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Oakland Athletics

A professional baseball team in the American League

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The White Elephants in the Room

  • Nov 15, 2012
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Rating:
+1
"Loser" is not a word we throw around. In baseball, we certainly wouldn't dream of applying it to a team which has won the World Series nine times, a number surpassed only by the Saint Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees. Nor is it a word that frequently gets applied to baseball managerial legend Connie Mack, a man who won more ballgames than any other manager. As with so many other aspects of baseball - or all of professional sports, for that matter - there are some hidden things that exist between lines, and in the case of the Oakland Athletics, the fine between-line print has a single word written. That word is "money."

These days, the Athletics - who are frequently and affectionately also referred to as just the As - get a lot of attention for their very unconventional methods of operation. Back in the Dead Ball Era, though, they were the Philadelphia Athletics, a dynamo of a team which was created in 1901 when the Western League declared itself a major league, changed its name to the American League, and rightfully decided that it immediately needed a team in Philadelphia to offer fans a counterpoint to the older Philadelphia Phillies. That made perfect sense - Philadelphia back then, as it is still today, was one of the largest cities in the United States. So the Athletics were created and recruited former catcher Connie Mack to manage. This appeared to be an oddity of a move; Mack had lasted ten years in baseball as a player, from 1886 to 1896, acting as player/manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1894 to the end of his playing career. He wasn't a wonderful player, and his managing record in Pittsburgh was a respectable - but not particularly stellar - 149-134.

In spite of his obvious flaws as a player and manager, Mack got to work by giving back whatever the team was paying him many times over. He had a fantastic business acumen, buying a 25 percent stock in the team and successfully persuading Phillies owner Ben Shibe to invest in the As as well. He also talked Phillies star second baseman Napoleon Lajoie to make the jump to the As. An unorthodox guy by his day's standards, Mack had a knack for finding the best talent available, and he employed an easygoing managerial style by which he entrusted his players to be as disciplined as he required. Upon finding good players, Mack would teach them to get their technique really honed, then unleash them onto the diamond and let them play using their schoolyard instincts. He was among the first to prefer young players to older veterans; he didn't pinch hit very often; and he may have been the first manager to see the redeeming qualities of a big-inning offense rather than ordinary small ball. Even John McGraw respected him.

All that being the case, The Athletics became the first dynasty of the American League. Right in the shadow of their 1901 founding, and led by Mack and Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, and Chief Bender, the As won a whopping six Pennants. They won the second AL Pennant in 1902, before there was a World Series to go with it, and they took the flag in 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914 to go with that. 1910, 1911, and 1913 all went with World Series titles as well. This quickly made them the favorites of Philadelphia, whose National League team briefly crawled out of the basement for the 1915 Pennant in an existence otherwise defined by its destitute shittiness.

In 1914, the Athletics lost the World Series to the "Miracle Braves" fielded by Boston. Also that year, the Federal League was created by players who were pissed off about the Major League Baseball reserve clause, and demonstrated the potential of free agency. Of course, the Feds needed stars to lure people through the turnstiles, so they did what the AL itself had done years before and raided the player stock of MLB. The Feds got to the As, and this predictably resulted in a collapse. A 99-53 record which won the 1914 Pennant dropped to 43-109 and last place the following season, and Philadelphia's 1916 record of 36-117 remains the all-time nadir of baseball's modern era. They had a winning percentage of .235, and a great many baseball fans who argue the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics were actually worse than the 1962 New York Mets or 2003 Detroit Tigers or any of those other bad teams. Hell, there's an outside chance they were worse than the infamous 1899 Cleveland Spiders, and that's REALLY saying something. Things didn't get much better after that; the Athletics finished in last every year through 1922.

Mack's rebuilding started to show again in 1925, when the As began playing like contenders again. In 1927 and 1928, Philadelphia finished second to the New York Yankees, and in 1929, with the help of Jimmie Foxx, they launched what is now called The Second Dynasty, winning Pennants that year and the next two, as well as the World Series in 1929 and 1930. In each of the dynasty's three years, the team won over 100 games. Unfortunately, Mack was forced to sell off or trade his best players in order to reduce expenses. You know what also happened in 1929? The Great Depression began, so declining attendance destroyed the team's venues. Unbeknownst to everyone, The Second Dynasty was the last of the team's good years in Philadelphia.

After finishing second in 1932 and third in 1933, the consequences of Mack's fire sale became apparent. The As finished fifth in 1934 and were back in last the next year. Fans began to believe Mack was getting washed up, which wasn't as unreasonable a conclusion as one might think because the man was 68 years old when the As won the 1931 Pennant. He also didn't have any source of income outside of his baseball team, so he was really walloped by the Depression. No money, no good players, and the Athletics spun out of control and fell into a decline which ran for over 30 years. Every year from 1935 to 1946, Philadelphia finished last or next to last, with the exception of a fifth-place finish in 1944 which can be safely written off as a result of 1944 being a war year. (The damn Saint Louis Browns won the Pennant that year!) The Athletics didn't compile a winning record again until 1947, and that was a surprise to everyone, especially seeing as how the war was over and the league was reloaded and ready to play some real ball again. They contended for most of 1948 and 1949 too, but finished last in 1950 again. That 1950 season also marked the close of Connie Mack's baseball career. He had managed the team for 50 years by then, won 3731 games, lost 3948, and managed 7679, all records which are well above and beyond even remote threatening distance. He won nine Pennants and five World Series titles.

Much is made about Mack's 3731 victories as manager, because it's such an outrageous number. Looking at his wins and losses, though, one can't help but note that his 3948 losses is a higher number than those 3731 wins. Even acknowledging his team's money problems, you can't help but draw the conclusion that his records are more a result of his longevity. Whether or not Mack would be hired to manage a team today with his overall record - Pennants and World Series titles included - may be the most interesting baseball discussion no one is having.

The Athletics picked the worst time possible to bottom out. There was one great constant about Philadelphia baseball at the time: No matter how bad the Athletics got, they still won those World Series titles and Pennants. Those belong to the Athletics forever. Also, despite their losing records outnumbering their winning records, everyone knew they would still turn out better than Philadelphia's crosstown National League team, the Phillies. The Phillies were the older team in the city. They were founded in 1883 and had been the definition of baseball futility pretty much the entire time. Remember that Pennant I mentioned earlier that they won in 1915? Yeah, for decades that was the only sign of on-field success they ever had. But near the end of the 40's, something odd began to happen: While the As couldn't find pocket change in their couch cushions, the Phillies began spending big money on young prospects. The gambles started paying off almost right off the bat, and the same year the Athletics hit the cellar in 1950, the Phillies had the best year in their history. Their team, lovingly nicknamed the "Whiz Kids" that year due to their collective youth, fought the Dodgers in an exciting neck and neck Pennant race. On the final day of the season, the Phillies played the Dodgers themselves in a thrilling battle in which Dick Sisler whacked a fateful homer which won the Pennant for the Phillies and vaulted them into the World Series. Phillies fans had endured losing for so long at the time that it didn't even matter when the Phillies were swept by the Yankees.

Since there were two godawful baseball teams in Philadelphia most of the time, fans were probably relieved whenever one of them put up any kind of fight, and you can't blame them for gravitating toward the better team on the rare occasion that one was worth watching. While the Phillies started playing baseball in the 50's that was at least respectable, the Athletics were headed in the other direction. There were occasional bright spots on the diamond. Longtime As fans could go to games and at least watch Gus Zernial, a great slugger; pitcher Bobby Shantz, the 1952 MVP; or batting champ Ferris Fain. Still, it was clear by 1954 that the Philadelphia Athletics were taking an irreversible slide to the bottom in both play and finances, and that the Philadelphia Phillies had supplanted them. Connie Mack's sons Earle and Roy, who were running the team now, saw they had no choice but to sell the Athletics. Connie Mack himself, who loved the Athletics and served 50 years as their very soul, saw the writing on the wall too, and sorrowfully gave his approval to sell. There were a few last-minute offers by buyers who intended to keep the team in Philadelphia, including one by a Chicago insurance tycoon named Charles Finley. Remember that name because it's going to become very important later. Anyway, at the time, MLB was trying to turn every baseball city into a single-team city, and so the leaders of the AL decided to solve the Philadelphia "problem" by selling the team to an owner who would move it somewhere else. In October 1954, they found their owner in Arnold Johnson, approved the sale, and sent the Philadelphia Athletics off to become the Kansas City Athletics.

Kansas City is regarded as probably the greatest underrated baseball city in the country today. They have a very rich baseball history between the Yankees' top farm club, the Kansas City Blues, and the legendary Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Even today, the perpetually pathetic Kansas City Royals have a diehard legion of followers despite riding the bottom step of the AL Central, the worst division in MLB. This history and devotion might have meant something if Arnold Johnson gave a shit about any of it. As it were, though, rumors were going for a long time that Johnson's intent was to sort of use Kansas City as a warm-up spot before taking the Athletics to the real show in Los Angeles. In 1960, the Athletics had one of those release clauses that set off Rachel Phelps from the movie Major League: If the team drew under 850,000 for the season, he could go somewhere else. If this was Johnson's plan, the people of Kansas City had other ideas. They showed up in record numbers. In their first season, 1955, they were third in attendance behind the Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves, who had been recently relocated from Boston themselves.

Johnson also had a lot of former business ties to the Yankees. He even owned Yankee Stadium in 1953 before MLB forced him to either sell it or forget about buying the Athletics. His old ties are theorized - not without reason - to be an instigating factor of a rumor that Johnson was running the Athletics strictly as a farm team to the Yankees. Another reason for that rumor was a series of trades he kept making. It was a given for the remainder of Johnson's years that if the Kansas City Athletics dug up a player worth keeping, then you could bet your ass he would soon be a Yankee. Roger Maris, Bobby Shantz, Art Ditmar, and Hector Lopez all became Pinstripers through Johnson's trades. He did land a talented player or two in return - Norm Siebern and Jerry Lumpe were notable - and cash, but his trades were mostly heavily favored to the Yankees. Once or twice, they even sent players to the Athletics themselves only to get them back through other trades later. Arnold Johnson died in 1960, when he was 53. Later that year, Charles Finley returned and bought the Athletics.

Finley was aware of the rumors. Having developed a reputation as one of the sport's great showmen and rebels, one of Finley's first acts was to symbolically take a bus, point it in the direction of New York City, and burn it to the ground! That was the end of the Athletics' "special relationship" with the Yankees, as Finley started refusing to make deals with them and started looking around for unheralded talent. In 1967, the Mets had the first pick in the amateur draft. They selected a catcher named Steve Chilcott. That was a big deal because the projected top guy of the draft was an Arizona State slugger named Reggie Jackson. He was seen as one of those surefire, can't-miss superstars, so when the Mets passed on him, Finley couldn't believe his luck. He nabbed Jackson and that was that. Unfortunately, despite Finley's knack for scouting, he eventually moved the Athletics in 1968 anyway. This time, they went to Oakland, a move Finley later regretted.

By the 70's, the Oakland Athletics were rich in gelling talent. Besides Jackson, they also featured marquee talent like Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and Vida Blue. The era of the Swingin' As had arrived, and it culminated in what fans call The Third Dynasty. In 1972, 1973, and 1974, they won both the Pennant and the World Series. Although they're considered one of the great baseball dynasties, that greatness is an illusion inspired by, you know, three straight titles. The truth was that the Athletics were playing just good enough to win a division so weak that it was frequently called the American League Least, then rising to the occasion in the playoffs. They also had a lot of flair; Finley radically remade the team's image to fit the times, dressing them in outrageous and loud colors and giving bonuses to those who grew out their facial hair and giving them nicknames. The most prominent nickname was probably Catfish, given to the late, great James Hunter. He wanted Vida Blue to start calling himself "True," which wasn't a bad idea, but even so, Vida Blue is one of the best names a baseball player ever had.

Oh, yes: They all hated Charles Finley. Finley's As, like the others before him, had financial difficulties, and Finley was a serious micromanager. Contract disputes with Jackson and Blue demanded intervention from commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Before the team even moved to Oakland in 1968, 1967 had a near-mutiny so nasty that Finley had to reassert his authority by releasing their best hitter, Ken Harrelson, who was quickly snatched by the Boston Red Sox just in time to help them win the Pennant that year. In the 1973 World Series, Finley forced Mike Andrews to sign a false affidavit claiming he was injured after Andrews committed two errors during game two, which Oakland lost. The team, manager Dick Williams, and the public sided with Andrews, and Kuhn had to step in again to get Finley to back down. However, Finley did keep Andrews benched for the rest of the World Series, and that allowed the weak New York Mets to draw the Fall Classic out to seven games before finally going down. Williams was so pissed that he resigned after the Series. Finley retaliated by refusing to let him manage the Yankees, claiming he still owed another contract year. Alvin Dark led the 1974 As to their third straight World Series title, then it was Catfish Hunter's turn to get pissed when Finley violated his contract by failing an insurance payment on time. Hunter was allowed to go, and the ensuing battle for his services was an important turning point in the creation of free agency. (He went to the Yankees.)

An elaborate scheme to move the Athletics to Chicago failed in 1975, and when free agency began taking hold for good by 1976, most of Oakland's veterans were eligible for it. It shouldn't be surprising to learn they all bolted. The team wasn't drawing, either. A low point hit on April 17, 1979, when the As hosted a crowd of 550. At least, that's the official number claimed by the team. First baseman Dave Revering said it was more like 200. Finley sold the team in 1981. Under new owner Walter Haas, though, they became one of the most successful teams in the league, both on and off the field. The farm system was rebuilt, and produced Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Walt Weiss. In 1986, they grabbed Tony La Russa to manage, fresh off his act with the Chicago White Sox. In 1988, The Fourth Dynasty was launched, and the Athletics won the Pennant in 1988, 1989, and 1990. They won the World Series in 1989, sweeping the cross-bay San Francisco Giants in a somber World Series overshadowed by the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

In the mid-90's, payroll needed to be cut. Again. So stars were dumped. Again. In 1998, the Athletics hired a new general manager, turning the team over to a former ballplayer and former scout named Billy Beane. Upon another salary dump, Beane started getting creative, and enacted a radical new system of evaluating baseball talent. Instead of looking for traditional tools, Beane looked for statistical prowess in on-base percentage and strikeout/walk ratios. With a low payroll, they managed to find dominance during the regular season, although Beane gets criticized a lot because his teams haven't yet won a Pennant or World Series. That's unfair to him because it discounts the fact that the regular season is a ridiculous endurance run itself. It also unkindly forgets the fact that Michael Lewis spilled Beane's trade in a book he wrote in 2003 called Moneyball, which spilled the secret, thus allowing the more monied teams in MLB to pick up on it and start tracking down better players than the ones Beane can afford to sign. The one criticism of Beane's style is that he tends to overlook the human element too much, but many teams in baseball have reformed their scouting based on Beane's ideas. The Red Sox hired stat guru Bill James to do that, and in 2004 they won their first World Series in 86 years. Beane's detractors point to a series of down years Oakland recently had - forgetting that their secret is now also in the hands of higher payrolls - but Oakland still won their division in 2012.

Billy Beane is currently the face of the Oakland Athletics. Connie Mack was the face of their past. Both are innovators who had to oversee a share of losing teams. Home Run Baker, Chief Bender, Mack, Eddie Plank, Al Simmons, Rube Waddell, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Rickey Henderson, and Dick Williams are all in the Hall of Fame based on their contributions to baseball as Athletics. A lot of other big names have played for the team. Notably, people seem to want to ignore the ill-fated Kansas City years. The only notable thing that happened then, apparently, was that weird relationship with the Yankees. The Oakland Athletics appear to want to keep their distance from their past and form their own identity. They've retired five numbers and honored one owner, all from the Oakland years.

This team has produced a lot of colorful players. Reggie Jackson was one of the players who started growing out his facial hair, in defiance of what Charles Finley first ordered, which was to be clean-shaven. That resulted in Finley changing his mind. Jose Canseco, everyone knows as the Godfather of Steroids. Canseco is a player I missed almost entirely, and even though everyone seems to hate him, the law somehow came down on his side and now everyone is being forced to listen to him. He's so hated that people are trying to stain him for something he managed to get right, which was outing the steroid lifestyle in a tell-all book that made him a pariah. Even Connie Mack stood out because he was one of baseball's most gentlemanly people. Mack created a Code of Conduct in 1916 that he expected all of his players to follow, with the expectation that they not only become better ballplayers, but better people.

The Athletics seem to have trouble drawing fans every other year. They are the only baseball team to still share their field, Oakland Coliseum, with a football team, the Oakland Raiders. Whispers about moves pop up a lot, and the Athletics have been in talks since the mid-millennium about a new, baseball-only stadium in somewhere other than Oakland. Fremont, Sacramento, and San Jose are all brought into it. The Athletics are the weirdest of the teams to suffer from Mets Syndrome. They share the Bay Area with the San Francisco Giants, and they actually have more World Series titles than their cross-bay NL rivals; nine as opposed to San Fran's seven. Still, the Giants have one of the great thriving fantasies of Major League Baseball, one that has so much love for their team that they are frequently mentioned along with the Saint Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox as the most fervent. Although it's considered okay in the area to be a fan of both teams, people just appear more lukewarm at best to the Athletics.

The Athletics don't have any true marquee rivals. They have their Battle of the Bay with the Giants, and back in the day they were the natural rivals to the Philadelphia Phillies, but that's it. They had a serious rivalry with the Chicago White Sox for awhile, but that was back when they were both playing in the same division.

The Athletics can be defined in both good and bad ways. On the lower end, they always seem to be poor and struggling. If you have a favorite player, you'll learn to hate him because he'll soon be in Boston, New York City, or San Francisco if you're really unlucky. The team's nine World Series titles and 15 Pennants came within four distinctly identifiable eras of great success. The First Dynasty was the one that began in 1902, before there was a World Series, and ran until about 1914, with particular prominence between 1910 and 1914. They won six Pennants and three titles during the time. The Second Dynasty went from 1929 to 1931, when it won three Pennants and two more World Series titles. The Third Dynasty was the three-Pennant three-titler which ran from 1972 to 1974 during the Swingin' As years. The Fourth Dynasty was from 1988 to 1990, when they won the World Series in 1989. Billy Bean's techniques haven't resulted in a dynasty, but he's not swimming in his funds, either.

A longtime symbol of the Athletics for their entire existence has been the elephant. That happened very early on, when New York Giants manager John McGraw told Philadelphia manufacturer that the city had a white elephant on his hands. Mack defiantly adopted the symbol of a white elephant as a team mascot, presenting McGraw with a stuffed white elephant at the 1905 World Series. McGraw, who had known Mack for years, gracefully accepted it. The elephant is on many of the team's World Series rings, and it serves as a good metaphor for a team that overcame a lot of long odds to win more titles than every team except two. Unfortunately, those titles come far apart. The payoff of being a fan of the Oakland Athletics may be worth it, but you'll have to wait awhile and be ready for some truly hellish baseball in the meantime.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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SF Giants / Oakland A's Rivalry:

The A's have also established a strong geographic rivalry with the San Francisco Giants. It is generally acceptable in Northern California (unlike in other two-franchise baseball markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) to identify oneself as a fan of both baseball teams. The teams faced each other in the 1989 World Series, which the A's won in a four-game sweep, interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake. During that series, caps were sold with both team's insignias on the front, and the respective colors making up half the hat.

The Giants and A's also enjoyed a limited rivalry at the start of the 20th century prior to the emergence of the Yankees when the Giants were in New York and the A's were in Philadelphia. The teams were managed by managing legends John McGraw and Connie Mack, who were friendly rivals and considered to be the premier managers during that era. Each team played in 5 of the first 15 World Series (tying them with the Red Sox and Cubs for most World Series appearances during that time period). The Giants and A's met in 3 World Series, with the Giants winning in 1905, and the A's emerging victorious in 1911 and 1913.

After a decade-plus of interleague play, the A's hold a 43–36 edge against the Giants head-to-head through May 29, 2010[6]. In addition, the A's have played in six World Series (winning four of them) ...

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League: American League
Ballpark: Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum
Championships: 9
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