Death, taxes and the Oakland A’s being broke: The things you can count on

Oakland A's, Billy Beane, center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Oakland A's, Billy Beane, center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

According to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland A’s are telling agents they have no money this offseason. For some teams that might be a huge development. For the A’s? Just another day ending with the letter “y.”

Still, it’s got to be unsettling for a fan base that didn’t actually get to see their team win an American League West title during the pandemic season of 2020.

Oakland had 10 players file for free agency this winter, including corner infielder Jake Lamb, shortstop Marcus Semien, second baseman Tommy La Stella, outfielder Robbie Grossman, pitcher Mike Fiers, pitcher Mike Minor, closer Liam Hendriks, reliever Yusmeiro Petit, reliever Joakim Soria and reliever T.J. McFarland.

To be fair, some of those players were spare parts. Lamb, a former All-Star was signed after the Arizona Diamondbacks cut him loose in September. Minor only made four starts after being picked up from the Texas Rangers for minor-leaguers to be named later at the Aug. 31 trade deadline, the same time La Stella was acquired from the Los Angeles Angels.

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But others were big pieces of an organization that has reached three consecutive postseasons and last year won its first division crown since going back-to-back in the AL West in 2012-13. By beating the Chicago White Sox in last season’s Wild-Card Series, the A’s marked their first postseason series win since 2006 and just their second of the 21st century.

The remarkable thing about the Oakland A’s over the last two-plus decades is how often they have been in the thick of contention despite perennially being among the teams with the game’s smallest payrolls. Developing young players into stars, watching them grow up and leave to sign big-money deals elsewhere and start over again is the lather, rinse, repeat of the A’s existence.

Since Billy Beane, now the team’s vice president of baseball operations, came to Oakland as general manager in 1998, the A’s have reached the postseason 11 times in 23 seasons.

That is more than any other team in the AL West and more than just five teams in all of baseball: The New York Yankees (19), Atlanta Braves (14), St. Louis Cardinals (14), Boston Red Sox (12) and Los Angeles Dodgers (12). The Houston Astros, with 10 postseason trips, are the only other franchise in double figures over that span.

But here’s the thing and there’s really no getting around it: The Oakland A’s have been operating on a shoestring budget even longer than they’ve been the Oakland A’s.

Before they were the Oakland A’s, there were cash problems out east

The Oakland A’s franchise traces its roots back to the chartering of the American League, founded 120 years ago Thursday — Jan. 28, 1901 — in Milwaukee.

It sprung out of a minor-league circuit known as the Western League and there were eight charter franchise, including the Philadelphia Athletics — co-owned by sporting goods executive Ben Shibe and the team’s first manager, Connie Mack.

Mack built the Athletics into a contender, winning the franchise’s first pennant in 1905 and later going to four World Series between 1910-14, winning three of them. But after Philadelphia was shocked by the Boston Braves in a four-game sweep in 1914, Mack pulled off baseball’s first fire sale.

And everything had to go.

Second baseman Eddie Collins, a future Hall of Famer, was sold to the White Sox for $50,000. Shortstop Jack Barry initially survived the purge before he was sold to the Red Sox for $10,000 in July 1915.

Third baseman Home Run Baker, another Hall of Famer, played town team ball in 1915 and was sold to the Yankees in February 1916 for $37,500 after sitting out the season. Right fielder Eddie Murphy was sold to the White Sox for $11,500 on July 15, 1915.

Pitcher Bob Shawkey? Sold to the Yankees for $3,000 on June 28, 1915. In December 1914, eventual Hall of Fame left-hander Eddie Plank signed with the St. Louis Terriers of the upstart Federal League. Another future Hall of Famer, right-hander Chief Bender, joined Plank in jumping to the Fed loop, signing with the Baltimore Terrapins three days later.

You can see the prevailing theme here — there were no players coming back to Philadelphia in any of these deals. Even the players who stayed didn’t for long. The last three to go — catcher Wally Schang, center fielder Amos Strunk and right-hander Bullet Joe Bush — were traded to Boston in December 1917 for three forgettable players … and, of course, $60,000.

In 1914, the Athletics won the AL pennant with a 99-53 record, 8½ games ahead of the Red Sox. In 1915, Philadelphia finished 43-109 — dead last in the league and 58½ games in back of Boston. Yeah, they were basically eliminated by Easter Sunday, which was nine days before Opening Day.

The Athletics finished last for seven years running, climbing to seventh in 1922, sixth in 1923 and fifth in 1924. In 1925, behind a new collection of stars featuring catcher Mickey Cochrane, outfielder Al Simmons and right-hander Eddie Rommel, Philadelphia finished second, but a distant 8½ games of the Washington Senators.

The Athletics slipped to third in 1926, then had back-to-back runner-up finishes behind the Murderers’ Row Yankees in 1927 and 1928, winning 91 and 98 games.

Fifteen years after their 1914 World Series loss, Mack’s club was back in the Fall Classic, beating the Chicago Cubs in five games for the franchise’s fourth championship. They repeated in 1930 by topping the Cardinals in six games, but lost a Game 7 at St. Louis 4-2 in 1931.

And then it was over. The Athletics slipped back behind the Yankees into second place in 1932, fell to third in 1933 and then began a stretch of 14 straight seasons in the second division (fifth place or worst), a run that included nine last-place finishes.

Mack was finally convinced to give up the managerial duties after the 1950 season, with his sons Earle Mack and Roy Mack buying shares of the team the same year. After the 1954 season, Mack sold the club to industrialist Arnold Johnson.

Before there were the Oakland A’s, there were also the Kansas City A’s

Johnson moved the team to Kansas City almost immediately, cashing in on his 1953 purchases of both Yankee Stadium in New York and Blues Stadium in Kansas City. While in Kansas City under Johnson’s ownership, however, it was as if the club was still a Yankees farm club.

The teams made many trades — 18 of them to be exact — and many of them sent young talent to New York and brought fading players back to Kansas City. The Athletics sent former AL MVP Bobby Shantz to the Yankees in February 1957 and young third baseman Clete Boyer to complete the trade in June of the same year.

Fireballer Ryne Duren and outfielder Harry Simpson exited Kansas City two weeks after Boyer to bring in Billy Martin and Ralph Terry, who was traded back to the Yankees in May 1959. In December 1959, the Athletics sent Roger Maris to the Yankees for a package that included fading stars Hank Bauer and Don Larsen and the forgettable Marvelous Marv Throneberry.

Maris would win the next two AL MVP awards in New York and break the single-season home run record in 1961.

Bob Cerv had come to Kansas City from New York, established himself as a slugger and then was traded back to the Yankees in May 1960, the last deal between the Yankees and the Johnson-owned club.

In December 1960, Johnson’s estate sold the club to Charles O. Finley — who had tried to buy the team in 1954 — and things got … weird.

Finley replaced the team’s elephant mascot with a live mule, Charlie-O, who hung around until 1976. In 1963, the team’s blue-and-white color scheme was replaced by colors known as Kelly Green, Fort Knox Gold and Wedding Dress White (because whenever you can work “wedding dress” into the color scheme, you just have to).

In 13 seasons in Kansas City, the A’s never finished above .500 — in fact, the high water mark was a 74-86, seventh-place finish in 1966.

But they were building a cache of young talent that would coalesce after yet another move west.

1968: The Oakland A’s are born

In 1968, Finley moved the franchise to Oakland, where a new stadium had been built primarily for the American Football League’s Oakland Raiders just a couple of years earlier. While the Raiders have come and gone from the Oakland Coliseum twice, in 1982 and 2020, the A’s are still toiling away there.

With young stars such as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi forming the foundation, Oakland finished second in the new American League West in both 1969 and 1970 before winning the first of five consecutive division titles in 1971.

In 1972, Oakland broke through with the first of three consecutive World Series titles, the franchise’s first in more than 40 years.

But with free agency looming on the horizon in 1976 and a host of stars on expiring contracts, Finley began to look to cash in while he could. He traded Jackson to the Baltimore Orioles in the spring of 1976 and then shocked the baseball world at the trading deadline later that year.

In those days, the non-waiver trading deadline was much earlier than it is now — June 15 — and on that date in 1976, Finley packed up Fingers with Rudi and sold them to Boston for $1 million each. Vida Blue, meanwhile, was sold to the Yankees for a cool $1.5 million.

The deals were voided by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who invoked the ubiquitous “best interests of baseball clause” to send the stars back to Oakland. The A’s finished 2½ games behind the Kansas City Royals and the dynasty was over.

That winter saw an exodus from the East Bay. Rudi signed with the California Angels. Campaneris went to Texas. Bando was off to the Milwaukee Brewers. Fingers and Gene Tenace each signed with the San Diego Padres. Hunter, meanwhile, had already gotten out of his contract in 1975 and signed with the Yankees.

Blue was the only big star that remained and he was traded to the San Francisco Giants in March 1978.

In 1980, Finley had a deal in place to sell the team to Marvin Davis, who was going to move the team to Denver. That was shortly before Raiders owner Al Davis announced he was taking his team to Los Angeles in 1982. The city of Oakland and Alameda County — not wanting to be the grinch that stole professional sports from the East Bay — refused to let the A’s out of their lease.

In August 1980, Finley sold the team, but to Levi Strauss president Walter Haas, with the deal finalized before the 1981 season to keep the team in Oakland.

Manager Billy Martin had been hired before the 1980 season and led the A’s to a surprising — if distant — second-place finish by riding his starting pitchers heavily. Oakland won 83 games with starters Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, Steve McCatty and Brian Kingman each completing at least 10 games. The staff had 94 complete games in all, led by Langford’s 28.

A hot start in 1981 had Oakland agog over “Billy Ball,” but the players’ strike in June brought that to a screeching halt. Still, the A’s won the first-half division title, awarded as play resumed in August, and swept the Royals in the Division Series. But the Yankees swept them in the ALCS and the mini-run was over.

Why? Because a starting rotation that had completed 154 games over two seasons, including a strike-shortened one, broke down en masse in 1982 and the team slumped to a 68-94 record. Martin left to go back to the Yankees for the 412th time and the A’s floundered in the middle of the pack for the next four seasons.

But in 1986, Tony LaRussa was fired as manager of the White Sox and the A’s wasted little time bringing him in to replace Jackie Moore. The team gambled on reclamation projects such as Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley and hit it big with young stars Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Terry Steinbach.

The team went from 76 wins in 1986, to 81 in 1987 and to 104 and a pennant in 1988.

Oakland won four division titles and three pennants between 1988-92, but could muster just one World Series title in 1989. The core of that group broke up during and after the 1992 season, which led to six straight losing seasons, the last of which being Beane’s first year in the front office.

The Haas family sold to Stephen Schott and Ken Hofmann in 1995 and they in turn sold the team to current owner John J. Fisher in 2005. He has had full ownership since purchasing Lewis Wolff’s 10 percent share in 2016.

That’s what has to be frustrating for Oakland A’s fans. When the owner — the youngest son of Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of Gap — has a net worth of $2.8 billion as of today, according to Forbes, it’s got to be hard to see a lack of investment in the team’s on-field product.

Fisher also has smaller stakes in the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS and Scottish Glasgow Celtic FC.

As for this year’s group of departing free agents, Semien signed a one-year deal for $18 million with the Toronto Blue Jays, La Stella got three years and $19 million guaranteed from the Giants, Grossman went to the Detroit Tigers for two years and $10 million, minor received two years and $18 million from Kansas City and Hendriks got three years and $54 million from the White Sox.

Oakland will still bring back slugging first baseman Matt Olson, who hit 14 homers with 42 RBI in 2020 despite hitting just .195 with a .734 OPS and third baseman Matt Chapman had 10 homers in just 37 games while mustering a .232 average and .812 OPS. Super-sub Mark Canha likely inherits Grossman’s job in left field.

On the mound, 32-year-old Chris Bassitt will see if he can throw up another 2.29 ERA/1.159 WHIP season, young Jesus Luzardo will try to take the next step and the bullpen will adapt as the Oakland A’s will try to piece something together.

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Because that’s what they always seem to do, even when the outlook appears to be very bleak.