Red Sox-A’s & 1975 ALCS Lore

Before the 1975 Red Sox played an epic World Series with Cincinnati, they dethroned a dynasty in Oakland.

Before the 1975 Red Sox played an epic World Series with Cincinnati, they dethroned a dynasty in Oakland.

The Boston Red Sox wrap up a three-game series with the Oakland A’s this afternoon in Fenway Park. When the Red Sox & A’s meet, it’s a time to break out the American League Championship Series lore. The franchises have met three times in the LCS, plus once more in the Division Series. The biggest victory Boston had was back in 1975, when they won the pennant and broke Oakland’s three-year stranglehold on both the AL flag and World Series title.

Much has been written and filmed about the ensuing World Series that Boston played against the Cincinnati Reds. Combine that with the fact the Red Sox swept the A’s in three straight games (the LCS was best-of-five prior to 1985), and it gives the impression that a Boston victory in the playoffs was inevitable or a “had it all the way” blowout. Neither was the case.

Oakland was not only the three-time defending World Series champion, but they had a vastly superior pitching staff. The A’s were second in the American League in ERA. Rollie Fingers, a true 1970s-style closer, pitched 126 innings and picked up ten wins to go with his 24 saves. Fingers finished third in the Cy Young balloting and gave Oakland the ability to dominate the final three innings of any game. Vida Blue won 22 games to anchor the rotation, Ken Holtzman was a championship-experienced lefty in the #2 spot. Even relative no-names Dick Bosman and Stan Bahnsen had better ERAs than anyone in the Boston rotation.

The Red Sox rotation was top-heavy on Luis Tiant, Bill Lee and Rick Wise. The team’s real strength was its offense. That’s no surprise to anyone familiar with the long history of Sox baseball. What needs to be noted is that this was not a prototypical Red Sox lineup of home run hitters. Only dynamic rookies Fred Lynn and Jim Rice exceeded 20 home runs. The team built its success on being the best in the American League in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage, well before those stats became fashionable.

Luis Tiant got the ball for Game 1 on the first Saturday of October. Tiant had delivered 18 wins for the Sox, one of which was a big 2-0 win over Baltimore’s Cy Young winner Jim Palmer at a time when the Orioles were threatening to tighten up the AL East race in September. Holtzman pitched for Oakland. The Red Sox lineup was hindered by the fact Rice suffered a late September injury. His absence obviously weakened the offense, and it forced the now 34-year-old Carl Yastrzemski back into left field, instead of the first base Yaz had played throughout the year.

Yaz might not have had the youthful spring in his step, but he’d waited eight years for a return to postseason play and the future Hall of Famer was ready from the get-go. In the bottom of the first he singled with two outs and with aggressive baserunning forced an error by Oakland leftfielder Claudell Washington, enabling him to get to second base. Carlton Fisk, the New England-born catcher, who had a dominant offensive year then reached on an error. Lynn’s groundball to second base was booted. The veteran A’s were playing like rookies, scared of the big stage and their trio of errors gave Boston two immediate runs.

The Sox missed a chance in the bottom of the second, but Tiant and Holtzman then settled in for a pitcher’s duel that was still 2-0 in the seventh inning. Reggie Jackson was playing right field for Oakland at this stage of his career, and he singled to lead off the frame, taking second on an error by Lynn. Oakland had tough hitters in Gene Tenance (catcher and MVP of the 1972 World Series), and Joe Rudi (whom the Red Sox would attempt to acquire less than a year later in a controversial move voided by the commissioner). El Tiante got both to fly out and did the same to speedy centerfielder Billy North. The lead was still two-zip.

Boston broke it open in their own half of the seventh. Doubles by rightfielder Dwight Evans and shortstop Rick Burleson produced a run and chased Holtzman. Juan Beniquez, the DH was in the lineup because of the Rice injury, delivered the second of his two Game 1 hits and made it 4-0. He would later score on yet another Oakland error, Fisk and Lynn tacked on RBI hits and at 7-0 the game was all but over. Although Boston managed to get on the defensive comedy routine. The Sox booted a couple balls themselves, costing Tiant his shutout. Not until the opening two games of the 2004 World Series, would the Fenway Faithful get to see such atrocious defense in postseason play (the ’04 Red Sox committed eight errors while winning those two games). But like in ’04, all’s well when you win.

Sunday’s were not a happy time in the greater New England area in 1975 thanks to a lousy year from the Patriots, but on this day, the thrashing they took from the Jets surely bothered no one. The Red Sox had a chance to get a stranglehold on the ALCS.

In a curious decision manager Darrell Johnson opted for mediocre starter Reggie Cleveland over the reliable Lee. Perhaps Lee had a nagging injury (he would start two World Series games).  But there was also a combustible relationship between Lee and Johnson that resulted in an in-and-out-of-doghouse circs. The two clashed over a number of things and the pitcher was a controversial figure generally (he was the 1970s version of Tim Thomas,  on the opposite side of the political spectrum). Had Boston lost, I’d jump down Johnson’s throat for not pitching the crafty lefthander. As it was, the skipper still  played with fire, because Oakland came out ready to play in what proved to be an exciting Game 2.

With two outs in the first, Oakland third baseman Sal Bandon doubled, and Reggie gave Red Sox fans a taste of the torment that would lie ahead when he put on pinstripes two years later. A home run staked Blue—a previous Cy Young Award winner who’d finished sixth in the ’75 voting—to a 2-0 lead. Oakland threatened again in the third, but Yaz gunned speedy Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris on the basepaths to end the threat. Boston missed its own chance in that same inning when Beniquez hit into a double play with runners on first and second.

Oakland appeared to be on its way to restoring what they perceived as order in this series when Rudi and Washington hit consecutive two-out doubles. But in a three-run hole, the Red Sox offense immediately turned it around. Doyle singled and Yaz continued his great play with a home run. Fisk doubled and Lynn drove him in with the tying run. Blue came out and for the final four innings, Oakland showed they knew the urgency of the moment when Fingers was brought in to start the fifth.

Yaz hit .455 against Oakland would have been ALCS MVP had the award existed then.

Yaz hit .455 against Oakland would have been ALCS MVP had the award existed then.

Fingers had all but pioneered the closer’s role as it evolved in the 1970s, but the Red Sox no more feared him than they would fear the man who perfected the role, Mariano Rivera, in an ALCS still 29 years in the distance. Boston threatened in the fifth, though Reggie threw out first baseman Cecil Cooper at the plate. One inning later, the Sox broke through. Who else by Yaz? He hit a one-out double and scored the lead run on a base hit by Fisk. Boston continued to add on in the seventh when Petrocelli hit a solo home run.

The A’s still had answers though and the score was only 5-3. Bando got another of the four hits he would collect in Game 2 with a double in the eighth, and reached third with two outs. Johnson summoned Dick Drago. In the biggest at-bat of the season to date, Drago induced Gene Tenace to fly out. The Red Sox touched Fingers for one more run in their half of the inning, Drago closed the ninth without incident and Boston was one win from a pennant.

A clinching win would have to take place in Oakland though, as the A’s would host the balance of the series. When you research baseball from this and previous eras there are a ton of incidents that fall into the “how much times have changed” category, and here’s one of them—Oakland brought Holtzman back for Game 3 on two days’ rest. Johnson was still bound and determined not to pitch Lee, but the manager did give the ball to 19-game winner Rick Wise.

On the verge of the Series, Yaz again came out and looked to put his mark on this game. He and Doyle each hit first-inning singles, but Doyle committed the inexcusable error of getting thrown out at third to end the inning. In the fourth, Lynn hit a two-out flyball that was dropped in the Oakland outfield, who kept on giving gifts. Third baseman Rico Petrocelli cashed in the gift with an RBI single.

Dick Drago came up big in relief at the key moments in Games 2 & 3.

Dick Drago came up big in relief at the key moments in Games 2 & 3.

The game was still a tight 1-0 in the fifth. Burleson doubled, and then a sequence of two-out hits put the Red Sox on the brink. The first came from Doyle, who redeemed his baserunning blunder. Of course one came from Yaz and sent Holtzman to the showers. Then Fisk singled. A wild pitch was mixed in there, the score was 4-0 and the Red Sox were twelve outs from a pennant.

Wise’s key moment came in the bottom of the sixth when Oakland put runners on first and third. Wise limited the damage to one run and struck out Jackson to end the threat. Boston added an insurance run in the eighth, when Cooper delivered a clutch two-out RBI single to score Fisk.

It wouldn’t’ be the Boston Red Sox if they didn’t give everyone heart failure at least one more time. A single and error by Doyle were followed by RBI base hits from Bando and Reggie. It was 5-3, the bases were loaded with one out and Drago again came on to face Rudi. A ground ball hit to Burleson started a 6-4-3 double play, and all that was left was for the reliever to close things out in the ninth to start the celebration.

At the time there was no MVP given in the League Championship Series. If there had been, it would have been an easy vote—Yaz hit .455 for the series, threw a man out on the base paths and as this summary demonstrates, it seemed as though every hit was a big one. Drago would also have been a worthy choice, having gotten the season’s most important outs in the hotly contest second and third games. Had either victory slipped away, who knows what the veteran A’s might have done. At the very least, it would have meant using Tiant in Game 4, which in turn would have left him unavailable to open the World Series, which likely means Boston doesn’t take Cincinnati the distance.

Whatever it all meant, an eight-year wait for the World Series was over. Boston had ended the Oakland dynasty and captured the American League pennant.

 

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