Last week, we started this miniseries of columns to track the Oakland Athletics in 2023, as this will be a historically bad team. It’s hard to remember that just a few years ago, the A’s were loaded with talent: The team posted a 316-230 record combined from 2018-2021, making the playoffs three times and even dethroning the cheating Houston Trashstros as American League West champions in 2020. But then … the team, in traditional fashion, was broken down for rebuilding.
The A’s are now the worst team in baseball—easily. With a .182 winning percentage, Oakland is behind Colorado (.261) and Kansas City (.227) currently for the worst record in the sport. The team’s run differential (minus-4.7 runs per game) is twice as bad as the next-worst team (the Rockies at minus-2.3), and sabermetrically, the A’s are last, too, rating about 50 percent worse than Colorado. It’s going to be a long Oakland summer, and there’s little anyone can do to stop it.
The franchise actually has done this many times before, both in Philadelphia and Oakland. Look at the A’s when they were on the East Coast: They won four AL pennants between 1910 and 1914, while winning the World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913. After surprisingly losing the Series in 1914, however, the team was stripped for parts—immediately going from the penthouse to the outhouse in 1915 and 1916, the latter season being the worst team in modern MLB history (.235 WP).
Philadelphia finished last in the league for seven straight seasons before even crawling out of the basement to finish seventh in 1922. Three years later, the organization had reloaded to finish above .500 for the first time since that 1914 pennant year. From 1925 to 1933, the A’s ended up in the top three every year, including three more AL pennants in 1929, 1930, and 1931. It took a heckuva team to dethrone Murderers’ Row in New York, but the A’s did it—and then some.
Winning the Series in 1929 and 1930 was the pinnacle of that successful run, and even though Philadelphia lost the Fall Classic in 1931, the team still managed to succeed for a few more seasons. But then? It was time to break it all down once more: from 1935 to 1954, the A’s finished last in the league 11 times in 20 seasons—never rising above fourth place and posted a plus-.500 record only four times in that span. At that point, the team moved to Kansas City for 13 seasons.
Nothing changed in K.C., as the team finished dead last in the American League six times during the span from 1955 to 1967. In fact, the A’s never posted a winning season there, the best season coming in 1958 when the team won 73 games. Those Kansas City Athletics famously shipped their good talent to the New York Yankees, due to a cozy business relationship between A’s owner Arnold Johnson and Yankees owners Dan Topping and Del Webb.
Things changed a lot when the team was purchased by Charles O. Finley and moved to Oakland for the 1968 season as the talent stayed with the organization that developed it (free agency was still a few years away). The first nine years in Oakland were winning seasons, with the 1971-1975 stretch of five consecutive AL West Division titles the pinnacle of the era. Of course, the A’s became only the second team, other than the Yankees, to ever win three straight World Series, too.
But free agency destroyed Finley, psychologically, and he also ended up selling off parts of the dynasty, to the point that the Athletics hit rock bottom—again—in 1979, finishing last in the division for the second time in three seasons and winning just 54 games. Infamously, the A’s drew just over 306,000 fans for an 81-game home season, with the April 17, 1979, game being the nadir: only 653 fans showed up to see Oakland beat Seattle, 6-5. Herein began the optical issue.
Of course, the A’s didn’t stay down long. The usual homegrown talent came on board, and by 1981, the team was the champion of the AL West again, and from 1980 to 1992, the Athletics never finished in last place. Appropriately, they won three straight league pennants from 1988 to 1990, winning the World Series in 1989. Oakland finished second in AL attendance, too, in 1989 and 1990, so there was no issue drawing fans to the stadium when the team was good.
But the dynamics of MLB changed in the early 1990s, due to two incidents: the commissioner coup led by Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf—and the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore. Selig took over the commissioner’s office with avarice and greed, and Camden Yards signaled a new era of baseball, where stadiums became significant revenue generators for team owners: the end of the Oakland era began.
After winning the AL West four times in five seasons, the A’s couldn’t compete financially anymore and started trading off assets (again). From 1993 to 1998, Oakland did not field a winning team. By 1999, though, the talent pipeline had been restored, and from 1999 to 2006, the A’s once again thrived—taking the AL West four times in that span and going to the playoffs five times overall in eight seasons without posting a losing record: Moneyball! But then the cycle restarted …
The 2007-2011 seasons produced no winning records before Oakland made three straight postseason appearances again, from 2012 to 2014—and the breakdown happened once more in the post-Moneyball era. And as noted, like a phoenix, the A’s came back to thrive again from 2018-2021, before this latest stripping of talent occurred. So, we see it’s not the current ownership group: literally every owner in organizational history has done this to the roster, business-like.
The issue is Selig made up his mind, perhaps in his memory as the Brewers owner during that 1979 season, that Oakland wasn’t fit for an MLB team. He did a lot to bring the A’s to where they are today, as has his successor Rob Manfred—who noted he expects the Athletics franchise to thrive in Las Vegas. This all comes down to money, of course, and with more of it, perhaps the team ownership won’t strip down any future winners on the field when the time comes to spend.
Only time will tell … maybe the A’s will just reload in Sin City.