1972: First Strike

There wouldn't be an interruption in a Major League season for over fifty years. Despite several players going off to World War II and the Korean War, the game kept going. It wouldn't be until the players finally had some negotiating power with the owners that the game would halt again. The league would look a lot different from those early days, the league expanded teams and integration in 1947 made the game more talented and more competitive than ever before. The '70's were a time of big personalities in the game as the league was becoming more offensive based, yet again.

1972

Highest Paid Player: Carl Yastrzemski, $167,000

US President: Richard Nixon

In the News:

  • Nixon Goes to China

  • 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team are killed by terrorists at the Munich Olympics

  • Five White House operatives are arrested for breaking into the DNC offices in the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC.

First Class Postage Stamp: $0.08

Number of Games: 153-156

Number of Teams: 24

Teams of 1972 compared to 1968:

The Royals, Expos, Padres and Seattle Pilots would be expansion teams in 1969 and just a year later the Pilots would be sold to Bud Selig and moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers.

NL: Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Braves moved to Atlanta from Boston with a stop in Milwaukee, Giants moved to San Francisco from New York, Expansion teams of New York Mets and Houston Astros.

AL: Orioles moved to Baltimore from St Louis (Browns), Athletics moved from Philadelphia with a stop in Kansas City, Twins moved from Washington (the Senators from 1918-19), Expansion teams of California Angels, and Texas Rangers (established as an expansion version of the Washington Senators).

The 1972 season started a couple of weeks late and teams ended up playing between 153 and 156 games due to the first league-wide strike in MLB history. There had been a few team strikes, the White Sox refusing to wash their uniforms in 1919, the Tigers refusing to play after Ty Cobb was suspended indefinitely for going into the stands to fight a fan who had heckled him. The Tigers decided to field a team of semi-pro, college players and two scouts who found the other players, lost the game 24-2 and Cobb begged his teammates to get back to work, appreciative of the statement and served a ten game suspension. The players of 1972, however, refused to work because the pension program for retired players was not being adjusted for inflation so some of the older players were making a pittance in their old age. The strike lasted 13 days and the owners refused to make up any of the 86 missed games from that time.

Uneven Play

Because not every team had the same number of games scheduled during that time, there was a variation of the games the teams played during that season. In the AL East the Tigers played 156 games and the Red Sox played 155. Both teams had the same number of losses and the Tigers won one more game than the Sox, to win the division by a half of a game. For a hard luck franchise that had lost the 1967 and 1975 World Series, both in seven games, 1972 was a missed opportunity to make a postseason run with a team made up of Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk, Luis Aparicio, and Carl Yastrzemski as well as all-time Red Sox greats Rico Petrocelli, Bill Lee and Luis Tiant.

The Birth of the Big Red Machine

This was a start of things for good chunk of the 1970’s where the two dominant teams of the time, The Oakland A’s and the Cincinnati Reds collided in the World Series. It was the first of three straight Championships for the A’s and the second of four World Series appearances for the Reds in the ‘70’s their second loss before winning two straight when the A’s run ended. This was different than the first Reds team in the Series, this was the first team with Joe Morgan. He wasn’t a home run machine, but the Hall of Famer and terrible broadcaster was a Sabrmetrics Idol despite his confusion/disdain for the statistical movement. 1972 was the perfect example of this as his AVG was only .292, he led the league in walks with 115, OBP at .417 and runs with 122. If you’re going to win games you have to score more runs and to score runs you have to get guys on base. It doesn’t matter if you get on first with a liners, a bloop or a walk. Sabrmetrics doesn’t tend to put a lot of value on RBIs, but RBI guys tend to also be pretty good at baseball, and that guy on first usually needs a little help behind him to get around to the plate.

Johnny Bench, considered to be the best catcher to ever play won the NL MVP that year leading the league in home runs and RBI, but he also led the league in defensive WAR. It wasn’t the full maturation of the Big Red Machine, although Hall of Famer Tony Perez had 21 homers, and not-Hall of Famer Pete Rose notched 198 hits to lead the league, George Foster was still only 23, Ken Griffey Sr would get a cup of coffee with the Reds the next year, not to start until ‘75, Cesar Geronimo wouldn’t be an elite fielder until ‘73 (statistically he went from an average fielder one year to the best in the league the next year. The Gold Glove Awards wouldn’t notice until a year later, as they tend to do) and Dave Concepcion was a year away from being a steady hitter. These Reds teams were not known for their pitching but Clay Carroll tied for the league lead in games pitched and was far and away the leader in saves in the National League and Gary Nolan, tied for fifth in Cy Young voting thanks to 15 wins, only 5 losses and a 1.99 ERA.

The Reds had a notorious owner, Marge Schott who was a pretty awful human, defending Hitler, saying the n-word regarding her players, and throwing around slurs for Asian people. She was known for being so cheap that she would duct tape frayed rugs in her businesses. The A’s had their own Comiskey-like owner as well, Charlie O. Finley. Finley had even tried to buy the White Sox, Tigers and Kansas City Royals before being outbid each time. He finally gained ownership of the A’s when the owner died and he bought up a controlling interest of stocks, bought out the rest of the owners, then moved the team to Oakland. He, too was cheap, ultimately selling off his championship players as they reached free agency. He would have the clubhouse attendant listen in on the players then relay the information covertly to the owners box during games… oddly enough, that clubhouse spy grew up to MC Hammer, who gained the moniker from the players because of his resemblance to Hamming Hank Aaron.

Charlie Finley's Athletics

Finley, for his self-serving eccentricities, stumbled his way into a few very good things for baseball in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. When he bought the team, Kansas City was considered to be practically a minor league team to the Yankees, the best young players would be traded to New York for pennies on the dollar, something I remember reading Mickey Mantle joking about in one of his autobiographies. Finley ended this practice and the result was that the A’s became the only other team than the Yankees to win three World Series in a row. In spring training one year the A’s players all started growing facial hair “to make fun of Reggie Jackson,” Finley saw this as a way to market the team and distinguish the A’s from the Yankees who limited facial hair and have his team be stylish to the times.

As a result, Rollie Fingers grew one of the most famous mustaches of the 20th century, a looping handlebar mustache that is now the signature of the Hall of Fame pitcher. Probably the longest lasting imprint on the game was Finley’s push for the DH in major league baseball, the singular rule difference between American League and National League play, and currently up for debate for a universal DH rule across the MLB. The designated hitter would be a staple of AL play the very next season and 1972 would be the final year that pitchers across the majors would hit every day.

Along with the old-timey facial hair of Rollie Fingers were a roster full of teammates that also sported names reminiscent of the players of 1918 and 1919. Blue Moon Odom, Sal Bando, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, and Joe Rudi all had names odd enough that they would have fit in more than fifty years prior. It was a quirky team with bright colored uniforms and an outspoken and paranoid owner, but it was a great team. In the first of their three straight Championship seasons, Joe Rudi finished second in MVP voting, leading the league in hits, Catfish Hunter finished fourth in Cy Young voting

The left fielder Rudi led the league in hits (181) and triples (9) on his way to finishing second in the AL MVP voting. He wasn’t anywhere close to the league leaders in home runs, RBI or batting average, although he did have a decent season. Rudi also had a reputation as a great fielder, and ended up winning Gold Glove awards from ‘74 to ‘76 although his fielding peripherals had actually started to slip by ‘72. He made a convincing display of his talents in the Game 2 of the World Series that year hitting a solo home run early in the game to extend the lead to 2-0, a score which stood into the 9th inning when he made a game saving leaping catch at the wall, robbing extra bases that would have scored one and started a rally. The A’s ended up winning the game 2-1 in a series that went seven games.

Third baseman Sal Bando was the natural leader of the A’s, he was named captain as a Rookie in 1968. He finished in the top five of MVP voting in three seasons and was in a class of AL third basemen at the time that included Graig Nettles and Brooks Robinson. He wasn’t an especially great power hitter, although he had similar power to Nettles and Robinson and he never won a Gold Glove, although his 1972 season probably would have won him the award if he were not playing at the same time as Robinson. He was the Derek Jeter of his time when it came to leadership and impact on the game. Unlike Jeter, he wasn’t much of a hitter for average, but they were young leaders of two of the only franchises ever to win three World Series in a row. They are a pretty interesting comparison. Jeter played for 20 seasons, had 3465 hits, 260 home runs, .310 AVG, .377 OBP, 71.3 WAR and his standard fielding Rtot per season (statistically measuring a player against other of the same position of the same season) tended to range between just below average to especially bad. Bando played for 16 seasons (four of those seasons were less than 80 games, as few as 11), had 1790 hits, 242 home runs, .254 AVG but a .352 OBP, 61.5 WAR and standard fielding Rtot that were right around average, with a few seasons that were quite a bit better than average, but never better than Brooks Robinson.

The National League Rules

The 1972 season was and end of an era in a couple of ways. It was the last season before the AL changed to the DH, and the debate on preference of style of play hasn’t gone away ever since. There are even discussions for a universal DH this season, if a season happens. The American League has not been the same ever since. It is now a league with more challenges for pitching, and a different kind of roster strategy.

3000

The National League would be different in a very different way. The winningest team in the majors in 1972 didn’t make the World Series, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates who won 96 games in their 155 game season. Roberto Clemente was coming off yet another great season, winning the second World Series of his career when he went into the 1972 season. He suffered through injuries and an intestinal ailment for the first four months of the season and for more than forty days of most of July and August he only started a single game. His batting average was dipping and with only five weeks left in the season he had only logged 82 hits, 36 short of the 3000 milestone. He was only playing for this milestone in the final month. The Pirates had locked up the division fairly early and he would have considered slowing down and conserving himself had it not been in sight. He then went on a 35 for 100 tear before the final series of the season. With three games to go against the Mets, Clemente went hit-less in the first game, the scorekeeper had marked an error on a borderline call where he beat out a play to the second baseman. Clemente railed against the call in interviews after the game. That night Clemente stayed up until 4:30AM talking to friends in Puerto Rico on the phone, then drove his wife to the airport and headed over to the stadium early. He never got any sleep the night before game. In the fourth inning Clemente lined a double into the left-center gap to become only the eleventh man to notch 3000 hits in Major League Baseball. In between innings, the tenth member of the 3000-hit club, Willie Mays, came out of the dugout to congratulate Clemente in an unprecedented act of reverence. Clemente played the field for the half inning, tipped his hat to the crowd then was pulled for pinch hitter Bill Mazeroski who was in his last season before retiring and his eventual enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, himself.

The Pirates lost the NLCS to the Reds and Clemente went home to Puerto Rico to manage in their winter league. His team included an Expos reliever coming off a respectable rookie year, Tom Walker. Walker’s life is one surrounded by baseball. He was a nice pitcher for the Expos and a handful of other teams in his career, but went to high school with Steve Garvey, who was later his best man, he married the sister of an Expos teammate. His daughter married former Tigers sparkplug Don Kelly (recently hired as the Pirates’ bench coach, and his son Neil was a fan favorite of the Pirates for years and has been veteran presence for a few teams over the last few years. It was just after Tom Walker’s rookie season that he played for Clemente. When Roberto was planning a trip to Nicaragua to deliver supplies after an earthquake for a flight on New Years Eve, Walker and a few teammates planned to join their skipper. They were at the airport when Clemente told the young players to turn back and enjoy the New Year's Celebration in Puerto Rico. Soon after takeoff the plane burst into flames crashing into the ocean, ending Clemente’s life, his career to end with exactly 3000 hits. Walker would play for five more seasons in the Majors, living in Pittsburgh after his playing days to raise his family.

AL MVP Dick Allen, 1B Chicago White Sox

The Phillies were one of the several MLB franchises with a checkered past with race, most notably for the appalling treatment of Jackie Robinson in 1947 and Dick Allen was the first African American star of the Phillies. It was apparent very early on in his career that Allen would be a star, a hitter with showcase power in a time where pitchers dominated, he was considered a future Hall of Famer even as a rookie. He never would make it to the Hall after a reputation as a “problem” player. I don’t find it unrealistic that his thorniness was likely a reaction to the way he was treated for being a black player. When he was coming up the Phillies refused to call him “Dick,” printing his name as “Richie,” a childlike diminution, on all releases even though that was not a name that anyone used for him. He would struggle with drinking and a high profile fight with a teammate where Frank Thomas (not The Big Hurt) grabbed a bat to fight Allen after being hit in the jaw. Fan favorite Thomas was released as a result of the fight and home crowds turned on Allen, booing him at every opportunity.

He was ultimately involved in the most consequential trade in baseball history as it concerned labor and race in baseball and resulted in star players leaving their established teams. In 1969 Allen was traded to the Cardinals with Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson for Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, Joe Hoerner and Curt Flood because of his penchant for writing subversive statements at the fans in the dirt around first base. It is widely believed that Flood was traded as a result of his discontent for being paid far less than deserved after a great season, and he would be sent to Philadelphia, a team with a crumbling stadium and notoriously racist fans. Flood refused to show up with the Phillies. This resulted in Flood suing the MLB to end the reserve clause, creating free agency in baseball. This cost Flood his career, only playing a handful of games a couple of seasons after the trade… for the Washington Senators.

Allen, however, was just getting started. After a season with the Cardinals and season with the Dodgers, he had his first season in the AL with the White Sox in 1972 after being traded for Tommy John (the pitcher not the surgery). He went on to lead the league in home runs that season (37), RBI (113), walks (99), OBP (.420), SLG (.603) and OPS (1.023) on his way to the MVP award. He would again lead the league in home runs in 1974 (32) before returning to the Phillies the next season for the down-slope of his career. That career was pretty great despite his reputation. He was a seven-time All-Star in 15 seasons, 351 homers, 1848 hits, a .292 AVG, .378 OBP, .534 SLG and a 58.8 WAR.

NL MVP Johnny Bench, C Cincinnati Reds

Bench was the perfect mixture of being a great hitter and a great fielding catcher. For most of baseball history catchers were not expected to hit very well because their catching hand would take such a beating that it would be quite painful to swing a bat. This might have been true when it concerned Bench’s batting averages, never hitting over .300 in a full season and a career AVG of .267, but he was still able to stand out as a power hitter and for his ability to drive in runners. His career numbers were very similar to Dick Allen’s, in fact, both players led the league in home runs twice, and both totaled more than 350 homers over their careers (351 for Allen, 389 for Bench). Bench took advantage of the incredible lineup round him in the Big Red Machine, driving in 100+ RBI six times in eight seasons, leading the league three times in that category. 1972 was one of his best seasons at the dish in his career as he took home two of the three triple crown categories, leading home runs (40) and RBI (135) and also sporting a career best .379 OBP. A Hall of Famer, Bench is still considered the best catcher of all time and his 75.2 WAR far and away the best for anyone at that position, proves it.

AL Cy Young: Gaylord Perry, RHP Cleveland Indians

A throwback to the seasons of 1918 and 1919 mostly because he was known for using a pitch that was banned in 1920, Gaylord Perry spent most of his career covered in vaseline, practicing in the mirror slight of hand tricks to get it on the ball. There were two major rule changes as a result of Perry’s success with the spitball, although he was hardly alone in throwing the pitch. The last legal spitball pitcher, Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes, through grandfathering of the rule was able to use to pitch until he retired in 1934, claimed that there were more spitball pitchers in the 1960’s than when it was legal for the whole league.

I bring this up purely to make note that there is a Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes. Perry started his career pitching for ten years for the Giants, his best year in San Francisco being 1970 when he finished second in the NL Cy Young voting. That same year his brother Jim won the AL Cy Young Award, the Perrys are the winningest brother duo of pitchers. 1972 was Gaylord’s first year in the AL, and the best of his career, winning 24 games, 29 complete games, 234 K’s and an ERA of 1.92. And because things weren’t weird enough the runner up in AL Cy Young voting was the lefty knuckleballer, Wilbur Wood from the White Sox.

NL Cy Young: Steve Carlton, LHP Philadelphia Phillies

Although the mound had already been lowered after the 1968 year of the pitcher, the league was still chock full of classic hurlers. Despite the competition Steve Carlton still dominated all pitchers by leading the league in wins (27), strike outs (310) and ERA (1.97)for the pitching triple crown in his first year as a Phillie. It was his best season in every aspect, personal bests in all of those categories plus WHIP (0.993) and shutouts (8). He did all of this with the last place Phillies who won only 59 games, won only 30 of those games when Steve Carlton didn’t pitch. The Phillies had a hard time drawing fans without a winning team and after promotions that went wrong like on Opening Day when Kite Man missed his mark and landed in the stands to a stadium filled with boos.

In August Karl Wallenda of the tightrope walking family was brought in for a 640 foot walk above the stadium between games of a double header. The rope was not as taught as expected and halfway Wallenda motioned to the crowd beneath him to clear a path for a possible fall. He did not fall and he made the entire walk without facing the notorious boos of Philadelphia fans. It helped that the fans were in a good mood after Steve Carlton won his twentieth in game one just before the walk. Carlton is one of the best pitchers of all-time, holding most of the records for left-handed pitchers until Randy Johnson came along. For a single season he was back and forth with Nolan Ryan for the all-time strike out lead. This was the first of four Cy Young seasons for Carlton, and Ryan never once took home that hardware.

AL Rookie of the Year: Carlton Fisk, C Boston Red Sox

By mid-July of his rookie year one reporter had already compared Fisk as "The Johnny Bench of the American League" due to his early prowess hitting for extra bases. In that first season he was the first first player ever to win unanimous Rookie of the Year award went to his first of eleven All-Star Games and collected a Gold Glove Award and even led the AL in triples with nine. His 22 home runs had him well on his way to his career tally of 378, a mark that ranked near the top for catchers all-time and helped punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

NL Rookie of the Year Jon Matlack, SP New York Mets

His fantastic rookie year ended by giving up Roberto Clemente’s 3000th hit. That is the story of his career, he pitched well but either didn’t end up getting the win or lost a lot of games despite a decent ERA and leading the league in shutouts twice. He was a control lefty who came up in a Mets rotation with power pitching veterans Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman anchoring the rotation. A few years before he broke into the majors he met the two pitchers in spring training and marveled at the velocity of their pitches and wanted to throw just as hard. Unfortunately, “throwing” rather than “pitching” resulted in him losing his touch for his curve-ball and it took him three years to fully get it back. He figured it out and two years after his Rookie of the Year award he went to his first of three straight All-Star games from ‘74 to ‘76, sharing the All-Star MVP award in 1975. His best season of all was probably in 1978 after he was sent over to the Rangers in a four team trade when he won 15 games and had an ERA of 2.27. Matlack was a real hidden gem of the ‘70’s, a hard luck pitcher who still won 125 games with a 3.12 career ERA and a WAR of 39.4 over thirteen years.

This would only be the beginning of a new era. The American League would adopt the designated hitter. Free Agency would become a greater part of the game and would change the balance of power of the league. Hair styles would only become more untamed.

Hall of Good Enough Players

Dick Allen, CHW 1B, 15 YRS, 58.8 WAR, 1848 H, 351 HR, .292 AVG, .378 OBP, .534 SLG

Sal Bando, OAK 3B, 16 YRS, 61.5 WAR, 1790 H, 242 HR, .254 AVG, .352 OBP

Vida Blue, OAK LHP, 17 YRS, 45.1 WAR, 209 W, 143 CG, 2175 K, 3.27 ERA, 1.233 WHIP

Curt Flood, StL OF, 15 YRS, 41.9 WAR, 1861 H, .293 AVG, .342 OBP, 7 GG

Jon Matlack, NYM, LHP, 13 YRS, 39.4 WAR, 125 W, 1516 K, 3.18 ERA, 1.233 WHIP

Joe Rudi, OAK OF, 16 YRS, 25.5 WAR, 1468 H, 287 2B, .264 AVG, .311 OBP, .427 SLG

Wilbur Wood, CHW LHP, 17 YRS, 50 WAR, 164 W, 1411 K, 3.24 ERA, 1.232 WHIP

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