1974 was the Year of the Fight. There was the “Fight of the Century” in Zaire between heavyweights George Foreman and Joe Frazier. Then there was the second-most heralded fight of that year, which took place under the stands at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
Few teams in baseball history were as wild as the 1970s Oakland A’s, who made a name for themselves on the field and off. The A’s won three straight World Series titles from 1972-74, despite a shared hatred of their team owner, controversial firings and player wranglings, and in-fighting.
One of the most famous fights involving the “Swingin’ A’s” occurred at Tiger Stadium in Detroit 40 years ago this week, on June 5, 1974. When the dust eventually settled from that brouhaha, Oakland catcher Ray Fosse was in traction, center fielder Billy North‘s ego and hip were bruised, and star right fielder Reggie Jackson had a sore shoulder and was friendless on his own team. True to form, after the brawl that spilled across the floor of the visiting clubhouse, the A’s went out and beat the Tigers anyway, 9-1 behind ace lefty Vida Blue and two hits from North, the team’s speedy leadoff man. That’s just the way the A’s were wired.
To understand why the fight started requires a knowledge of the Oakland team and the fragile hierarchy of a major league clubhouse. At any one time, a clubhouse has a few superstars with giant egos, several wannabe stars who are certain they’re being disrespected, and others who are either hampered with anxiety because they aren’t sure if they’ll have a job next week or be shipped to the minors, or veterans who think they know more than the manager. The amazing thing about the A’s wasn’t that they frequently squabbled, it’s that it didn’t happen more often. Oakland’s team owner, Charles O. Finley, sat at the top of the dysfunctional Athletics’ family tree, constantly berating his team while penny-pinching his way through the season. Finley never met a rule he didn’t want to break or amend, and he never thought a player was worth anything close to what the player thought he was. The A’s won in spite of Finley, not for him.
North was a fast-talking chatterbox known for his cockiness. The previous year he had shocked his teammates when he suddenly and without provocation threw his bat at the mound towards an opposing pitcher, setting off a brawl. Asked later why he had done it, North explained that the pitcher had hit him once in a minor league years earlier and this was his first chance to get back at him. North received a fine and suspension for that maneuver. On June 5, 1974, North gave Jackson a verbal jab that set his superstar teammate over the edge. North could hurt with his words, and the needling had finally gotten to the sensitive Jackson, who launched himself across the Tiger Stadium visiting clubhouse at his teammate. The two were soon tumbling on the floor, exchanging blows while teammates watched. Blue and Fosse eventually separated the two, with Fosse suffering for his peacemaking efforts — he too was pounded into the floor and rolled around a bit. Later it would be revealed that Fosse had suffered a herniated disc in his neck, which sent him to traction and sidelined him for several months.
But the fight wasn’t over yet, that was just round one. Within moments, North and Jackson were at it again, after more words were exchanged. “It wasn’t a regular clubhouse fight,” one A’s teammate said. “There was no backing off. They went at it hot and heavy — twice.”
In round two, observers claimed that Reggie got the worst of the action, ending up pinned to the floor and taking blows to his head. In the fracas, Jackson injured his right shoulder. More teammates jumped in and separated North from Jackson. This time the two were kept apart. Remarkably, both Reggie and North, as well as Fosse, were in the lineup a few hours later against the Tigers. 20,000-plus fans, who had no idea what sort of fireworks had transpired, watched Blue manhandle the Detroit lineup in a crisp 2 hours and 15 minutes (Willie Horton‘s home run was the only damage the home team could muster that evening). With that, the “Swingin’ A’s” packed up and hopped a plane for Milwaukee. A few days later Fosse was on the disabled list and Finley was on site trying to broker a peace in the clubhouse. While publicly Finley chastised North, privately he wasn’t unhappy to see the egomaniac Jackson dropped a few notches. However, he didn’t need his star injured (Jackson was hitting .390 with 15 homers at the time of the fight) and he wanted to maintain the team’s trajectory. For all their fighting, the A’s arrived in Milwaukee four games in front in the AL West. Finley extracted an apology (of sorts) from his MVP right fielder.
“I was wrong,” Reggie admitted, “but North has been asking for it.”
Reggie went into a deep 1970s psychedelic funk after the tussle in Detroit — he hit .228 with only four homers in his next 48 games. Strangely, it was North who helped Jackson recover. In August he approached Jackson and urged the slugger to put the fight behind him and re-establish himself as a leader on the team. If he couldn’t be a leader in the clubhouse (most players on the A’s hated Reggie and blamed him for the fight with North), he could be a leader on the field, where no one could deny his immense talent. Jackson hit nine homers and slugged .600 in his next 27 games, helping Oakland to their fourth straight division title. Teammates may have disliked Jackson, but he was a meal ticket, and after the A’s dispatched the Orioles in the playoffs and the Dodgers in the World Series, the fight was forgotten. The A’s had their third straight world championship.
If it hadn’t been for a famous brawl deep inside the bowels of Tiger Stadium in June, who knows, the A’s may have never had the fight and gumption to win it all again. Just another historical footnote from the famous ballpark at The Corner.