Oakland A's

RIP Ron Bergman, the Best to Ever Cover the Oakland A’s

Mustache GangAs I put the finishing touches on the first draft of my upcoming book about the championship A’s teams of the early 1970s (to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next March), I am once again appreciating how much easier—and how much more enjoyable—my work has been thanks to the exceptional skills of Ron Bergman. Bergman covered the team for the Oakland Tribune during its entire championship run, starting from the moment they moved to Oakland in 1968, and also wrote for The Sporting News during the championship years. His book about that era, “Mustache Gang,” remains the best of a quality crop of contemporary accounts. He was connected, insightful and so witty it makes one’s teeth ache, to borrow one of his own phrases.

Bergman passed away yesterday, at age 80. He’d been in failing health for some time, to the point that he was unable to speak to me during the process of my reporting. Once upon a time, however, I got to encounter him with some regularity in the press box at AT&T Park. It was the early 2000s, and I was just coming up through the Bay Area sportswriting ranks. He was a columnist on the verge of retirement. To my uninformed self he was little more than an old guy with a thing for outsized leather jackets. I had no idea about his history or his ability, which is, enduringly, my own loss.

What Bergman did with those A’s was remarkable. He was so embedded that he became a regular in the bridge game run by pitchers Ken Holtzman and Rollie Fingers. He mined his sources with such authority that team owner Charlie Finley came to refer to him as “that little shit-stirrer”—a label that, even as it earned Bergman scant goodwill in the executive suite, garnered lasting respect from the rest of the press corps. (How far under Finley’s skin did he get? After Bergman wrote in The Sporting News that “In listening to the A’s play-by-play announcers you get the impression that there’s some sort of contest as to which one can make the most complimentary remarks about Charlie Finley,” the owner kicked him off the team’s charters and personally cancelled his hotel reservation for the next stop on the road trip.)

During the course of my reporting I read every issue of the Oakland Tribune between 1971 and 1976—a process that started out as “have to,” and ended up as “get to.” Bergie’s work made what could have been a mundane process insightful, educational and unforgettable. It seems only fitting to pull just a few highlights from my notes:

  • In response to the 62 transactions Finley made during the course of the 1972 season, and the fact that Oakland suited up 48 players on the year, Bergman wrote, “Once an Athletic, always an Athletic … or if not once an Athletic, then eventually an Athletic.”
  • He described Rollie Fingers during a hot streak as “on the verge of being declared unfair to hitters.”
  • Discussing the strength of Oakland’s reserves in comparison to Cincinnati during the 1972 World Series, he wrote, “The A’s have a great bench. Theirs is lowercase. The Reds’ Bench is tremendous. The Reds’ bench is underwhelming.”
  • Describing executive John Claiborne, who had just quit Oakland’s dysfunctional front office: “Unlike most office help hired by Finley in his baseball operations, Claiborne had some unusual handicaps. He wasn’t related by either blood or marriage to the owner. He had some baseball experience before joining the A’s. And he was competent.”

After the San Jose Mercury pulled its writers off the road in 1974, Bergman was the only one left traveling with the team. Said Jon Miller, one of the club’s broadcasters that season, “We would go into a city like New York, where they’d have eight or nine writers, and they’d come on the press box PA and say, ‘We want to welcome the Oakland press corps: Ron Bergman.’ He was it.”

He was it, in so many ways.

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Cheating, Oakland A's, Pine Tar

Give a Man Some Pine Tar and He’ll Cheat for a Day; Show Him How to Cheat and He’ll Cheat for a Lifetime

Cheat to Win

So Dallas Braden says that not only did he use foreign substances while pitching, but the A’s had a full-blown cheating station in spring training, to show guys how it’s done, conveyor-belt style.

Both GM Billy Beane and pitching coach Curt Young denied any knowledge, of course, but those types of denials are part of their job descriptions. Until John Farrell’s call for a universally approved substance comes to fruition, a cheating station might serve the likes of Will Smith and Brian Matusz pretty well.

Oakland A's, Retaliation

1971: On the Invention of the Dugout Brushback

Chuck Dobson Research for my next book, about the Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. Turns out that hot-headed pitchers of the time weren’t limited to the pantheon of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale. From the Oakland Tribune, June 25, 1971:

It was just another rainout until Oakland’s Chuck Dobson threw a brushback pitch at Minnesota manager Bill Rigney.

Rigney was standing in the Twins’ dugout at the time.

“He didn’t roll it in there,” Minnesota coach Vern Morgan said afterward. “What is he, crazy?

Dobson was angry for historical reasons, and because Rigney made him change his pants. Dobson ripped his trousers sliding into a tag at home plate for the last out in the top of the third yesterday.

With the game still scoreless, Dobson went out to the mound to pitch the bottom of the inning, his right trouser leg taped together and mud rubbed on the tape to cover the whiteness.

Rigney yelled a protest at plate umpire Nestor Chylak and Dobson had to go inside and change. By the time he returned to the field, it was raining again—there had been a 39-minute delay in the firs tinning—and the game eventually was called without another pitch thrown.

Dobson took two steps off the mound, turned, and either lobbed or fired the ball into the Twins’ dugout, depending on who told the story. In any case, the ball bounced into the dugout.

“I wanted him to have the game ball,” Dobson said. “I don’t have much patience with him. He called us a bunch of garbage collectors the last year he managed the Angels (1969), and this year he said his team could beat us any time they wanted to. I probably shouldn’t have done it, but he called us too many bad names to just lay down and take it.”

“I didn’t see it,” Rigney said. “I was just turning around to sit down. I guess it almost hit (pitching coach Marv) Grissom. I heard it. It hit the wall. It sounded kind of like ‘splat.’ ”

Grissom charged out of the dugout and wagged a warning finger at the departing Dobson.

“He just fired it in there,” Grissom said. “That’s bush league. That should be an automatic ejection.”

 Dobson faced Minnesota once more during Rigney’s tenure—the following week, in Oakland—and was not hit by a pitch.

Oakland A's

1974: Reggie vs. Ryan

ReggieResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. Reggie Jackson tells of a showdown he had against Nolan Ryan in 1974, in which he congratulated Ryan—in his inimitable fashion—for a job well done. Ryan, of course—in his own inimitable fashion—appeared to take it in a way other than how it was intended. From Jackson’s account of the ’74 season, “Reggie: A Season with a Superstar”:

September 3: We knocked out Nolan Ryan in the fifth inning of a 7-0 win. …

I got a lot of heat because I patted him on the butt after I made out my second time up, but I didn’t tell anyone why. … The second time up, he called for the catcher, Ellie Rodriguez, and sent him back to the plate to tell me he was going to throw only fastballs right over the plate. He was losing 3-0 at the time, but he said he wanted to get the best fastball and the best power together and see who would win. I didn’t know whether to believe him, but he delivered. He just threw fastballs. Bam, bam. And I hit one, wham. I sent it on a line to left. I thought it was going to drill a hole through the seats and wind up outside the ballpark. But I didn’t get it high enough and it was caught in front of the fence. I was disappointed, but I called it a draw. He had got me out, though I had hammered the hell out of the ball. I knew he knew it. Running back to the dugout, I went by him and gave him a pat on the ass to let him know he had given me a display of guts I admired. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.

The next time up, he wasn’t going to give me one I would hit out. He threw hard, but he didn’t throw a strike. He threw one right at my eye. You know, he cranks up and seems to get a running start and that ball is nothing but a blur. When he aims one at you, it freezes you with fear, because it could kill you. All I saw was this white blur coming right at me and it throws me for a split second before I got the hell out of there. I went down flat, just in time. I was burned by the heat of the ball as it went by.

I was so shook I thought that if he threw three straight strikes I’d let him have them. We were ahead and I wanted to wind up alive. But, you know, I figured, well, fuck him. I don’t want to back down. I don’t want to start a trend that will have every pitcher in the game going for my head to back me down. So, I grit my teeth and dug in and was ready to swing at anything good. He didn’t throw me anything good. He threw me two maybes that were called balls, which made it four balls, and gave me my walk. I never moved a muscle in that batters box, but I breathed a sigh of relief afterwards.

Don't Steal with a Big Lead, Oakland A's

1975: Sending a Message in One Easy Step (Beanball Not Included)

Dick WilliamsResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. Manager Dick Williams tells a tale of running up the score while at the helm of the California Angels, as a means of sending a message to A’s owner Charlie Finley—who had spent three seasons trying to keep his boot heel firmly affixed on the manager’s neck when Williams worked for him. From Williams’ autobiography, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”:

In April 1975, my Angels were leading the A’s 9-1 in the sixth inning of the second game of a doubleheader in Anaheim, and Mickey Rivers was on first base. I decided, up yours, Charlie. I sent Rivers to second base on a hit-and-run attempt. Our batter got a hit and Rivers scored all the way from first. And of course the A’s were angry. When you’re leading by a big margin, running like that is considered crass. Not just because you’re openly challenging the other team or making a comment on their ability to throw you out. Mostly, it’s because you don’t need to run. You’re winning by eight runs, you just need to keep your mouth shut and finish the game. You don’t need to run, and the losing team doesn’t appreciate it. You realize that more baseball fights start because of a needless steal than because of a stupid beanball.

I should mention here that it’s also considered crass for a team leading 9-1 to shout obscenities about the opposing team’s owner from the dugout. Particularly when the owner’s real name is being used, as in “Take that, Charlie, you son of a bitch!” Or perhaps even, “Fuck you, Charlie!” I must admit, that night I let a few such things slip. Was I looking for a fight? You decide. Oakland reliever Jim Todd thought so. He was already mad because, after not allowing an earned run all season, we had touched him up for five. Immediately after Rivers’ steal, Todd’s next pitch was directed at, and collided with, the top of Bruce Bochte’s head.

The first thing I did was run to home plate to check on Bochte. Every manager does that. I leaned down and saw that he still had both eyes. My job was done. Now I did something that most managers would not do. I charged the mound of a team I’d spent three wonderful years managing. I charged the mound and lunged at their 6-foot-2 pitcher, who was about 20 years younger than me but obviously without a gut in his body. He tried to run. I grabbed him by his belt and dragged him to the ground and started pounding on him. That’s right, I took on Jim Todd, and — you guessed it — soon I was rolling around with what seemed like 50 of my former players.

Anybody who knows Dick Williams and saw this scene would think, he’s a dead man. He’s lying on a pitching mound and is fair game for former players who truly are looking for his nuts with their cleats. But I guess the A’s liked me as much as I like them — or at least some of them did. My world darkened underneath a green and gold uniform, but the voice was friendly. “It’s Reggie,” the voice whispered. “I’m just going to lie here on you until this thing ends.” I laughed and he laughed, and we just lay there like two kids playing King of the Mountain while all hell was breaking loose on top of us.

Oakland center fielder Angel Mangual, with whom Williams had consistently feuded, did eventually sneak some kicks in to his former manager’s ribs, but it seems that, for Williams at least, all ended relatively well.

Oakland A's, Retaliation

1972: Clear-Headed and Hot-Headed Very Different States

Ken HoltzmanResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. On-field revenge was more institutionally prevalent then than it is now, leading some players to go to extremes. This tale of getting things done properly is brought to you via the Oakland Tribune, May 22, 1972:

[A’s pitcher] Ken Holtzman was sailing along with a 2-0 lead in the second inning when he grounded to Royals first baseman John Mayberry, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Mayberry took the ball, ambled over to the bag to make the third out, but stopped instead of crossing over toward the dugout. The 165-pound Holtzman, running full speed, crashed into Mayberry and went down as if knocked out by Joe Frazier. When Lou Piniella led off the next inning, the still-shaken Holtzman threw the first ball over his head.

Holtzman: “I didn’t know where I was. I was so dizzy and so mad, I thought Piniella was Mayberry, so I threw the ball over his head. When I got back to the dugout, they told me what I’d done.” [Holtzman went on to say that he had hit the back of his head after falling, had bitten his tongue and was still dizzy upon being removed from the game in the sixth inning.]

Piniella is shorter and doesn’t weigh as much as Mayberry, and not only is Piniella white and Mayberry black, but Piniella bats right and Mayberry left.

By the time Mayberry came up again, Holtzman’s head had cleared. He threw a ball over HIS head and then struck him out.

 

Gamesmanship, Oakland A's

1972: Bucking Wood’s Knuckler

Wilbur WoodResearch for my next book, about the OaklandA’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest is from July 4, 1972, in which a future Hall of Famer discusses some possible gamesmanship in Chicago. From the Oakland Tribune:

After his two-hitter against California, Catfish Hunter made some allegations against the White Sox. In his previous start, in Chicago, Hunter was beaten, 4-0, by White Sox knuckleballer Wilbur wood.

“The baseballs are bigger in Chicago when you pitch against Wood,” Catfish charged. “You can tell that when you get the ball in your hand. When you pitch 200 to 220 innings a year, you can tell by just holding one. The seams are a lot higher. I talked to [Angels left-hander] Clyde Wright before the game, and and he said he noticed the same thing pitching against Wood in Chicago. He said he threw six baseballs back and couldn’t find one the right size. All they’ve got to do is wet them and then dry them out. That makes them bigger.”

Larger seams on the baseball would add flutter to Wood’s knuckler.

Wood won 24 games for the White Sox that year, pitching a modern-era record 376.2 innings and finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting.