Athletics History: Dismantling Dynasties

The Oakland A's decision to trade star players this off-season was shocking to many fans, but was nothing new for many who have followed the Athletics franchise for many years. In fact, the A's trades this off-season pale in comparison to some of the trade-offs that signaled the end of the A's dynasties in the 1910s, 1920s and 1970s. Donald Moore reviews the dismantling of those dynasties inside.

The Athletics franchise has had a long and troubling history of dismantling their championship clubs. There were various reasons why Philadelphia A's owner Connie Mack and Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley chose to dismantle their dynasty teams. In Connie Mack's case, he had to deal with the troubles of World War One, the start-up of the Federal League, and the Great Depression, and in Charlie Finley's case, he just didn't want to spend the money it would take to field a competitive team in the advent of free agency.

The First Dynasty (1910-1914)
The early Philadelphia A's were one of the most dominant teams in the newly formed junior circuit, called the American League. The A's won the AL pennant six times from 1900-1915: 1902, 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914. The A's were also World Series champs in 1910, 1911 and 1913.

The 1914 AL championship club featured the "$100,000" infield that consisted of first baseman Stuffy McInnis, second baseman Eddie Collins, shortstop Jack Barry and third basemen Frank "Home Run" Baker and a pitching staff that included Eddie Plank, Jack Coombs, Chief Bender, Herb Pennock, "Bullet" Joe Bush and Bob Shawkey. Nineteen-fourteen was also the start of the first World War and an even more sinister battle for baseball lay ahead, the impending birth of the Federal League.

This newly formed professional league would not honor the reserve clause in MLB contracts, a clause that bound a player to the team with whom he signed. The Federal League would, in essence. offer bigger contracts than their American and National League rivals, thus causing a mass defection of star players in both leagues.

The 1914 World Series pitted a powerful and heavily favored Athletics over the underdog Boston Braves. Amazingly, the Braves swept the A's in four games. Some say the A's players threw the series in order to get out of their contracts with frugal owner Connie Mack and move on to the new lucrative market in the Federal League. Mack admitted later on that the Federal League caused discourse on his club and distracted his players. At the time, Mack didn't realize that some of his star players were planning in advance of the World Series to jump over to the new league.

During the winter of 1914, Mack was faced with a growing payroll and a serious strain on the A's finances because attendance didn't keep up with expenses, and with the impending Federal League raids, Mack decided to release his three best pitchers – Coombs, who would go on to sign with the Brooklyn of the National League, and Bender and Plank, who would both sign on to play in the new Federal League. He then sold Collins to the White Sox. In July, he sold the contracts of Barry and Pennock to the Red Sox, outfielder Eddie Murphy and catcher Jack Lapp to the White Sox and Shawkey to the Highlanders. These moves basically gutted the once mighty Athletics team and they became the only team in history to go from first to last in a single season. They won a total of 43 games and lost 109 in 1915.

The Second Dynasty (1927-1932)
It took Connie Mack 15 years to assemble his second powerful A's dynasty. In 1927 and 1928, the Philadelphia A's finished second to the New York Yankees and then won pennants in 1929, 1930 and 1931, winning the World Series in 1929 and 1930. In each of those three years, the A's won more than 100 games.

Veteran players welcomed the opportunity to play for the A's. The 1927 A's featured future Hall of Fame players Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb and Zack Wheat. The 1928,1929, 1930 and 1931 A's team featured a pitching staff led by Lefty Grove, Howard Ehmke, George Earnshaw, Rube Walberg and Eddie Rommel. Catcher Mickey Cochrane, first baseman Jimmie Foxx, second basemen Max Bishop and Eddie Collins, shortstop Joe Boley, third baseman Jimmy Dykes, outfielders Bing Miller, Mule Haas and Al Simmons were the core position players.

Nineteen-thirty was the beginning of the Great Depression and the effects were slowly taking hold over the entire nation and baseball teams were no exceptions. The A's players were making huge salaries, but attendance was low due to poor economic conditions. Mack once again had to make some tough decisions. In 1933, with falling attendance due to the depression and with his bloated payroll, the highest in the league, he realized he had to trade his star players to keep his team afloat.

Mack sold the contracts of Simmons, Dykes and Haas to the White Sox. Mack then sold the contract of Cochrane to Detroit, and second baseman/coach Collins then left to become GM of the Red Sox. Mack then traded starting pitchers Grove, Walberg and infielder Bishop to Boston for a pair of minor leaguers and $125,000. Mack also sold the contract of Earnshaw to the White Sox.

The dismantling of the second A's dynasty was complete. Mack later explained that he felt he had no other alternative than to break up the Athletics in order to save the franchise. Financial difficulties due to the Great Depression and stadium rehabilitation were the main factors in his decisions to break up the A's. The 1933 A's team finished in third place, followed by fifth place in 1934 and finally in last place by 1935.

The Third Dynasty (1971-1975)
The Swinging A's under maverick owner Charlie Finley was the third A's dynasty that eventually would be dismantled by an A's owner. Unlike Connie Mack's championship teams, who dominated their opposition, the 1970s A's teams played just good enough to capture their division five years in a row – 1971,1972,1973, 1974 and 1975 – and win three World Championships in 1972, 1973 and 1974.

The A's won games with great pitching, good defense and clutch hitting. The core of this group included such players as Jim" Catfish" Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Paul Linblad, Gene Tenace, Dick Green, Bert Campaneris, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bill North and Reggie Jackson.

The first cracks in the foundation of those teams started on December 13, 1974. That's when baseball arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that A's owner Charlie Finley failed to make a payment on Jim Hunter's insurance policy, thus making Hunter baseball's first free agent. Despite losing Hunter to the New York Yankees, the A's repeated as the AL West champions in 1975, but lost to the Red Sox in the ALCS in a three-game sweep.

At the beginning of the 1976 baseball season, the basic rules of player contracts were changing. Arbitrator Peter Seitz had ruled that the baseball's reserve clause only bound players for one season after their contracts expired. This made all players not signed to multi-year contracts eligible for free agency at the conclusion of the 1976 season. Like his predecessor before him, Finley reacted to these new financial demands by trading or selling his star players.

Finley stunned the baseball world on April 2,1976 by trading All Star outfielder Reggie Jackson, starting pitcher Ken Holtzman and minor league pitcher Bill Van Bommel to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for pitcher Mike Torrez, outfielder Don Baylor and rookie pitcher Paul Mitchell. On June 15, 1976, Finley tried to sell Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox for $2 million dollars and Vida Blue to the New York Yankees for $1.5 million, but was blocked by then-Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who voided the deals in the "best interests of baseball." At the end of the 1976 season, most of the A's veteran core players – Baylor, Rudi, Campaneris, Bando, Fingers, Tenace and Willie McCovey – filed for free agency and left the A's.

The collapse of the A's was total and swift. In 1977, the A's finished dead last, after the expansion Seattle Mariners ball club. Once again, one of baseball's most successful franchises suffered a total dismantling. The reasons varied on why the A's owners chose to break up their championship clubs, but the common denominator was cash. In reality, baseball is a business, and both Connie Mack and Charlie Finley were businessmen. They did what they felt was the right thing to do in order to survive in a competitive environment. But as an A's fan, those were very sad times indeed.

Sources: Oakland Athletics: and "The Mackmen," by the Baseball Padre.

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