Oakland Athletics: Greatest All-Time Team

Oakland Athletics (1968-Present)

Kansas City Athletics (1955-1967)

Philadelphia Athletics (1901-1954)

Also known as the White Elephants

Also known as the Oakland A’s

American League (1901-Present)

American League Champion: 1902, 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1988, 1989, 1990

World Series Champion: 1910, 1911, 1913, 1929, 1930, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1989

The Philadelphia Athletic franchise that was a charter member of the American League in 1901 had no connection to the Athletic teams that represented Philadelphia in the 19th Century. A club called the Philadelphia Athletics won the first Championship of the first Major League, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, in 1871. That franchise lasted until 1876. The American Association put a team in Philadelphia, named the Athletics, in 1882 that lasted until it was expelled from the league in September of 1890 due to the collapse of their fan base. The current Oakland Athletics also originated in Philadelphia and were the idea of Ban Johnson to challenge the National League in Philadelphia directly. The battle lasted 54 years, before the Athletics finally surrendered, and moved to Kansas City.

The Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics History can best be told by the eras of four men. Four dynamic baseball personalities, whose strategic  innovations changed the game forever. Connie Mack was in charge from 1901 until 1950, Charles Finley owned the club from 1960 to 1980, Sandy Alderson joined the Athletics as General Council in 1981, then became General Manager in 1983 and basically ran the Club until 1998, when he was replaced by Billy Beane who has been in charge ever since. Four very different personalities, but baseball innovators all. 

Connie Mack was hired to manage the team in 1901, and gained a 25% interest in the team. He ran the baseball side of the franchise, while the other investors controlled the business side. Mack was a brilliant judge of talent, and the Athletics were one of the premier teams in the new league, winning six pennants in the first 13 years of operation. 

The 1910-1914 team, featuring the famous $100,000 Infield of Stuffy McInnis at first, Eddie Collins at second, Home Run Baker at third and Jack Barry at short, was the first great team in American League history. They won American League Championships in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914, and also the World Series in the first three. Mack’s problem was that, despite the success, their attendance began to slip. After leading the league in attendance in 1909-1911, with a high of 467,000 in 1909, their attendance began to sag. By 1914, with a first place team, attendance had fallen to 343,000. The coming of a third Major League, the Federal League, allowed salary demands to escalate. Mack couldn’t afford to compete in the salary war. He lost his two best pitchers to the new league (Eddie Plank and Chief Bender) and fearing more defections, sold Eddie Collins to the Chicago White Sox, Home Run Baker to the Yankees, and Jack Barry to the Boston Red Sox. The teams demise was predictable and severe. They went from 99 wins and a Pennant in 1914 to 43 wins in and a last place finish in 1915. They would not escape the cellar for the next six years.

After the failure of the Federal League, Mack began building his second great team. Mack was a great judge of talent, would personally scout his prospects, and was willing to spend money on players he wanted. He bought the contract of Al Simmons from the Minor League Milwaukee Brewers for $50,000 in 1923. In 1924 he purchased the entire Portland franchise in the Pacific Coast League for another $50,000 to get a young catching prospect, Micky Cochrane. Mack’s former third baseman Home Run Baker signed a 15 year catcher out of Maryland for his class D minor league team and then offered to sell him to his old manager. Mack paid a paltry $2,500 for the services of the teenage sensation. That kid’s name was Jimmie Foxx. Mack also gained a pipeline into the best minor league team at the time, Jack Dunn’s Baltimore Orioles. That’s where he acquired the contracts of Lefty Grove, George Earshaw and Max Bishop.

The team that bested the 1928 New York Yankees.

By 1925 the Athletics won 88 games and finished 2nd to the Washington Senators, followed that with a solid 3rd in 1926, a distant 2nd to the Yankees in 1927, and a close 2nd to New York with 98 victories in 1928. They finally dethroned Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees in 1929 and won three straight American League titles by 18, 8, and 13.5 games. Many claim that this Mack team was better than the 1927 Yankees, maybe the greatest team of all time. After finishing a distant second to the Yankees in 1932, Mack again started fretting about money. By 1934 he had sold off the heart of his second great team. This time he couldn’t recover, and the team fell out of contention for the next 38 years. 

Mack didn’t release control of the team until 1950, when he was 88 years old (he would die in 1956 at age 93). The franchise continued to flounder, losing the battle for Philadelphia to the Phillies, and moving to Kansas City in 1955. Charlie Finley bought the club in 1960, and after a rough start, created a very productive farm system in the 1960s.

After 13 terrible years in Kansas City (they never had a winning record), Finley moved the team to Oakland just as the farm system began producing top talent. The Athletics jumped into contention in 1970, then won five straight Western Division Titles, starting in 1971, and three straight World Series titles from 1972-1974.

The World Series 3 times in the 1970s, Oakland A’s.

With the coming of the free agent era, the franchise was again unable to compete financially and due to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s decision to invalidate Finley’s attempt to sell the contracts of his best players, led to the Athletics losing the core of their third great team without compensation. By 1977 they were in last place with a 63-98 record. Finley again started stockpiling young talent through his farm system, but just as they were ready to contend, he was forced to sell the team before the 1981 season to the President of Levi Strauss & Company, Walter Haas.

Haas is the one who brought in Sandy Alderson, who led the team that included the “Bash Brothers”, Jose Canseco & Mark McGwire, to three consecutive American League Pennants and their last World Series Title in 1989.

The Bash Brothers

Alderson hired Billy Bean in the 1990s, and gave control of the baseball operation to him in 1998. Beane was the first baseball executive to implement the theories of Bill James, and despite the smallest payroll in baseball took a team from 65 wins in 1997 to 74 in 1998, then 87 in 1999. In 2000 they won 91 games and the American West Title, improving to 102 wins in 2001, and then 103 and another Western Division Championship in 2002. They had two firsts and two second place finishes in the next four years, before the rest of baseball copied his “Moneyball” philosophy, and with more money drove the Athletics out of contention.

Billy Beane

For a club that always struggled at the gate and with a sub .500 overall record of 8,931-9,387, they have managed to be one of the most dynamic franchises in baseball history. Their 9 World Series victories is third all time, behind only the Yankees and the Cardinals, and their 15 American League Crowns is second to the hated Yankees. Currently, the Club continues to contend, even with one of the smallest payrolls in the Majors.  

Catcher

Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane (1925-1933) is one of the top three catchers in Major League History. Notice that we didn’t say top three in baseball history. This is a good place to discuss a subject baseball would just assume forget. By most accounts the greatest catcher of all time was Josh Gibson (1930-1946). Rumors have it that he hit between 800 and 1,000 Home Runs during his 16 year career in the Negro Leagues. He split his time between the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, with a 2-year stint in Mexico in 1940 and 1941. Knowledgeable people who saw him said he could hit like Babe Ruth. By reputation he was great on defense also. He tutored the Dodgers’ Roy Campanella in Roy’s days in the Negros Leagues, and Campanella is one of the best ever behind the plate. The problem is that there is no way to verify his greatness, the Negro League were just too disorganized. This also goes for other Negro League stars.

This will be another article, but there is good evidence that Gibson is the greatest catcher of all time, Satchel Paige is the greatest pitcher and Oscar Charleston is the greatest outfielder. We can’t say that with any certainty, because the statistical evidence just isn’t there. As has been said by Negro League historians, “There exists no official source of statistics, no compilations of scorecards, many gaps exist in the historical record.” It seems like we’ll never know. Back to Mickey Cochrane. He’s an easy choice for the Athletics. 

First Base

Is Jimmie Foxx (1925-1935) the best first baseman in baseball history? Unless you attach a huge penalty to them because of the era they played in, the choice comes down to Foxx and his contemporary, Lou Gehrig. We begin with the assumption that Gehrig was better, because that’s what just about every other rating has said. We’ll start with basic stats.

Foxx    (1925-1942) AB (8,134) HR (534) RBI (1,922) BA (.325) 

Gehrig (1923-1939) AB (8,001) HR (493) RBI (1,995) BA (.340)

Foxx      OBP (.440) SLG (.609) OPS (1.038) 

Gehrig   OBP (.447) SLG (.632) OPS (1.080) 

Close, but Gehrig is a little ahead. Can we attribute that to other factors such as home ballpark, quality of the line-ups around them? No, not really.

How about the modern SABERMETRICS analysis? We’ll use Bill James’ Win Shares(WS) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) published on BASEBALL REFERENCE:

Foxx     WS (435) with a top 3 of 41, 40, 34    WAR (95.8)

Gehrig  WS (489) with a top 3 of 44, 42, 41    WAR (112.4)

It seems pretty clear that the consensus is correct, Jimmie Foxx is not the greatest first baseman of all time, but is he #2? The competition is the current Angels first baseman, Albert Pujols. Here’s Pujols Win Shares and Wins Above Replacement entering the 2019 season.

Pujols   WS (477) with a top 3 of 41, 39, 37    WAR (86.0)

Albert Pujols is closing in on Foxx, but he’s not there yet.

Second Base

Eddie Collins (1906-1914, 1927-1930) career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) was 124.0. As we showed in the Jimmie Foxx comment, Lou Gehrig’s was 112.4. Eddie’s career Win Shares was 574 vs Gehrig’s 489. Collins was the best player on teams that won 6 American League Pennants and 4 World Series. Gehrig’s Yankee Teams won 7 Pennants and 6 World Series. Gehrig had Babe Ruth and Joe Dimaggio as teammates, Collins had Frank Baker and Joe Jackson. Sounds like Collins was an elite player.

Third Base

Frank “Home Run” Baker (1908-1914) led the American League in Home Runs four times (with totals of 11, 10, 12, and 9), but that’s not the reason he obtained his famous nickname. That came in the 1911 World Series when on back to back days he hit crucial home runs to turn the tide against the New York Giants. In Game 2 he hit a 2-run shot off of Rube Marquard to break a 1-1 tie in the A’s 3-1 win. In Game 3 the Giants’ Christy Mathewson carried a 1-0 lead into the 9th inning when Baker’s blast tied the game. Philadelphia would win it in the 11th.

Baker was a victim of Connie Mack’s salary dump in 1915, and retired in disgust. He would come back with the Yankees in 1916 and then retire again in 1920 when his wife died, leaving him with small children to raise. We give him no credit for the time he missed in those years. Sal Bando (1966-1976) was probably the second best player (behind Reggie Jackson) on the Oakland teams that won three straight World Series titles between 1972 and 1974. Baker is in the Hall of Fame and Bando is not, but this is not a mismatch. Baker’s peak was higher, but he was only in Philadelphia for seven seasons while Bando spent eleven years with the Kansas City/Oakland A’s. Both contributed significantly to very successful teams, and they were key components of that success. Baker, like Bando, was probably the second best player on his team (behind Eddie Collins). The metrics we use put Frank “Home Run” Baker (1908-1914) slightly ahead. This was closer than we anticipated, but Baker was the better player.

Shortstop

Shortstop is the only position that the Athletics do not have a front line member of the Hall of Fame to occupy. Jack Barry (1908-1915) was a member of Connie Mack’s famous $100,000 infield from 1910-1914. Mack dumped him in 1915, when Jack was 28 years old. Barry was good, but he isn’t in the same universe as Collins and Baker. Unfortunately, Eddie Joost (1947-1954) was the A’s shortstop at the end of the Connie Mack Era. The team was never in contention during the 8 years Eddie was the shortstop. Bert Campaneris (1964-1976) came up when the franchise was sill in Kansas City. He finished as high as 10th in the MVP voting during the time Charlie Finley was putting together his powerhouse club in those final years in K.C. Campy was the starting shortstop on all of Oakland’s Championship teams in the early 1970s. He was not a good leadoff man, due to his low On Base Percentage, but led the American League in stolen bases six times. Not a great shortstop, Bill James rates him a B. A key member on a dominant team. He’s the choice.

Left Field

Rickey Henderson (1979-1984, 1989-1995) is the most effective lead-off man in baseball history. He walked an incredible 2,190 times in his career, leading to a .401 On Base Percentage. His record for career stolen bases seems pretty safe. The fact that he also hit 297 home runs just adds to his value. All this adds up to the Major League record for runs scored.  Henderson was slightly more valuable than fellow Hall of Famer Al Simmons (1924-1932). Simmons manned left field 724 times for Connie Mack, but he also played center field 509 times. We’ll consider Simmons in center field.

Center Field

Al Simmons (1924-1932) was fantastic, driving in over 100 runs 12 times, with a high of 165 in 1930. He led the League in hits twice, with a high of 253 in 1925, and hit as high as .390 in 1931. Simmons had moved to left field by the time Philadelphia overtook the Yankees as the best team in baseball in 1929, but was an excellent defensive outfielder. He never won an MVP, but finished in the top 10 five times, four in the top 5. He’s the pick, by a huge margin, over Dwayne Murphy (1978-1987).

Right Field

The best player on Oakland’s 1971-1975 championship teams was Reggie Jackson (1968-1975). Reggie led the American League in 15 offensive categories, even though his home park was one of the most difficult for offense in baseball. A very controversial figure, but he was the key player for many championship teams. 

Pitchers

The first two are easy, Robert “Lefty” Grove (1925-1933) went 195-79 in his nine years in Philadelphia, winning the pitching triple crown in back to back years in 1930 and 1931. His combined record in those two years was 59-9, with an ERA of 2.30 and 384 strikeouts. The peak he achieved in those seasons is the equal of any pitcher before, or after. A great pitcher.

Robert Moses (Lefty) Grove.

Eddie Plank (1901-1914) won 90 more games as an Athletic than did Lefty Grove, but he also lost 83 more. Both were career 300 game winners and are in the Hall of Fame. Grove’s peak years years were much better.

#3 is the erratic man-child George “Rube” Waddell (1902-1907). Waddell won his own pitching triple crown in 1905, when the Athletics won their second American League Pennant, going 27-10, with a 1.48 ERA and 287 strikeouts. The year before he struck out an incredible 349, a record that stood until 1965, when Sandy Koufax fanned 382. It was tops for an American League pitcher until Nolan Ryan in 1973 (383). Unfortunately Waddell’s mental make-up caused a quick downward spiral to his life. He died in a sanitarium, of tuberculosis, in 1914 at age 37.

The #4 spot is a tough call between Waddell’s and Plank’s teammate Charles “Chief” Bender (1903-1914) and Jim “Catfish” Hunter (1965-1974). Bender went 193-102 with the Athletics, but despite that was only the third best pitcher on the staff. Hunter’s record with the A’s was not as good as Bender’s (161-113), but he had six years at the start of his career when he was pitching for a bad team. In Oakland’s three straight World Championship seasons he went 21-7, 21-5, and 25-12 (1972, 1973, 1974). Hunter’s best years were better than Bender’s, but Bender had 12 years with the franchise, while “Catfish” had only 10. Both are in the Hall of Fame, but like Waddell, marginal selections. The metrics we use put Bender slightly ahead, but this is a situation we think the timeline matters. The game Jim “Catfish” Hunter (1965-1974) participated in was tougher than the game Bender faced. 

Manager

Connie Mack (1901-1950) was 87 years old when he finally gave up the reigns of the Athletics in 1950. His record after he dismantled his last great team in 1934 was 986-1489. Before that his record was 2596-2325. Mack was 72 years old in 1935 and the game had passed him by, but before that his record is a match for anybody else. Twice he built a team that was the best in baseball, but gave them up because he didn’t have the financial stability to hold them together. Think about the other managers who have the best resumes, all were with wealthy franchises; Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengal, and Joe Torre with the Yankees. John McGraw with the New York Giants, and Walter Alston with the Dodgers. Mack’s record through 1934 is the equal of any of them. An easy choice.

MVP

The A’s have had many dominant teams. In the book BASEBALL DYNASTIES, by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein, three Athletics Teams are included (1910-1914, 1929-1931, and 1971-1974), and another just misses (1988-1990). Only the Yankees have more entries. The problem with attempting to identify their Franchise MVP is none of their key players spent 15 years with the franchise, and most were there less than 10. Eddie Collins was the heart of Mack’s first great team. We think Collins was the greatest second basemen of all time, but he only played nine of his prime years in Philadelphia. He did return to finish his career with Connie Mack in 1927, but he was 40 years old and just about through.

Next is the foursome that led the powerhouse team that dethroned the Yankees in the late 1920s. It’s really hard to figure out which one of the four was the most valuable. Robert “Lefty” Grove, Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, and Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane were all central figures on a team that won 313 games, three pennants and two World Series titles between 1929 and 1931.

The next one to consider is the best player on the team that won three straight World Series in the early 1970s, Reggie Jackson. Jackson was great, but like the others his time with the Athletics was not very long. Rickey Henderson in two stints did spend 12 years with the A’s, and they were very productive years. Henderson is the most effective lead-off man in history.

Sorting it all out; Simmons was the weakest of the four who led their best teams from 1929-1931. Grove, Foxx, and Cochrane are all in the conversation as the best in history at their respective positions (pitcher, first base, catcher). All three won the MVP Award with Philadelphia, Grove in 1931, Foxx twice in 1932 and 1933, and Cochrane in 1928 (he also won one with Detroit in 1934). We ultimately think that Cochrane was the most valuable of the three, but that’s a very subjective choice. According to the metrics we use it’s Foxx, Simmons, Grove, Cochrane in that order. All four are behind Collins and Henderson, but three of the four are ahead of Jackson. There’s a good case for any of the eight, but we think it comes down to Collins and Henderson. Collins is slightly ahead by the formula we use, he was the best player on the Athletics’ first great team (1910-1914), while Henderson was not the best player on Oakland’s 1988-1990 juggernaut, Jose Canseco was. Like we said, this is not easy, but we’ll go with  Eddie Collins (1906-1914, 1927-1930). 

1927: Eddie Collins of the Philadelphia Athletics poses for a portrait circa 1927. (Photo by Stanley Weston/Getty Images)


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