You OUT! The 1979 Oakland Athletics
From time to time a combination of factors conspire to undermine a team’s play. Poor hitting. Sloppy fielding. Weak pitching. Minimal support from ownership. Such was the case for the 1979 Oakland A’s.
They played .333 ball, winning 54 games and losing 108. Of the seven teams playing in the American League West that year, they finished dead last. In their 162 games played, they scored 573 runs and surrendered 860 to their opponents, a -287 run differential. Their average attendance per games was an anemic 3, 787 people per game. There were twenty-six major league teams back then, and the A’s yearly attendance of 306,763 was dead last, less than half of what the second to worst team in attendance, the Atlanta Braves, drew that year.
My sister Nancy and I were both living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time and would go to A’s games periodically. The Coliseum was a sweet little ballpark that offered mild weather at night, at least one major league caliber team (the A’s opponent) on the field and a nice view of the East Bay hills in the distance. We would always buy the cheapest seats, wait a short time, and then head down to the field level, where insufficient staff proved themselves incapable of keeping the influx of bargain hunters out.
One night stands out, but not because of the action on the field. We were seated on the first base line about half a dozen rows from the field. The game started with the lead off batter slapping a ground ball to the shortstop, who threw to the first baseman in plenty of time. From behind us came a very loud “you out!” We turned our heads and saw two sassy, black women about eight rows behind us who went on to provide a hilarious commentary during the game. They knew we got a kick out of them and we weren’t alone. Those two women were the stars of the night.
It must have been tough to have been a player on that team. Among the fourteen American League teams, the A’s were dead last in runs, runs per game, batting average, on base percentage and total bases. The pitching staff was equally bad. The defense was porous, leading the league in errors and having the worst fielding average. This team had ten separate losing streaks of 5 or more games, including an eight-game losing streak in June, a seven-game losing streak in July and two six-game losing streaks in September.
At least the A’s improved as the season unfolded. Their first half winning percentage was .266, and it improved to .426 in the second half. What made the difference? One huge factor was a youngster who played his first major league game on June 24th that year. Rickey Henderson debuted by going two for four, with one stolen base. Suddenly the team had a lead off hitter, a player who stole bases and a terrific outfielder all rolled up into one swift, muscular package. The A’s would get better.
So what else can I say about the 1979 Oakland Athletics? You could drive right into the empty parking lot ten minutes before the game and not miss a pitch. You always had your choice of at least fifty seats. You could hear all the comments shouted out by the fans. There was no waiting at the concession stands. The restrooms were never full. We had fun at their games, which now exist as moments of time in the recollections of fans like Nancy and me. We’ll never forget those nights, right Nancy?