1968 – Present
For fifty years, from the very start of the American League, this was Connie Mack‘s team as the Philadelphia Athletics. In its most successful years, the lineup was studded with Hall of Famers such as Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, and Al Simmons. But, of course, much of Mack’s tenure was spent in the AL cellar, because he never drew enough fans in Philadelphia to pay for his stars. It was a problem that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much the A’s tried to run away.
When owner Charles O. Finley moved the A’s to Oakland after a stint in Kansas City after the 1967 season, his last place team already featured Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, and Bert Campaneris, players who would play key roles in Oakland. But across the bay in San Francisco, the Giants were already beginning to struggle with attendance, and the A’s arrival stretched the fan base beyond the hope of profits. Despite Finley’s many eccentricities, the man had an eye for talent. The team’s first year in Oakland was also the first time Bando, Reggie Jackson, and Joe Rudi would see significant action.
Although the character of a championship club had not yet been formed, Finley had already established that he would be an owner like no other. And it was Finley’s character that would shape this club for years to come. He was his own general manager and had bizarre run-ins with players like Ken Harrelson and Lew Krausse, releasing Harrelson, his best hitter for criticizing his methods and suspending pitcher Krausse for being “rowdy”. He fired manager Alvin Dark for objecting to his meddling and began stripping the front office of essential staff. Finley introduced orange baseballs, a pop-up rabbit to supply new balls to the umpire, and replaced the A’s long-time elephant symbol with a mule said to be as stubborn and cantankerous as his owner.
The A’s began to build a powerhouse around their stars, contending in 1969 and 1970 and then winning five straight division titles from 1971 to 1975. From 1972 to 1974, the A’s won three straight championships. But Finley’s character had to occupy the spotlight and to stay there, he’d take any idea to an extreme certain to alienate his players. Having hung the “Catfish” nickname on Hunter, he tried to get Vida Blue to change his first name to “True”. Reacting to ace reliever Rollie Fingers‘ handlebars, Finley urged the entire team to grow mustaches. After the American League adopted the designated hitter in 1973, Finley took the idea to absurdity, hiring sprinter Herb Washington to be the team’s designated pinch runner. It was a roster spot that could have been filled by a baseball player.
Neither Finley’s stunts, nor the talent on the field translated into substantial profits at the gate. Even after the team’s dramatic World Series win in 1972, the A’s only managed to sell 1,400 season tickets. During the second championship season of 1973, the A’s drew about one million fans, one of the worst totals in the majors. At one point during the 1973 Series, a banner hung by angry fans read, “Finley, Get Your Ass Out of Town.”
As a result, although the team had talent, swagger, and success, it didn’t have much money. Finley got into prolonged contract disputes with Jackson and Blue after their wonderful seasons in 1969 and 1971. He wouldn’t, or couldn’t pay people what they were worth, and the problem would only get worse as free agency approached. Finley’s meddling reached a peak in the 1973 World Series when he put the second baseman Mike Andrews on the DL after he made two errors in one game. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reinstated Andrews, but manger Dick Williams had enough and resigned after the A’s beat the Mets. Finley re-hired Alvin Dark and the team overcame constant turmoil to win again in 1974. They won the division again in 1975 despite losing Hunter to free agency caused by Finley’s failure to make payments stipulated by Hunter’s contract.
After free agency become a baseball reality, Finley began to echo Mack’s moves of 1915 and 1933 and dismantle a team he could no longer afford. Jackson was traded to the Orioles in April along with Ken Holtzman for Don Baylor, Mike Torrez, and Paul Mitchell. During the season Finley made deals to sell Blue to the Yankees and Rudi and Fingers to the Red Sox. Kuhn voided the deals, but the stars would all soon be gone. After the 1976 season, a bevy of free agents fled — Joe Rudi (to California), Rollie Fingers (to San Diego, with Gene Tenace), Sal Bando (to Milwaukee), and Bert Campaneris (to Texas).
The team declined as Finley seemed to lose his taste for the game along with his stars. With virtually no front office, and a series of uninspired managers, the A’s fell to the bottom of the West and attendance fell as low as 306,000 in 1979. A’s highlights in the early ’80s came mostly from speedster Rickey Henderson, who broke Lou Brock‘s record in 1982 with 130 stolen bases. The next year, he tallied 108. Manager Billy Martin sparked the team to second place in 1980 and half a division title in strike-torn 1981, the year Finley sold the team to Walter Haas.
Haas, a descendant of Levi Strauss, was the owner of his ancestor’s jeans company. He was a Bay Area native, active in philanthropic and social organizations. With team president, Roy Eisenhardt, general manager Sandy Alderson, and manager Tony LaRussa, he set out to make the A’s part of their community. Players and staff took part in charitable and cultural events that were well-publicized and effective in building a base of fan support.
Thanks to the development of young stars, attendance began to rise, reaching a peak of 2.9 million in 1990. The A’s began a run of three straight AL flags in 1988 that included the World Championship team of 1989 which beat the rival Giants in the earthquake World Series. Those teams were built on the power of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, the pitching of Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and Dennis Eckersley, and the steady guidance of LaRussa. These teams were powerful and successful yet never quite achieved what was expected of them. The 1988 edition, which had gone 104-58 in the regular season, was favored to defeat the Dodgers in the World Series, but never recovered from a bottom-of-the-ninth first game-winning home run by Kirk Gibson off Eckerskley. The 1989 team won it all against the cross-bay Giants, but the earthquake-scarred Bay Area hardly noticed. In 1990, they were heavily favored to defeat the Reds but were swept by Lou Piniella‘s hot team.
The A’s were up and down throughout the 90’s, but attendance was mostly down, falling back to 1.1 million in 1996. Rickey Henderson returned to the A’s every few years after wearing out his welcome elsewhere. Canseco was dealt to Texas for Ruben Sierra (a bust), Bobby Witt, and Jeff Russell. McGwire became one of the game’s great sluggers when healthy but was traded to LaRussa’s Cardinals in 1997 because the A’s would not have been able to re-sign him after the season. Gradually, despite the best efforts of capable management, the team found itself once again without the financial resources to compete on the field.
By the spring of 1998, the A’s seemed to be a team in search of a personality. They featured a manager (Art Howe), best described as unflappable, a stadium (the Oakland Coliseum) remodeled for football and ruined for baseball and a lineup known only to the most hard-core trivia buffs. The A’s pitching staff was led by the venerable and mildly successful knuckleballer, Tom Candiotti, and the only news of the spring that caused the slightest ripple was the signing to a minor league contract of the underachieving but always quotable slugger, Kevin Mitchell.
But by the turn of the century, Howe and GM Billy Beane had molded the A’s into contenders. Featuring a solid crop of talented youngsters and a hefty lineup of softball-league sluggers, the club made a valiant run for the playoffs in 1999.