In 1981, Oakland won the AL West after a first place finish and a sweep of the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS. They would get a taste of their own medicine in the ALCS, as they were swept by the New York Yankees. Numerous articles and tributes have been written about the 1981 A's. Led by Billy Martin, the team won their first 11 games of the season and never really looked back.
The following season featured Rickey Henderson's greatest base stealing display, but little else from the rest of the team. They finished in 5th place in the AL West, with a 68-94 record. Billy Martin was out following the season, with many questioning his over-reliance on his starting pitching, and wondering if the "Billy Ball" formula was only a short term solution. The June draft in 1982 also yielded some hope for the future -- in the 15th Round, the Athletics scooped up Jose Canseco out of high school in Miami.
Topps #610 Rickey Henderson - If it wasn't obvious to everyone already, 1982 was the year Rickey Henderson established himself as the best base-stealer of his generation. He was now firmly understood to be a superstar, though his power had yet to fully develop. He would go on to become not only the best base-stealer, but also the best lead-off hitter of all-time. His 1,406 career stolen bases is the most all time, with the next closest player, Lou Brock, 468 steals behind him. He is the all-time MLB leader in Runs Scored, and 2nd All-time in Walks.
Topps #578 Shooty Babitt - Babitt had a good start to the 1981 season, hitting over .300 through the month of May. His bat cooled off in the weeks following the return from the strike, and he would find his role diminish not only due to a slumping bat, but also poor play at second base. He turned just 5 double plays for the A's in 1981, and lost the confidence of Billy Martin. When Billy doesn't trust a player, it is very unlikely that he will get playing time. In Oakland, Martin was also the team's general manager - so Babitt found himself in AAA in 1982, then he was released by the A's and spent time in Montreal's minor league system. He stayed in baseball as a long time scout for the Diamondbacks and Mets.
Topps #187 Jeff Newman - I picked this mostly for the good shot of the A's white unis with the Gold trim... Jeff Newman was an All-Star in 1979 for the A's, and was used as a utility player in 81/82. He was a Catcher, 1st Baseman, and pinch hitter for Billy Martin's A's, but did not have much success at the plate. His OPS+ for those 2 seasons combined was just 64. He hit .199 in 1982 for the season, and was included with Tony Armas in the trade to Boston that brought Carney Lansford out west prior to the 1983 season. In his All-Star season, he hit 22 homers as the A's primary Catcher.
Fleer #109 Tom Underwood - This was another card selected first and foremost for the photo - Underwood has a little bat rack action going on behind him. Underwood split 1981 between the Yankees and the A's, used mostly out of the bullpen. In '82 Underwood was the swingman, starting 10 games and finishing 20 others. He made 56 appearances for the '82 A's, as one of Martin's most used arms out of the bullpen. He was a mid rotation starter for most of his career up to that point, pitching in Philadelphia, Saint Louis, and Toronto on his way to the Yankees. In 1982 he finished with a 10-6 record and 7 saves. Underwood was a Topps All-Star Rookie in 1975, and once pitched a complete game against his brother Pat, losing 1-0 to his little bro and the rest of the Detroit Tigers.
Donruss #491 Billy Martin - He's been mentioned several times already, and with good reason. The 1981 and 1982 A's were exemplified by the rising and falling fortunes of Billy Martin as a manager and as a man. Martin came into the A's job with big chip on his shoulder. His brand of baseball included a long leash on starting pitchers and aggressive moves on the bases. Both of those traits fit well with the 1981 A's, as the team rallied behind their fiery skipper. Whether it was fatigue or injury or just too much of a good thing, 1982 saw the team fail to repeat their success on the field, despite essentially riding the same strategy into battle. Martin had a way of making a quick impression on a team, followed by a quick exit. He led the Twins to an AL West Pennant in 1969, his only season managing the team. In 1972, his 2nd season with the Tigers, he won the AL East Pennant. In 1974, his first season with the Rangers, he led the team to a 2nd place finish. He was on hand for the Yankees' AL East titles in 1976 and 77 - but was fired in each case before getting the chance to go further. The A's fired Martin after the 1982 season.
Fleer #106 Rob Picciolo - Rob was a glove first SS for the A's, getting his first taste of big league action in 1977 as their everyday starter. He was still the team's primary starting shortstop in 1981, despite having hit just .228 in the big leagues to that point. He would defy expectations and hit a career high .268 for the A's in 1981, and also continued to display his signature skills on defense, ranking 3rd in the AL in fielding pct. Picciolo was traded to the Brewers in 1982, and was fortunate to once again be in a pennant race. With Milwaukee he was behind Hall of Famer Robin Yount on the depth chart, so he was used sparingly. Following his playing days, Picciolo was a manager in the minors and major league bench coach for the Padres and Angels. Sadly, he passed away in 2018 following a heart attack.
Donruss #339 Cliff Johnson - Johnson was the A's primary DH in 1981, hitting .260 with 17 homers, then platooned with Jeff Burroughs in 1982 in that same role. Already a decade into his career, his best seasons were yet to come. In 1983 and 84 he was the DH for the up and coming Toronto Blue Jays, 66 of his 196 career homers came in the final 4 years of his career. For the A's Johnson had an OPS+ of 119. Prior to his late career fireworks, he was a Catcher/First Baseman. He was a member of the 1977 and 1978 Yankees world series teams, mostly used as a backup for Thurman Munson, though he did hit 22 homers in 1977. He was the Yankees DH during the 77 ALCS, hitting his lone post season Home run. Despite a low career average, Johnson was adept at getting on base, an underappreciated asset in his playing days. His career .355 OBP dwarfed his .258 career batting average, but illustrated his worth to his ballclub.
TCMA Baseball's Greatest Pitchers #45 Charles Albert Bender - Bender was born in Minnesota to a German father and a Chippewa/Ojibwe mother in 1884. Bender grew up on the White Earth Reservation, and was sent to boarding school in Carlisle. PA in his early teens. Bender was both an accomplished student at school, but also a talented multi-sport athlete. Racial prejudice was part and parcel of the baseball world in the early 1900s, and despite his distaste for the moniker, the media shortened his name to "Chief" and often based their analysis of his playing on tired and baseless stereotypes regarding his "Indian Blood." It is debatable who "invented" the pitch, but Bender was one of the first pitchers in the major leagues to regularly throw a slider, which he used to devastating effect - in 1910, he went 23-5 with a 1.58 ERA, as well as pitching 2 complete games in the 1910 World Series. His Athletics won the championship in 1910, 1911, and 1913 due in no small part to his pitching. He was also known for his ability to study opposing pitchers and pick up subtle tells in their delivery that would tip their pitches. A's Manager Connie Mack would often place Bender at 3rd or 1st base in the coaches box when not pitching to relay signs to hitters and baserunners. Bender was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953 by the veteran's committee. He finished his career with a 2.46 ERA and 212 victories in 16 MLB seasons.
Donruss #113 Rickey Henderson - When Rickey stole 130 bases in 1982, the 2nd place base stealer Damaso Garcia had 54. Harold Reynolds actually won the stolen base crown in 1987 with 60 steals, when Rickey missed significant time due to injury. It was the only year that Rickey did not win the stolen base crown between 1980 and 1992. Reynolds tells the story quite well of getting a call from Rickey after the season - "60 steals? You oughta be ashamed of yourself. I had that at the All-Star break." In fact in 1982, Henderson had 84 at the All-Star Break. An odd fact - Rickey hit right handed but threw left handed - can you imagine his stats if Rickey had that extra step head start from the left handed batters box?