The strange saga of the 1978 Oakland A's

Last week, in a piece on the Brewers, I presented the following chart, a list of all teams that played .750 or better in April with at least 20 games played (the Brewers ended up one win short of that percentage):

As you can see, 17 of the 18 teams would finish above .500. So who were the 1978 Oakland A's and what happened to them?

I guess the simple answer is they were a bad team that had one hot month. The 1977 A's went 63-98, finishing behind the expansion Mariners; the 1979 A's would go 54-108. So the fact that the '78 A's finished 69-93 despite their 16-5 April maybe isn't all that surprising or interesting.

But the story of the '78 A's certainly is interesting, even beyond a good April.

Some quick background in case you're not familiar with this time. The A's won the World Series in 1972, 1973 and 1974, in the years before free agency. That dynasty began crumbling after the third championship when the A's lost Catfish Hunter to free agency via a technicality -- owner Charlie Finley had failed to pay $50,000 into an insurance annuity for Hunter as required in his contract. Hunter went to arbitration and was declared a free agent, signing with the Yankees. This was before real free agency would begin after the 1976 season. The A's won their fifth straight AL West title in 1975 without Hunter, but lost the ALCS to the Red Sox.

In April of 1976, with free agency looming after that season, Finley traded Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman to the Orioles for Don Baylor, Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell. That June, Finley agreed to sell Vida Blue to the Yankees and Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox for a total of $3.5 million. "I plan to use this money to great advantage. We'll be able to purchase a lot of players at the end of the season," Finley said. Fingers and Rudi actually dressed for a game in Red Sox uniforms but weren't allowed to play. Instead, commissioner Bowie Kuhn blocked the deals, leading to a Sports Illustrated cover that read "Baseball in Chaos."

Under manager Chuck Tanner that club stole a record 341 bases and went 87-75, finishing in second place. But that was it for the Oakland dynasty. Rudi and Baylor signed with the Angels. Fingers and Gene Tenace signed with the Padres. Sal Bando signed with the Brewers. Bert Campaneries signed with the Rangers. In March, Phil Garner was traded to the Pirates and Claudell Washington to the Rangers. Torrez was traded in April to the Yankees. Blue made it through the 1977 season but was traded in March of 1978 to the Giants.

So that's where the A's stood entering the 1978 season, a team of kids and nobodies with an owner who didn't market the team or invest in scouts (at one point, the A's had no scouts, relying on reports from the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau). Bobby Winkles, who had replaced Jack McKeon during the 1977 season, was the manager. Winkles had been the longtime coach at Arizona State before moving to the major leagues and had spent a season and a half managing the Angels. McKeon remained on the staff as a coach.

The A's lost two of three in Anaheim to start the season but then swept four at home against the Mariners, including two shutouts. After splitting two games with the Angels they won eight in a row, again sweeping the Mariners with the help of two more shutouts. The final two games of that streak were 14-inning and 12-inning wins at home against the Twins. Nobody was going to the games, however. After drawing 17,283 for their home opener, the A's hadn't drawn more than 5,000 to any subsequent games. After a couple losses, they won five more in a row. On May 5, they beat the Tigers at home as John Henry Johnson pitched a four-hitter. They even drew 14,612 fans. At that point, they were 19-5 and the staff ERA was 1.71.

It would be the high point of the season. They were shut out their next three games. On May 22, with the team 24-15 and still in first place, Winkles resigned as manager, unable to deal with Finley's daily phone calls and managerial advice. Sports Illustrated reported:

Last week Bobby Winkles, who had managed a collection of low-salaried kids and has-beens to first place in the American League West, chucked his job because Finley had become just too much. There were reports that Finley had been considering putting earphones on Winkles so he could communicate with him directly in the dugout. Meanwhile, Finley kept calling him on the phone at home. A typical early-morning call to Winkles would command, "Get up! Only whores make their living in bed." When Winkles recently spent a day off visiting Napa Valley vineyards and was unreachable by phone, Finley raged, "If you ever do that again, you can go someplace else." After Winkles finally phoned (ah, the irony) Charlie to tell him he was quitting, Finley was moved to concede, "Maybe my telephone calls were driving him to the nut house."

The team's traveling secretary also served as the team statistician. The players were complaining because Finley wouldn't pay for a batting practice pitcher who threw left-handed. One of the players used to go to a local restaurant that videotaped A's games, because the A's themselves didn't have videotape equipment.

McKeon returned to the manager's role and the A's actually kept possession of first place through June 13. That June, the A's had two first-round picks and drafted high school pitchers Mike Morgan and Tim Conroy. Even though the A's were still battling for first place, Finley decided to have both kids begin their professional careers in the majors. Morgan made three starts, tossing a complete game in his debut (a 3-0 loss) a week after graduating from high school. He'd pitched more than seven innings just once in high school. Conroy started twice and lasted a total of 4.2 innings, walking nine and striking out none, although the A's managed to win both games.

Finley's rationale for starting them? If they aren't ready for the majors, the world would know soon enough, he said. After Morgan's debut, which drew 17,000 fans to the Oakland Coliseum, McKeon was asked if Morgan would start again. He said he didn't know. Finley, sitting next to him, whispered in his ear. "We've just discussed it," McKeon said. "He'll be in the rotation." Morgan got hammered his next two starts, both Oakland losses.

Relief pitcher Bob Lacey said starting the two teenagers five times was a message that the A's "don't want it." He then ripped McKeon and the coaches, saying the A's bunted too much, weren't being properly motivated and had too many late-inning pinch hitters, pinch runners and subs. "We need a new philosophy and a new manager," Lacey said.

In late June and early July Oakland won of eight of nine to climb back into first on July 5, with a record of 43-39 (four teams in the AL West were within a game of each other). Still, Finley continued to bother his manager with phone calls. McKeon told this story to Baseball Prospectus several years ago:

So I'm managing, and we bring up this kid from Jersey City in the Eastern League who is leading the league in steals with something like 62. His name was Darrell Woodard. Charlie told me, "You don't know anything about this guy, but I'll fill you in. He's a rabbit, and you should try to use him every day to pinch-run if you can." Charlie used to call guys who could run "rabbits" and guys who couldn't run were "trucks." He added that in the event that I had to play Woodard in the field, I should only put him at second base. So one day we're playing the Indians, it's 3-2 in the eighth inning, and Wayne Gross is my third baseman. Gross is a truck, and he gets a base hit, so I put the rabbit in to run for him. I'm out of bench players, so that means I have to play Woodard in the ninth inning. When the inning starts I put him at second base and move my second baseman, Pee Wee Edwards, over to third. We get the first guy out, but then they get the next two on and bring Johnny Grubb in to pinch-hit. I go to the mound to bring in a left-hander, Bob Lacey, and while I'm out there decide to move Edwards back to second and Woodard over to third. I want to have my regular double-play combination together, hoping we can get Grubb to hit into a double play. I also don't think it's likely that Grubb will hit the ball to third. So what happens? Grubb lines Lacey's first pitch to third, Woodard jumps up and spears it, throws to second to double off the runner and the game is over. Of course, the writers ask me what was behind the move, and I tell them that I wanted a taller third baseman.

The next day, Finley sees "3B" next to Woodard's name in the box score, calls up McKeon at 6 in the morning and lights into him. McKeon explains what happened. Finley listens and finally says, "So, I bet you think you're a damn genius now?!"

(By the way, McKeon's story sort of checks out but not completely. The game in question was actually against Seattle, the second game of a doubleheader. Woodard had made his debut pinch running in the first game. In the second game, he entered as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning. Baseball-Reference lists him as entering at third base, although it's certainly possible that he only moved there in the manner McKeon described. Anyway, the batter was Danny Meyer, not Johnny Grubb, and Meyer grounded into a 5-4 double play with two runners on to end the inning. It's possible the play-by-play is wrong and that it was a lineout and not a groundout. Regardless, that was the only fielding play Woodard had at third base that year. I'll give McKeon a B-plus for memory on that one, not bad considering it was nearly 30 years after the fact.)

Things finally fell apart in August (7-21) and September (7-21). The pitching staff had a 4.45 ERA over those final two months and the batters hit .237. The A's drew just 536,999 fans that year, an average of 6,587 per game.

The city of Oakland sued Finley for $1.5 million in lost revenue over four years and $10 million in punitive damages, alleging Finley had not complied with his "obligation to endeavor in good faith to obtain maximum occupancy of the Stadium by the public by failing to reasonably promote attendance at Oakland A's baseball games."

"Charlie hasn't spent one red cent on promotion," Lacey told Sports Illustrated. "I've played on Triple A teams that promoted more. I've never been asked to speak anywhere. The fans don't even know who we are. ... I don't care, let him punish me. He's hoping I'll have a bad year so he can give me a pay cut."

Under new manager Jim Marshall in 1979 attendance would plummet even further, to 3,787 fans per game. (The A's didn't have a radio contract or an announcer until the day before the season began that year.) Finley hired Billy Martin to manage the club in 1980 and with a dynamic young outfield of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas and a pitching staff that threw 94 complete games, the A's went 83-79. In the midst of a divorce at the time, Finley finally sold the A's after the season.

In 1981, the A's made the playoffs. Henderson, drafted in 1976, was the star. Armas and pitcher Rick Langford had come over from the Pirates in the Garner trade. Langford, Matt Keough, Mike Norris and Steve McCatty, the stellar rotation that year, had all pitched for the 1978 team. A team with one strange season.