Gene Tenace’s career is framed in such a way by so many that you’d never know that he played beyond the spectacular eight-day stretch he had in 1972.
That Tenace almost singlehandedly carried the Oakland A’s to the first of three consecutive World Series titles that October against the mighty Cincinnati Reds certainly qualifies as a career highlight. Tenace, however, was a jack-of-all trades who could play virtually anywhere on the field and had a 15-year Major League career – not to mention four World Series rings – on his resume, proving just how valuable a commodity he was.
The affable Tenace survived death threats, Charlie Finley and catching Gaylord Perry. While he was never quite the star on the teams for which he played – Hall-of-Famers abounded in Oakland, San Diego and St. Louis – he was part of the fabric that held each of those groups together.
“I enjoyed myself,” Tenace, 74, said. “I think I got the most out of what I had to work with. I wasn’t blessed with a whole lot of ability. But I was blessed to be able to play a number of positions and that’s what kept me around so long. I was also able to hit left-handed pitching. Being able to catch, play first base and third base sort of sums up my career.
“I was fortunate enough to play on some great teams that had some great talent. I was on the three A’s teams that won and the Cardinal team that won. Sometimes you just have to be lucky in this game to get in an organization with great talent and Oakland had tremendous talent. We had Hall-of-Famers Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers and arguably could have had a couple more guys. Kenny Holtzman would have been a Hall-of-Famer for me. We had a great core of guys, great pitching and defense and great managers.”
“How do you get someone with a gun at the ballpark? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s a die-hard Cincinnati fan right there. You can’t get me out of the lineup, though.”
And they had Tenace, who filled in everywhere he was asked and did so with aplomb, particularly in the fall of 1972.
FROM THE OHIO VALLEY TO THE MAJOR LEAGUES
Fury Gene Tenace was born in Pennsylvania and was a two-sport star at Valley High School in Lucasville, Ohio. He was the shortstop and also one of the school’s football stars. Baseball, however, was his love and it was his ability on the diamond that led the Kansas City A’s to select in the 20th round [340th overall] of the MLB First-Year Player Draft in 1965, the first year of the draft’s existence.
Future MLB pitcher Gene Garber, who was a Pennsylvania High school star, was drafted three picks after Tenace and the two had careers that would mirror each other’s in terms of length and travel though Garber would never experience the same success on the team level.
“Up until 1964 you could sign with anyone,” Tenace said. “Then MLB decided on the draft because better clubs like the Yankees kept getting the best talent. I was just flattered to get drafted in any round. It didn’t matter where, someone had showed interest.
“I always wanted to play in Kansas City [after getting drafted]. They had a song they played in the minors [at home games] if you hit a home run [the 1959 Wilber Harrison hit Kansas City]. When I got called up to the big leagues, though, it was in Oakland. I did end up playing in Kansas City, though. The Royals played in the park the A’s played in and it was beautiful, one of the greatest fields I ever played on. It was plush like a carpet in your house.”
While Tenace grew up two hours from Cincinnati, he says he followed the Yankees. His favorite player, though, was Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew. When he and his friends played wiffle ball, everyone would be Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron but he would always choose Killebrew.
“When I first got to play against Minnesota, he came up to the plate and I was star struck,” Tenace said. “I used to be him in wiffle ball and now I’m next to him. It took me two years to get the nerve to ask him for his autograph.”
Tenace wound his way through the Kansas City/Oakland system for several years, establishing his jack-of-all trades reputation in the Florida State, Carolina and Southern Leagues. Tenace worked more and more behind the plate as he moved up, seeing his most catching time after he got to Double-A Birmingham in 1969 before getting the chance to play against Killebrew that September.
He was called up three times by Oakland that year, debuting with a 0-for-4 effort against Detroit’s Denny McLain on May 29th. Tenace accounted for two of McLain’s 12 strikeouts that day. He picked up his first hit the next day off Cleveland’s Luis Tiant. He hit his first Major League homer came off Detroit’s Earl Wilson on June 6 but was back in Birmingham right after that, returning to Oakland in mid-August.
Tenace split 1970 between Oakland and Triple-A Iowa of the American Association but by 1971 he was in the big leagues to stay. He would make his first appearance in the post-season in 1971, going 0-for-3 with a walk in a losing effort against Baltimore in the ALCS. It would mark the first of 10 post-season series in which Tenace would appear.
Tenace was still splitting time with Dave Duncan behind the plate in 1972. He appeared in 82 games and hit .225 with five homers and 32 RBIs, numbers that didn’t indicate he’d be a World Series hero. Tenace’s performance in the ALCS against Detroit [1-for-17] also didn’t provide a clue about what was to come, though the one hit he did have was the game-winner in Game 5.
Oakland would need Tenace’s World Series heroics, too. A’s star Reggie Jackson tore his hamstring on a steal of home in Game 5 of the ALCS and didn’t play against Cincinnati, leaving a monstrous void in the Oakland lineup. The A’s had still had a strong lineup, but it was the unassuming Tenace who stepped up and made history.
Tenace went 8-for-23 with four homers and nine RBI while also drawing a pair of walks to win the World Series MVP. His four homers tied a then World Series record shared by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Bauer and Duke Snider. Tenace went to work immediately in Game One, accounting for all the Oakland scoring in a 3-2 victory with a pair of home runs off Gary Nolan. He became the first player to hit home runs in each of his first two World Series at-bats.
His teams would win eight of those series.
“That [series] was probably the most relaxed I have been in my whole life,” Tenace said. “It was just see the ball, hit the ball. The ball looked like it was coming at me in slow motion. It was comical and kind of scary. I’m standing on the on-deck circle waiting to get my first at-bat and I see people’s mouths moving in the stands but I couldn’t hear anything. It was like I went deaf. I went to the plate and saw [catcher Johnny] Bench say something. His mouth was moving. The umpire said something to but I never heard what they said.
“Gary Nolan throws me the first pitch and it was up and away. They told me he had a good fastball but to this day it looked like changeup. And I was thinking why would he throw a change on the first pitch? I looked at Johnny and then the dugout and then I realized that oh my God, that’s his fastball. He threw me another fastball and I hit the home run. It was like a batting practice fastball. It was like something Michael Jordan would say years later about being in the zone. I was feeling the exact same thing as Jordan. I was in the zone; everything had slowed down.”
While everything had slowed down on the field, unbeknownst to Tenace there was a threat developing in the stadium that day. After Tenace’s second homer, a man in the stands behind the plate began issuing threats, saying that if Tenace hit another homer, he was going to shoot him. A woman nearby heard him and alerted security. The man, who was taken into custody, was armed with a pistol.
Neither the A’s nor the police told Tenace during the game, waiting until he was back in the clubhouse. However, he was given a protective detail that stayed with him throughout the four games that were played in Cincinnati. The authorities took the situation so seriously that Tenace couldn’t leave his hotel room, meaning he couldn’t go to see his family and friends with whom he grew up.
“They found he had a gun so the FBI came into the picture,” Tenace said. “After that, I had to travel with FBI guys in Cincinnati. We were in bulletproof cars and I had to take different cars to and from the park. I had to stay in my room with the FBI guys outside. I had friends who came to the games and I wasn’t able to see them because of the threat. It was a strange situation.
“How do you get someone with a gun at the ballpark? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s a die-hard Cincinnati fan right there. You can’t get me out of the lineup, though. We got through it and I’m still here on top of the ground.”
The post-script to that incident took place a decade later when Tenace was with the Cardinals in 1982. The man who threatened him during the World Series sent Tenace a letter apologizing for his actions 10 years earlier. Tenace once again notified the authorities but this time he didn’t go into protective custody.
“Ten years later he writes me a letter telling me he paid for what he did,” Tenace said. “This is the same guy who planned on shooting me. Nothing materialized but you never know with these situations.”
Tenace went hitless in Games Two and Three, which the two teams split. He had two hits, including his third homer [off Don Gullett], in a Game 4 victory before belting a three-run homer [off Jim McGlothlin] in a Game 5 loss. He went 3-for-7 over the last two games, including driving in a pair in Game 7, which Oakland won, 3-2.
“The whole seven games, I was like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter,” Tenace said. “I was sitting in the dugout and there was no one around me. It never dawned on me that these guys were staying away from me. They’d walk by and say nice going Geno but no one wanted to sit next to me and wake me up.
“We talked about that later. They started laughing and they told me I was in some kind of a zone and they didn’t want to mess with me. What made it great was to win that first one and do it two hours from where you grew up. I lived 100 miles east of the park and if took a boat down the river, you’d get to the town I grew up in.”
THE DYNASTY CONTINUES
Tenace’s status as World Series hero cemented his place in the Oakland lineup in 1973. He had career highs in games , at-bats , runs  and hits . He hit .259 with 24 homers and 84 RBIs as Oakland cruised to the West Division crown.
The A’s squeaked by the still powerful Orioles in the ALCS in five games but Tenace wasn’t much of a factor, going 4-for-17 with no RBIs. The surprising Mets took Oakland to seven games in the World Series, forcing the A’s to win the last two games at home to successfully defend their crown.
Mets manager Yogi Berra opted to start Tom Seaver on short rest in Game 6 rather than George Stone, who had gone 12-3 with a 2.80 ERA in the regular season and had allowed only one run in 9 2/3 post-season innings. That included shutting Oakland out for three innings and earning the save in Game 2.
“They took us to seven games because of the pitching,” said Tenace, who had three hits and three RBIs in the series. ”Seaver, [Jon] Matlack and [Jerry] Koosman; these guys are quality pitchers. I don’t know why they didn’t start Stone. We couldn’t hit Stone, he was nasty. They started Seaver and we beat him and we were all thinking that we’re glad he isn’t starting Stone. We couldn’t hit him. I got to work with Yogi in Houston [years later] but we never talked about it. Two years together and we never brought it up.”
The A’s rumbled to another Division crown in 1974, this time outdistancing Texas, and had a much easier time, dispatching Baltimore in four games before knocking off the Dodgers in five to become the only team other than the Yankees [1936-39, 1949-53 and 1998-2000] to win three consecutive World Series crowns.
Tenace’s batting average dropped to .211 during the regular season but he still hit 26 homers and drove in 73 runs while leading the league with 110 walks. He went 2-for-20 in the post-season but picked up seven more walks.
“The funny thing about the World Series, there was an article in the paper before Game One that had Bill Buckner and Davey Lopes giving this writer a scouting report,” Tenace said. “They said nobody on our team would make their team. Are these guys on something? What are they talking about? Catfish, Holtzman and Vida [Blue] couldn’t pitch for them? Rollie [Fingers] is a Hall-of-Fame closer, Reggie is a Hall-of-Fame outfielder and [Joe] Rudi is a three-time Gold Glove outfielder. And if you put Campy [shortstop Bert Campaneris] against [Dodgers shortstop] Bill Russell, I’d take Campy.
“It kind of ticked our club off. Someone hung the article in the locker room and that took us to another level with them. We didn’t talk about it. Everyone just read the article, got ticked off and we took it to them. We split in L.A. and then took three straight in Oakland. They had a good team but never wake up a sleeping dog and they woke us up. Without that article, I think we still would have beat them. I think we had better pitching.”
Oakland won its fifth consecutive Division title in 1975 but were swept by the Red Sox in the ALCS. Tenace had a strong regular season, hitting 29 homers, driving in 87 and hitting .255 to finish in the top-20 among MVP vote-getters.
The dynasty had come to an end, though. Finley was about to destroy one of the greatest teams in baseball history.
Finley wasn’t about to let free agency destroy his team. He preferred to do it himself. He had already lost Hunter to the Yankees following the 1974 World Series after failing to honor an agreement with his ace, which led to an arbiter’s ruling that he was free to sign with another team. That Hunter, who led the league in victories  with New York, would have helped against the Red Sox is without question.
By the spring of 1976, the full breakdown of the team was underway. Finley traded Jackson to Baltimore in April of 1976 before he could hit the free-agent market later that year. While he got back Don Baylor, Don Mitchell and Mike Torrez, not having one of the most dynamic players in the game would ultimately hurt Oakland, which finished 2.5 games behind the Royals in the West.
Finley tried selling his other stars throughout the year in deals that were voided by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. It didn’t matter, the A’s were finished.
“I get asked the question a lot about what would have happened had the club stayed together,” Tenace said. “Once we lost Catfish, we were never the same club. You lose a guy like that then he trades Reggie and Holtzman [who went with Jackson]. He got some good players back but you couldn’t replace these guys. We were in our prime. After we won the third World Series our average age was 28. Personally, I would have put money on our club winning at least two more. We certainly would have been in the hunt every year.
“In 76 he tried selling Vida to the Yankees and Rudi and Rollie to the Red Sox. Boston was in town and Rollie and Rudi were in uniform for them in their dugout when the commissioner vetoed the sale. Charlie and Bowie couldn’t stand each other and Charlie didn’t want them back. They were in limbo and couldn’t play for two weeks. We lost the division by 2.5 games. We would have won the division by 2.5 games if we had those guys for those two weeks. And Charlie wouldn’t bring anyone up. We played with 22 guys for two weeks. That’s the kind of stuff you had to put up with with Mr. Finley but we still made it close.”
Tenace had 22 homers and 66 RBIs and finished in the top-20 among MVP vote-getters once again in 1976. It wasn’t enough to carry Oakland, though. While he and his teammates wanted to stay in Oakland following the season, it wasn’t meant to be.
Finley got flaky during contract negotiations and Tenace wound up in San Diego with Rollie Fingers. Rudi signed with the Angels and the dynasty was officially dead.
“I would have rather stayed in Oakland but that wasn’t an option,” Tenace said. “There were six of us left and we all sent Charlie a contract proposal. He promised he wouldn’t reveal the details but as soon as he got them he leaked them to the Chicago Tribune. That did it for us, he broke our trust. After that, I told him he didn’t have enough money to sign me back.”
THE PADRES, PERRY AND ST. LOUIS
Tenace signed as a free agent with the Padres in December of 1976. His experience with San Diego, however, would prove to be much different – at least in terms of wins and losses – than it was with Oakland. The instability rivaled what he experienced in the end with the A’s, though.
San Diego employed three managers in 1976 and though they would finally settle on Roger Craig for the final three years of Tenace’s tenure with the Padres, the losses continued to mount. San Diego averaged 73 wins during Tenace’s four years there.
“Four different managers, holy mackerel,” Tenace said. “Just when you get comfortable they get rid of someone. I’m thinking these guys aren’t going anywhere. I couldn’t believe it. And we had some good guys on that team. Rollie, Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith. And Gaylord Perry won the Cy Young Award for the Padres.
“We had some nice young talent but we didn’t have enough pitching. If we could have had a couple more pitchers, with Rollie coming out of the pen, we would have been competitive. We only had one good starter in Gaylord. It was a rough four years playing there. But I made the decision to go there. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
San Diego wasn’t a complete bust for Tenace, though. He had the chance to catch Perry, the spit-balling Hall-of-Fame showman, who went 21-6 in 1978 to win the National League Cy Young Award. Catching Perry proved to be an adventure, one that both frustrated and entertained Tenace.
Tenace said what made catching Perry difficult was the fact that you never knew when Perry would throw one of his special pitches. It took some time for Tenace to figure out when Perry was loading up.
“I caught most of his starts in San Diego and I kept trying to figure out when he was loading up but I never could see it,” Tenace said. “He’d go through all those rituals. Here’s how I caught him, though. When someone hit the ball, everyone would be watching the flight of the ball. No one was paying attention to Gaylord so I watched him and he went right to it. It took me how many starts to figure that out and then I knew it was coming.
“He threw it hard. It would come at you at first but there were a couple of balls I never got a glove on. It was like catching a real hard knuckleball. Gaylord would throw one toward the middle of the plate but it wouldn’t end up there. There was one that came in and took a dead right. I dove for it but the ball still ended up at the backstop. He would do that a lot when he had a man on third base and he needed strikeout. I felt like a hockey goalie. Talk about pressure.”
One particular Perry trick that Tenace enjoyed was the pitch he called Snow White. Perry would load up on the rosin bag so that when he released the ball it was followed by a puff of smoke.
“All you saw was the cloud of smoke and the hitter would jump out of the way because he lost the ball,” Tenace said. “He did that so many times he had me crying and laughing. The hitters would scream he can’t do that. He would get into guy’s minds. Even when he wasn’t throwing his jelly ball he’d get in their heads. They swore he was doing it but he just had good movement on his fork ball.”
Tenace had four solid seasons with San Diego, averaging 17 homers and 64 RBIs each year. He also led the league with career-high in walks  and hit by pitches  in 1977. His walk total is still tied for second on the Padres single-season list with Rickey Henderson, seven behind Jack Clark while the HBP’s are third-most in a San Diego season.
The Padres traded him to St. Louis, though, along with Rollie Fingers in December of 1980. The Cards turned around and dealt Fingers and Ted Simmons to Milwaukee. Fingers would win the Cy Young and MVP Award in 1981 in leading the Brewers to the post-season.
Tenace would help St. Louis win the World Series in 1982 but he played sparingly, going 0-for-6 against the Brewers. While he had collected his fourth ring, Tenace noted the difference between that victory and the ones with Oakland.
“You can’t compare those three Oakland teams to anything else,” Tenace said.
Tenace signed a three-year deal with Pittsburgh prior to the 1983 but only played one season with the Pirates.
“Chuck Tanner guaranteed me 250 at-bats and I got 60,” Tenace said. “He was pinch-hitting pitchers in front of me. There was one period when I didn’t see the plate for a solid month. I went to spring training the next year but they turned me loose and I hung them up. I took a year off and went into coaching.”
Tenace did some work for the Red Sox and ultimately found his way to Toronto, where he served as the bench coach on the Jays two World Series clubs.
“I didn’t have a great career but I enjoyed my career,” Tenace said. “There are some areas of my career that I thought I should have done better. But I got to play a long time with some great individuals and play against and with a lot of Hall-of-Famers. I had a really good time.”