5. The Premise

5. The Premise

The 1972 American League Championship Series matches the Detroit Tigers against the Oakland Athletics in a contest to determine who will advance to the World Series. These five games in October offer a seminar in great baseball. The fourth game in particular is called the best playoff game ever. There are highlights of these games on YouTube but watching them is much like watching any other baseball highlights reel. Run-scoring hits, a few strikeouts, one team triumphant. Missing is the back-story. The 1972 ALCS is easily the greatest playoff in the history of baseball, in the whole history of humanity maybe (–maybe? ). But the men are old now, their memories conflicting. Many are dead. Time diminishes the drama until we shed the 1972 ALCS along with the many qualities that made 1970s baseball a pleasure. If you knew the full story of those five games in October, you’d see, that smear of players against the peculiar washed-out haze that was color TV in the early-70s, it could bring tears to your eyes.

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Two teams with a history of bad blood between them. A traditionally-dressed Tigers team of has-beens who excelled at clutch performances. A garishly-costumed Athletics team of undisciplined superstars desperate for a world championship. Two young managers, equally loud and abrasive, equally bold tacticians, both on their way to the Hall of Fame.

Billy and Dick

Dick Williams and Billy Martin are cut from the same cloth, snaggily-toothed style, both raised in challenging circumstances, both bullying winners who lack pity, tact, or restraint (especially when it comes to alcohol). The two share many things, most unusual among them: both know what it is like to be offered the job to manage this particular Oakland ballclub. Charlie Finley first interviewed Martin, in June 1970. At the time, Martin was famous both for leading the Twins to first place in his debut season as a big-league manager and for losing the job shortly thereafter. So Finley offered Martin the Oakland job; Martin accepted; then Finley flaked, decided to keep shopping. After the end of the 1970 season, Billy Martin headed to Detroit, and Finley interviewed Dick Williams. Williams had a very similar rap. He also was famous for leading a team, in this case the Red Sox, to first place in his debut season as a big-league manager; he too lost his job shortly thereafter. That was apparently good enough for Finley. Dick Williams got the nod, earned the pleasure of managing the talent Finley assembled.

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Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson, Jim Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Bert Campaneris, Ken Holtzman, John Odom, Sal Bando, Mike Epstein, Joe Rudi, Gene Tenace—in 1972 most of these are athletes who seem bound for Cooperstown. Unfortunately that once-in-a-lifetime gig also comes with Finley (above, pictured in checkered hat), a showman who appears to have charmed nobody, a man despised by his team, community, and colleagues. Finley has gone through nine managers in the ten years he’s owned the team. “Dick Williams is the best manager I’ve ever had,” Finley will later say. “I ought to know. I’ve fired enough of them.”

Finley makes his money selling insurance but now he savors the eccentricities of the entrepreneur. People comment much about his weird obsession with telephones. He has to have a conversation going, always always, has to have that plastic near his mouth, has to have a place to bark out orders. The landscaping in his mansion is wired with plug-ins so that he can keep a phone call going as he walks through the yard. This is distinctly odd in 1972—it seems a rudely public and insincere way to communicate—and yet how normal it will become. Finley the futurist, one might say, a pioneer in bad manners. He is always telephoning his manager, his players, his manager, his broker, his manager. “But,” Dick Williams says, “aside from such things as Charlie’s phone calls, Charlie’s stadium, Charlie’s advice, Charlie’s treatment of fans and players, Charlie’s style, Charlie’s lack of style–aside from all this, playing with the A’s was easy.”

At a time when the game’s reigning plutocracy dodge press and stick to backroom deals and bland anonymity and hold their general managers accountable for the team, Charles O. Finley does none of these. He is more famous than his talented players and their accomplishments. His ideas are too loud for baseball, his clothes louder than that. He seems possibly brilliant, brilliantly unlikeable, brilliantly dressed. During negotiations he has a salesman’s instinct for strategy—he knows when to appeal to sentiment, when to bring up numbers, when to pour on guilt. Vida Blue experiences him as manipulative, a puppet master. Finley is always pitching; unlike Blue, he needs no mound. Finley lobbies for a designated hitter rule, urges that baseball games go faster, presses his case for fluorescent baseballs and bases.

Finley regularly restocks the team with talent. He makes 65 moves with 41 different players in 1972, whether the team needs help or not. The A’s are front-runners all season; yet they are in constant flux, with players being traded, waived, injured, or benched. The team is on a sort of automatic reload, people coming and going, arrivals and departures. Finley collects second baseman almost as a compulsion. By season’s end, eleven different people have played second for Oakland. They have such an easy abundance that manager Dick Williams always pitch hits for their second baseman, no matter the inning, if Oakland gets anyone on base.

But the 1972 Athletics are in flux another way as well: players fighting all the time, slugging each other, brawling other teams.

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Many books have been published about this team and its fighting ways.

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Clearly Oakland’s reputation as a team is not helped by the access that the media enjoy at the time. After the game, photographers and writers are allowed everywhere; lighting technicians and interviewers trail their cords throughout the dressing rooms. They personally witness the Reggie taunts, the droll Catfish retorts, the mock-insults that escalate into fisticuffs. This is of course very different now; post-game run-ins take place in a controlled environment and the locker room is largely off-limits. It takes serious investigative skills nowadays to discover whether athletes on a team aren’t getting along. Back then, all you needed was a pair of eyes.

That said, the A’s clubhouse in 1972 does erupt into fights rather often. They are a group of cocky competitors, all but a few still in their twenties. They share the humiliation of being nickel-and-dimed by the same owner, and Reggie, for one, can’t stop talking.

Nothing about Reggie Jackson yet feels inevitable. At 26, the right-fielder has collected 157 home runs and 780 strikeouts. Mr. October has not appeared. No one doubts his power but there are concerns about his consistency. His single-season strikeout totals often reach historic highs. 1972 is a so-so year. Maybe he’s done? There have been a number of sluggers who’ve peaked this way. Reggie has hit some dramatic home runs in the regular season, yes, dramatic in timing and distance, but at this time he is known as well for famously futile swings that corkscrew him around into a cross-legged sitting position.

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Reggie is the incipient form of himself, and you can see him in Oakland gradually working up to a supersized role. To hear him talk to reporters in 1972 is to have the impression of regular Reggie taking on helium like an immense balloon bound for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

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