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Welcome to the next entry into the Baseball Digest’s All-Time team series. It is an ongoing effort to recognize the best individual players for each respective franchise. So far, we’ve picked the all-time squads for the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Cardinals. Next up is the Athletics, a franchise that has seen its share of greatness and prestige, controversy, national shame and decades of irrelevance.
The greatness and prestige begins with Cornelius McGillicuddy, Sr, who after spending more than a decade as a player in the National League, managed the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers for four seasons. With the advent of the American League in 1901, “Connie Mack” became manager, treasurer, and part owner of the new Philadelphia Athletics. He would go on to win – and lose – more games than any manager in major league history. Mack would also build, break down, and rebuild World Series-winning teams before settling into a nearly two-decade long routine of losing games and cashing dividend checks. A team that got off to a good start, but finished fourth, he once said, would be the best kind of team to have.
“A team like that will draw well enough during the first part of the season to show a profit for the year, and you don’t have to give the players raises when they don’t win.” – Connie Mack
Still, Mack won. From 1901-1914, the A’s won three World Series, six pennants, posted two second place finishes and had just one losing season. After getting swept 4-0 in the 1914 World Series, by the “Miracle” Boston Braves, an angry Mack dealt or sold away all of his best players. After a decade of losing, the franchise enjoyed another remarkable stretch from 1925-1933, including two World Series titles, three AL pennants and four second place finishes.
Sadly, the Mack club would never again rise to prominence after 1933, and would only post two seasons with winning records (1949-50) before the club was sold to Arnold Johnson in 1954 and he moved it to Kansas City.
The team’s shift from Philadelphia is long forgotten for most of today’s baseball fans, and predated the Dodgers and Giants shift from New York to the West Coast by three years. There have been no songs, books or poetry written to mourn the loss of the Philadelphia A’s, so we won’t attempt to do so here. However, despite all of the years that they occupied the second division of the AL, Connie Mack’s White Elephants also fielded some of the best nines ever to play the game.
Despite efforts to keep the club in the City of Brother Love, the Mack heirs finally sold the club to Arnold Johnson who would move the A’s to Kansas City to serve as a glorified farm team to the New York Yankees. It would be an insurance salesman named Charlie O’ Finley who would move the franchise to Oakland, change the A’s forever.
As defacto GM, O’Finley would build baseball’s last “real” dynasty. He would also open the door to a baseball future that would drive him from the game. Finley finally got out in August of 1980, selling the club to Walter J. Haas, who controlled the Levi-Strauss empire. The club had finished 54-108 in 1979, so Finley had hired Billy Martin to run the whole operation. At first, the move was genius. Martin, the Oakland native, was 83-79 in his initial season, and followed it up by winning a share of the division title in the strike-shortened 1981 season. But the winning came with a price, because as the returning hero, Martin filled his front office and scouting department with cronies rather then the best people he could find. The result was chaos, and the new ownership group started giving more and more responsibility to young executive Sandy Alderson, a Dartmouth grad and ex-Marine.
When the bubble burst after a 68-94 season in 1982, Alderson would take over in 1983. It had been a three-year roller-coaster ride with Martin, who was also the club’s GM for the 1981 and 1982 seasons, but there was more to come.
Alderson would preside over four straight losing seasons while he rebuilt the A’s, finish at exactly .500 in 1987, and would win three pennants and one World Series during 1988-1990. Five losing seasons would follow before he gave way to his young assistant, who would become of the most talked about GMs in baseball history.
Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” fame has led to a change in the game of baseball we see being played today, surely, but for all of the praise, Hollywood treatment and near-Messiah status among the new baseball intelligencia, the pennants and World Series titles are non-existent. The franchise may eventually move to San Jose, a move that many feel would create the kind of revenue streams that would allow Beane to finally build a winner. But until that happens, to mention Beane in the same sentence as Connie Mack, Charlie Finley – or even Sandy Alderson – isn’t remotely fair.
And now, here are the All-Time Athletics:
“The only thing I wish I could figure out is how I got misunderstood regarding the type of person I really am and what I accomplished … Just because I believed in what I was doing on the field and dedicated myself to playing the game, does that mean I’m cocky? Does that mean I’m arrogant? People who played against me called me cocky, but my teammates didn’t. I brought attention, fear.” — Rickey Henderson, Baseball Digest (Feb. 2003)
Let’s put a couple of things in perspective in regards to Rickey Henderson. Yes, he could be churlish and indifferent, a showboat whose “snatch catches” drove managers and teammates insane. But he was the best leadoff hitter in baseball history and a lethal weapon for nearly every one of the 3081 career games he played in. He was the last of Finley’s great players, signed as a high schooler from the Oakland streets, and made his debut in 1979. From 1979-1984, he stole over 100 bases three times, scored more than 100 runs four times, and did not have a an OBP lower than .398 in any of those seasons, save for his rookie year. He would return after a stint for the Yankees, where would score almost 300 runs in his first two seasons there, and arrived back in Oakland in time to help them win the 1989 World Series against the Giants. Of his 25 seasons, Henderson would play 14 of them in an Oakland uniform. He is the franchise leader in walks, runs scored and stolen bases. Only Bert Campaneris has more hits and games played in team history.
Like Henderson, economics caused the exile of this homegrown HOFer to Boston in 1934, but before he left, “Double-X” proved he was the best first sacker in A’s history. He played 11 years for the Philadelphia A’s, in a town where the Phillies were an afterthought. From 1925-27, he would have three unremarkable cups of coffee with the big club, if you consider getting big-league at-bats at the ages of 17, 18, 19 unremarkable. As a 20-year old in 1928, he hit .328 with 13 Home runs and 79 RBIs with a .416 OBP in a little over 400 at-bats. The next year, he would hit at least 30 homers, drive in at least 130 runs and hit over .300 every year except 1931. Some of the seasons contained within that stretch are some of the most incredible years ever put together by a single player.
As a GM, Eddie Collins helped delay the breaking of baseball’s color barrier in Boston. As a player with the 1919 “Black Sox”, he is best-known among today’s fans as they player who “ratted” out the eight men who would ultimately be banned for life by Judge Landis. But in 13 years as an Athletic, Collins would hit .337 with a .423 OBP. Though he made more than his fair share of errors, he also posted impressive fielding numbers during his career, and is considered more than just a passbale defensive player. Comparatively, when the Oakland A’s website decided to put together it’s All-Time “Oakland A’s” team, the best 2B they could come up with was Mark Ellis, who hit .265 with a .331 OBP in his A’s career.
Carney Lansford (10 seasons, .288/.343/.404 with 201 HRs and 548 RBIs) is a popular pick among many contemporary A’s fans, and if we cared about being contemporary, we might have picked him over Bando. But Bando (.259/.359/.418 with 212 HRs and 796 RBIs) was the captain of the team that won three straight World Series. Arguably, As far as the postseason goes, Bando’s numbers are remarkably similar to his career numbers, as are Lansford’s, with the former hitting more postseason home runs and the latter hiting for a higher average. Still, while Lansford was a very good player, and often underestimated, there are no ties in baseball, our pick is Bando.
“Dagoberto” is the all-time franchise leader in games played and hits. Bruce Markusen writes an excellent quick bio here. In an era where we judge players by their size and/or by the numbers that they post, “Campy” might not even get a chance to play at the minor league level, least of all the bigs. Traditional scouts would probably look at the 150-160 pound frame he carried throught his career as far too frail, but he stole a lot of bases, and scored a lot of runs and played on three straight World Series winners. Miguel Tejada will get some votes here as well, but like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, Tejada’s Oakland career — while worth discussing — can’t truly be considered as “All-Time” player until evidence of PEDs can be truly measured. Outside of Tejada, Mike Bordick had some decent years in Oakland, and Chick Galloway did as well in Philadelphia from 1919-1927, but we’ll take Bert.
C- Mickey Cochrane
When people talk about the best catchers of all time, Yogi Berra, Roy Campenella and Johnny Bench are often the most mentioned, and rightfully so. All three are Hall of Famers, World Series champions and won multiple MVPs. Mickey Cochrane is as well known for being the player that Mutt Mantle named his son for as he is for winning the AL MVP in 1934 for Detroit in 1934. Yet when you look at his nine seasons in Philadelphia, wjere he hit .321/.412/.490 with an OPS of .902, he has to be in the conversation. Terry Steinbach, despite a few good offensive years in Oakland, is just not the player Cochrane was.
LF- See Henderson, Rickey
CF- Dwayne Murphy
Unlike many of our picks here, Murphy did not play for a winner. His lone appearance in the postseason was 1981, and he subsequently played for losing teams thereafter. For his A’s career, spanning 10 seasons, he hit .247 with 153 homers, 563 RBIs and played a very good defensive CF as well. In 1984 he hit 33 homers with 88 RBI, his best season ever.
RF – Reggie Jackson
Most fans think of Reggie Jackson as “Mr. October” of the “Bronx is Burning” Yankees and his wars with Billy Martin. But Reggie was another of Charlie Finley’s HOFers who played nine seasons for the A’s before playing his five-year stints at New York and California. During those nine-years, he fought with hks teammates, won three World Series, including winning both the AL MVP and World Series MVP in 1973. That year, he hit .310 with six RBIs against the Mets, who should have selected him in the 1966 MLB draft, but according to rumors, declined to pick him because he was dating a white woman. Instead, Charlie Finley picked him, and a Hall of Fame career started. His A’s totals are 269 HRs and 776 RBIs over 10 seasons. His final season, fittingly, was played in Oakland, in which he still managed to hit 13 homers and 43 RBIs.
RHSP – Chief Bender
Tim Hudson has pitched longer for the Atlanta Braves now then he did for the Oakland A’s, and as much as we’d like to put him or Catfish Hunter into this spot, it’s hard to argue that anyone but Bender would be the top right-handed starter for any All-Time A’s club. His 38.1 WAR is higher than either Hudson or Hunter, and while Eddie Rommell and Rube Waddell’s WAR numbers are higher than Bender’s, he was a more valuable pitcher to the A’s during his career than Rommell. Waddell only pitched six years in an A’s uniform, and Bender — who was the right-handed complement to Eddie Plank — ranks only behind Plank and Lefty Grove in all-timer wins by an A’s pitcher.
LHSP – Lefty Grove
This is perhaps the hardest decision on the list; Eddie Plank or Lefty Grove? Plank is the franchise leader in WAR, post a 63.9 mark over 3860.2 innings and posting a 284-162 record with a 2.39 ERA. Grove (195-79, 2.88 ERA) is second all-time in WAR among A’s starters, a 59.6 mark over 2401 IP. Each won a pair of World Series with the A’s, and each was sent packing by Connie Mack once their prices went up. Ultimately, the decison comes down to this; Grove, in our opinion, was more dominant during his career. He didn’t pitch as long, but had better individual seasons against his peers than Plank.
Closer – Dennis Eckersley
“Eck” is in the Hall of Fame because he revolutionized the closer position, aided and abetted of course by Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. His ridiculous numbers are evidence alone. In 1989 he threw 57.7 innings, struck out 55, walked only 3. The next year, he posts a 0.60 ERA over 73.3 innings, 72 strikeouts ant issues just 4 walks. Sure, Rollie Fingers pitched more innings in his A’s career, and won three World Series with the “Swingin’ A’s” and gets major points for that, but Eck was more than just dominant, he was virtually unhittable for a few years.
Manager – Connie Mack
For of his faults, and he had many, Mack simply was better at his job than any other A’s manager. He beat Yankees teams that had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and he beat Red Sox teams that had dominated the AL for years. Had he been a tad more visionary, could have begun another dynasty that would have saved AL baseball in Philadelphia, but that reality doen’t obscure his accomplishments. Dick Williams was incredible, but couldn’t work for Finley. Perhaps if he had stayed, maybe the A’s win four straight titles instead of three. As impressive as La Russa’s run as A’s manager was, his teams should have won more. Losing to the 1988 Dodgers and the 1990 Reds while boasting the array of talent he had at his disposal hurts his case.
Topics: Baseball Digest, Baseball Reference, Boston Braves, Boston Red Sox, connie mack, Cornelius Mcgillicuddy, Dividend Checks, Greatness, League History, Los Angeles Dodgers, Losing Season, milwaukee brewers, minor league, National Shame, New Philadelphia, New York Yankees, Pennants, Philadelphia Athletics, Prominence, Span Style, St. Louis Cardinals, Style Color, Time Squads, Time Team, Time Teams, Two Seasons, World Series, World Series Titles