1971 Dynasty on the Rise

Though not yet primed for the World Series, the colorful Charles Finley is nevertheless happy to see his Oakland A's arrive on the scene after years of poor results under his contentious ownership.

After years of losing and hostile relations with almost everyone he knew in baseball, Oakland owner Charles O. Finley was finally able to happily lead the troops from his front-row seat and witness a bona fide, long-term contender in his A’s.

One day late in 1967, the city of Oakland, California received good news and bad news.

The good news: Oakland was getting a major league baseball team.

The bad news: Charles O. Finley was coming with it.

By 1971, the good news had grown increasingly better. The bundle of young, flashy Oakland A’s talent was emerging as a powerhouse in the making; it was not a matter of whether they would take over the baseball world, but when.

It was news great enough to forget about the bad in Finley, the irascible A’s owner.

Big league owners have always been a rare breed, loaded with swagger, ego and money that sometimes alienated their fans. And while the owners could at least stand one another, none of them could stomach Finley.

A tireless man who built up a multimillion-dollar insurance empire, Finley zealously pursued buying a major league team and finally succeeded when he bought the Kansas City Athletics late in 1960. With his receding gray hair, bushy eyebrows, brightly-color suits and loudly grating voice, Finley came off as the used car salesman from Hell, pitching constant unorthodox ideas to enliven the game while the owners looked for an escape from his lot.

Finley became the majors’ most flamboyant showman since Bill Veeck. He clad the A’s in green-and-gold uniforms, painted the seats in fluorescent colors, and placed a mechanical rabbit behind home plate that would pop up and deliver new balls for the umpire. He lectured anyone willing to listen about the need for a designated hitter, orange baseballs, three-ball walks and World Series games played at night. All of this embarrassed the owners, who viewed Finley’s colorful, progressive thinking to be out-of-bounds through their purist-driven, gray-and-white prism.

The owners merely represented the tip of the iceberg among those who held nothing but contempt for Finley.

The players detested Finley, as best recalled when Ken Harrelson once called him a “menace to baseball.” His managers—nine of them in all, over a nine-year period—hated him and vice versa. Even local politicians sounded off against Finley, most memorably when Missouri U.S. Senator Stuart Symington warned California of Finley’s coming: “Oakland,” said the senator, “is the luckiest city since Hiroshima.”

Vida Blue’s explosive breakout season merited him an illustrative appearance on the cover of Time Magazine.

Though unhappy that it lost baseball, Kansas City was at least thrilled to be rid of Finley. Despite his myriad gimmicks, Finley’s team couldn’t draw—nor winThe A’s lost an average of 96 games per year in Finley’s seven years at Kansas City.. Apart from his hostile disposition, which managed to alienate everyone within city limits, Finley’s penchant for being notoriously cheap was also to blame, maintaining a skeletal front office while rationing supplies for his players. “Not a nickel was spent that he didn’t even know about,” said Reggie Jackson, who joined the team as a rookie in 1967.

Irate with the A’s lack of support, Finley threatened to move the franchise anywhere he could think of: Dallas, Louisville, Atlanta—and then Oakland, where Finley would finally make good on his vow.

Oakland would be luckier than Hiroshima—and Kansas City—in one respect: The team started to win once transplanted in the Bay Area. In 1968, the A’s enjoyed their first above-.500 finish since their Philadelphia days, and they steadily improved from there. Finley’s increasingly sharp eye for talent was beginning to pay off with a group of opinionated young players whose vibrant personalities matched the green-and gold eccentrics of their uniforms—if not Finley himself. At the top of this self-promotional list was Jackson, who burst onto the scene with 47 home runs in 1969, only to collapseJackson struggled with a .237 batting average and just 23 home runs in 1970. a year later when a public and very bitter contract dispute with Finley affected his play.

In his seven years at Kansas City, it seemed A’s owner Charles Finley couldn’t find success if it was handed to him on a silver platter. But his fortunes turned almost instantly upon moving his team to Oakland in 1968.

Two major developments helped put the A’s over the top in 1971. One was the arrival of new manager Dick Williams—whose reign in Boston had met with a tumultuous end two years earlier after clashing with Carl Yastrzemski. Williams’ fiery leadership was the perfect fit for the A’s young, hungry and confident batch of players.

The other came from the sudden blossoming of 21-year-old fireballer Vida Blue, who hinted at things to come in 1970 with a no-hitter among six starts. In 1971 he came out blazing, earning a 17-3 record at the All-Star break while becoming a media sensation with cover treatments for Time and Life magazines. Finley, never one to stand in the shadows, publicly offered Blue $2,000 to be nicknamed “True”Blue wasn’t crazy about “True Blue,” and the idea ultimately fizzled. and have it sewn on the back of his jersey.

Blue cooled through the latter part of the season as his arm began tiring of throwing fastballs, but his final record of 24-8, along with 301 strikeoutsBlue, who would win 209 games over 17 years, never struck out more than 200 batters in any other season. and an American League-best 1.82 earned run average, earned him both the league’s Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.

Blue’s presence elevated an Oakland pitching staff that was beginning to discover itself. Jim “Catfish” Hunter—he was fine with the nickname Finley gave him—was momentarily in Blue’s shadow by winning 21 games against 11 losses; it was the first of five straight years in which he'd win at least 20. Another starter, Rollie Fingers, began to mentally wig out over the role and was converted to a reliever, where he felt far more comfortable; it showed in the numbers he started putting up as the team’s closer.

Oakland pitching, powered along by the comeback slugging of Reggie Jackson (.277 average, 32 home runs, 80 runs batted in), ignited the A’s to a 101-60 record in the AL West, miles ahead of another young rising (but less talented) team in the Kansas City Royals, and an aging Minnesota squad that conceded the division after two straight first-place finishes.

Hoping to reach the World Series for the first time in generations, the A’s realized that, for now, it wasn’t going to happen against the almighty defending world champion Baltimore Orioles.

Once again laughing away the competition in the AL East, the story for the Orioles was their solid, consistent starting rotation. How solid? All four startersEach of the four Orioles starters lost less than ten games; combined, they were 81-31. won at least 20 games, something previously accomplished only by the 1920 Chicago White Sox. How consistent? All four starters—Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson—all won their 20th game five days apart.

Dobson was the most unlikely member of the pack. In his fifth year at the major league level, Dobson had only been a regular starter the year before with the woebegone San Diego Padres. In Baltimore, Dobson’s curveball improved—and with it his confidence, now that he was playing for a winner—and with that, the quartet of 20-game winners was complete.

The Oakland A’s got off to a good start in Game One of the ALCS behind Vida Blue, building an early 3-0 lead at Baltimore against McNally. But it would be the only light the A’s would see in the entire series, as Blue blew up in the seventh inning after retiring the first two Orioles batters, allowing four runs. The A’s would never lead in the next two games, as Cuellar and Palmer paired to wrap up Oakland with 5-1 and 5-3 scores.

In short, the Orioles’ third consecutive three-game sweep in the ALCS was the classic triumph of experience over youth.

The Oakland A’s time would come soon. Very soon.

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, the time was now. Quickly dispensed the year before by the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS, the Bucs regrouped and played stronger baseball in 1971, easily engineering the National League’s best record at 97-65 while running away with the NL East title.

Two future Hall of Famers helped define the Pirates offensively. There was Willie Stargell, a booming, uplifting presence who definitely saw the glass as half-full—if not completely full—and led the majors with 48 home runs while knocking in 125 runs. And there was fellow outfielder Roberto Clemente, the long-time Pirate who, like fine wine, seemed to be getting better with each passing season as he aged into his late 30s. The latter-day Clemente was a marvel to behold, constantly hitting over .340 at the plate. Defensively, Clemente’s uncanny ability to launch throws from the deep outfield to the plate on a dime—and on the fly—continued to be the stuff of legends.

Roberto Clemente proved that life in the majors after 35 was anything but a big downward career spiral, raising his level of play to new heights as shown below.

Yet Clemente was developing a justified chip on his shoulder over his public standing in the game, feeling unappreciated alongside superstar media darlings like Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Banks, et al. It didn’t help that Clemente harbored a quiet and introverted demeanor in a small major league berg like Pittsburgh. What he needed was a grand stage for his bat and glove, which did most of the talking anyway, to be given undivided attention.

For the NLCS, that stage would be temporarily stolen by first baseman Bob Robertson and his four home runs—three alone in Game Two—that provided the knockout punch to the San Francisco GiantsIn defeat, the Giants did become the first team not to be swept in a league championship series since the format began in 1969., whose veteran leadership willed first place out of the NL West despite finishing seventh in the NL in batting, sixth in ERA and dead last in defense.

As good as the Pirates had become, they took on the role of underdog in the World Series against the Orioles—and, for the first two gamesFor the second straight year, the Orioles won the first two games of the Series after winning their last 11 regular season games and sweeping the ALCS, for an overall 16-game win streak., played the part well, getting beat up 5-3 and 11-3 in Baltimore.

Vida Blue’s explosive breakout season merited him an illustrative appearance on the cover of Time Magazine.

Fortunes turned, however, as the Series moved to Pittsburgh. Pirates pitching unexpectedly rose to the occasion, allowing just nine total Baltimore hits through the next three games at Three Rivers Stadium. Steve Blass went the distance in a Game Three 5-1 win. In Game Four—the first Series game ever to be played at night—21-year-old rookie reliever Bruce Kison went prime time by rescuing starter Bob Miller in the first, clamping down the Orioles for seven innings as the Pirates scratched and clawed their way back to a 4-3 win. And in Game Five, Nelson Briles—an experienced Series veteran with the 1967-68 St. Louis Cardinals—completely silenced Baltimore with a two-hit shutout, 4-0.

The Orioles barely staved off elimination in Game Six, needing ten innings to eke out a 3-2 triumph. Hoping to buck the trend and win on the road—the first six games were won by the home team—the Pirates broke the ice in Game Seven on Clemente’s solo homer in the fourth; an eighth-inning insurance run proved crucial as the Orioles got a run back in the bottom of the inning, but that was it. The Pirates took the 2-1 clincher and captured their first championship since Bill MazeroskiMazeroski was still a Pirate in 1971, albeit as bench material; he appeared only once in the Series as a pinch-hitter.’s famous walk-off triumph in 1960.

Roberto Clemente, who was also there in 1960, was a happier camper now. All throughout the Series, the Orioles could not stop the tireless veteran, who raked Baltimore pitching with a .414 average, two doubles, one triple and two home runs. Finally, the light shined very bright on the 37-year old. The chip was gone.

Tragically, barely a year later, so would he.

1972 baseball historyForward to 1972: Labor Pains Major league ballplayers go on strike for the first time, leaving behind a bitter taste for angry fans.

1970 baseball historyBack to 1970: One for the Brooks The incomparable Brooks Robinson cleans up at third base on the world's biggest baseball stage for the Baltimore Orioles.

1970s baseball historyThe 1970s Page: Power to the Player Curt Flood's sacrificial stand to win free agency opens the door for the biggest challenge yet to the reserve clause, which is eventually shattered—but not without fans suffering from numerous player strikes and holdouts.

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They Were There: Bob Locker
Bob LockerBob Locker talks about Charles Finley, Vida Blue, Dick Williams and his experience playing for the 1969 Seattle Pilots.

1971 Standings

National League East
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals
Chicago Cubs
New York Mets
Montreal Expos
Philadelphia Phillies
National League West
San Francisco Giants
Los Angeles Dodgers
Atlanta Braves
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
San Diego Padres
American League East
Baltimore Orioles
Detroit Tigers
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Washington Senators
Cleveland Indians
American League West
Oakland A's
Kansas City Royals
Chicago White Sox
California Angels
Minnesota Twins
Milwaukee Brewers

1971 Postseason Results
NLCS Pittsburgh defeated San Francisco, 3-1.
ALCS Baltimore defeated Oakland, 3-0.
World Series Pittsburgh (NL) defeated Baltimore (AL), 4-3.

It Happened in 1971

Welcome to Baseball’s Foster Home
Two of baseball’s most publicized problem children—Curt Flood and Denny McLain—are given new life in the uniform of the Washington Senators. Neither player pays off. Flood, in the midst of his antitrust lawsuit against baseball, decides he’s not into it anymore and leaves the Senators after 13 games and a .200 batting average. McLain stays for the season, but his voluminous intake of Pepsi may be getting to him; he loses a major league-high 22 games in what will be his second-to-last big league season.

Washington Senators II, Epilogue
The second version of the Senators follows the lead of the original and departs the Nation’s Capitol after 11 years. The Senators had just one winning season (in 1969), never figured in a pennant race and never drew over a million fans in any one year. Realizing they wont get a third chance for quite awhile, Senators fans invade the field and rip apart the turf during the ninth inning of the final home game at RFK Stadium on September 30. Fittingly, Washington baseball ends not with the 7-5 victory over the New York Yankees that the Senators are an out away from, but a 9-0 forfeit loss after play cannot be resumed.

Owner Bob Short will take the Senators to the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, where the team will become the Texas Rangers. It’s the ninth relocation by a major league team in 18 years; there won’t be another for 34 years—when Washington gets its third shot by receiving the Montreal Expos.

Bent Halo
Reigning American League batting champ Alex Johnson, a veteran clubhouse malcontent, is suspended by the California Angels for the rest of the year on June 26 after a series of fines—29 in all—fail to change neither his bad attitude nor lack of hustle on the field. Teammates had long since tired of Johnson; Chico Ruiz had reportedly pulled a gun on him during one confrontation. An arbitrator will later overturn the suspension and reinstate Johnson’s lost wages, saying his behavior is a result of psychological problems.

The Last of the Brooklyn Dodgers
Bob Aspromonte retires from the New York Mets after the 1971 season. He was the last active player to have performed in the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers, thanks to a single at-bat he accrued in 1956.

Jackie Would be Proud
For the first time in major league history, a starting lineup made up entirely of African-Americans takes the field for the Pittsburgh Pirates against Montreal on September 1. The Bucs win, 10-7.

Fire the Scout
Leo Foster has a most dubious major league debut for the Atlanta Braves on July 9. The 20-year-old shortstop hits into a double play, a triple play and makes an error the first time the ball is hit at him during an 11-2 loss at Pittsburgh. Foster will play in parts of five seasons and will finish with a career .198 batting average in 262 at-bats.

Be Careful For What You Wish…
Oakland A’s owner Charles Finley is allowed to act on one of his innovative baseball ideas when a March 6 spring training game between the A’s and Milwaukee Brewers calls for walks to be awarded on three balls, not four. It increases offense, as Finley had theorized—Oakland wins, 13-9—but there are also 19 walks issued, not exactly what the fans are paying their good money to see. The idea is abandoned.

The One Wise Man
Philadelphia pitcher Rick Wise becomes a one-man show for the Phillies on June 23 at Cincinnati. He no-hits the Reds—allowing only a sixth-inning walk to Dave Concepcion—and provides almost all of the offense with two home runs, knocking in three during a 4-0 Phillies win.

Say it Ain’t So, Enzo
San Diego rookie Enzo Hernandez establishes a major league mark when, in 549 at-bats, he knocks in only 12 runs—the fewest ever by any player accumulating at least 500 at-bats. The Padres, exhibiting the worst offense in baseball, are part of the problem, but so is Hernandez’s lack of power—batting .222 with just 12 extra base hits, none of them home runs.

Hunt Down
Ron Hunt of the Montreal Expos works hard to adjust his batting stance so that he’s practically standing over the plate—and discovers the side effects of doing so. He’s hit 50 times by pitches during the season, easily a major league record which still stands.

The One-Run Non-Wonders
The Houston Astros are involved in a record 75 games decided by a single run. They will lose 43 of them.

Babe, Willie…And Now Hank
Hank Aaron becomes baseball’s third player to hit 600 home runs, reaching the milestone for the Atlanta Braves on April 27 against San Francisco. The Giants win it in ten innings, 6-5, on a RBI single by Willie Mays—the second player, after Babe Ruth and before Aaron, to reach 600.

Wait ’Til October
Reggie Jackson provides one of the All-Star Game’s most memorable moments when he crushes a home run completely out of Tiger Stadium in Detroit on July 13. The 520-foot blast hit off of Pittsburgh’s Doc Ellis helps give the AL its only All-Star triumph over the NL between 1962 and 1983, 6-4.

26 Fallen Angels
Numerous records—all of which look favorably on pitching—are set during a 20-inning marathon between the A’s and Angels on July 9 in Oakland. A’s starter Vida Blue throws 11 shutout innings and strikes out 17, the most by a major league pitcher all year. Overall, four Oakland pitchers combine to strike out 26 Angels, the most by any team in a game regardless of length; the combined total of 43 strikeouts between both teams sets another mark. By winning 1-0, the A’s also establish an AL record for the longest shutout victory.

Dumb Trades of Giant Proportions
In what is among the first of many bad trades the Giants will put together over the next decade, George Foster is sent to the Reds for Frank Duffy and Vern Geishert. All involved are considered common players—except that Duffy and Geishert will remain so while Foster emerges as a major force for the Reds throughout the 1970s. Duffy will later be traded away—along with star pitcher Gaylord Perry—for Cleveland hurler Sam McDowell in another ruinous swap.

New Ballparks

Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia The last of the “concrete donuts,” the multi-purpose, fully-enclosed, artificially turfed Veterans Stadium went one further than other such stadiums by being part of an overall sports complex—next door was The Spectrum, home to the basketball’s 76ers and hockey’s Flyers. (Oakland, and eventually Kansas City, would do the same.) Costing $50 million, Veterans Stadium was also way ahead of its time in another aspect: It briefly toyed with the idea of selling the facility name to the highest bidder. At well over 60,000, the seating at Veterans was among the largest in baseball, meaning more of Philadelphia’s famous boo birds could pay their way in to ridicule the Phillies. It was demolished in 2004 to make way for the Phillies’ new ballpark, Citizens Bank Park.

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