Cooperstown Confidential: the Oakland A’s all-quirky teamby Bruce Markusen
October 28, 2011
A recent posting by The Hardball Times’ Chris Lund has spawned a sub-culture of articles about the quirkiest athletes in each franchise’s history. I originally wanted to take a crack at an all-quirky lineup of Yankees in my lifetime, but when that idea was already taken, I turned to Plan B. I’ve always enjoyed the history of the A’s, particularly from the time they moved to Oakland in 1968. Over the years, the A’s have had more than their share of colorful characters, players who made memorable impressions for something other than their playing ability.
I’ve been following baseball avidly since 1972, when I first started to collect Topps trading cards. So I’ll use that spring and summer as my cutoff point. Position by position, here are the quirkiest Oakland A’s I can remember from 1972 to the current day.
First base—Dick Allen: A rebellious figure throughout his career, Allen only added to his nonconformist resume in 1977, when he joined forces with Charlie Finley and signed with the green and gold. Like some of the other unconventional A’s, Allen wore something other than his surname on the back of his uniform. Allen proudly bore the name “Wampum” on his jersey; it had nothing to do with the sacred wampum of Native American culture, but was instead a reference to Allen’s birthplace, the small borough of Wampum, Pa.
Wearing Wampum on his jersey and still sporting his trademark helmet in the field (a practice he had started in Philadelphia as a means of protection from unruly fans), Allen cut a distinctive posture at first base for the A’s. Unfortunately, his tenure in Oakland would last for less than one season and mark his final stop on the baseball trail. Rejecting Oakland’s overtures that he play as a DH and not as a first baseman, Allen announced his retirement. He didn’t make it effective at the end of the year; no, he called it quits right then and there, in the middle of the season. For a man who always played and worked on his own terms, it was the most appropriate way to end a playing career.
Second base—Tito Fuentes: Behind only the legendary Willie Montanez, Fuentes considered himself the No. 2 hot dog of the 1970s. Fuentes played with such flair and flamboyance that he became a fan favorite in the Bay Area, first with the Giants and later with the A’s. Fuentes was also one of the most talkative players of his era. While on the basepaths, he chatted so much with opposing players that he earned the nickname “Parakeet.”
Fuentes often had a distinctive look on the playing field. He liked to play while wearing a headband, which he sometimes wore under his cap, and at other times, wrapped over the bill of his cap. Some of his headbands featured his name, “Tito,” written out in big, bold letters.
Fuentes lasted only 13 games with the A’s in 1978, when he somehow hit to the offbeat tune of a .322 OPS, but between the headbands and the fast talking, Tito managed to make a bold impression on Oakland fans.
Shortstop—Rodney Scott: As a promising young infielder with the Royals, Scott was so exceedingly laid-back that teammate John Mayberry dubbed him “Cool Breeze.” Blessed with the ability to extricate himself from on-field predicaments such as rundowns and pickoff attempts, Cool Breeze often amazed his teammates with his coolness under pressure. Perhaps the sleek Scott was too loose and laid back for management‘s liking. He would be traded five times during his career, including three times in the span of two weeks.
Along with Dick Allen, Scott played his only season with awful A’s of 1977. But it wasn’t until Scott joined the Expos that he emerged as a top notch defender (at second base) and a dangerous base stealer. In 1980, he hit only .224 but still managed to finish 22nd in National League MVP balloting.
Unfortunately, Scott couldn’t wrest free from drug problems that short-circuited his major league career in the early 1980s.
Third base—Rich McKinney: McKinney often acted like such a space cadet that he was nicknamed “Orbit” by his teammates. The label fully fit his aloof, detached-from-reality personality. It’s also worth noting that he shared the nickname with former Royals and Pilots outfielder Steve Hovley, one of the most memorable of Jim Bouton’s strange cast of characters from Ball Four.
McKinney also looked the part of someone named Orbit. With his long, curly hair (which he arranged into a clownish-looking white Afro) and a chin that would have made Bruce Campbell proud, McKinney looked anything like a typical ballplayer.
Prior to arriving in Oakland, McKinney reached the pinnacle of goofball behavior. After the White Sox traded him to the Yankees, McKinney joined the team for its annual winter caravan promotional tour. Within minutes of meeting the Yankees’ public relations director, the respected Marty Appel, McKinney asked him where he could score some marijuana. Flabbergasted that a player would ask a front office official such a question, Appel responded that he didn’t know.
In spite of his ineptitude as a Yankee, the A’s thought he could help as a DH in 1973, and thought he was worth the price of veteran outfielder Matty Alou. As he did in New York, McKinney struggled as both a fielder and hitter with the A’s, but somehow managed to last four seasons as a backup infielder and pinch-hitter before drawing his unconditional release.
Left field—Hideki Matsui: A member of the A’s in 2011, Matsui has become one of the game’s most quietly colorful players. And it involves more than his nickname of “Godzilla” and his size-eight head, the largest among current major leaguers.
Matsui has gained a cult following for what he collects. No, not baseball cards. Rather, he collects pornography, particularly in the form of videotapes, which he often carries with him on road trips. The habit apparently does not upset Mrs. Matsui; they married in 2008. And perhaps the less I say about this the better.
Center field—Joe Wallis: With a nickname like “Tarzan,” how could Wallis not make this team? The athletic outfielder, who played for Oakland from 1978 to 1980, earned the moniker of Tarzan Joe because of his willingness to dive from high cliffs. One of his college press releases indicated that his “favorite pastime is taking dives off 100-foot cliffs into rock-filled quarries.”
As a professional ballplayer, Wallis added to his rebellious repertoire by jumping out of motel and hotel windows, landing in swimming pools. He explained the key to his success. “Make sure you clear the cement,” Wallis told Tom Weir of The Sporting News.
When Wallis wasn’t jumping out of windows, he was often riding motorcycles. On the of Game Seven of the 1977 World Series, Wallis was hit by a car driving the wrong way. Skidding for 75 feet on his back, Wallis lost much of the skin between his neck and his tailbone. He also suffered a broken leg.
After joining the A’s in 1978, Wallis added to his offbeat persona by growing a beard. But it wasn’t a standard issue beard. He wore his facial hair so outrageously thick and long that he looked like he had just spent a six-month stint in the mountains, like one of the characters in "Deliverance." Wallis became the unofficial leader of Oakland’s “Bearded Bunch”—11 players who sported facial hair. Wallis’ over-the-top beard, the largest of the bunch, made him look like the epitome of a baseball rebel.
Right field—Nick Swisher: Currently with the Yankees, Swisher started to make his reputation during his early years in Oakland. Talkative to the extreme, Swisher would fare well in a head-to-head debate with Tito Fuentes. Throughout his career, Swisher has enjoyed engaging in banter with fans in the outfield. He’ll carry on running conversations with bleacher residents over several innings, making them feel as if their opinions matter. In an era when too many players fear any interaction with fans, Swisher’s approach remains refreshing.
Beyond his outgoing personality, Swisher has often changed his hairstyle, ranging from Mohawk to mullets. Though he never played with the wild-haired A’s of the “Mustache Gang” years, something tells me Swisher would have fit in quite nicely with Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Dave Duncan and company.
While some consider him a hot dog, Swisher’s enthusiasm and exuberance for the game make him a guy who's as easy to root for, at least if he’s playing for your team. The man simply looks like he’s having a ball out there. I’d love to see more players who act as if they actually enjoy being on the field as much as Swisher.
Catcher—Earl Williams: Well-spoken and intelligent, Williams was one player who was never fearful of speaking his mind. After winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award with the Braves, Williams wondered aloud why he didn’t receive any endorsement deals like Johnny Bench, the first catcher to win Rookie of the Year. As an African American, Williams knew that racism was at least one of the reasons. For expressing such opinions, Williams was branded as “militant” by some in the media.
Williams did not like catching, and repeatedly struggled with his weight. By the time he joined the A’s in 1977, he had his weight under control, but he was no less outspoken. He ripped into the Oakland coaching staff, calling the level of coaching “nonexistent.” Manager Bobby Winkles did not appreciate such sentiments. He told one reporter that if the young players on the A’s followed Williams’ lead, they would be “losers all their lives.”
The following spring, the A’s placed Williams on waivers, shocking the veteran slugger. So Williams took out an ad in the New York Times, offering his services to any major league team that might be interested. The ad said, “Have bat, will travel, will hustle.” Yes, Williams was one of a kind.
Designated hitter—Dave Kingman: While most of the players on this list are somewhat loveable, the same could not be said of Kingman. He had awe-inspiring talent, including mammoth power and above-average speed, but his prickly personality made him difficult to tolerate. In particular, he did not like reporters, to whom he often reacted by giving the silent treatment. Sometimes “Kong” did worse, as he did to one Chicago writer when he threw a bucket of ice water on his head in the midst of an interview with teammate Len Randle.
Kingman eventually settled in as a designated hitter for the A’s in the mid-1980s, at a time when the A’s were one of the few teams covered by a female newspaper reporter, Susan Fornoff of the Sacramento Bee. Kingman didn’t appreciate a woman’s presence on the Oakland beat any more than that of male reporters and decided to make her the victim of what he considered a practical joke. Kingman placed a rat in a shoebox, wrapped it in paper, and presented it to Fornoff in the press box. Exactly what Kingman found humorous in the bizarre stunt remains a mystery; the “joke” infuriated Fornoff and made Kingman public enemy No. 1 with the Bay Area media.
Starting pitcher—Joaquin Andujar: Self-conscious about their limitations in speaking English, some Latino ballplayers become introverts at the ballpark, especially when reporters are working the room. But not Andujar. He became one of the most quotable players—Latino or otherwise—during the course of the eighties.
Exceedingly proud of his heritage, Andujar frequently referred to himself as “one tough Dominican.” The label became a kind of unofficial nickname for the talented and talkative righ -hander. Andujar also developed a reputation for his offbeat answers to reporters’ questions and his occasional mangling of the English language. In 1987, while he was with the A’s, he reached the peak of his quotable fame in a Sports Illustrated article. When asked by a reporter to summarize his career in baseball, Andujar provided an intriguing response. “There is one word in America, and that says it all, and that one word is, ‘Youneverknow.”
Andujar could be charming, but he could also be controversial. He became involved with illicit drugs and was implicated during the Pittsburgh drug trial. In 1986, Andujar and six other players received a choice of one-year bans for their admitted use of cocaine, or a sentence of community service and an agreement to donate money to an anti-drug program. Andujar chose the latter, allowing him to join Oakland for most of 1986 and all of 1987.
Relief pitcher—Dave Heaverlo: Like Tito Fuentes, Heaverlo (pronounced HEV-err-loe) managed to leave an impression on both sides of the Bay, first in San Francisco and then in Oakland. As a non-roster rookie with the Giants, Heaverlo was given the No. 60. Even after he made the team, he decided to keep the unusually high number, which he maintained for most of his major league career.
Though he had a full head of hair, he shaved his head bald, something that was rarely done in the late '70s and early '80s. Not surprisingly, the decision to part with his hair left him with the nickname, “Kojak.” While with the A’s, Heaverlo told Charlie Finley that he wouldn’t grow his hair back until the owner traded him.
He enjoyed pulling pranks, such as wearing a rubber nose in the clubhouse and the bullpen. He also expressed his humor verbally. With the A’s entrenched in last place in 1979, Heaverlo caught his right arm in an Oakland Coliseum elevator and exclaimed, “My gawd, there goes the pennant.”
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.