The World Series
has produced a number of improbable heroes over the years, but none as unlikely as Gene Tenace. A jack-of all-trades, Gene Tenace filled in everywhere for the Oakland A’s in 1972, except as a pitcher and a shortstop, doing most of his playing behind the plate. Gene Tenace had hit just .225 for Oakland that year, but what he did in the World Series made him a household name, as Gene Tenace almost single-handedly did in the Cincinnati Reds.
Gene Tenace came to the A’s in 1969 as a back-up catcher, and the right-handed hitter played sparingly his first three seasons in Oakland. However, in 1972, Gene Tenace got into 82 games; 49 behind the plate and the rest in the infield and outfield. Sporting the .225 average in 227 at-bats, Gene Tenace had 5 homers and 32 runs batted in. The A’s won the American League West by five and a half games over the White Sox, their first title of any kind since moving to Oakland from Kansas City. In the League Championship Series, Gene Tenace went 1 for 17, but that one hit was a Game Five fourth inning single that plated the eventual LCS winning run in a 2-1 nail-biter over the Tigers. If Gene Tenace had done nothing else, he had helped get his club to the World Series, but he was by no means through with his post-season heroics. Gene Tenace was just warming up.
The Reds were making their second trip to the World Series in three seasons, and were favored heavily over the upstart Athletics and Gene Tenace, who was barely a blip on baseball’s radar screen at that point. But in the top of the second inning at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, George Hendricks walked with two down and up came Gene Tenace. He hit a home run to knock in the A’s first two runs off of Gary Nolan, and then hit a solo homer with one out in the fifth, becoming the first player to ever homer in his first two World Series at-bats. When Vida Blue came on to get the last seven outs against the Reds to save the 3-2 A’s victory, Gene Tenace was the star of the day.
The next day, Catfish Hunter almost went the distance in a 2-1 A’s triumph, but Gene Tenace went 0 for 4 with a strikeout. Up two games to none, the A’s went home to the Oakland Coliseum where they wasted “Blue Moon” Odom’s eleven strikeout performance, being shut out 1-0 by Jack Billingham and Clay Carroll. Gene Tenace suffered through another hitless day, and it looked like his first game homers were simply an aberration. But he hit another in Game Four, this one off of hard-throwing Don Gullett, and his ninth inning single kept a rally going that eventually produced a thrilling 3-2 A’s win, and a three games to one lead over the baffled Reds. When Gene Tenace hit his fourth Series homer in the second inning off of Jim McGlothlin the next day, a three run job, it looked like the A’s would win in five games. The Reds had other ideas, getting to Hunter and Rollie Fingers to edge the A’s 5-4 and send the Series back to Cincy, where they were confident they could complete their comeback.
When Gary Nolan and three relievers held the A’s to one run while the “Big Red Machine” bats accounted for eight, the comeback was two-thirds of the way to fruition. Gene Tenace went 1 for 4 in the loss, but manager Dick Williams moved him into the clean-up slot for the deciding Game Seven and put him on first base, where he had played nine times during the season. The move immediately paid dividends when Gene Tenace singled in a first inning run off of Billingham to stake the A’s to a 1-0 advantage. Odom made the run stand up until the fifth, when he got into trouble and was quickly replaced by Hunter, who allowed a Hal McRae sac fly that knotted the score at 1-1.
In the A’s sixth, Gene Tenace got his final hit of the 1972 World Series, a run-scoring double to left. He was taken out for a pinch-runner, and when Sal Bando doubled, the A’s led 3-1. Cincinnati mounted a serious threat in their half of the eighth, but Rollie Fingers came on to limit the damage to a single run. When the future Hall of Famer retired the Reds harmlessly in the bottom of the ninth, The A’s were the champions and Gene Tenace was nmed the World Series MVP.
Gene Tenace would become a regular with the A’s after that out-of-the-blue World Series performance, when he went 8 for 23 with the 4 homers and 9 runs batted in. He would hit for power with a low average over his career, but his great batting eye would account for over 100 walks in a season 6 separate times. Gene Tenace played on the A’s 1973 and 1974 World Series winning squads, went to the Padres as a free agent, was on the 1982 champion Cardinals, and ended his run in the game with the Pirates in 1983. Gene Tenace would have 71 more post-season at-bats in his career after the 1972 Series. Oddly enough, in those 71 at-bats, Gene Tenace got just 9 hits and had 4 runs batted in. But for the span of one week in the fall of 1972, Gene Tenace might as well have been Babe Ruth.