DERRICK MAY: Father’s Day is on Sunday and the holiday of course makes us think about our dad, Da
I’m not much for talking. I was always taught when you’re in the dugout not to dwell on success and not to let failure get you down. There’s always another game tomorrow and the next day. The 1972 World Series had a lot of players on both sides that liked to talk. I like to talk when there’s interesting stuff to share. Something happened to me during the ’72 Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Not just the death threat , but we’ll get to that. Something else, something I’ve never talked about before. We’ll get to that, too.
I grew up in Lucasville, Ohio, about 100 miles from Cincinnati. Played American Legion ball with Al Oliver and Larry Hisle. The Reds had this scout named Gene Bennett, just retired I think, recruited in the state for 50-60 some-odd years. He never gave me a look, or Larry or Oliver. Imagine that. After I retired, I bumped into Gene and gave him some friendly guff about not signing me. “You were a scout for Cincinnati, you let Oliver get away, you let Hisle get away and you let me get away.” The man could take a joke. “I signed Don Gullett, didn’t I,” Gene would reply, with a smile. I can bust his chops because this is the same scout that signed Barry Larkin, that signed Paul O’Neill. He could laugh about missing a few other guys. An outstanding scout and a nice man.
You know, even though I was from Ohio, I didn’t have much interaction with the Reds organization – growing up, our TV only had one channel. We’d see the Saturday Game of the Week and it was always the doggone Yankees. So I became a fan of the Bronx Bombers, though I couldn’t tell anyone because it was Reds country.
I think it was either senior or junior year in high school; our coach took us down to watch the Reds play at old Crosley Field. They put on a clinic before the game for my team and a few other schools from around the state- all these major league players with us for an hour – the whole roster out there with the kids. The outfielders by the warning track, the catchers at home plate, the pitchers on the mound. The infielders sat in the dugout before walking over to second base. I played shortstop back then. So Pete Rose and Tommy Helms were leading our group, showing us how to make the double play properly among other tips. To that point, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Years later, Pete called me up when I was in town with the Padres in 1977. Pete takes me to lunch, somewhere down on the river, had a good conversation, I told him this story. To this day, he doesn’t believe me. We became pretty good friends, though. I had these warm feelings inside me as the plane touched down in Cincinnati from Detroit the night before Game One.
We almost didn’t make it there. We won the first two games in the ’72 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. They had a good hitting ballclub full of solid veterans– this was kind of the last hurrah for Kaline, Freehan, Norm Cash, Lolich, Jimmy Northup, Willie Horton – all those guys that won the series in 1968. They didn’t go down without a fight. They took us in Game 3 and 4 and the series went back to Detroit for the finale.
None of us could sleep that night. Don’t think anyone got more than two hours of rest before Game 5. I was having a tough series against the Tigers. Tough in the way that I was hitting the ball hard, just right at everyone. It wasn’t until Game 5 where things started working for me. Blue Moon Odom started for us and pitched pretty well. Still no one was really hitting on either side. Top of the fourth, one out, we’re tied at one apiece. George Hendrick’s on second. Woodie Fryman throws me a curve and I slam it into center field. Hendrick gets home – a play I really didn’t see because I was trying to advance to second, which I did. We took the lead. The swings had been feeling good and now the hits were beginning to fall in for me. Odom pitched great for us. Then we brought in Vida Blue for the bottom of the fifth and the Vida Blue from ’71 showed up and that was that. They couldn’t touch Vida. The A’s were on their way to face the Reds and I was goin’ home.
When we got into Cincinnati for the Series the next day, it wasn’t like we thought we could win. We lost Reggie when he stole home in Game 5 and tore his hamstring. He was on crutches in the dugout the whole series. The Reds, well they had everybody. Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Perez, Joe Morgan. Everybody. We had no expectations. Well, we had some expectations – we expected to lose. There’s a kinda freedom to this, I guess. Makes you just go out there and play. Do the best you can. I suppose this is what being an underdog is like, and the A’s were an underdog in this series.
We got to the hotel, my wife and the kids came along. We were staying at the Cincinnati Hilton downtown, the Netherland Plaza, I think it was. Hotel had to have been like 50 years old back then. One of the nicer lobbies in the league. We reach the front desk and the clerk hands us our room key with a pile of messages for me. Friends, family. As we step off the elevator and approach our room, I hear the phone ringing. I open the door quickly but miss it. Which wasn’t so much of a problem because it rang again two minutes later. And then again and again. Darn phone rang all night. Not too many reporters, either. “You made it, Geno,” from this old friend. “Hey Geno, you got any extra seats,” from this relative. Over and over and over. People just wouldn’t stop calling. Not everyone was looking for tickets, either. A lot of them just wanted to say hi, congrats, good luck, that kind of stuff. It was nice, but, man, with the phone and the kids jumping up and down, excited about the trip, I had to get some sleep. I told my wife, “Honey, I don’t mind talkin’ to everybody, but I gotta lay down. “ I really didn’t get much rest. We were playing in the World Series tomorrow. Who could sleep?
The clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium was long, really long. Not terribly wide, but long. Roger Wilson was the clubhouse manager, kept the place neat, was very comfortable, always stocked with food. After saying hi to all the fellas, I went looking for Bill Posedel , our pitching coach and Kenny Holtzman, who was starting on the mound for us in Game 1. Kenny was not just a good pitcher but a tremendous competitor. Really sharp guy. The three of us grabbed some cold cuts from a table, sat down and went over our strategy, how we’re gonna attack these guys. Looking down at the scouting report, I shook my head. I knew all this already, but man, every guy on that club was a stinkin’ all-star, and a few future stars, too. Everyone thought Dave Concepcion would be a star. Their bench was George Foster, Hal McRae, more future all-stars. Their pitching was Jack Billingham, Gary Nolan, Ross Grimsley, tremendous relief pitcher in Clay Carroll. No question they were better than us, man for man. Position by position, they were better players. You know where we had an edge? Our pitchers could hit better than theirs. Kenny could hit, Jimmy Hunter could hit – I think Catfish was the last pitcher in the American League to hit .300. Not something that could make us say, “We’re winning this because Vida Blue has some pop in his bat,” but it was the fact that we had good athletes. We executed very well, other than Reggie’s hamstring, we never really got injured and I thought we were the best in the league at not beating ourselves. This is how we went into Game 1 of the 1972 World Series.
I’ve never told this story before. Didn’t quite know how to explain it. It’s the top of the 2nd inning. I walked out onto the on-deck circle. George Hendrick is at the plate, facing Gary Nolan. I’m on one knee and something happened to me. I’ve never felt this before during a game. I’ve been in a zone before, a groove, whatever wanna call it, but this was different. No idea what it was. Didn’t want to tell anyone this because I couldn’t quite explain it the right way. Carried this around with me for like 28 years or so. Sometime around the year 2000, I was watching an interview with Michael Jordan where he’s talking about that shot he made to end the 1998 NBA finals, how everything moved in slow motion, how he could read the label on the ball as it twirled toward the hoop. I’m sitting there thinking, “That’s it!! That’s the thing! I know exactly what he’s talkin’ about.“
So back to the on-deck circle. Hendrick’s in the process of working out a walk from Nolan. I dunno, there’s over 50,000 people in this ballpark, I’m looking around takin’ it all in – the fans, the umpire, my teammates in the dugout, the ballpark organist. Really loud vendors.
I couldn’t hear anything.
All this talk. Not. One. Sound.
I didn’t know what I was experiencing. What’s wrong with these people, I’m thinking. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I hear them? I walk up to the plate, get in the batter’s box, winked hello at the ump, looked at Johnny Bench, said hi. Gary Nolan throws the first pitch, I swear to God I thought he hurt his arm, it was coming in so slow – it was high, I thought it was a change-up. I could see the stitching on the ball. I don’t remember the count or sequence of pitches or anything, but when he threw that next pitch, man, clear as day. I could count the seams on that pitch, too - I thought it was another change-up. All a sudden I swung - never felt it hit my bat and I just ran. Didn’t hear a sound but saw the ball sail out to Pete Rose in left, over his head and then disappear.
Ball went over the wall.
I don’t even remember touching first base, I slowed down getting to 2nd and made sure I landed on top and I couldn’t even feel my foot hit the bag. I’m jogging toward third, I see all of the A’s entourage, our families and friends at the game behind the 3rd-base side dugout, jumping, cheering. I guess they were screaming, too. It was the weirdest experience I ever felt in my life.
I didn’t hear a word. Didn’t know this was even possible, this kind of sensation.
“Maybe it’s because we’re in hostile territory, Cincinnati, they’re afraid to say something,” I thought to myself, “I can’t hear anything.” The whole night was like that. The ball was coming to the plate at 95-MPH and it looked like a batting practice pitch. Little League batting practice. I don’t know, maybe it’s a super level of concentration, where your thought process is so intense; your only focus is on the release of that ball. And nothing else matters.
This feeling lasted the entire series. I guess everyone feels anxiety – I felt more anxiety against Detroit. I never felt anything in Cincinnati, it was like it was a different me. It’s like someone hit a switch; I had no butterflies, no nervousness, felt so relaxed, we had our game plan of what those pitchers threw, from our advanced scouts. When I got on that field, though, I was on a cloud.
We end up winning Game 2 as well and I’m still in this extremely relaxed state. The guys are lightly celebrating the victory. I get in the clubhouse and Dick Williams pulls me away from all these writers who are interviewing me. We go into his office and there’s these two guys in dark blue suits.
“What’s going on,” I ask.
“Geno, somebody wants to shoot you,” Dick said, matter-of-factly as he closed the door.
“Shoot me,” I said, with half a laugh, “What did you mean shoot me?”
The men turn out to be FBI agents. One of them goes into this story that a woman on a concession line early in Game 2 at Riverfront Stadium stood behind this man who was saying to no one in particular, “If that guy on Oakland hits another homer, I’m gonna put a bullet in his head as he rounds third base.” A couple of people around him laughed it off, but this one woman went to an usher who grabbed security and a police officer. They found the guy, got him out of the line and sure enough he had a .22 in one pocket (loaded, too) and bottle of bourbon in the other. They kept all this commotion away from me until the game was over. From that point on, I was battery mates with the FBI for the rest of the series. I had to travel with the FBI – I didn’t even get to go with the team anymore. Riding in unmarked, bullet-proof cars, I’m not gonna lie, it was kind of cool. They just followed me all over. Leaving ballparks from exits unknown to the general public. 24-hour surveillance. FBI agents guarding my hotel room door. Treating me like a rock star, but it was too much, I’m just trying to win a world series and some lunatic was out there wanting to pop a cap in me. Yeah sure, they caught the guy, but they still went through precautionary measures. Who knows if he was working with someone else. Sounds crazy, but you never know. Funny ending to this story. 10 years later, I’m with the Cardinals, going back to the series in ’82 against the Milwaukee Brewers, guess who I get a letter from? “Mr. Tenace, I’m so sorry what I put you through. It was a bad time in my life. In and out of jail, broke. Please forgive me.” How about that? He was apologizing. Fine, I guess, but I couldn’t believe, 10 years later, this guy’s still got me on his mind? Are you kidding me?
I continued to hit throughout the series. 2-4 with a Homer in Game 4. 1-2 with two walks and another homer in Game 5. The funny thing about these hits and the important thing to remember, my teammates were supportive and cheered me on - got the handshakes and back slaps – all that was great, but the minute I sat down in the dugout, I started to put my gear on and the celebration was over. No more talk about what I did with the bat. It became all about how we were going to pitch the next three batters. You don’t dwell on what you just did. If you do that, you won’t be prepared for the job at hand.
We get to Game Seven and my arm is hurting pretty bad. Cinci ran wild on me, stole like 13 bags in that series. I threw out one guy and he was actually safe, too. Still anybody’s series. Last game will come down to who’s most prepared when luck happens. Maybe even who’s most rested. Back to Ohio. FBI guys still at my door. Phone still ringing off the hook. Still getting no sleep. Just as I pass out, the darn phone rings again.
“Yeah,” I say, my voice more exhausted than annoyed.
“It’s Dick. Be at the ballpark tomorrow morning @ 8 AM. I’m working you out at first base.”
“Sure, whatever you need,” I nearly nod off into the receiver. I just want to sleep. I hang up. Mumble first base to myself. Wait a minute, I think. I don’t sit up right away like in the movies, like some comical delayed reaction, but I did lay there and wonder. Does he really want me at first in Game 7 of the series? I played, what six,seven games there the four years I’ve been in the big leagues? I call Dick back. Busy signal. I try again ten minutes later. Busy signal. I shrug it off, assume we’ll deal with it in the morning and go back to bed.
Phone rings an hour later.
“Geno, those SOBs won’t let us have the field,” Dick says about Reds management. “You still be at the ballpark @ 8 AM anyway.” Williams hangs up. I knew Game 7 would be tough. I had no idea what 8 AM would be like.
I get into the clubhouse that morning. Remember, the room was only like 30 feet wide, but much, much longer. It’s me, our coach and batting practice pitcher Vern Hoscheit, Mike Hegan and Dick, who tosses over a first baseman’s glove. “We need your bat in the lineup,” Dick said, “But Duncan’s gotta be behind the plate. You’re hitting cleanup tonight.” They had moved all the chairs, stools and couches to the sides of the clubhouse, completely cleared the room, creating this lane of green carpet that looked like a fake mini-football field. They brought in a first base bag for me to work off of. Dick had poor Hegan get up early just to give me a crash course in playing first base. Mikey was one of the best first basemen in baseball, couldn’t ask for a better instructor. He showed me where to stand, where to keep my foot to not get spiked from the batter running up the line, he had me prepared. Here’s the fun part.
“Lets him ‘em some grounders,” Dick said to Hoscheit. Vern tosses the batting practice ball in the air and smacks the hardest ground ball he probably ever hit in his life. Right in my chest - I’m lucky this thing didn’t hit me in the mouth. Of course, the carpet surface wasn’t astro turf – harder than turf, made Astro turf feel like country-club golf course grass. Dick Williams is screaming at Hoscheit – “What are you stinkin’ doin?” The first ball he hit was like Johnny Bench slamming a stinkin’ grounder at me. I should’ve had my catching gear on. Dick’s screaming at Vern, they rolling balls to me, I have to run to first. Other balls thrown my way are getting lost in the fluorescent ceiling lights. It was kind of a mess. There wasn’t a lot of room to do this. I still marvel at Dick Williams for having the cojones to stick me at 1B in the 7th game of the World Series. I suppose the way he saw it, we had Dick Green at 2nd, one of the best fielders in the game then as well as Campy & Bando in the infield. They could make the adjustments to me.
Top of the first, Angel Mangual hits a shot that Center Fielder Bobby Tolan misplayed for a double. Now, I’m up against Big Jack Billingham, great pitcher with an outstanding sinker. As I’m walking to the plate, that intense feeling returns. No more talking. Can’t hear a thing. Billingham throws me this meatlball right down the middle of the plate and I stroked a grounder to third. That ball came down and hit that seam on the edge of the astroturf and just hopped over Denis Menke’s head and into left field. Mangual scored. 1-0 Oakland. Years later, Menke and I coached together in Houston and he said to me, “I’ve never seen another ball hop like yours did.” You knew what kind of series you were having when you were getting breaks like that. Routine ground ball. I get back to the dugout at the end of the inning and Bando asked me as I reached for my gear, “How’d you hit that pitch?” I said, “It was right down the middle of the plate”. “You’re crazy, that ball was knee-high and down on the black.” “No way, it was in the strike zone.” We saw it on replay later, which showed that Sal was right. It was down and away, but to me, in this series, everything looked a big, fat, slow strike. I ended up driving in 9 nine runs in those seven games. There was not one player on our team that drove in more than one. That’s the thing I’m most proud of in my career.
So now we’re in the fourth inning – I’m playing first, Joe Morgan gets on. What a duel. Morgan, a top base-stealer and Blue Moon, our Game seven starter, had a terrific pick-off move, but I just wasn’t used to this. Odom keeps trying to pick-off Morgan, who keeps sliding back. My catching instincts took over, I start blocking Joe Morgan off the bag. Morgan’s screaming at the umpire, “He can’t do this, he’s not allowed to do this! This isn’t baseball!” That’s me, I’m a catcher, if that ball’s going down in the dirt, I’m going down with it. Blue Moon threw about four balls over to me, and I’m beating the crap outta Joe Morgan, falling all over him, tripping him. The Umpire Jim Honochick, steps over and is like, “Gene, you really can’t do that.” I’m like, “C’mon on, cut me some slack, this isn’t my position.” Morgan’s furious, all shaking his head, “I gotta get away from you, you’re gonna end up breakin’ my legs.” Everyone in the ballpark knew he was running, too. Morgan takes off and Dave Duncan threw a bullet to second, nailing him by a mile. Morgan was really mad. That’s why Dick Williams put me at first. Maybe that was the turning point of the series. The Reds knew the running game wouldn’t be the same for them in Game Seven as it had in the other six.
We ended winning that final game 3-2. I was named the MVP of the series. NBC broadcast the games and their owner RCA sent me this enormous home unit entertainment center as part of my award. When the delivery men carrying this thing got to my house, man, this sucker was so big it took like four guys to carry the thing off the truck. Had to get the neighbors to come over and help me get it in the house. We open it in my den and sure enough it had a nice, big television screen and eight-track tape player in it, too. Got to hear my Elvis and Frank Sinatra music in stereo. Lots of Country & Western also played on that hifi for many years.
That night in the offseason, my wife went to sleep early and I tucked in the kids in bed. Everyone was excited about the new piece of cool furniture. I was excited about finally having some peace and quiet at last.
I cracked open a beer, sat back on my recliner and enjoyed my new hifi, just the three of us. Elvis, The King. Frank, The Chairman. Most importantly, the memory of my 1972 Oakland A’s teammates.
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