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October 12, 2010
The 1972 World Series
You had to be there.
There really isn’t much else you can say about the World Series of 1972, a Fall Classic that was among the best ever in baseball terms and perhaps the most meaningful ever in terms of the world that was revolving around it at the time.
It was a World Series between a pair of upstart teams, the Oakland Athletics and the Cincinnati Reds, teams that would win the next five baseball championships, but it was so much more than just a thrilling series in which six of the seven games were decided by one run.
It was a World Series that brought baseball into the modern world, and what a world it was. The turbulent ‘60s had ended, a decade of drugs and hippies, of psychedelic music and protest over a war in Southeast Asia that had divided the country. The world was now changing and the new order was not much better than the old.
The Munich Olympics had turned into a terrorist blood bath with 11 Israeli athletes kidnapped and massacred. The last ground troops left Vietnam but peace was nowhere at hand, terrorism was still raging in Ireland and across Europe and the Middle East. The most popular movies released that year, The Godfather, Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange, reflected the horrors of the era.
Ignoring it all had been baseball, the national pastime, but now suddenly there was a World Series of social significance.
Reds general manager Bob Howsam represented the establishment, the dictum being that the players' hair be cut short, shoes jet black and stirrups showing on their red stockings. Even if the players were anything but the conservative types the ballclub wanted to project, including the likes of Pete Rose, Pedro Borbon, Clay Carroll, and David Concepcion, they went along for the ride. They even put up with a management that on occasion would send down a message from above instructing the players in the bullpen to please sit up straight.
They were cast against a rogue band of merry men from the present in the Athletics, their hair long, their faces bedecked with mustaches that ranged from the traditional to Rollie Fingers’ flamboyant handlebar that became a Hall of Fame trademark. They had names like Vida and Blue Moon and Catfish and, of course, Reggie, who was about to become the most famous baseball player on earth but who missed this World Series with a hamstring injury suffered in the American League Championship Series.
They were fun and they were good, and if Dick Williams as manager didn’t give them enough of a flair, their owner, Charles O. Finley, was as much a protestor in the world of baseball as any anti-war hippy was in the real society. Finley had moved the A’s from Kansas City west and brought with him his mule, Charley O., and a herd of sheep that once grazed on a hill beyond the outfield wall. Finley was the host of this World Series in Oakland and the media got to feast on Finley’s favorite food—fried chicken and oatmeal cookies.
It was wise not to leave anything over, for walking through the media tent would be Finley, Charley O., in hand, the mule willing to gobble up whatever leftovers he could get to. It was a three-ring circus that became as entertaining and suspenseful in a baseball sense as the best lion tamer Barnum and Bailey ever employed.
Oakland, with an unlikely hero in Gene Tenace who hit five home runs in the regular season and then hit home runs in his first two World Series at-bats, had won the first two games in Cincinnati and taken the World Series west. It was Catfish Hunter who mowed Cincinnati down in the first game, but if the Hall of Fame pitcher was impressive, it wasn’t to one Peter Edward Rose, who went hitless in the game but wrote in a Cincinnati newspaper the next day that he didn’t see much in Hunter and promised he’d get him the next time they crossed paths.
First, however, there was a matter of getting back into the series and this became something of a mini-drama, the Reds running Tenace right out from behind the plate with aggressive base running and drawing even, although perhaps the best moment of the postseason came when Williams outwitted the great Johnny Bench. The Reds had runners at second and third, one out and a one-run lead when Bench came up to face Fingers. Williams went to the mound with the count 3-2.
This is how Bill Leggett of Sports Illustrated wrote about what transpired:
It was a Little League play that worked.
And so the World Series moved forward. In Game Five, Hunter was back on the mound. Rose, who had publicly stuck his neck out after Game One by saying he would handle Hunter the next time he saw him, wasted no time, hitting Catfish’s first pitch for a leadoff home run.
So it went, right down to Game Seven in Cincinnati, to Blue Moon Odom for the A's against Jack Billingham for the Reds, to a 3-2 lead for Oakland in the ninth inning, to two out and a runner on base, Fingers on in relief and Williams making his 55th trip to the mound of the series.
The hitter was Pete Rose.
By now Dave Duncan was catching, the Reds having stolen everything but Tenace’s World Series MVP trophy. Duncan encouraged Williams to leave Fingers in.
Rose hit the ball well, but not well enough. Left fielder Joe Rudi ran it down in left-center and it was over.
The A’s had won their first of three straight world championships, Williams and his wife and Finley and his danced atop the visiting dugout as the corks began popping, welcoming in a new world champion and new world era.
The age of innocence died right there on the field in Riverfront Stadium that Sunday afternoon.