stature and cash, but Kuhn vetoed the deal, claiming that it was tantamount to a fire sale similar to the sales he voided a year earlier. He also claimed that adding Blue to the Reds’ already formidable pitching staff would make a mockery of the National League West race. Later, the Commissioner approved a trade of relief pitcher Doug Bair to the Reds in a deal that resembled a true trade. At the same time, Blue was traded across the bay to the San Francisco Giants in a multi-player trade that likewise received the Commissioner’s blessing.
The A’s had never drawn well since moving to Oakland (even during the World Series years), and during the next three years attendance dropped so low that the Coliseum became known as the “Oakland Mausoleum.” At one point during the late 1970s, crowds could be counted in the hundreds. The low point came in 1979, when an April 17 game against the Mariners drew an announced crowd of 653. However, A’s officials claimed the actual attendance was 550, while first baseman Dave Revering thought the crowd was closer to 200. What is beyond dispute is that it was the smallest “crowd” in the West Coast portion of A’s history. The Coliseum’s upkeep also went downhill. The franchise’s rapid deterioration so soon after being the most powerful team in the game led some fans to nickname them “the Triple-A’s.”
Even during their championship years, the A’s had been practically invisible outside of Oakland because they rarely had radio or television contracts. For the first month of the 1978 season, the A’s broadcast their games on KALX, a 10-watt college radio station run by theUniversity of California, Berkeley. KALX was practically unlistenable more than 10 miles from Oakland. At that time, the A’s had a radio network stretching all the way to Hawaii, leading one fan to joke, “Honolulu? How about here?“ In 1979, the A’s didn’t sign a radio contract until the night before opening day. The A’s near-invisibility prompted Oakland and Alameda County to sue Finley and the A’s for breach of contract in 1979.
Finley nearly sold the team to buyers who would have moved them to Mile High Stadium in Denver for the 1978 season and the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans for 1979. Though the American League owners appeared to favor the Denver deal, it fell through when the city of Oakland refused to release the A’s from their lease. The city was in the midst of its battle with the Oakland Raiders over their move to Los Angeles and didn’t want to lose both teams. Not surprisingly, only 306,763 paying customers showed up to watch the A’s in 1979, the team’s worst attendance since leaving Philadelphia.
After three dismal seasons on the field and at the gate, the team started to gel again. In a final masterstroke as owner, Finley hired Berkeley native Billy Martin to manage the young team, led by new young stars Rickey Henderson, Mike Norris, Tony Armas, and Dwayne Murphy. Martin made believers of his young charges, “Billyball” was used to market the team, and the Athletics finished second in 1980.
However, during that same season Finley’s wife sought a divorce and would not accept part of a baseball team in a property settlement. With most of his money tied up in the A’s or his insurance empire, Finley had to sell the team. He agreed in principle to sell to businessman Marvin Davis, who would have moved the Athletics to Denver. However, just before Finley and Davis were due to sign a definitive agreement, the Raiders announced their move to Los Angeles. Oakland and Alameda County officials, not wanting to be held responsible for losing Oakland’s status as a big-league city in its own right, refused to let Finley out of his lease with the Coliseum. Finley then looked to local buyers, selling the A’s to San Francisco clothing manufacturer Walter A. Haas, Jr., president of Levi Strauss & Co. prior to the 1981 season. It would not be the last time that the Raiders directly affected the A’s future.
Local ownership for the Athletics: the Haas era (1981–1995)
Despite winning three World Series and two other A.L. West Division titles, the A’s on-field success did not translate into success at the box office during the Finley Era in Oakland. Average home attendance from 1968–1980 was 777,000 per season, with 1,075,518 in 1975 being the highest attendance for a Finley-owned team. In marked contrast, during the first year of Haas’ ownership, the Athletics drew 1,304,052—in a season shortened by a player strike. Were it not for the strike, the A’s were on a pace to draw over 2.2 million in 1981. This lent credence to the theory that Bay Area residents stayed away from the Coliseum because they didn’t want to give their money to Finley. The A’s lost in the American League Championship Series after winning the “first half” AL West Division title of the strike-interrupted 1981 season. The club finished with the second-best overall record in baseball, and the best record in the American League. Had the season not been split in half, the 1981 A’s would have gone wire-to-wire.
During the 15 years of Haas’ ownership, the Athletics became one of baseball’s most successful teams at the gate, drawing 2,900,217 in 1990, still the club record for single season attendance, as well as on the field. Average annual home attendance during those years (excluding the strike years of 1981 and 1994) was over 1.9 million.
Haas set about changing the team’s image. He ditched Charlie O. as the team mascot, and pictures of Connie Mack and other greats from the Philadelphia days appeared in the team office. The traditional team name “Athletics” was restored immediately, with the new ownership group formally known as “The Oakland Athletics Baseball Company.” While the team colors remained green, gold, and white, the bright Kelly green was replaced with a more subdued forest green. After a 23-year hiatus, the elephant was restored as the club mascot in 1988. The script “Athletics,” which had adorned home and road jerseys from 1954–1960, was returned to home jerseys in 1987.
Under the Haas ownership, the minor league system was rebuilt, which bore fruit later that decade as José Canseco (1986), Mark McGwire (1987), and Walt Weiss (1988) were chosen as A.L. Rookies of the Year. During the 1986 season, Tony La Russa was hired as the Athletics’ manager, a post he held until the end of 1995. In 1987, La Russa’s first full year as manager, the team finished at 81–81, its best record in seven seasons. Beginning in 1988, the Athletics won the A.L. pennant three years in a row. Reminiscent of their Philadelphia predecessors, this A’s team finished with the best record of any team in the major leagues during all 3 years, winning 104 (1988), 99 (1989), and 103 (1990) games, featuring such stars as McGwire, Canseco, Weiss, Rickey Henderson, Carney Lansford, Dave Stewart, and Dennis Eckersley.
During this time, Rickey Henderson shattered Lou Brock‘s modern major league record by stealing 130 bases in a single season (1982), a total which has not been approached since. On May 1, 1991, Henderson broke one of baseball’s most famous records when he stole the 939th base of his career, one more than Brock.
Regular season dominance led to some success in the post-season. The Athletics’ lone World Series championship of the era was a four-game sweep of the cross-bay rival San Francisco Giants in the 1989 World Series. Unfortunately for the A’s, their sweep of the Giants was overshadowed by the Loma Prieta earthquake that occurred at the start of Game 3 before a national television audience. This forced the remaining games to be delayed for several days. When play resumed, the atmosphere was dominated more by a sense of relief than celebration by baseball fans. Heavily favored Athletics teams lost the World Series in both 1988, to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and in 1990, to the Cincinnati Reds. The latter was a shocking four-game sweep reminiscent of the A’s loss to the Boston Braves 76 years earlier. The team began declining, winning the A.L. West championship in 1992 (but losing to Toronto in the ALCS), then finishing last in 1993.
The “Moneyball” years (1996–2004)
Walter Haas died in 1995, and the team was sold to San Francisco Bay Area real estate developers Steve Schott (third cousin to one-time Cincinnati Reds’ owner Marge Schott), silent partner David Etheridge and Ken Hofmann, prior to the 1996 season. Once again, the Athletics’ star players were traded or sold, as the new owners’ goal was to cut payroll drastically. Many landed with the St. Louis Cardinals, including McGwire, Eckersley, and manager La Russa. In a turn of events eerily reminiscent of the A’s Roger Maris trade 38 years before, Mark McGwire celebrated his first full season with the Cardinals by setting a new major league home run record.
The Schott-Hofmann ownership allocated resources to building and maintaining a strong minor league system while almost always refusing to pay the going rate to keep star players on the team once they become free agents. Perhaps as a result, at the turn of the 21st century, the A’s were a team that usually finished at or near the top of the A.L. West Division, but could not advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. The Athletics made the playoffs for four straight years, from 2000 to 2003, but lost their first round (best three-out-of-five) series in each case, 3 games to 2. In two of those years (2001 against the Yankees and 2003 against the Red Sox), the Athletics won the first two games of the series, only to lose the next three straight. In 2001, Oakland became the first team to lose a best-of-five series after winning both of the first two games on the road. In 2004, the A’s missed the playoffs altogether, losing the final series of the season—and the divisional title—to the Anaheim Angels.
This period in Oakland history featured splendid performances from a trio of young starting pitchers: right-hander Tim Hudson and left-handers Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Between 1999 and 2006, the so-called “Big Three” helped the Athletics to emerge into a perennial powerhouse in the American League West, combining for a collective record of 261–131. They gave the Athletics a 1–2–3 punch to add to talented infielders and potent hitters, such as first baseman Jason Giambi, shortstop Miguel Tejada, and third baseman Eric Chavez. Giambi was named American League MVP in 2000, and Tejada won an MVP Award of his own in 2002, a year which also saw Zito win 23 games and the Cy Young Award.
On May 29, 2000, Randy Velarde achieved an unassisted triple play against the Yankees. In the sixth, second baseman Velarde caught Shane Spencer‘s line drive, tagged Jorge Posada running from first to second, and stepped on second before Tino Martinez could return. (Velarde had also pulled off an unassisted triple play during a spring training game that year). This was only the 11th unassisted triple play in the history of Major League Baseball.
The general manager of the Athletics, Billy Beane, has become notable due to Michael Lewis‘s portrayal of Beane’s novel approach to business decisions and scouting, referred to as Moneyball, both the title of the book, and hence the school of baseball business management. The Athletics organization began redefining the way that major league baseball teams evaluate player talent. They began filling their system with players who did not possess traditionally valued baseball “tools” of throwing, fielding, hitting, hitting for power and running. Instead, they drafted for unconventional statistical prowess: on-base percentage for hitters (rather than batting average) and strikeout/walk ratios for pitchers (rather than velocity). These undervalued stats came cheaply. With the sixth-lowest payroll in baseball in 2002, the Oakland Athletics won an American League best 103 games. They spent $41M that season, while the Yankees, who also won 103 games, spent $126M. It should be noted, however, that the aforementioned trio of pitchers, Zito, Mulder, and Hudson, were in large part responsible for the success of the team and were not signed because of “Moneyball” ideas. The Athletics have continually succeeded at winning, and defying market economics, keeping their payroll near the bottom of the league. For example, after the 2004 season, in which the A’s placed second in their division, Beane shocked many by breaking up the Big Three, trading Tim Hudson to the Atlanta Braves and Mark Mulder to the St. Louis Cardinals. To many, the trades appeared bizarre, in that the two pitchers were seen to be at or near the top of their game; however, the decision was perfectly in line with Beane’s business model as outlined in Moneyball. The Mulder trade, to many experts’ surprise, turned into a steal for the Athletics, as little-known starter Dan Haren ended up pitching far better for Oakland than Mulder did for St. Louis.
Also during this time, the Athletics won an American League record 20 games in a row, from August 13 to September 4, 2002. The last three games were won in dramatic fashion, each victory coming in the bottom of the ninth inning. Win number 20 was notable because the A’s, with Tim Hudson pitching, jumped to an 11–0 lead against the AL-cellar dwelling Kansas City Royals, only to slowly give up eleven unanswered runs to lose the lead. Then, Scott Hatteberg, enduring criticism as Jason Giambi’s replacement, hit a pinch-hit home run off Royals closer Jason Grimsley in the bottom of the 9th inning to win 12–11. The streak was snapped two nights later in Minneapolis, the A’s losing 6–0 to the Minnesota Twins. The Major League record for consecutive games without a loss is 26, set by the NL’s New York Giants in 1916. There was a tie game embedded in that streak (ties were not uncommon in the days before stadium lights) and the record for consecutive wins with no ties is 21, held by the Chicago Cubs on their way to the NL pennant in 1935.
The Wolff era (2005–present)
On March 30, 2005, the Athletics were sold to a group headed by real estate developer Lewis Wolff. Wolff, though a Los Angeles businessman, had successfully developed many real estate projects in and around San Jose. The previous ownership had retained Wolff to help them find an adequate parcel on which to construct a new stadium. Because of Wolff’s background, rumors that he wanted to move the team to San Jose surfaced periodically upon his purchase of the team. However, any such plans were always complicated by the claims of the cross-bay San Francisco Giants that they own the territorial rights to San Jose and Santa Clara County.
In 2005, many pundits picked the Athletics to finish last as a result of Beane’s dismantling of the Big Three. At first, the experts appeared vindicated, as the A’s were mired in last place on May 31 with a 19–32 (.373) won-loss record. After that the team began to gel, playing at a .622 clip for the remainder of the season, eventually finishing 88–74 (.543), seven games behind the newly renamed Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and for many weeks seriously contending for the AL West crown.
Pitcher Huston Street was voted the A.L. Rookie of the Year in 2005, the second year in a row an Athletic won that award, shortstop Bobby Crosbyhaving won in 2004. For the fifth straight season, third baseman Eric Chavez won the A.L. Gold Glove Award at that position.
The 2006 season brought the A’s back to the postseason after a three-year absence. After finishing the season at 93–69, four games ahead of theAngels, the A’s were considered the underdog against the highly favored Minnesota Twins. The A’s swept the series 3–0 however, despite having to start on the road and losing second baseman Mark Ellis, who sustained a broken finger after getting hit by a pitch in the second game. Their victory was short-lived though, as the A’s were swept 4–0 by the Detroit Tigers. Manager Ken Macha was fired by Billy Beane on October 16, four days after their loss in the 2006 American League Championship Series. Beane cited a disconnect between him and his players as well as a general unhappiness among the team as the reason for his sudden departure.
Macha was replaced by bench coach and former major league catcher Bob Geren. Following the 2006 season, the A’s also lost ace Barry Zito to theGiants due to free agency. They also lost their DH and MVP candidate Frank Thomas to free agency but filled his role with Mike Piazza for 2007. Piazza, a lifetime National League player, agreed to become a full-time DH for the first time in his career.
The 2007 season was a disappointing season for the A’s as they suffered from injuries to several key players Rich Harden, Huston Street, Eric Chavez, and Mike Piazza. For the first time since the 1998 season, the A’s finished with a losing record.
The Athletics signed international free agent Michael Inoa to the largest bonus in team and international free agent history.
The 2008 off-season started with controversy, as the A’s traded ace pitcher Dan Haren to the Arizona Diamondbacks for prospects. This would be followed by trades of outfielder Nick Swisher, who was considered to be a fan-favorite, to the Chicago White Sox, and another fan-favorite Mark Kotsay (also outfielder) to the Atlanta Braves. The trades, especially the first two, caused a lot of anger among fans and the media. The A’s were considered to be a “rebuilding” team and were expected to be among the bottom-feeders of the MLB in the 2008 season. However, the A’s performed well into late May, and even held first place in the AL West for a good amount of time, but a 2–7 roadtrip in mid-May allowed the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to take first place.
On April 24, just weeks after playing against them while on the Blue Jays, Frank Thomas re-signed with the A’s, having been released by the Jays after a slow start. On July 8, the A’s were involved in a blockbuster trade, dealing Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin to the Chicago Cubs for Sean Gallagher, Josh Donaldson, Eric Patterson, and Matt Murton. Then on July 17, the A’s traded Joe Blanton to the Philadelphia Phillies for three minor leaguers. An 18–37 record for the months of July and August (including a 10-game losing streak) dropped the A’s into third place, where they would finish the season. They ended 2008 with a disappointing 75–86 record.
Several players acquired in the offseason trades (pitchers Dana Eveland and Greg Smith from the Dan Haren trade, outfielder Ryan Sweeney from the Swisher trade and reliever Joey Devine from the Mark Kotsay trade). Carlos González and Gio Gonzalez (no relation) from the Haren and Swisher trades, respectively, also performed well for the Triple A Sacramento Rivercats. It is worth pointing out that Haren, Swisher, and Kotsay have all played well in their new teams. Kotsay himself had a game-winning RBI as a pinch-hitter, against his former team on May 16 in Game 1 of an interleague series between the A’s and Braves.
In the 2009 offseason the A’s traded promising young star OF Carlos Gonzales, closer Huston Street and starting pitcher Greg Smith for Matt Holliday of the Colorado Rockies. On January 6, 2009 Jason Giambi signed a one year, $4.6 million contract with a 2nd year option. Giambi said he was glad to be back as he put on his old number 16. Also signed were infielders Orlando Cabrera of the Chicago White Sox and Nomar Garciaparra of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The first half of the season the team played relatively poor, but finished the second half strong, yet still posting a losing record. Holliday was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for prospects and Giambi was released in August after spending time on the DL.
The offseason was busy from the start. The team dealt the key-player from the Holliday trade, Brett Wallace, to the Toronto Blue Jays for OF Michael Taylor. After missing all of the 2009 season,Ben Sheets signed a 1-year deal. The team had a decent spring, posting a better record than other AL West teams. To begin the regular season, the team had 2 walk-off wins.
On May 9, 42 years almost to the day after Catfish Hunter, A’s pitcher Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game, the 19th in Major League history, in a 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at the Coliseum. The next homestand was a week-long celebration of the feat, with a commemorative graphic placed on the outfield wall on May 17.
Oakland finished the 2010 season with an 81-81 record; 2nd in the division, 9 games behind Texas, and 1 game ahead of Los Angeles.
Oakland finished the 2011 season with a 74-88 record; 3rd in the division, 22 games behind Texas. Pitcher Rich Harden returned on a one-year deal. Hideki Matsui was signed as a DH on a one-year deal. Vin Mazarro was traded to the Royals for David DeJesus. Travis Buck, Jack Cust, and Edwin Encarnacion were lost to the Indians, Mariners, and Blue Jays (respectively). Encarnacion was later claimed off waivers. Rajai Davis was traded to Toronto for two pitchers. Eric Chavez was lost to the Yankees as a free agent.
After an offseason that saw All Star pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey traded away, the A’s entered the 2012 season with low expectations. This season was Bob Melvin‘s first full season as the A’s manager. During the trading period, the A’s had traded fan-favorite catcher Kurt Suzuki to the Washington Nationals for cash considerations. The A’s also traded relief pitcher Fautino De Los Santos to the Milwaukee Brewers for catcher George Kottaras. On August 15, veteran starting pitcher Bartolo Colon received a 50 game suspension after testing positive for performing-enhancing drugs. On September 5, ace pitcher Brandon McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive off of the bat of Erick Aybar ending his 2012 season. The A’s entering the last month of the season with an all-rookie starting rotation. By the end of the month, the A’s had pulled to 2 games of the Texas Rangers for the AL West lead, setting the stage for a season ending, 3 game series that would decide the winner of the 2012 division title. The A’s swept the series, culminating in 12-5 victory which saw the A’s come back from a 4 run deficit to clinch the AL West for the first time since 2006. The A’s ended the regular season with a record of 94-68, leading the Major Leagues in walk-off wins, with 14 in the regular season, and one in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. The A’s lost the ALDS to the eventual American League Champion Detroit Tigers in 5 games.
Bob Melvin was awarded the 2012 AL Manager of the Year award, and outfielder Josh Reddick was awarded a Gold Glove, becoming the first A’s outfielder since 1985 to do so. Following the season shortstop Cliff Pennington was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for outfielder Chris Young, as part of a 3 team trade.
In 2013, under manager Bob Melvin after going 96-66 and claiming their second straight division title over the heavily favored Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels making it to the postseason the Athletics lost Game 5 of the American League Divisional Series to Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers for the second straight season in their own ballpark. Josh Donaldson is in the conversation for MVP playing 158 games with a .301 batting average 24 Home Runs and 93 RBIs, leading the team in Batting Average and Home Runs, and Bartolo Colon is in the conversation for the Cy Young Award going 18-6, 117 Strikeouts and a 2.65 ERA. Also Brandon Moss would lead the team with 30 Home Runs. During the regular season the A’s saw the additions of once Oakland Athletic Kurt Suzuki from the Washington Nationals, Alberto Callaspo from the Los Angeles Angels,and Stephen Vogt off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays.Grant Balfour broke the A’s record for most consecutive saves and the A’s saw the growth of young players like Jed Lowrie, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, and Sonny Gray. The A’s would finish in the top 3 of the Major League Baseball in Home runs and On Base plus Slugging. Even after the devastating loss to the Detroit Tigers the A’s will retain most of their 2013 playoff run roster, only needing to re sign two players, Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour