Baseball Men - The Captain

Our "Baseball Men" series continues with Sal Bando, who led the 1972-74 Oakland A's to three straight World Championships.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.

The 1972-74 Athletics may have been the most unlikely dynasty in baseball history. There were multiple, excellent reasons why the club shouldn't have put together winning seasons, much less championships.

In Charlie O. Finley, they had one of the most eccentric and erratic owners of all time, one notorious for his frequent press feuds, managerial firings, and personal run-in's. In their organization, they had Minor League-style practices ranging from gaudy uniforms to pet donkeys to gimmick ‘pinch runners'. In their home town, they had some of the weakest fan support in the Majors, which provided ample justification for one of the skimpiest payrolls in the game. Finally, on their players, they had one of the most diverse and combative ball clubs since the 1930's-era Gas House Gang, one that was never too far from their next shouting match or fistfight.

And, yet, through it all, the Athletics still won, and won at the very highest level. Much of the reason was the sheer talent on display when players like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Blue Moon Odom and Vida Blue took the field, but another key to the titles was the leadership of Salvatore Leonard Bando.

Bando was the unquestioned leader of the green-and-gold dynasty, a third baseman who earned an almost unbelievable level of respect among his fellow ball players. Named team captain at age 24, the four-time All Star acted as the de facto ringleader of the A's circus, the one who organized off-field dinner outings, sparked anything-goes clubhouse conversations, dispatched outside distractions, and set the tone for on-field efforts.

When everything else threatened to tear them apart, Sal Bando's Athletics stayed together to forge a dynasty. Recently, a "captain's captain" discussed what baseball leadership's all about:

What did baseball mean to you when you growing up?

When I was kid back in Cleveland, I loved playing baseball, but also basketball and football. All sports. Actually, my best sport was football.

It was a game and a passion, first off. I didn't know or think about the Majors. As a kid, I think you just know you're a little better than the kids you played with and against. It wasn't until I got to Arizona State and started holding my own that I thought, 'you know what, I can play this game'.


Mostly because I was doing well while playing with and against kids from around the country. Many of them had been playing year-round while I was playing three months a year, so that was a good sign.

In the mid-1960's, it was still relatively rare for a star prospect to attend college. Why did you decide to attend Arizona State?

My family was very close-knit and emphasized education, so a scholarship seemed to be a good foundation to the future.

As far as Arizona State, that came about because, back in Cleveland, I played summer leagues for a gentleman named Rich Luscovic. He was also a professor of mathematics at ASU, and he recruited me. As a matter of fact, when we won the national championship, we had six guys from Cleveland summer leagues on the team, all of them due to Mr. Luscovic's recruiting.

You mentioned that you played football, and I understand that you received full-ride scholarship offers in that sport, too. Why did you choose baseball?

Yeah, I was a running quarterback. This should let you know how times have changed - back then, I was 'big' at 6', 195 lbs. I mean, I was bigger than most of my offensive linemen in high school. But, as I got into college, I noticed that everyone suddenly got bigger and faster, and that wasn't too appealing, especially after I started to do well in baseball during freshman year.

When you played for Coach Bobby Winkles, your team won the first of what turned out to be several national championships for ASU. Was the coach a big influence on you?

I think so. The coach was very knowledgeable, very fundamentals-oriented, and very, very disciplined. To him, there were no individuals because there was no preferential treatment. He also told us we should think of each other more as a family than a team. I guess we all bought into that, and success bred more success.

A lot has been said about baseball leadership, that it's about giving full effort, attention to details, making teammates take responsibility for 'we' instead of 'me'. Were you looked to as a leader as a young ball player? If so, why?

Well, I was captain for all my teams going back to high school, in baseball, football, and basketball. The coach didn't want to name me captain as a junior, but if I'd gone back for that last year, I would have been named captain at ASU, too.

Why was that? Looking back, I think it was a few things. One, I could get along with everyone, I didn't hang out in cliques. Two, I always played to win. I mean, that was foremost on my mind, regardless of my numbers.

Finally, I wasn't afraid to speak up with my teammates. I always encouraged them and got on anyone if they slacked off or showed a lack of focus or didn't show up ready to play. At the same, time, I never, ever criticized anyone just because they made an error or struck out or whatever.

Why not?

What's the old saying? 'Those who live in glass houses . . . ' (chuckles) I certainly knew what it was like to have a bad game.

In my experience, a guy who'd good enough to reach the Major Leagues, especially, has a tremendous, tremendous pride in what he's doing. If he needs anything at all, he needs a pat on the back, and if it comes from his peer, it's appreciated. So I wanted to help my teammates and encourage them.

It may have had something to do with your playing style, too. Catfish Hunter had this to say in his autobiography - 'When Captain Sal spoke, even E.F. Hutton listened. Sal always played with such a controlled fury, with so much heart, that he just naturally evolved into the team leader'.

That was Catfish. What can I say? He always had a lot of good word about everyone else, but when it came to himself, forget it - he was as humble as they come.

Were you surprised when you were named A's team captain as a second year player?

Yeah, Hank Bauer did that at the start of my second full year. When he did that, I told him, 'Hank, there are guys who have been here a lot longer than me, I don't know if this is the right thing to do'.

He said, 'you've been doing it, we're just going to make it official'. So I said, 'fine' and the A's named me captain. I'll never forget, I got $500 for it.

Did it carry any official status?

Well, Charlie Finley didn't give me any extra money after that, that's for sure. (chuckles) The only thing was, later, Dick Williams and Alvin Dark had me take lineup cards out to the umpires before the first pitch. That was it. I think it was accepted by the guys because I never held [my captaincy] over anybody. I think if you'd ask someone like Derek Jeter, he'd say the same thing.

In that first year, especially, were you intimidated by the fact that the A's hadn't won in so long?

No, not really. I hadn't been there before, obviously, and I knew the team had a nucleus - Reggie [Jackson], Catfish [Hunter], [Rick] Monday, [Joe] Rudi, myself - who had won on every level. I remember, we won the title in A ball, we won the title in AA ball, and I think we lost the title in AAA ball on the last day of the season. By the time I came up, we were already used to winning.

Your former teammates also described you as a 'manager on the field'. Sometimes catchers attain that kind of status, but rarely third basemen. Did you consciously try to act that way?

I didn't single myself out, I really didn't. I just wanted to do anything I could to help us win.

I suppose, because I was into the game, I could remember scouting reports and I also knew pitchers had to be reminded. Catchers do that, too, but they're busy on calling the game and doing their own thing on every pitch. Instead of them coming out to the mound all the time, I'd finish throwing the ball around the infield, come over to our pitcher and say, 'remember, this one leans for the outside pitch' or 'remember, that one's a dead pull hitter'.

The thinking is, [if] the staff learns to trust you to provide hints, then they can go ahead and focus in on what they have to do to execute.

Speaking of that pitching staff, you played with a future Hall of Famer in Catfish Hunter. Was it hard relating to him as a star player?

(chuckles) It was the easiest thing in the world. The thing about Catfish, if you just walked into the clubhouse and knew nothing about baseball, you'd never know the guy was an ace or 20-game winner. Or anybody special. As I said, there was nothing put-on about him; he was just a good, down-home kid from Hertford, North Carolina. I can't say enough about him.

He was a leader on the team, in this sense - if you hurt him or got him angry, you were the one who felt terrible, because he was that good of a person. He kept everyone grounded and loose.

You got along very well with another superstar, Reggie Jackson. How did that relationship work?

Hey, Reggie was the key to our club. I mean, he was a leader, too, because he could carry the club for weeks at a time.

Sometimes, sure, Reggie could get a bit too quotable or colorful for his own good. At times, he just needed a friend, someone with both feet on the ground to remind him of things. I'd call him over and say, 'Hey, Buck, c'mon, you shouldn't be saying that'.

We were good friends, by the way. We overlapped at ASU and, for a time, we lived in the same apartment complex in Oakland. I saw Reggie with his wife and he'd see me and my wife. We'd drive over to the park together. As the years went by, we respected each other and believed in each other.

Why did the same guy run into all sorts of clubhouse problems in New York after you parted ways?

If I had to guess, I think the difference was this - in Oakland, we welcomed Reggie, we appreciated his flair for the dramatic. We weren't put off by him. With the Yankees, I'd suppose, he wasn't welcomed because he was the newcomer and the guy who was taking away from their shining stars.

I can only speak about our team, and there was another thing about us - Reggie often said what a lot of us on were thinking and wanted to say! Yeah, he was a lightning rod, but we knew where he was coming from, too.

Were you more likely to lead with a yell or a whisper?

The latter, definitely. I didn't holler at my team mates - I yelled at our opponents for their attitude, sometimes. I could get hot at an umpire for a bad call. What's the point of yelling at your teammates? You're all in it together and it's a long, long season.

Did you remember delivering any Knute Rockne speeches to fire up the team?

No, that wasn't my style. It was more like, we'd be in the dugout before a game, and it's (upbeat tone), 'let's go guys, let's get our act together'. Or during batting practice, giving a pat on the back and say, 'C'mon, let's get it done'. That's it. You have to respect the fact that your teammates mostly motivate themselves.

What comes out of the stories from those days is a kind of down-to-earth swagger, if there is such a thing. For example, Jackson, writing in his biography, recalled a conversation before the 1974 World Series.

Jackson: "Did you read that stuff in the papers?"

Bando: "Yeah".

Jackson: "I say we dispose of these people quickly."

Bando: "That sounds like an excellent idea, Buck."

(chuckles) Yeah, that sounds about right. It may be a cliché, but if you win, that does take care of a lot.

Did you consider your teammates to be personal friends?

Yeah, I think there was a friendship without smothering. We gave each other space, but it was the kind of team where you could run into anybody at the coffee shop and end up hanging out with him during lunch.

As you know, it was one of the most diverse teams in baseball history up to that point - it had players from every part of America and several different countries, with several races, with personalities from party guys to straight-laced family men. What was that like?

I'd be surprised if any of those old Athletics looked at color or where anyone's from. We hung together and we were all interested in winning. We kidded around a lot and even got into some fights, people know about that, but what we said and did always stayed between us. As Coach Winkles said, we treated each other like family.

Some have also called it the funniest teams of all time. Was humor a big part of the team relationships?

That's fair to say. Put it this way - nothing was off limits, but everything stayed there. Catfish and [Rollie] Fingers and myself would make a point of going after each other or whoever might have a big ego, but we'd never take those comments to the media or outsiders.

Well, your teammates' personal respect for you was almost quasi-comical at times, too. There are stories, as you know, of Gene Tenace making a point of ordering the same items from the menu whenever you ate together.

(chuckles) Well, we used to joke Gino did that because he couldn't read, but the whole thing was all just a put-on. Hey, we laughed a lot, especially when things were going well.

That attitude may have been indispensable, actually, in that Charlie Finley was firing his managers almost every year. Did that affect you at all?

Well, as you might have guessed, that didn't faze us too much. (chuckles)

The situation was, a bunch of us came up together and depended on each other and knew each other, regardless of the manager. We weren't going to change the way we played. Plus, what's the manager really going to do? I mean, he's not going to sit Rollie Fingers or Catfish Hunter or Reggie Jackson, much less send them down [to the Minors].

Your manager in 1971-73, Dick Williams, said you were the only ball player he ever socialized with in his 20 seasons in the Majors. How did you relate to him?

Dick Williams was a smart, tough baseball man and the socializing was just my way of befriending him, more than anything else. We mostly just talked baseball.

It was such a tough situation with Charlie Finley's antics - whoever happened to be the manager at the time was really in the same boat with the players. A lot of people have noted that we had a common enemy, so we were forced to rally together.

But another team would have used that as an excuse to slack off.

Well, first off, you have to credit Finley for accumulating the talent on our ball club. As owner and general manager, he listening to his scouts, drafted very well, paid his draft picks signing bonuses, and kept us together.

That being said, over time, he became more and more difficult, as you know. It's true, and we probably didn't win as many regular season games as we could have if he simply stayed out of the way. In many ways, and we had to win despite him.

Why did your teams end up winning those titles in the end?

Because, number one, we played to win. We didn't know any other way, and that was our pride.

Second, let's be honest - in those days, when most of us weren't making big salaries, we desperately needed the playoff and title money to support our families. It's hard to believe now, in the era of guaranteed contracts, but we were all on one-year contracts. We had to give our best to get the next contract.

After moving on from the A's, in 1977, you signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, where you played alongside a young Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. Did you see mentoring as part of your job?

Bud Selig recruited me for that reason, for what I could contribute both as a player and a person. I appreciated that and I actually turned down better financial offers to come to Milwaukee.

I was thinking of helping out the younger guys, sure. At that point, I was into my thirties and on the downside of my career. [Yount and Molitor] became terrific players because they had worlds of talent, of course, but I tried to contribute some common sense and advice along the way.

Commentators often refer to 'clubhouse chemistry' on winning teams, but it's unclear what it really is. Do you think you can deliberately go about creating team chemistry?

I seriously doubt it. To me, it's all about having a nucleus of talented guys who are very close and completely committed to winning. All of it has to come together at the exact same time - the talent and closeness and values.

I'm not sure you can consciously build a team with those qualities. So much of it comes from inside, and you can only see the results through day-to-day experience.

I understand you're a business executive and advocate nowadays. Did your leadership in baseball help you take on those responsibilities?

There's no question about it. I love the game and it's taught me so much.

Baseball teaches you a lot of things - it teaches you get along with people, to stay focused, to work for success, to constantly pick yourself up from setbacks. Many, many things. Playing the game on the Major League level definitely enriched my personal life and professional work alike, and I've been very blessed.

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